Mental Illness and Divorce

Updated on October 20, 2013
Y.M. asks from Lone Tree, IA
18 answers

I don't often ask about any serious issues on here but here goes:

To make a very long story fairly short, my brother-in-law is bipolar. He is in counselling and takes medication. However, he often forgets to take the medication or feels that it isn't working properly. He does not have steady employment nor does he receive disability payments. He will get a job and keep it for 3 to 6 months before quitting or getting fired. During those 3-6 months he often calls in sick. He pretty much just sits on the couch and watches tv. He does not interact with his children. He doesn't clean. He doesn't cook. He claims he can't do laundry. He doesn't do any kind of repair work. No yard work. Seriously nothing.

My sister (who has her own issues) works. As such, she leaves him in charge of their two daughters (age 4 and 8). He will call my mom and ask her to come to his house to get the girls ready for school. My parents step in and help out as much as they can. They have the children with them a lot. They also help out financially. I live in a different state so I can only do so much.

My sister is terribly unhappy in her marriage. But, she says she wouldn't leave him if he had a physical illness so it would be wrong to leave him because of a mental illness. I can understand what she is saying. However, at what point is it acceptable to say enough is enough?

I feel that my brother-in-law uses his illness as an excuse to do as he pleases and to avoid helping out financially and physically. He refuses to be accountable for himself and his actions and my sister doesn't want to hold him accountable because he will blow up and say she is "picking" on him and become verbally abusive.

I know some of you will think I should stay out of it, but it is causing problems for their children and my sister is extremely depressed and I think she is abusing perscription pills (my parents are having a little intervention about that tonight).

Does anyone know of any resources I can share with my sister? Have any of you chosen to remain with a bipolar spouse and, if so, how did you make it work? If you have divorced a bipolar spouse how did you reconcile it with your vow of 'in sickness and in health'?


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answers from Baton Rouge on

If he is doing nothing to try to alleviate the effects of his menatl illness, then he is, in effect, choosing to reamin non-functional. Personally, I would leave.
I left my alcoholic husband, knowing full well that alcoholism is a disease. But it was a disease that he chose not to address consistently.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

She is not a prisoner of this nor has to be.
Mental illness can also cause mental illness in children, due to situation, environment, and toxicity in the environment. It is then acquired, due to environment.
And I highly doubt the children are getting any help, for their own "problems" with their parents.
Their parents cannot cope with it.
The children cannot.
But she has a choice.
And has to think about her kids, too.
And their quality of life etc. and happiness.
2 depressed/emotionally and mentally ill parents, do impact the kids.

It is the children, who should be helped here.
Or, maybe another family member can take them in.
Their parents cannot even parent.
She even leaves the kids with him, to babysit.
All of this is so wrong.
Wrong for the children.
So, mental illness is in the home. But at a certain point, it is just abusive... for the children and to the children.
The children since birth, has been raised that way.
Its just wrong.
The children need to come first, and have a chance at a normal happy childhood.
What a hell to be living in, for the children.
And she, is abused too.

5 moms found this helpful

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answers from Albany on

Ok, normally for a post with this sort of subject matter, I move on to the next post because all I want to say is MYOB. Reason being most of those posts scream Poor Me Waaah My Family Sucks!

However, in yours I hear genuine concern for the third parties, not attention seeking (plus I really like your answers).

So I'll answer it in a back-door way.

7 years ago I left my psycho drunken seriously ill husband. Just took my three kids and left.

I was very limited in the ways I could help him get better since in his mind *I* was the cause of his craziness.

In hindsight, I'm ashamed I kept my kids in such a miserable house as long as I did.

The logistics of the thing is a blur. I am not a strong person. I LIKED being married. I cherished my traditional family life. I am uncomfortable doing things, ANYthing for myself.

So as I look back on it, I remember a gf supporting me in a small way. I remember my sisters helping the best they can. I remember neighbors rooting for me. And a number of them actually STEPPING UP and being a little pushy.

Without all these nudges, big and small, my kids and I might STILL be living in misery, the outcome of their teen years may have been very different. Since I left, we are thriving. Even HE is better this way.

So if you, too, can find a way to nudge, maybe your nudge paired with other nudges will collectively make a difference.

Personally, with your warm heart and your stable mind, I think you can help.


7 moms found this helpful


answers from Gainesville on

There's a difference between leaving someone because they have an illness and leaving them because they refuse to treat their illness and let it affect everyone around them in a negative way.

