We All Think Our Exes are Bi-Polar, But What is Divorce Like When They Actually Are?

“When I met my husband, I took everything he said at face value. I did not know what a troubled soul he was. Four years into our marriage, he told me that he had been depressed and suicidal all of his adult life. His brother was bipolar as was his father.” Thus began the slow, agonizing spiral toward divorce for Deborah Marshall-Watts, 53, a government benefits counselor residing in Irving, Texas.

“Dealing with a bi-polar spouse makes the difficult divorce process infinitely more harrowing,” says Gayle Rosenwald Smith, a family law attorney and co-author of the book, What Every Woman Should Know About Divorce and Custody: How to Keep the Kids, the Cash, and Your Sanity. “And it lengthens the time it takes to get divorced: It can take forever.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bi-polar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a serious medical illness that causes shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function. Bi-polar disorder causes dramatic mood swings from overly high and/or irritable to sad and hopeless and then back again, often with periods of normal mood in between.

Mood Swings, Money Trouble & Mania

Marshall-Watts thinks her 13-year marriage went on without bi-polar symptoms for several years because her husband had given up drinking before their marriage. “He recognized that his family had a history of alcohol abuse. His father and five of his father’s siblings’ deaths were all directly related to alcohol abuse,” she says.

“Commonly, a person learns that his or her spouse is bi-polar over the course of several years of marriage, and there may or may not be a diagnosis,” explains Jennifer Coleman, a licensed professional counselor with Rosen Law Firm with offices in Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Eight years into the marriage, Marshall-Watts’s husband received an inheritance and was able to start a custom jewelry business. When it wasn’t successful, he became increasingly lethargic. A run-in with the law followed, triggering a manic bi-polar episode and a clinical diagnosis. When he returned to alcohol use, Marshall-Watts filed for divorce.

“What we more commonly associate with bi-polar disorder, such as the extreme mood swings and dramatic shifts between manic and depressive behavior, is sometimes not present until a major life crisis triggers a full-blown episode of mania. Thus, it’s very common for milder cases of the illness to delay an accurate diagnosis,” says Stephanie Burchell, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist associate in Dallas, Texas. With her spouse, manic irresponsibility steadily escalated, Marshall-Watts says.

“He cashed in over $300,000 in retirement IRAs and six months later had a little over $100,000 left. The only thing he had to show for his money was a 1955 Triumph sports car that had not run in over 10 years. He was drunk every day. Probation rules said he was to avoid alcohol. Despite instructions from his probation officer, he left Dallas County daily. He took medicine for his bi-polar condition only when he felt stressed, not on a regular basis,” she explains.

Such behavior is not uncommon, according to Jason Price, licensed marriage and family therapist at the Center for Divorce Recovery in Northbrook, Illinois. “When married to someone with bi-polar, the risk for divorce is higher because of the significant impairment that the spouse with bi-polar may exhibit. I have had numerous bi-polar clients that during their marriage compulsively spend or gamble away money, use drugs, have affairs during a manic period, but also have times when they cannot get out of bed during a depressed cycle,” he shares.

Divorce Stress = More Symptoms

If the bi-polar spouse is not proactive in addressing their condition, the possibility of divorce increases, according to Burchell. “During a divorce, dealing with a bi-polar spouse can be likened to the difference between ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ with extreme shifts in mood and behavior. The emotional strain and stress associated with divorce has been associated with triggering the onset of a severe manic episode or relapse of some sort,” she says. Coleman stresses that it is important to be clear with your bi-polar spouse about your decision to divorce.

“Be very consistent in what message you give throughout the divorce process. The bi-polar spouse needs to understand that no matter what they do or say, you will not be swayed in your decision. Any yoyoing in intention will make it very hard for the bipolar spouse to accept their changed future,” Coleman explains.

“Many times, a spouse will try to help the other spouse. If a bi-polar spouse is not cooperative, that can be difficult,” advised Rosenwald Smith. “A mental health professional is a must. You may need to go into court to get a restraining order to protect yourself physically. You may also need to freeze accounts if there is a possibility that your spouse may dissipate assets. If you at any time fear for your safety, have an escape plan.”

Bi-Polar + Kids?

Divorcing a bipolar spouse becomes more complex if children are involved. “Clients also have to be very aware of the amount of time the bi-polar parent has with the children as they can be often making irresponsible decisions, putting the children in emotional or physical danger,” says Price. “There may be accusations regarding who is ‘fit’ when there are children involved,” adds Coleman. “A mental health professional may be asked to perform a court-ordered evaluation. A mental health evaluation often involves a personal interview and possibly submission of psychological tests or questionnaires. A summary evaluation is submitted to the court.” For Marshall-Watts divorcing her bi-polar spouse has been slow going, and she expects it will get messy. “The end battle could be bloody,” she says.

Pro Tips: How to Divorce your Bi-Polar Spouse

1. Get Money Now.

In a settlement with someone who has bi-polar disorder, Rosenwald Smith recommends taking what you can now: “It is better to take money upfront than to get it over the years. You know that you have got your share of equitable distribution that way.”

2. Manage Your Own Anxiety.

“If possible, try to be supportive of your bipolar spouse by managing your anxiety and keeping potentially distressing situations to a minimum,” Burchell suggests.

3. Get Legal Help — And Use It.

“Have the vast majority, and perhaps all, communication through the attorneys,” Price advises.

4. Control Yourself.

“While you may not be able to control the behavior of your former spouse, the good news is that you can control your own responses and decisions,” Coleman adds.