Co-Parenting with a Former Spouse with Mental Illness

By Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC

Perhaps you knew, when you said ‘I do,’
That a bat or two lived in his belfry.
It’s okay, it will go away,
Our love will calm the madness.
But years have gone by, and the bats still fly,
And now you’re stuck trying to co-parent with a seriously mentally ill former spouse who was hard enough to deal with when you were married, not to mention the kids get really freaked out and you’re about lose your own mind, thank you very much.

I might have to work on that last line a bit, but I think I’m getting the basic story told in that little poem. We marry with the best intentions, and when the person that we are marrying has a mental illness or personality disorder, we often think that the stability of a good marriage and family will improve their condition. Often it does, and that is a testament to the healing powers of good love and probably good mental health care as well.

Often enough, however, the symptoms of our partner’s mental illness become unmanageable, or they refuse needed treatment, and the marriage breaks under the pressure. Then, if there are children, we are left with the task of trying to co-parent effectively with someone who has a significant illness or disorder. If this is your situation, or that of a loved one, you know how difficult this is and that there is no quick fix to the pain these situations cause.

There are, however, strategies that can improve the outcome and minimize harm for you and for your children. Educating yourself about the illness and equipping yourself with positive coping strategies will have the paradoxical effect of enabling you and your children to focus on the person behind the illness and to establish healthy boundaries to protect yourselves from the effects of problematic symptoms.

Here are four important strategies for helping yourself, and your children, deal with this situation.

1. Educate Yourselves and Your Children (age appropriately)

Now I say this with a degree of caution, because I am distinctly NOT talking about a mental illness that you diagnosed your former partner with! Even if you are a licensed mental health professional who is qualified to make those kinds of diagnoses, you are NOT the one to diagnose a loved one! What I AM talking about is a bona fide mental illness which has been diagnosed in your former partner by someone qualified to do so (this leaves out people like you, your mother, your bff, your new spouse, or Dear Abby).

So, given that we are talking about a mental illness or personality disorder that is real, you need to get yourself and your kids educated. Why? Because mental illnesses, just like any other medical condition, can have symptoms and complications that are important to know about when you are in a relationship with someone who has one. It is important to get over the stigma of mental illness and to view it as an illness much like diabetes or heart disease.

If your former partner had diabetes, you would want your children to be aware of how that might affect their other parent when they are with them and what to do in case of an emergency, right? It is much the same with mental illness, which can cause changes in a person’s mental status, ability to relate well, and ability to function on a day-to-day basis.

The best place to get education and support for yourselves and for your children is through a national organization called National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Their website will provide you with information about a chapter in your area and contains useful information and education regarding mental illness. There are support groups for those with mental illnesses, but especially for their family members. These groups offer very practical help with coping strategies and can be a tremendous support for you and your children.

Speaking of children, use age appropriate information (NAMI can help you determine this as well) in explaining this to your kids. Your five-year-old doesn’t need to know the diagnostic criteria, treatment course, and prognosis for Bipolar Disorder, but it might help him or her to know that Daddy has a condition that can sometimes cause him to be a little more active than normal at times and that your child didn’t cause that behavior. Knowing about this on that level will help your child not to think that Daddy’s strange behavior is because he/she was bad that day, and they will be able to talk to you more openly about how it affected them. It also allows you to assure them that Daddy is still Daddy.

2. Model Strategies for Coping with Problematic Symptoms for Your Children

Coping with a loved one’s mental illness is one of the hardest things a family member can do. For most mental illnesses there are effective medical and psychological treatments that can shorten duration of illness, reduce or remove symptoms, and even provide a cure. Unfortunately there are also some illnesses and personality disorders that tend to endure throughout all or most of a person’s life span.

Many mental illnesses can influence an individual’s behavior and interactions in ways that are very difficult for loved ones to understand, especially children. A person with such illnesses can at times exhibit bizarre and uncharacteristic behaviors, can appear one way on a certain day and very different on the next, and can make statements or threats, such as suicide, that can be extremely frightening for children.

This is why educating yourself is so important; because you will be the person your children will look to for helping them to know how to cope, what to say, and when to ask for help from others. If they observe you keeping a calm head, using the information you have about the effects of the illness, and reaching out when you need help, they will learn to do the same.

3. Separate the Person from the Illness

It is vitally important to your children that their other parent’s mental illness does not become their primary identity. Remember that your children are his/her children too, and if you are always referring to him/her by their illness it will become part of your kids’ identity as well. Their Mom or Dad is a person WITH Depression. They aren’t Schizophrenic; they are a person WITH Schizophrenia. Allow your children to focus on their parent as Mom or Dad first and foremost. ‘Nuff said.

4. Establish and Maintain Strong Boundaries

This is most important especially in the more severe cases of mental illness where there might be increased behavioral instability. If an individual is frequently making suicidal threats, you and your children need to have a plan to deal with that in a way that does not create chaos in your own home. If your former spouse makes a suicidal threat, call 911, give them their name and address and the statement you heard, and request a “Welfare Check.” The police do this often enough and will take the responsibility from you to determine if this person is safe or not. If they are not safe, they will be taken to a hospital and provided help.

This is very important for you to hear. It is NOT your responsibility, or that of your children, to determine that person’s safety. This is something that is done by mental health professionals, the police, and hospital emergency personnel. NOT YOU. If the threats are being made to you or your children frequently, you need to do this every single time they are made. If there is real danger, they need help. If they are being made to manipulate you, a few visits by the police will send the message that this tactic won’t work.

During times when there are severe or troubling symptoms, reach out for help regarding whether your children should visit or not, but do so carefully. Remember that this person has an illness, and will at times have symptoms, but that your children still need to have a supported relationship with their other parent. If you can, talk to the other parent when he/she is doing well and stable and make a plan for deciding together when and under what conditions visits might be rescheduled; for example, if they are too depressed to adequately care for the children.

If you aren’t able to have these conversations, ask a mental health professional for guidance. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to meet with a therapist once or twice to discuss your situation and ask them if you can call them when you have questions about visits. If you have a court appointed Parenting Coordinator or representative, call them for advice.

Once again, and at the risk of sounding like a NAMI commercial, go to their website and find out how they can help you and your children. This is a difficult situation but there is help and support available.

Chris Lewis, EdS, LPC, is a therapist who specializes in Marriage Counseling, Family Therapy, and Individual Therapy with adults. She provides Marriage Counseling in Denver, Colorado at Maria Droste Counseling Center.