You can't make her leave, and you can't make him treat his bipolar. I left an ex who claimed to have borderline personality disorder, and we weren't married, but I was able to easily reconcile my initial commitment to a relationship with him with leaving him because he refused to get any kind of diagnosis or treatment for his alleged illness - he only wanted to use it as an excuse. If he called me names, yelled at my kids, raised a hand toward me, it was all due to the BPD and I was supposed to just accept it because he had "issues." That doesn't work for me. If you have "issues" get them treated. You get them treated and I'm all for sticking it out and working with you and supporting you. But if you're only going to use it as an excuse and to try to get away with anything and everything, sorry but that doesn't wash with me.

Your sister will have to decide what she's going to do, if anything, about this. All you can do is let her know you're there to support her in whatever she decides, and help her out as much as you can.

7 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

NAMI -- the National Alliance on Mental Illness -- has support groups for family members. That's something you AND your sister might consider. More info here:

7 moms found this helpful


answers from Appleton on

I grew up with two parents who were narcissists and mentally ill, my dad was also a mean drunk. Oh and my brother was a schizophrenic. They are all dead now. Growing up with even one person who has a mental illness is horrible but growing up with 3 was a nightmare. My sister, brother's twin, was stillborn and I don't think my Mom ever recovered from the grief. We lived very isolated and I remember telling my parents I was lonely and wanted friends as a child. My parents answer was I don't care or you don't need friends or who would want to be friends with you. Because we were so isolated I never got to spend time during school vacations with the kids I went to school with, every September I felt like the new kid at school, but I went to the same school for 8 yrs then the same high school for 4 yrs, but I never really knew any of the kids. Some of them I went to school with from kindergrten to HS graduation.

Even after my brother was killed in a car accident (1995) and I moved back to Wisconsin from California to take care of my now elderly parents they never appreciated or cared about me as a person. I guess I thought that maybe since I was the only one of 3 still alive they would care about me. But no, it was still all about them.

It took me a long time to figure out that it wasn't ME it was them. I am a wonderful person with a loving heart who deserves to cared about. I finally figured it out at 58 yrs old.

I no longer get personally involved with the mentally ill. I will help or advocate for them but they aren't allowed too deeply inside my heart. Maybe because I'm still scared of being hurt again.

In my opinion your sister needs to put her foot down HARD!. Tell him to get treatment, get medicated or she's out the door. Your sister deserves to be loved and cared about by a man who CAN love and care for her. Her children NEED a father who nurtures them and loves them --- not this neglectful slug who can't even get them ready for school and keep the house clean so Mom can work.

I have known and dated and lived with a few bi-polar men and it's never their fault. He doesn't feel good, the house is dirty, he doesn't know how to do laundry. Darn it man you are an adult, you have a moderate intellgence, anyone who wants to learn to keep a home decently clean can and will learn. But the more excuses and whining he can do the more she takes care of him.

I did call NAMI several years ago to try to find help for my Mom and after I explained what was going on with her all I got was lip service and we can't help with that. You best chance to find help is to call the Social (or Health and Human) Services office for the county they live in.

I hope I don't come off as mean or uncaring but after a lifetime of these excuses, I refuse to listen any more.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Anchorage on

Only your sister can say when enough is enough for her and when she is ready to leave her marriage. People told me I should leave my SO, that I was insane for staying, but I fought for my marriage and after a lot of very hard work from both of us we are happier then ever. You are on the outside, you don't see the good moments, the love. If and when she is done fighting she will leave, and until then she needs support, not judgement.

You mention that he is in counseling, but is she? That would be a good first step for her.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

She would be leaving him because he is not wlling to learn how to manage his illness. He is able to choose to be different in spite of his illness.

I divorced my ex even tho he has schizophrenia. I did not divorce him because of his symptoms. I knew about them before we married and I was willing to make allowances for them. I divorced him because he would not follow thru and honor ageements we made together. We were in counseling for several years and his counselor and psychiatrst said he could follow thru if he wanted to do so. Our difficulties were not the result of his illness.

I suggest it's the same for your sister. His bi-polar illness does not cause him to not take his medicine. Yes, it is difficult to maintain employment but he could learn how to do that if he wanted to. This is especially true because he's in counseling. Being bipolar does not prevent him from getting his children ready for school. Being bipolar makes it more difficult but not impossible.

Being bipolar causes one to have difficulty managing emotions. It does not mean he can't develop skills. Just like everyone else he can do most things when he wants to do them.

So she would be divorcing him because he's not willing to do the work to make the marriage work and not because of his symptoms of bipolar illness.

If your sister and husband are not in counseling together that woukd be the first step. She needs to know what parts of his behavior is illness and what part is something else.

She also needs to be in counseling for her depression. If she's not on medication encourage her to start taking it. Once she's less anxious and depressed she will be better able to see how damaging this is for their kids and that there is a is a bigger Issue thsn staying true to her marrisge vows.

