By Todd Burnham
Divorce is never easy, but divorcing a mentally ill husband is even more difficult than divorcing a healthy one.
Mental disorders are more common than you may realize. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five American adults lives with a mental illness. Discovering that your husband suffers from a mental illness can be disheartening and tiring. Mental illness can take a serious toll on a marriage and is often a cause for divorce.
If you’re considering divorcing a mentally ill spouse, there are various emotional and legal challenges that make the divorce process more complex and more trying. Fortunately, these challenges can be easier to navigate when you know what to expect.
Mental illness is a very broad term that encompasses a swath of different disorders. There are close to 300 mental disorders documented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is the manual is used by medical professionals across the country to identify and diagnose various mental illnesses. In relation to divorce, there are a few common mental illnesses that tend to deteriorate relationships:
Ultimately, each unique mental illness will have its own set of unique challenges and considerations. Nevertheless, there are a few challenges that are common when mental illness is intertwined with divorce.
The emotional struggles that come with divorcing a mentally ill husband are likely to be far more challenging than any legal obstacles you might encounter during your divorce. It’s easy to navigate the legal aspects of divorce with an experienced divorce attorney.
On the other hand, emotional difficulties are inner battles that may not get much easier; even with qualified external help. There are ultimately three different feelings commonly experienced during the divorce of a mentally ill husband.
Guilt in divorce is very easy to feel. It’s even easier to feel guilty when your husband has a mental illness. You may feel guilt from being unable to properly help your husband overcome his condition. You may feel guilty that you no longer want to stay by your husband’s side for better or worse. You might also feel guilt when considering that divorce could make your husband’s condition worse.
It’s easier said than done, but it’s important to be able to push your feelings of guilt aside. Allowing yourself to become overwhelmed by guilt will not help you, your spouse, or your children.
As long as you are not deliberately hurting your husband, you’re not doing anything wrong in filing for divorce. The circumstances are what they are, and you’re making what you feel is the best possible decision given those circumstances. At the end of the day, that is all that matters.
Feelings of loss are common with any type of change and it’s especially common to feel loss in some form with a divorce. Even when relationships are unhealthy or toxic, it’s easy to romanticize certain memories to create a longing for what has been lost. When you divorce someone with a mental illness, you can feel an amplified feeling of loss when reflecting on your marriage due to the “what ifs” that will likely run through your mind.
You might wonder what could happen if your husband gets better and you miss him. You might wonder if deciding to leave your husband has made his condition worse. You may also wonder if you’ll ever love anyone the same way you loved your husband when he was well. All of these thoughts can weigh you down and prevent you from filing for divorce or living a happy and fulfilling life post-divorce.
The important thing to remember is that the "what ifs" you ponder are not facts. The "what ifs" are possibilities that could happen (or may never happen). Considering and dwelling on these possibilities can be damaging for your own mental health.
Instead of focusing on what might happen, you need to find a way to focus on what is happening or what has happened. If you’re unhappy and you feel divorce would be/is the best option for you, then make that decision and stand by it. There are ways to ensure your husband gets the help and support he might need to get him through the divorce.
After the divorce is finalized, feelings of loss may resurface. If you feel loss after your divorce, just recall why you wanted a divorce in the first place. When you reflect on all of the moments that led to your divorce, it’s easier to remember that your divorce was ultimately for the best.
Worry is never isolated and often goes hand in hand with feelings of loss or guilt. When divorcing a husband with a mental illness, you’ll likely worry about whether or not your husband will be able to appropriately cope with divorce. You may worry that your husband’s mental condition may worsen. You might also worry that your husband will never get better if you divorce.
Again, these worries stem from running through possibilities in our heads. They aren’t necessarily possibilities that will become a reality. It’s entirely possible that your husband’s mental illness could improve drastically after divorce.
As part of the divorce process, you can work to help put a support system in place for your husband. If you’ve done your best to help ensure your husband has access to support and help during the divorce, then you’ve done everything you can do. With time, it will be easier to move on and let go of the worry.
Outside of various emotional considerations, there are a few different legal considerations that women should take into account when divorcing a husband with a mental illness. Virtually every state in the United States recognizes no fault grounds for divorce. This means you don’t need to prove any wrongdoing to dissolve a marriage.
However, if you’re seeking a divorce due to mental health issues, it could be more advantageous to file for a fault-based divorce. Depending on the circumstances of case and the level of severity for your husband’s mental illness, you may be entitled to a larger share of marital assets or a higher level of spousal support.
There are ultimately two main aspects of a divorce that can be influenced by the presence of a mental illness: spousal support and child custody.
If your husband has mental health issues that make it difficult to hold a job or prevent him from working, it’s possible a judge may order you to make larger alimony payments to support your husband. However, if an untreated mental illness is the cause of divorce, a judge may actually increase your alimony or support award.
Mental health is a factor that plays into child custody decisions, but it isn’t the only factor a judge will consider. The courts will take into account your child’s relationship with each parent, how well adjusted he/she is to the current school and community, each parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs and provide stability, etc.
When an allegation of a mental illness is made, the courts will typically order an evaluation from a licensed mental health provider. While the evaluation is underway, the court might limit or prohibit contact between your husband and your children. Depending on the results of the evaluation, the court may prescribe medication, therapy, or some other form of treatment as a condition for allowing your husband to receive parenting time.
In cases where severe mental health issues are present, your husband will certainly face a greater barrier in trying to obtain custody and proof of severe mental illness can work in your favor.
However, your family’s unique circumstances will determine how much of an impact your husband’s mental illness has on child custody decisions. An experienced divorce attorney can review your case to help you determine how much of an impact your husband’s mental illness could have on your divorce.
Proper documentation is important in any divorce case, but it’s extremely important in cases where mental illness is involved. If you feel threatened because your husband’s mental illness leaves him more prone to violence or instability, document every time you feel you’re in danger. Records of specific instances can help an attorney obtain a protective order against your husband.
If you feel your husband’s mental illness is also preventing him from properly parenting, you should document any time parenting obligations weren’t followed through due to his mental condition. This documentation can help you obtain a more favorable custody agreement.
Furthermore, certain mental illnesses can cause individuals to exaggerate the truth or warp reality. You’ll want documentation of any important interactions between you and your husband in case you end up having to defend against false allegations.
As any attorney will tell you, a contentious divorce is costly and draining. It’s entirely possible that your divorce will be inherently contentious depending on the type and severity of your husband’s mental illness, but it’s important to remain patient, calm, and collected. Keeping your cool during a divorce will help you achieve the best possible resolution so that you can start this new chapter of your life off on the right foot.
Remembering that your husband did not choose to be mentally ill can help to combat feelings of anger and hate. Rather than dismissing your husband as crazy, viewing your husband’s condition through the lense of a chronic health problem can help to keep negotiations civil and productive.
Todd Burnham is the founding partner of Burnham Law. The firm helps clients across the Front Range of Colorado resolve family law disputes. Todd is well versed in all aspects of family law and has been practicing law for nearly 20 years. In his free time, he can be found mowing the lawn with his son, or coaching his daughters’ soccer and lacrosse teams.