After years of chaos, dramatic fights, and exhaustion, you finally decided to divorce your crazy spouse. Too bad the kids are still stuck with a crazy parent.
Have you also considered the possibility that you are just as crazy?
According to studies, personality disorders affect as many as 14 percent of the population. That means a lot of kids are growing up under the care of narcissists, histrionics, borderline personalities and worse. Divorce abounds among individuals with personality disorders, especially if both parties are affected. In many cases the individual goes undiagnosed and untreated, wondering why their life is so afflicted by chaos and destruction.
Protecting the Kids
A parent who divorces a crazy spouse may initially feel freed from the drama, but there is still the need to protect the child from the same craziness and create a solid working relationship between both parents.
According to Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, a certified Marriage and Family Therapist, a child will not gain a personality disorder. For example, Lewis says the majority of people with borderline personality disorder were sexually abused as a child, so the ailment is not genetically inherited.
However, the child of an individual with a personality disorder may adopt some of those traits. That’s a natural response for kids who grow up with craziness. If mom is a yeller and out of control, for instance, the child will learn to mimic that as a way to gain control over stressful situations and vent their own anger. By contrast, another sibling may strive to be perfect to prevent her mom from yelling at her all the time.
The best opportunity comes when the affected parent is aware of the diagnosis and attempting to recover, says Lewis. The parent can talk to the child and tell them, “Here’s what I do and here’s what would be helpful when I am like that.” Then have an open discussion so the kids can ask questions.
Yet that rarely occurs.
“If the child can get into therapy that can be helpful, but even without therapy the other parent can say the same things and help the child protect themselves,” says Lewis, who recommends a book by Victoria Secunda entitled When Madness Comes Home: Help and Hope for Families of the Mentally Ill.
If the kids are older or in their teens, that makes it easier. According to Lewis, the unaffected parent can say to the kids, “Go look up personality disorders online and see if some of those symptoms don’t fit your mom. Let’s talk after you go do that.” Then the teen can see objective research that verifies the situation, and understand that the unaffected parent is not simply making wild claims.
“Younger children are even more likely to take it personally and they don’t understand,” explains Lewis. “They think whatever mom is doing must be her fault, and you don’t want to turn the kid against their mom.”
Moving Forward with Divorce
Announcing your intention to divorce a crazy parent will initially create more of the drama it is intended to resolve, and it complicates relations with the children.
“The parent without the personality disorder is likely to be very angry – they don’t get divorced until the last straw – so talking to the kids may be seen by the kids and by the other parent as making the situation messier,” says Lewis. “If the kids divide up in supporting the parents, and often they do in a way to balance the emotional power, children will side with the weaker parent.”
Many attorneys will not take a case if a spouse has a personality disorder, but if they do then a mental health person should help work with the mother as part of the team for the sake of the child. Lewis strongly suggests using the collaborative divorce process because it requires the expertise of a mental health counselor. The counselor can then insist on affected parties getting the therapy they need. If that’s not available, divorcing parents still have the option of putting kids into therapy on their own or through a school therapist. Check out http://therapistlocator.net/ for a local therapist who is certified by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.
“The hardest thing is when it is the primary parent with the problem. It makes the partner crazy, too,” explains Lewis. “What led to the divorce probably was it getting worse and worse, so the non-diagnozed patient is probably pretty damaged by having to deal with this awful situation. They are more caught up in fighting each other than in thinking about the kids.”
If you find your divorce heading down this path, ask yourself and your spouse: Ten years from now, how do you want your children to think about this divorce? For some people this question opens the door to new thinking, “I need to behave now so my kids don’t remember this experience for the rest of their lives.”
If that doesn’t work, there are other tactics for managing a crazy ex-spouse, such as those in Custody Chaos, Personal Peace: Sharing Custody with an Ex Who is Driving You Crazy, by Jeffrey P. Wittmann. The title is certainly appropriate if your ultimate goal in divorcing your crazy spouse is to finally obtain some peace for yourself and your kids.