The heartbreaking realities of divorce include the high split rate for people with mental illnesses. A multinational study of mental disorders, marriage and divorce published in 2011 found that a sample of 18 mental disorders all increased the likelihood of divorce — ranging from a 20 percent increase to an 80 percent increase in the divorce rate. Addictions and major depression were the highest factors, with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) also significant.
Elsewhere, researchers have shown a strong link between personality disorders and elevated divorce rates, with antisocial personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder having the highest rates. The authors accepted that there was insufficient research on narcissistic personality disorder to quantify its effect on divorce, although anecdotal evidence strongly suggests a link. With the reported increase in narcissistic traits in the U.S., we are likely to see this as an increasing category.
From my observation, I would estimate that 80 percent of the people who attend my divorce recovery classes suffer from a mental illness or disorder, or have dealt with a partner with one or more mental health conditions. The challenges of being married to a person with a mental illness or disorder are often made considerably worse during the divorce process, and an individual with a mental health challenge will see their symptoms worsen during divorce.
Many people with mental health concerns have additional barriers to achieving intimacy and have trouble consistently engaging in behaviors that support a marriage. The top two mental health conditions that contribute to divorce have been reported to be major depression and addictions. In addition, bipolar disorder seems to be related to divorce by virtue of how long and how severe the depressive episodes are and the amount of life stress associated with a manic episode (for example: debt incurred or partner betrayed by cheating). The wonderful book An Unquiet Mind, written by Kay Redfield Jamison in 1995, vividly describes the author’s experience of living with bipolar disorder.
Anxiety is another mental health condition that can severely affect a relationship. Someone with chronic anxiety tends to seek a high amount of emotional support from a spouse, and I have seen an increase in impatience from the non-anxious spouse. Some anxious clients also seem to experience an increase in their personal stress levels just by being in a relationship, and some decide to end the relationship themselves to relieve that tension.
Depression seems to affect the divorce rate by virtue of lack of engagement in the relationship as well as not being able to fulfill family or work expectations. Men sometimes show depression through anger, and many female clients have told me how difficult it is to live with constant irritability, hostility and angry outbursts. The spouse of a depressed person may take on additional responsibilities in the family and finances, which leads to resentment and burnout. I have had a number of clients who, because of a depressed spouse, have had to take on family responsibilities in addition to already-demanding jobs — while feeling powerless to make changes.
Addictions are also often associated with a lack of personal responsibility, and they frequently propel the other spouse into over-responsibility. A person with an active addiction is unlikely to be adequate at intimacy, as their priority becomes fulfilling the addictive desire. Another behavior associated with addicted people is the tendency to blame the world and other people for their problems; this does not make for a healthy marriage.
Every day, those who experience mental health illnesses or disorders and their spouses deal with insecurity, fear, shame and blame. John Gottman has convincingly argued that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” regarding relationships and lead to divorce. In marriages where one or both partners is living with a mental health issue, the four horsemen appear considerably more frequently.
When considering a divorce with mental illness as a factor, it is important to ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the mental health condition treatable, and is the individual willing to be treated?
- How much harm is each family member experiencing?
- Are you willing to remain in the relationship even if nothing changed?
- Is the condition stable, or is it likely to get worse over time?
- What kind of support network is available?
- What are your values when it comes to divorce?
From my experience with clients, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to making a decision to divorce when mental illness is involved. Most people have a long list of conflicting “should” that they have inherited from friends, family, and their community, and this complicates the decision. In order to deal with the added stress of divorcing when either person has a mental illness, the person making the decision has to be clear that the decision is truly their own.
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