Mental Health, Marriage, and Divorce in North Carolina

As the title would suggest, this article will be going in depth on marriage and divorce for couples where at least one partner is neurodivergent. Perhaps you are concerned about recent behavior your partner has been exhibiting and are unsure if you want to continue being married to them. Perhaps you are neurodivergent yourself and are frustrated with your partner’s lack of understanding when it comes to your needs. This can be challenging for couples, and considering divorcing someone with mental illness or going through divorce while having a mental illness can undoubtedly pile on even more stress and anxiety. However, before we tackle the impact mental health can have on divorce, let’s start with the impact that it has on marriage.

In North Carolina, there are three major conditions for marriage: 1) You must be old enough, (at least 18, though there are some specific exceptions), 2) You are not a close relative of the person you are marrying (1st cousins or closer cannot marry), and 3) Both parties need to have the capacity and intent to have a valid marriage. Marriage is a contract, and the parties must have those same minimum capacity requirements as those who enter into any other valid, binding contract, such as to purchase a car or home.

What about when it comes to divorce? If after some time of being married one party develops a mental illness and no longer possesses that “minimum capacity” requirement, can the parties divorce? Well, yes. That’s not a law specific to mental health, though – there is no law that requires parties to stay married for any reason. That includes if the emergence of an illness occurs, whether physical or mental in nature. The only requirement for getting divorced in North Carolina is to be separated from your spouse for at least one year. Otherwise, the decision of whether or not to remain married is completely up to the spouses in question.

Mental Health and Marriage

If you’re reading this, it’s likely you may be questioning whether or not to remain in your relationship. Conversely, you may be worried about your partner leaving you, either due to your or their own mental health. There is no one size fits all solution, especially given the vast diversity of mental health conditions and personality types. However, this section will provide some standard guidance for

There are a couple things worth noting here. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that all mental health conditions are different. Someone living with a condition like bipolar disorder will have a very different set of struggles and needs than someone living with an eating disorder. Some partners are well equipped to attend to their neurodivergent partner’s needs for certain mental illnesses, but perhaps not others. The same is also true when it comes to neurodivergent partners caring for their neurotypical spouses. When these conditions go undiagnosed, they can impact our relationships significantly, with the partner in need of help not getting it and the other partner caught in the throes. With a diagnosis or at least a recognition of symptoms, the stress of mental illness can then be alleviated through coping methods like therapy, medication, awareness of how mental illness works, and more.

If you suspect your spouse of having an undiagnosed mental illness, encourage them to speak to a professional, and if you yourself have a mental illness, encourage your spouse to learn more about it from a reliable source. Mental illness is difficult for both those afflicted and those who love someone afflicted, but it does not mean a marriage needs to end if you can both learn to work with it. If your partner refuses to seek treatment or coping strategies, or is unwilling to offer accessibility solutions when they are needed, that is often a different story.

Another thing to note is that some partners may often diagnose an illness in their partner where one does not exist. We very commonly hear spouses alleging that their partners have any wide array of conditions from narcissistic personality disorder to addictions to adult entertainment, despite them never having seen a therapist before and having no expertise to make such a diagnosis. In reality, symptoms alone do not necessitate a mental illness. Just like a bruised toe doesn’t necessarily mean its broken, certain behavior may be the result of something else entirely – depression over a recent lost loved one, anger issues over feeling constantly berated at work, the list goes on.

Diagnosing someone else without the expertise to do so does little to help them or yourself, and as stated above, if you genuinely believe your spouse may have a legitimate mental illness, encourage them to seek professional help. Calling them a narcissist may make you feel validated but it will not fix your marriage or make your divorce any smoother. Mental health, just like physical health, takes time and care to cultivate. Being there for your partner even (and especially) when you have decided you no longer wish to be married to them will go a long way as you move forward.

How Does Divorce Affect Your Mental Health?

Going into a divorce may in and of itself cause some mental health concerns, especially if you are already living with a mental illness. As such, if you are considering a divorce, it is important to be patient with yourself and your partner, and assessing healthy ways for you both to proceed will do wonders for the sake of your mental health.

Let’s talk about the affect divorce itself has on mental health. Psychological experts can often connect higher rates of mortality, depression, substance abuse and overall physical illness to divorce. Divorced parties are 20% more likely to suffer from long-term health problems. Increased stress from a divorce can clearly be connected to a decline in one’s overall health. Stress erodes one’s immune system, making one more susceptible to colds, flu and other ailments.

Medical studies show that divorce can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Divorced parties have lower self-esteem. Divorce is emotional, overwhelming, and can easily make parties sad, angry, and scared. These emotions are often evident in both partners and in their children. Many see divorce as a time of tremendous personal and social upheaval. Friends might be lost. The parties might be forced to move. There are many additional financial consequences.

