10/10/2013 03:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Handling Extra Difficult Situations: Divorcing When Your Spouse Has A Mental Illness and/or Personality Disorder

As goes the marriage, so goes the divorce...

All breakups are difficult, but ending a marriage with someone who has a personality disorder or mental illness can put your divorce at the extreme end of the spectrum. And it's crazy-making.

Years ago, shortly after my divorce became finalized, I saw the movie A Beautiful Mind. It's a riveting film, based on the true life story of mathematical genius John Nash, from his early adulthood through receiving the Nobel Prize in old age.

Nash's brilliance was math, not social skills (especially with women). Even so, quirky young Nash and one of his students fall in love, get married, and settle into a very happy, promising life together. Until his schizophrenia takes over. 
Life then becomes nightmarish, with Nash nearly killing his wife, who he loves, and their infant. However, his wife Alicia stands by him hence the movie's tagline:"The only thing greater than the power of the mind is the courage of the heart."
I left the movie exhausted. The vivid portrayal of innocently falling in love, starting a marriage with dreams of a wonderful future together... and then getting railroaded by life with mental illness hit home. And, I was angry at the movie's message that true love can overcome anything. Not in my world, despite all I had tried.
Nor in the world of many people I've coached.
I've watched empathetic men and women guiltily struggle to leave an abusive situation, and/or an impaired partner -- be the cause drugs, alcohol, sex addiction or mental illness. It's a difficult struggle because they still care about their spouse and value their marriage commitment. Unfortunately it's often one sided and, as one male client observed, "the one who cares the most is the one who hurts the most."
I've seen these men and women painstakingly search for answers about successfully coparenting with a narcissist, or a passive aggressive partner, or someone diagnosed as bipolar or borderline. I've seen many come back time and again to Second Saturday, because they are seeking just, reasonable ways to deal with an unreasonable situation. In most cases, the issue is the same, even though the diagnosis may be different. They are dealing with a partner whose reality is so skewed that compromise, honesty, fairness and follow through are not possible.
Stonewalling and/or aggressive litigation are two of the challenges these spouses often face. It's widely said that people often hire an attorney much like themselves, and that means a vengeful spouse often hires an attorney known for prolonged, hostile tactics. Such an attorney fuels the client's illness, and when the client has the money to play nasty it can destroy families.
While the courts still haven't caught up enough to protect families, today therapists, coaches, survivors and others are creating tools to help people dealing with a "high conflict" breakup develop perspective, deflect the conflict, set healthy boundaries, and also teach kids how to deal with an impaired parent. And, these tools help families in transition maintain sanity... and know they are okay.. and not alone.

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