Si I suggest that you focus on getting her into counseling and medication instead of focusing on divorce. Suggest to her that getting herself healthy should be her prime goal.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Philadelphia on

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

You can't MYOB because there are children involved and if sis is abusing drugs due to her stress level or her own incipient mental health issues the family needs to protect the kids.

Ending a relationship with some one who is ill is bad, but if that person deliberately chooses to not take responsibility for their illness and their symptoms then there is room for the partner to say they are done.

I disagree with many who say that marriage should be unconditional love. Unconditional love is for children. Partners need to be responsible for the fact that their actions have consequences for the whole family. And the other parent is responsible for protecting children from those consequences. Besides you can love some one and even stay married to them while not living with them if that is what it takes to protect your children and you from their behavior. I am not saying it is easy but the presence of children makes it more clear.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

YIKES!! You're right - if you MYOB - your nieces can be seriously affected.

If your brother in law is on medication and he feels it is NOT working properly - then he needs to go BACK to his doctor and get "regulated". If he refuses to do it - then I'm for supporting my sister in divorce. Why? Because it means that her husband REFUSES to TRY and take care of himself. If he won't take care of himself, then he won't take care of the family (and hasn't).

You asked for resources. This is what I can find:

Since I don't know what state they live in, I can't help there. But your sister should be able to go to Social Services and seek help not only for herself, but her husband.

For me? I think I could reconcile the vow of "in sickness and in health" with the fact that his sickness IS treatable and he refuses to treat it. If he worked with his doctor to regulate his meds and understand what he needs to do in - health-wise - exercise, stress, etc. - even seeing a counselor to help him out - he's not. He refuses to acknowledge that he needs help and instead of acknowledging that - he simply slams her because he refuses to try and FIX the problem.

As much as it would hurt your sister? Maybe she should consider having your parents have physical custody of the kids until she and your brother in law can get their lives in order. The more they keep coming over - the more they are enabling him to NOT get help or figure it out on his own. Yes, this is extreme. Yes, this would suck - but really? Who's raising the kids right now anyway?

I hope this helps!! Good luck to your family!!!

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Odessa on

NAMI is a huge support

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answers from Omaha on

I don't answer things like this a lot but I'm your bil in this situation. I have bipolar 1 disorder. I'm sure to a large extent my husband could write this post about me. I'm lucky in that we love each other and he accepts me with my mental illness. There is no cure. Pills have horrid side effects and work for short periods of time in my experience. I've had the best luck with electro convulsive therapy. Yes shock therapy. Side effect is it destroys memory. I couldn't remember 9/11. My husband had to tell me about it. I can't remember my daughters birth or most of her first year. But I desperately want to feel "normal" so I've tried everything. Sure I don't know what it feels like to be normal but I see what most describe as normal and more than anything id love to be like them! Do you think anyone would choose this? He'll no! It isn't different than a physical illness!! My brain isn't "normal". I've accepted that but with lots of kicking and screaming! I can guarantee your bil would rather be normal and a functioning person. This post almost any spouse of a severely bipolar person could write. Go read a book its classic. You obviously know nothing about the condition which is fine because it doesn't affect you. But if you are telling your sister to leave you should!!

I've been married for 15 years. My psych said that's one of the longest marriages he's seen for a bipolar one patient. My husband is active in my care. Goes to every appointment with every doctor with me. Helps me take my meds, even when I don't want to. Urges me to try new meds and helps me manage the side effects. Advocates for me. He can identify when I'm going manic long before I do. Holds my hand and tells me it'll be okay everyday. Without my husband I'm sure the 1 in 4 suicide rate for bipolar sufferers would be me! Yes 1 in 4.

Its so easy for well people to think he should just do this because I do. Yeah it's far from that easy.

If you want to help your sister support her. Let her complain. Listen to her and maybe learn about his life long illness. There is NO cure! My husband stopped taking his families support because they were like you and didn't get it. I'm sure their answer was to put me in a home and move on or divorce me. He only talks to supportive people now. It was a smart move because we are both much happier. You don't need people in your life that make already tough situation tougher I've learned. So don't make it tougher on her. She needs support not judgement.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

I would offer her support. When and if she decides enough is enough, she will need that support. You can't always make someone see the forest when they are so close to the trees. But if she asks, then you can mention things. Like if she is unhappy, you can suggest they get counseling and offer to pay for a sitter. If he is not in therapy and being monitored, he should be. If his therapy is not working, then he should be encouraged to try more.