One important thing to remember during the divorce process is to practice self-care. The phrase “self-care” should not be considered selfish, but rather as a necessity. There are many ways to engage in self-care. For starters, look around your home. Declutter at least one thing: a closet, a junk drawer, or a small room. Move your furniture around, perhaps reposition your belongings to open up a new walk-through area or just reorganize for a fresh start.

Another way of practicing self-care? Socialize with friends; you can watch a movie or tv show, skipping a conversation on how bad or terrible your ex is. Go outside, walk, run, exercise in general, or anything that will get your blood flow moving. Try something new like dance or art classes, planting a garden, or cooking new meals you’ve always wanted to try. Socialize with friends and join a support group. Journal and talk to a mental health professional. Try meditating or using a meditation app, such as Calm or 10% Happier. Let your lawyer handle the legal work while you work on the “you” work.

All of this is to say that if you are divorcing someone with a mental illness or if you are living with one yourself, it might be especially worth it to check on your mental health during this time.

Special Divorce Considerations When Mental Illness is Involved

Let’s go back to that initial question: can one divorce a person who has developed a mental illness? Yes, one can divorce anyone that they are married to regardless of their mental health status. However, the process might take a little longer when mental illness is involved.

Depending on the condition and its severity, the person living with mental illness might need a guardian appointment to represent them in court and in the proceedings. An attorney or the state itself can help such people with finding someone to appoint who can convey their needs accurately.

Additionally, while divorces in North Carolina, like most states, typically fall under “no-fault”, there is another type of divorce that can apply: incurable insanity.

Insanity is a (quite outdated) legal term that developed from the British legal system, which came from a concern of punishing those who were so mentally ill that they could not realize that their criminal actions were wrong. In the case of divorce specifically, not only does the idea of criminal actions not apply, but there is also no universal definition on what constitutes insanity.

Using incurable insanity as a basis for divorce does require some proof and testimony regarding the person’s mental health. The “sane” spouse must prove the insanity, which requires the testimony of two reputable physicians, one of whom must be a staff member of the institution where the party has been housed for at least the past 3 years. Testimony is also required from a physician who works and practices in the community that is home to the couple. This second doctor should not be connected to the institution.

An incurable insanity divorce requires a three year separation period, so it is far more common for couples to pursue a no-fault divorce based on one year of separation.

However, there are some differences beyond the length of the separation period. It is important to note that if the patient is deemed to have insufficient income and property to provide for their proper care, the “sane” spouse can be ordered to pay for the spouse’s care and maintenance for life.

Another differing step is that the “insane” person cannot accept service of divorce documents. A guardian ad litem must be served and accept the papers on behalf of the alleged “insane” spouse.

Given all of the above information, it should come as no surprise that this type of divorce is exceedingly rare. To be found “incurably insane” is already an incredibly stigmatic process, and those who actually qualify are often better off pursuing a no-fault divorce with a spousal support agreement or, in some cases, not divorcing at all. The law is short-sighted when it comes to caring for those who need accommodations and some couples decide to stay married as a result just to avoid the further hardship caused by a divorce of this nature. We only offer information about it here so that you are able to appropriately weigh your options.

Mental Health’s Impact on Other Divorce Issues

Mental health can also factor into child custody and visitation issues. However, as general rule, parents will still be allowed some form of visitation even if they are struggling with mental health issues. A judge will rule in a manner that has the child’s best interests paramount, and judges by far tend to prefer ruling in favor of 50/50 custody when both parents are deemed fit and loving ones. Even if a parent is struggling with a severe mental health issue, a judge will still allow for some visitation time. The visitation can be supervised and limited to just a few hours at a time if necessary. There must be extreme issues to the health and well-being of the children in question before a judge would consider termination of parental rights completely.

Likewise, a spouse’s mental health issues can factor into a judge’s decision regarding spousal support and equitable distribution. It is a factor, but not a complete bar to any right. Judges are aware that mental illness can affect one’s ability to work, make money, and be independent, and thus take mental health into consideration when ruling on these issues. Just like with mental illness, every case is unique and all decisions will be made based on the individuals in question.

We hope this helps illuminate some of the unique challenges that come with a divorce concerning mental illness. While North Carolina law may still have some archaic language on the books, an attorney can help you navigate the system and make sure you are being treated fairly in your divorce, whether you have a mental illness yourself or you are divorcing someone with a mental illness. Visit our lawyer locator or contact our office at 919-787-6668 to find an attorney that’s right for you.

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