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Considering Divorcing Your Mentally Ill Partner? Tips from an Expert

Today I am pleased to bring you an interview with Susan Pease Gadoua, founder and executive director of the Transition Institute of Marin, based in San Rafael, California. Susan is the author of two books: Contemplating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go, and Stronger Day by Day: Reflections for Healing and Rebuilding After Divorce. Susan also writes the blog Contemplating Divorce on Psychology Today, and is a contributing writer for The Modern Woman’s Divorce Guide,, and The Huffington Post.

Given that the topic of divorce is so sensitive, and that the implications of divorcing a partner who has a mental illness makes the decision and process that much more challenging, I asked Susan to share her thoughts about what partners need to consider if contemplating divorcing an ill partner. Today features Part 1 of the interview; look for Part 2 on Friday.

What are some considerations a person should take when they know their partner is has a mental illness, but they are considering divorce anyway? There are many types of mental illnesses–some are more difficult to treat than others. For example, bipolar disorder, while often quite debilitating when untreated, is often extremely manageable with medication. Personality disorders such as narcissism or borderline personality disorder can be difficult to identify and treat. Knowing as much as you can about the mental illness your spouse has will help you know what steps to take and whether there is any more you can or should do to work on the marriage or if it’s best to move on.

One woman I’ve worked with has been struggling with whether or not to leave her husband with obsessive compulsive disorder. He wanted her to believe that he needed her in order to get better, but when she challenged him to go to therapy and take the medications he’d been prescribed (and got better on for a while), he refused to follow through. Having worked hard on herself, she knew that she couldn’t and shouldn’t be his savior, so she had to make an extremely difficult decision to let him go. She knew it was the right decision because he was sucking the life force out of her by not getting his own help and support and relying exclusively on her to “make him better.”

Guilt over leaving an ill partner often is a main reason healthy partners stay in a relationship they no longer want. What suggestions do you have for people feeling guilty about wanting to leave their ill partner? I believe that guilt (or rather, too much guilt) is a relatively useless emotion. It doesn’t benefit the person feeling the guilt or the one the guilt is felt for. That said, I realize it’s harder to shake for some people than others. Women succumb to guilt more easily than men, primarily due to being socialized to be the caretakers of others.

Getting healthy reality checks will be crucially important to anyone in this type of situation because living with someone with mental illness (or addiction or a disability of some kind) can often serve to distort reality for everyone involved. Interactions that might otherwise be considered abusive or dysfunctional become normal, and people often lose touch with appropriate responses to inappropriate behaviors. There are some very good books on the subject of co-dependency such as Codependent No More, by Melodie Beattie, and I also recommend going to programs such as Al Anon or Codependents Anonymous, as these can be very helpful.

When children are involved, sometimes the healthy partner will try to use the other partner’s illness against them in order to fight for custody of the children, even if the ill partner is fully capable of child care. What suggestions or recommendations do you have for coming to an agreement about what’s appropriate for everyone involved? There are so many intricacies to every case that it’s hard to make a blanket statement about the issue of child custody and mental illness. These are definitely the kinds of situations in which the two spouses (and the court) may need to rely more heavily on professionals such as psychiatrists, therapists, and school personnel to make a judgment call and provide reports about fitness of one or both of the parents. This can be challenging and seem unfair because the people evaluating are only seeing a snapshot of the whole story; however, unless there is an obvious danger that one parent poses, most courts in this country want to award physical and legal custody to both parents equally. Unless the parent with the concern can show proof that the other parent poses some risk to the children, he or she will not have a strong case.

I recommend that parents who are concerned about the other parent’s ability to show up and be responsible keep a journal of events so that if/when they go to court on a custody dispute, they can show specific dates and times where incidents occurred. To say to a judge, “On March 23, then again on April 3, Joe forgot to pick up the kids at 3:30 pm,” is much more powerful and compelling than saying, “On several occasions, Joe forgot to pick up the kids from school.”

Look for part 2 of the interview on Friday.

Have questions for Susan? Contact her here.

Photo credit: Judith George

Considering Divorcing Your Mentally Ill Partner? Tips from an Expert

Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, is a patient advocate for Women's and Children's Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor associate and a National Certified Counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies. Her book, Loving Someone With Anxiety, will be published by New Harbinger in the spring of 2013.

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APA Reference
Thieda, K. (2011). Considering Divorcing Your Mentally Ill Partner? Tips from an Expert. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jun 2011
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