Mental illness refers to some form of psychopathology that makes the mind function differently. It is a broad term that encompasses many types of diagnoses, from chemical imbalances like bipolar disorder to personality disorders like narcissism or borderline personality disorder.

Divorces carry a certain degree of stress and strife. It is inevitable. Keeping conflict and emotions to a minimum is not easy, but it reduces the cost to your emotional and financial health to make the process as smooth as possible. The less time billed by attorneys, the easier your financial recovery will be. The more civil the divorce negotiations, the less emotional damage you will have to recover from. Unfortunately, when your spouse is mentally ill, it can exacerbate the challenges to keeping the process rational and non-combative.

Mental illnesses have varying degrees of success with treatment. Many, such as chemical imbalances like bipolar disorder, are quite manageable, but only if a patient is willing to seek help and follow a program of treatment. Depression is a disorder that can be difficult to diagnose and can be hit or miss in terms of treatment. Some, like personality disorders, can be difficult to both diagnose and treat.

Many who are mentally ill have not been diagnosed, some choosing to self-medicate with alcohol or narcotics. The stigma of mental illness often keeps people from seeking help. Others are in denial, which can be a symptom of the illness itself.  Most who seek treatment and responsibly manage their illness with medication and therapy can lead productive, healthy lives. How the patient manages their illness is critical to their capacity to function at a high level, or their inability to function at even a basic level.

The best bet is to find out as much information about your spouse’s diagnosis and treatment as possible. In that way, you can relate to her in a manner that promotes her optimal mental health and leads to the best outcome for you both.


The first hurdle many face when dissolving their marriage is overcoming the guilt of leaving someone they vowed to stand by “ in sickness and in health.” To make matters worse, your spouse may use her illness against you, accusing you of abandoning her when she needs you most. She may plead for you to stay, professing she cannot get better without your help. Your marriage may be trapped in a draining codependency that can be agonizing to break free from.

Living in dysfunction distorts reality, to the point where emotional abuse or coercion can become normalized. Consult a professional, or touch base with those outside of your situation, to get a sanity check. You may be surprised to realize inappropriate behaviors and responses you have come to accept as normal are dysfunctional and damaging. Organizations like Codependents Anonymous can be a valuable resource.

You may love your wife deeply and be committed to your family, but if she fails to follow a treatment plan and take accountability for her own mental health, you cannot swoop in and save her with the power of your love. She needs to want to get better for herself and be responsible for her own mental health, or it will never work.

Challenges of Mental Illness and Divorce

The stress and heartache brought on by dissolving a marriage are not easy for anyone to manage. When the impact is aggravated by mental illness, it can lead to disastrous results. Those with depression can develop suicidal thoughts, or those in a manic bipolar episode may lose all impulse control, acting out in ways that endanger themselves or others.

Mentally ill spouses may lash out with aggressive legal strategies, or employ passive-aggressive tactics that drag out or obstruct the divorce process.  Diligently document every episode so you have proof that can be introduced in court. Be as specific as possible; vague statements carry less weight than examples with dates, times and detailed descriptions. It’s a good idea to find a lawyer who has experience in this area and can help advise you of what to expect and how best to deal with it to ensure a positive outcome. Expect the unexpected. Unpredictability is a characteristic of most mental illnesses. Be cautious and protect yourself and your kids. While your wife is not to blame for her illness and you want to show compassion for what she is going through, you are also obliged to take steps to make sure you and your children are safe.

Filing for Divorce

All states offer no-fault grounds for divorce.  You can file under the ” irreconcilable differences” catchall, or on the basis of a separation that meets the accepted length of time. A no-fault divorce avoids putting blame on one party or the other and can help minimize conflict. 

Filing on the basis of insanity, in states where it is permissible, requires that your wife’s mental condition meets a sufficient number of criteria that can be difficult and expensive to prove. Since divorce law varies by state, you must consult an attorney in your state, or do your own research, to determine how mental illness affects filing for divorce in your home state.

At minimum, most states will require that your wife’s condition is not likely to improve and that it has been present for a certain amount of years (usually no less than five). In some states, that will not be sufficient. These jurisdictions will require your wife have been institutionalized for a number of years and that she be certified mental ill by one or more psychiatric physicians, and/or be adjudicated as mentally ill by a court of competent jurisdiction. While the specifics vary by state, you will bear the burden of a substantial amount of proof, and it is a complex and time-consuming process. Should you feel that filing for divorce on the grounds of your wife’s mental illness is necessary, perhaps you fear she is a danger to your children for example, then start by gathering her psychiatric and medical records, credible witnesses (such as her family members), and even experts that can testify about her condition.

Staying Compassionate but Emotionally Detached

The more informed you are about your wife’s mental illness—the symptoms, treatment plan, and long-term prognosis—the better your ability to make decisions as to how to proceed in a way that is best for her and keeps you safe.  While you want to have compassion for your wife’s struggle with her condition and assist her in being as self-sufficient as possible, it is also important to avoid getting sucked into any emotional pitfalls that can set you both back. It can be immensely helpful to seek professional help from a psychiatrist or counselor to get a handle on how to avoid resenting, blaming or harming your spouse for a serious illness that is not her fault. Don’t take actions and words flung in the passion of the moment too personally; they are likely a result of a mind aggravated by mental illness and not an indictment of you as a person. Try your best to proceed through the difficulties that arise from her condition without anger or resentment to help you both move on in as compassionate and healthy a way as possible.

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