Login | March 18, 2019

When a spouse’s personality changes make divorce a necessity

Law Bulletin columnist

Published: April 17, 2018

Welcome to my regular column, Discourse on Divorce. In this edition, I look at divorces that involve a spouse who has undergone a significant personality change and how attorneys can handle divorces under these circumstances.

As part of my practice, it is not unusual to have a scenario in which a spouse decides to file for divorce, even after many years of marriage, stating that their significant other’s personality has changed dramatically, creating irreconcilable differences. While sometimes these changes manifest over a period of years, often I hear spouses claim the changes occur almost overnight.

When dramatic personality shifts are cited as the reason for wanting a divorce, it is often prudent as the attorney to ask the client for details. While ultimately the client will decide whether to move forward with the divorce, it can shape how the divorce is handled to understand why the changes have occurred.

In some cases, these personality changes may be organic. Diseases such as dementia or depression or even a brain tumor can result in dramatic personality shifts. Sometimes, spouses aren’t even aware that their partners are suffering from these diseases until divorce proceedings begin or are completed.

In some cases, these diseases are treatable with counseling and medication. In other cases, the symptoms may be managed, but the underlying cause of the disease will only worsen over time.

The question that often arises for spouses dealing with partners who have a personality-altering disease is whether to remain in the marriage once the cause of the changes is identified. Knowing that their spouse is suffering from a disease that is causing them to behave erratically or appear to have lost affection for their partner could change their views on proceeding with a divorce.

Many people who were considering divorce before learning of their spouse’s disease decide to remain married once their spouse receives the diagnosis. Those caring for a spouse with a disease such as dementia or depression may feel overwhelmed by the symptoms of the disease and what lies ahead in the future.

In those cases, family counseling and outside support groups can often help spouses find the best ways to support their affected love one while also maintaining their own self-care. As an attorney, you can be of great service to your client if you are familiar with support groups in your area and can recommend them to your client.

In other situations, divorce may still be necessary. People suffering from conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia may not be able to control their impulses and can often be easily manipulated by third parties. This can be especially harmful to families as it relates to spending. Divorce, in some instances, may be the only option to protect the family’s finances and credit rating.

In those cases, attorneys can work on reaching a divorce settlement that provides care and sets up safeguards against impulsive spending for the spouse suffering from the personality-altering disease.

The emotional impact of dealing with a spouse who has a personality-altering disease that causes a seeming loss of affection can be significant. Ila Chaiken is a licensed clinical social worker with The Lilac Tree, an Illinois-based organization that provides divorce and separation resources for women.

She has worked with several women who have seen their husbands undergo sudden and significant personality changes, which often includes a loss of affection. Despite their best efforts, many of these women have been left with no choice but to move on from the marriage.

“For the most part the frustration at being blamed for the marriage problem and the unwillingness on the part of the husband to acknowledge the emotional problem simply takes such a toll on the wife they feel they have no alternative,” Chaiken said.

“The resulting emotional effect on the wife is a feeling of despair, anger and not understanding why the husband was willing to give up a relationship that may have been of long duration,” she said.

While disease is one cause of personality shifts, another common one is personality disorder. Personality disorders are defined as “deeply ingrained ways of thinking and behaving that are inflexible and generally lead to impaired relationships with others,” according to Psychology Today.

There are 10 medically recognized personality disorders, which are divided into three clusters:

Cluster A: paranoid personality disorder as well as schizoid and schizotypal personalities.

Cluster B: antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.

Cluster C: avoidant personality disorder, dependent personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

Personality disorders often make the divorce proceedings more complicated and dramatic than a typical divorce. Cluster B personalities, in particular, can make divorces difficult because they are often hard for third parties to recognize and “are characterized by dramatic, overly emotional or unpredictable thinking or behavior,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

There are warning signs that attorneys can look for when identifying whether their client’s spouse is a Cluster B personality. One warning sign of antisocial personality, for instance, is a lack of compassion or empathy for anyone but themselves.

It isn’t unusual for spouses to act angrily toward each other during a divorce, but if one spouse also seems vindictive or callous as it relates to the feelings of the children, that could be an indication of an antisocial personality.

Severe mood swings are a sign of borderline personality disorder. If your client describes their spouse as being happy one minute and uncontrollably angry the next, this could be the cause. The Mayo Clinic has more examples of warning signs to look out for.

As one can imagine, Cluster B personalities can make it difficult to negotiate a divorce settlement. Often cases involving a spouse with a Cluster B personality drag on in the courts for years, which can be especially frustrating for parents who are concerned about the impact the personality disorder will have on their children.

“If the behavior changes are happening while children are still in the home, even teenagers,” Chaiken said, “the fear is both that the children pick up on this behavior and copy it or that they become the victim of the verbal abuse that so often manifests from an psychiatric problem.”

One Mom’s Battle is an organization founded by Tina Swithin, who went through a long and arduous divorce with a spouse who suffered from narcissistic personality disorder.

The mission of her organization is to educate the family court system about the challenges and dangers that Cluster B personalities create. Divorce attorneys who are dealing with a client whose spouse has a Cluster B personality may benefit from further education about these personality types from outlets such as the Mayo Clinic and One Mom’s Battle.

Generally speaking, the more you understand the reasons your client is coming to you seeking divorce counsel, the better you can represent that client. Ask questions and investigate further if there is a possibility that a personality change could be something more significant than “simply drifting apart.”

Michael C. Craven, J.D., L.L.M. and C.P.A. is a partner at Harrison & Held, LLP. His practice focuses on complex divorce and family law litigation, mediation and collaborative law cases. He can be reached at mcraven@harrisonheld.com.