Over the years, our Charleston divorce lawyers have been involved in many “high conflict” cases surrounding child custody and visitation. The parties can’t agree to anything, they fight over everything, and their case drags on through the family court system at a high financial and emotional cost to the parties and their children. In many of these cases, the conflict seems to be driven by mental health issues. This comes as little surprise considering the effect mental health issues have upon divorce rates. In 2011, a multinational study was conducted regarding 18 types of mental disorders (such as phobias, major depression, and alcoholism) and their impact on marriage and divorce. The study found that the disorders all increased the likelihood of divorce ranging from 20 to 80 percent depending upon the type of mental illness. Other research has shown a strong link between personality disorders (such as antisocial and histrionic personality disorders) and higher divorce rates.

The Demonizing Parent

Divorce lawyers see the same patterns repeating in cases involving mental health issues. For example, there is the “demonizing” parent. In these cases, the parent who suffers from mental health issues, such as personality disorders, will accuse the other parent of being unfit despite the fact that the accused party’s parenting skills were fine before the couple separated. In other words, the afflicted parent will “demonize” the other parent by making unsupported claims of parental unfitness. For these parents, they see people as either allies or enemies, they think in all-or-nothing terms, they reason emotionally, and they personalize even the most benign events. Family court becomes a perfect theater for these parents to play out their fantasies by giving them a forum to assign blame to the other parent and to ask the court to punish the other parent by limiting visitation and custody.

The Enmeshed Parent

As another example, there is the overly “enmeshed” parent who, due to mental health issues, is overly dependent on their children. These parents’ feelings of self-worth are bound so tightly to their children that they feel threatened by the other party’s parental role. In these cases, the enmeshed parent expects the children to take their side and to be loyal only to that parent.  The enmeshed parent actively interferes with visitation, withholds the children’s medical and educational information, makes negative statements about the other parent to the children, oftentimes ignores family court orders, and overall engages in a process to sabotage the children’s relationship with the other parent.

What Can Be Done?

Unfortunately, the family court system can’t do much to help a parent who suffers from mental health issues. Although the family court can order a parent to participate in counseling, people tend to get more out of therapy when they voluntarily decide they need help as opposed to being forced into therapy. Otherwise, the family court can order a parent’s psychological or psychiatric evaluation for purposes of considering the parent’s mental health as factor in awarding custody or supervising a parent’s visitation.

As family court lawyers, we can do our part to try and minimize the impact our clients’ mental health may have on their divorce and their children. First, we should educate ourselves regarding various mental illnesses including personality disorders so that, at the very least, we can spot potential mental health issues. Second, we can avoid adding “fuel to the fire” by urging our clients to take a less aggressive approach to claims and goals that we recognize have no basis in fact or are harmful to our client’s or their children’s wellbeing. Third, we should do everything we can, with understanding and compassion, to encourage our clients to recognize their mental health problems and to voluntarily enter therapy.

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