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Divorce is painful, frightening and overwhelming for any couple. Adding mental illness into the equation only makes the situation more complex. You may fear judgment from loved ones or feel guilt due to wanting to break the vow to be there in sickness and in health.

Unfortunately, divorce may be the best option for the whole family if your spouse refuses to seek help or follow medical advice. You can end the marriage compassionately while still protecting your rights.

What is mental illness?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illness is a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder that does not stem from developmental issues or substance abuse. Severe types affect about 4 percent of U.S. adults, whereas at least 17.9 percent of adults have any type. Examples of mental illnesses are bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, autism, phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders.

Reasons for divorce

The decision to divorce a mentally ill spouse is personal; there is no right or wrong answer. Factors you may want to consider include:

  • Were you aware of the illness before marriage?
  • If you were, has it gotten worse?
  • If you were not, was your spouse aware?
  • Has your spouse sought treatment? Is it effective?
  • Does your spouse follow medical and professional guidance?
  • Are you and your children in any physical or mental danger?

You may want to discuss these questions with your spouse’s doctor and/or therapist. You may also want to talk to your own counselor to learn how to establish healthy boundaries no matter your decision.

How to approach divorce

Divorcing when mental illness is present may take a gentler, slower approach. The court will take into consideration mental health when determining child custody and spousal support. If possible, help your spouse become self-sufficient first, create a parenting plan together and encourage maintaining parent-child relationships in a safe and appropriate way. Avoid anger, revenge and purposeful difficulty, even if your spouse exhibits such behavior. Although you do not have to endure harmful actions, you should refrain from retaliation. Help your children have a realistic yet compassionate understanding of the situation.