Mental Health Impact on Divorce

14 October 2016

By Family Law & Divorce Solicitor Tracey Moloney

Mental health is not a ground for divorce and while mental illness is responsible for a high number of divorces, people are increasingly failing to identify that mental health could be the root cause of their marriage difficulties.

A study published in 2011 suggested that 18 mental disorders had been found to increase the likelihood of divorce with a range of between 20% – 80% increase. The study further revealed that addiction and major depression were the highest factors with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder being a close second.

A range of research and studies illustrate that at times the challenges of being married to a person with a mental illness can be as challenging as the divorce process itself. The divorce process can intensify the symptoms of the person with the mental illness which in turn can cause a negative knock on effect to their spouse.

Studies have found that many people with mental health issues can struggle to engage in a marital relationship and provide support to their spouse, having to focus on their own debilitating condition.

A Multinational study of mental disorders and divorce published in 2011 found that addiction can cause the sufferer to prioritise the addiction over the needs of their spouse. It can also create a lack of responsibility and ownership on the part of the addict, if they are prone to blaming others or certain situations for the cause of their addiction. This can in turn cause the spouse to take on more of the responsibility in the marriage and feel isolated when the addict isn't aware of their needs.

Divorce may result when in fact it is the addiction that needs the attention. Clearly for those addicts not willing to deal with their addiction, then it is for the spouse to determine whether the marriage can survive under those circumstances.

Renowned relationship expert John Gottman found that anxiety is another form of a mental health issue. High levels of anxiety can cause the sufferer to need constant emotional support from their partner which can prove both draining and frustrating for the partner involved. Couples who find themselves in this situation at times find it difficult to attribute the problems within the marriage to the anxiety and instead label it as a breakdown of the marriage and decided to divorce. 

Anxiety is another form of a mental health issue. High levels of anxiety can cause the sufferer to need constant emotional support from their partner which can prove both draining and frustrating for the partner involved.

Couples who find themselves in this situation at times find it difficult to attribute the problems within the marriage to the anxiety and instead label it as a breakdown of the marriage and decided to divorce.

Similarly those that suffer from depression can consider the lack of engagement with their partner and the feelings associated with depression to be caused by their marriage as opposed to suffering a mental illness. Those suffering with depression can display emotions such as anger, irritability and hostility. This can often be viewed by the partner as unreasonable behaviour directed at them causing, them to feel unloved or mistreated as opposed to a clear recognition that it is the mental illness that causes them to act in this manner.

Mr John Gottman, a renowned relationship expert states that criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are the "four horsemen of the apocalypse" regarding relationships and can lead to divorce. Where one partner is suffering a mental illness, the four horsemen appear considerably more frequently.

When considering getting a divorce and one of the parties has identified that a mental illness exists in the marriage, it may prove helpful to consider the following:

  1. What kind of support network is available?
  2. If that support network was called upon would the divorce still be required?
  3. Is the mental illness treatable and if so is treatment being received or is the person agreeable to receiving treatment?
  4. Is what is viewed as the breakdown of the marriage a direct result of the mental illness and if so, should the illness be discussed and an attempt made to deal with it prior to getting a divorce?

Above all, it is important to remember that when considering whether a divorce is the next step, it is important to consider all the options available and particularly where a mental illness exists, consider whether if treated would a divorce still be necessary.

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