Mental illness can be devastating not only for the person experiencing it but for their loved ones as well. For a spouse, the stress and difficulty of coping with erratic mood swings and shocking or dangerous behavior from a partner with mental illness can easily become unbearable. It’s no surprise that mental illness can often lead to divorce.
One of the most high-profile contemporary examples of the combination of mental illness, appalling behavior, and divorce is the story of reality TV star Kim Kardashian and rap artist Kanye West. West (who now goes by "Ye") is a rapper, producer, and fashion designer who has significantly impacted the entertainment industry. He has been open about his bipolar disorder, which he has credited with contributing to his creativity and personal turmoil.
That turmoil was front and center over the past two years as the celebrity couple’s marriage disintegrated and West increasingly engaged in jaw-dropping and horrifying public behavior. