The Walters Gilbreath, PLLC Blog

Anxiety Disorder in Divorce or Child Custody Cases

by Jake Gilbreath on April 8, 2019

1. Personality Disorders in Divorce

As divorce lawyers, we get told all the time “my spouse has a personality disorder.” While some lawyers may roll their eyes at this, it’s actually often the case that in high conflict litigation one of the parties does indeed have a personality disorder. After all, often times that’s the very reason the divorce or custody case is conflict – one of the parents has a disconnect from reality or sees the world in a certain, harmful way, and the other parent is left trying to protect his or her children. Be sure to read our Ultimate Guide to Personality Disorders.

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2. Common Personality Disorders in high conflict divorces / custody cases.

The most common personality disorders we see in divorce are:

  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder
  • Anxiety Disorder

2a. Anxiety Disorder

We often see anxiety disorders play a role in a divorce. In a divorce, the parent with an anxiety disorder will not be able to control his or her environment or the children’s environment as could be done in the marriage. Because of this, often times, an anxiety disorders rears its heads when parents are living in two different houses. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM V), the criteria of a Anxiety Disorder are:

    1. Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).
    2. The individual finds it difficult to control the worry.
    3. The anxiety and worry are associated with three (or more) of the following six symptoms (with at least some symptoms having been present for more days than not for the past 6 months): Note: Only one item required in children.
        1. Restlessness, feeling keyed up or on edge.
        2. Being easily fatigued.
        3. Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank.
        4. Irritability.
        5. Muscle tension.
        6. Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep).
    4. The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
    5. The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or another medical condition (e.g., hyperthyroidism).
    6. The disturbance is not better explained by another medical disorder (e.g., anxiety or worry about having panic attacks in panic disorder, negative evaluation in social anxiety disorder [social phobia], contamination or other obsessions in obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation from attachment figures in separation anxiety disorder, reminders of traumatic events in post-traumatic stress disorder, gaining weight in anorexia nervosa, physical complaints in somatic symptom disorder, perceived appearance flaws in body dysmorphic disorder, having a serious illness in illness anxiety disorder, or the content of delusional beliefs in schizophrenia or delusional disorder).

According to the Mayo Clinic, Signs and symptoms of anxiety disorder and the severity of symptoms vary:

Common anxiety signs and symptoms include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
  • Having difficulty controlling worry
  • Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety

Several types of anxiety disorders exist:

  • Agoraphobia (ag-uh-ruh-FOE-be-uh) is a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.
  • Anxiety disorder due to a medical condition includes symptoms of intense anxiety or panic that are directly caused by a physical health problem.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder includes persistent and excessive anxiety and worry about activities or events — even ordinary, routine issues. The worry is out of proportion to the actual circumstance, is difficult to control and affects how you feel physically. It often occurs along with other anxiety disorders or depression.
  • Panic disorder involves repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). You may have feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid, fluttering or pounding heart (heart palpitations). These panic attacks may lead to worrying about them happening again or avoiding situations in which they've occurred.
  • Selective mutism is a consistent failure of children to speak in certain situations, such as school, even when they can speak in other situations, such as at home with close family members. This can interfere with school, work and social functioning.
  • Separation anxiety disorder is a childhood disorder characterized by anxiety that's excessive for the child's developmental level and related to separation from parents or others who have parental roles.
  • Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) involves high levels of anxiety, fear and avoidance of social situations due to feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness and concern about being judged or viewed negatively by others.
  • Specific phobias are characterized by major anxiety when you're exposed to a specific object or situation and a desire to avoid it. Phobias provoke panic attacks in some people.
  • Substance-induced anxiety disorder is characterized by symptoms of intense anxiety or panic that are a direct result of misusing drugs, taking medications, being exposed to a toxic substance or withdrawal from drugs.
  • Other specified anxiety disorder and unspecified anxiety disorder are terms for anxiety or phobias that don't meet the exact criteria for any other anxiety disorders but are significant enough to be distressing and disruptive.

If Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder does not explain your spouse’s actions, it could be an anxiety disorder. We often find that clients do not notice a spouse’s anxiety disorder untilafterthe divorce has been filed and the parents are living in two different houses.

2b. What problems can an anxiety disorder cause in a marriage?

Sadly, some spouses are well-intentioned, but are living life with an undiagnosed and/or untreated anxiety disorder. What our clients report seeing is:

  1. Overly enmeshed with children;
  2. Inability to trust the other spouse with the children;
  3. Constant worrying;
  4. Constant criticism and/or lack of trust;
  5. Lack of trust of others (babysitters, school personnel, doctors);
  6. Inability to spend time away from children or allow the other parent to spend time with the children; and/or
  7. Inability to make determinative decisions

2c. What problems can an anxiety disorder cause in a divorce?

We see a LOT of clients who had no idea his/her spouse had an anxiety disorder until the divorce. Then, all of a sudden, the children have two homes, not one. That’s when an anxiety disorder can come to light. Think about if you’ve seen the following:

  1. Refusal to agree to a reasonable visitation schedule;
  2. Constant worry and/or monitoring when the children are with the other parents;
  3. Everything is a problem – the smallest bruise is child abuse. The tiniest sniffle is a hospital visit;
  4. Constant question and interrogating of the children;
  5. Unwarranted and/or baseless accusations;

Think of how difficult it must be to have an anxiety disorder. Think about worrying that every second your children are away from you is a dangerous second. But then think about it from a child’s perspective. Your other parent is unsafe. Your caregiver’s anxiety becomes your anxiety. You cannot be a kid and enjoy and love both parents. We have nothing but empathy for those who have anxiety disorders. But we’ve also seen what damage the disorder can cause on families. If your spouse has an anxiety disorder and refuses to acknowledge and/or treat it, you may have no choice but to protect your children through the court system.

3. How do Courts deal with personality disorders?

If the judge suspects or is given evidence to lead to the conclusion that one or both parents have a personality disorder, the judge has a few options. The judge can:

  1. Order psychological evaluations of the parties;
  2. Appoint a psychologist to perform a custody evaluation (which would include a psychological evaluation);
  3. Appoint a guardian ad litem;
  4. Appoint an amicus attorney or attorney ad litem;
  5. Order counseling for the parents and/or the children.

Just like we’re familiar with dealing with personality disorders, so are judges. A judge has a lot of resources at his/her disposal to try to ferret out the disorder and then deal with it in a way that protects the family. But first, that judge must understand what is going on with the family dynamic. If you do not present your situation correctly the judge, the judge cannot order appropriate remedies.

4. So, what do I do if my spouse has a personality disorder?

It sounds cliché, but all you really can do is hire a good lawyer and buckle in. Let’s be clear: it is very, very sad when someone has a personality disorder, especially if he or she does not treat that disorder. But ultimately, it is up to the individual with the disorder to deal with it. You can be supportive. You can offer support. But you can’t change your spouse. What you can do is protect yourself and protect your children. Sometimes that means leaving a difficult marriage. Sometimes that means going through a difficult divorce. All the times it means you have to do whatever it takes to protect your children.

Look online. Read resources. Talk to your therapist or pastor or support network. If you’re in the sad situation of dealing with a spouse with a personality disorder, you are not alone. There are resources out there for you, and we are just one of those resources. Arm yourself with knowledge, and contact us if we can help.

Topics: Child Custody