A friend of mine finally left her spouse who was clinically depressed. She got zero support. He wasn't taking care of himself, either. Her leaving prompted him to get the real help he needed for the sake of their sons. He finally got himself in order and they have been able to be friendly for his sake. I only know what I witnessed and was told, so the real details I do not know. I only know that there came a time where she felt she could no longer deal with him not doing anything for his illness.

If your sister is staying for religious reasons, could she schedule a meeting with her pastor? He or she might be helpful to talk to.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

Sounds to me like she could use some help from counseling.

My father suffers from mental illness and my mother divorced him. He became a threat to her well being and to me too. My mom's bottom line was Peace of Mind. She had none with my dad and it came back to some degree after she divorced him.

My understanding of mental illness is the thing they all have in common is the lack of cooperation for taking the medications. It becomes a part of the mental problem. While my dad's mental diagnosis isn't bipolar but similar to it.

Every person in a marriage needs to have some things that are just deal breakers. If my husband has diabetes and didn't take his insulin and refused to work and just hung out at the house, that would be a deal breaker for me. I wouldn't put up with that and I wouldn't be bullied by the crazy either.

It is just a matter of time since he is allowed to continue to maintain a certain level of crazy that it begins to boil over onto the kids. She needs to get stronger herself and continue to be strong for her kids, her marriage and her husband.Your girls will need to learn how to have healthy boundaries to keep the crazy out of their life and it begins with watching what their mom does.

The only way this can work is when she is willing to risk it all for the sake of sanity. He can be as crazy as he wants to be she should choose not to entertain it. I'm an adult and have choosen this approach with my dad.

My dad lives in a group home where they make him take his meds. He was in the military so he gets veteran benefits. I hope this helps even a little bit. I would strongly suggest she begin with counseling for herself and the girls to learn how to cope better.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Cumberland on

Suggest that she start with her local Health Department. Best of luck.

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answers from Houston on

I admit that my experiences with mental illness have not been up close and personal, per se. Any relatives or associates directly affected by it have not been people I've had to deal with in my home or under my skin. I can walk away. I do engage with people who have serious issues. I've just learned how to look objectively at super emotional situations that could be kinda blurred. I'm not heartless by any stretch, but in order to push forward, I sometimes have to look strictly at the facts and the aspect of natural consequences for the life choices that we make.

That said, your sister chose a mentally ill man to be husband to her and father to her children. That was her choice, and now it's playing out. In my mind (and our marriage), the marital vows are meant to be speed bumps to stop us from rushing to separation. If you're done, you're just done. Your sister has to look at the whole of her situation and decide if she can continue to grow and be healthy and provide healthy influence and environment for her children if she stays. These are all things to be considered at every turn, including before saying those vows. As difficult as (I know) it is for you to hold your tongue, these are HER adult choices, and we don't have the right to protect adults from (all?) the choices that they make. I always have to remind myself: This is his/her journey, and he/she can't grow and learn if he/she does not get to experience this life that he/she created. YOU can't stand in the way of what's going on over there. What you CAN do is offer the children a safe place to land, but not to the extent that their parents don't have the opportunity to see how the kids are being affected and act on it. DO NOT protect the children from the effect of their parents' choices, and do not protect the parents from the effect that they are having on their children. Make suggestions where you can, and remove the children from imminent harm, but leave room for your sister to work through this. Her children have parents.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Lincoln on

You mentioned that he is in counseling, but what about her? Or marriage counseling? Sounds like there is a lot of stuff going on there. Maybe with the help of a good therapist some guidelines could be set up to help him get on the right track with his illness (like consistently taking his meds) and help her understand his illness. Maybe they could set up some parameters that would work for both of them that would feel helpful for her and not overwhelming for him? I'm not bipolar but have had episodes of major depression, and when things start to seem overwhelming, the first instinct is to shut down and do nothing, like absolutely nothing. I happen to be a single parent with a full time job, so doing nothing is not an option, so I have learned with the help of a great counselor and supportive family and friends how to cope. Maybe they could learn together how to break the day to day living into a not so overwhelming experience that he would feel able to participate in. And a counselor could give her tips on helping him take his meds and support him when he does start to feel stuck. Idk, I'm not in that situation, but it was the first thing I thought of when I read his behavior.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Minneapolis on

ive known alot of ppl with this mental disease-its tuff nuff thats for sure-but your sis needs to buck up if for no other reason than for the kids-sounds like shes scared of one but her can decide when enuff is enuff-but in my opinion your all enabling this behavior for both-cut off the money n xtra help-yes i know its family n all but tuff lov usually is a good eye opener-why work n be responsible if everyones going to take care of it for me...hes using his illness as an easy out-i know ppl with with much more severe MI n their still functioning in society,working family etc.sounds like the whole family is a mess-find intervention asap...good luck

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