Divorce and Mental Health Issues

Mental health issues are a big part of the process and settlement of a divorce especially when there is no formal diagnosis, the party refuses treatment or the condition(s) falls outside of successful treatment options. Under the best of circumstances a divorce is difficult but when one spouse has mental health issues the negotiation and settlement process is long, draining and expensive. After years of mediating divorce cases and personally working with these types of cases I’ve seen how they resolve, or more accurately don’t resolve, through litigation. This has left me with no doubt that sensitive cases like these should be negotiated and managed outside of the legal system in neutral, non-adversarial settings whenever possible.

The toll mental illness and personality disorders take on a spouse is tremendous and it’s not surprising that many feel the legal system is their only protection from the erratic or unreasonable behavior of their spouse. But, through no fault of their own, what they don’t realize is the legal system is not a safe haven or solution to their problems. Dealing with the mental health issue of a spouse is frustrating at the low end of the scale and thoroughly exhausting at the high end. By the time the decision to divorce has been made spouses have very little left to give and want the entire process over. Unfortunately, depending on the type of mental health issue involved, once divorce is spoken aloud everything gets worse.

Considered ‘high conflict’, these divorces are not like any other and should not be handled like any other. Aggressive legal tactics, courtroom confrontations or reprimands and ultimatums from Judges don’t solve problems or manage the behavior of the high conflict party, they escalate and perpetuate them. And while I believe legal intervention in these cases is not the best option, it must be clear that if physical threats or abuse are present, having legal protection is a must – but that doesn’t always mean a settlement cannot be reached with minimal legal involvement on that level. While some mental health conditions are easier to deal with when a spouse is being medically treated such as with Bi-polar or even Borderline, others are immune to treatment as is the case with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which complicates a divorce under the best of circumstances.

This particular disorder is the focus of this article. Divorcing a narcissistic spouse is perhaps one of the most difficult types of cases since there is no medication, no fixing and no changing the way narcissists are wired to think, feel and behave. Devoid of self-awareness or empathy, they constantly seek attention – called narcissistic supply – to survive so they thrive on conflict and the attention their conduct attracts. A true Narcissist has no desire to compromise or negotiate, even if it’s in their best interests to do so. Attention, whether it’s good or bad, it their survival. These factors make it quite common for narcissists to seek out aggressive lawyers, present themselves as victims and enjoy every minute of what’s typically a long, painful and exhausting battle for everyone else.

I believe the term narcissism has become over simplified, over-used and diluted. An over-inflated ego or a real ‘go getter’ who seems to have little regard for others is often characterized as a narcissist. And while we all have a bit of healthy narcissism in our personalities, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is far more than an inflated sense of self and can be both destructive and dangerous. The DSM- V Section III includes Narcissism under their list of personality disorders which indicates narcissism has reached a new level in our society. This may explain why the term is being used more casually, but I believe this watering-down of such a serious disorder has caused the behavior and destruction of those afflicted to be brushed off as divorce as typical angry divorce behavior. This is irresponsible and dangerous. Not all narcissists are violent, in fact a small percentage of them are, but the real danger of narcissists lies in their relentless ability to emotionally abuse and torment those around them. In cases of divorce, the behavior often continues long after the divorce is over especially when children are involved.

My philosophy and belief, which I have shared in many of my writings, is that divorce has become ‘big business, where it’s more profitable to ramp up the aggression than it is to minimize it. This is the exact opposite of how to conduct a divorce when one spouse has mental health issues. Unfortunately most matrimonial attorneys do not possess the training nor the desire to understand mental health issues or the damage that’s caused by aggressive legal provocation. Many perceive these behaviors as anger or the typical ‘push-back’ from the other side when in fact, to a narcissist, they have been given a stage. During closed door meetings with their attorney and in court narcissists are masterful at playing the role of perfection while portraying how they’ve been victimized. This pushes their spouse to the breaking point where they end up looking like the ones who are unreasonable and unhinged. At this point each attorney pushes back, the case escalates and the narcissist has succeeded in getting his or her supply – for the moment.

What I’ve just described is the pattern of how a typical case will play out until something brings it to an end. Many narcissists, and borderlines, will go through several attorneys before a settlement is reached either because the attorney withdraws from the case or the narcissist/borderline isn’t getting what they need from the attorney and fires them. In either case once a new attorney is in the picture everything starts all over again including the narcissist’s behaviors. This is what makes hiring an aggressive lawyer so dangerous in high conflict cases. Even the best mental health professionals admit that narcissists are cunning and a true diagnosis can only be confirmed after months or even years of on-going therapy. If you have a spouse with mental health issues or suspect mental health issues may exist, it’s up to you to do your homework and create a qualified support system to help you. If your spouse is undiagnosed you need to find a counselor who can help you determine if a mental health condition may exist. Whether its anger management problems or a mental health disorder you’ll need to find a Mediator and or attorney who is knowledgeable and experienced in this area to work with, and you should know and thoroughly understand whatever disorder you’re (potentially) dealing with. Patience is a must!

While you’ll want to get it over with as quickly as possible you must understand divorcing a spouse with mental health issues is a delicate process and it will take a little time. Your goal is to negotiate a settlement as quickly as possible while preventing your spouse from shutting down, waging a legal assault or feeling threatened. The most difficult cases involve children where co-parenting will keep former spouses interacting on a regular basis. These cases, especially, require experienced guidance to create a parenting plan that establishes clear boundaries, assignment of day-to-day and financial responsibilities, vacation time with children and what is and isn’t acceptable in making changes to the plan.

Non adversarial methods of negotiating and creating settlements in these cases is highly effective because properly trained professionals know how to guide the discussions and negotiations without the high conflict party feeling threatened, slighted or victimized. This also reduces the frustration of the other spouse, making discussions and negotiations more productive and successful. While narcissists appear to be bullies, underneath they are very vulnerable, wounded and have low self-esteem. The less threatened and out of control they feel the easier it can be to get to that final settlement.

Although I do not hold a degree in the mental health field I am well versed in narcissism having been raised by one. Narcissism, Anxiety, OCD and Anti-social Personality Disorder are all part of my upbringing and inspired me to fully understand these disorders. You may feel angry. You may feel like giving up. You may feel like waging the biggest war you can afford on your spouse, but I suggest you take a deep breath and get solid, professional advice before you decide which path to take. Whatever decision you make will impact your life as well as your ability to reclaim yourself as a person and rebuild.

I’d like to leave you with the biggest lesson I’ve learned in dealing with a narcissist: you must be the one to change your behavior because the narcissist will not. It is possible to manage a relationship with a narcissist but it’s exhausting. And unless you have children, make your divorce as easy as possible and move on.

Suggested reading/videos
Dr. Sam Vaknin – Author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited, and over 100 authoritative YouTube videos on narcissism.
Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.,  – Author of Splitting; Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Narcissist or Borderline Personality, High Conflict People in Legal Disputes and numerous YouTube videos.

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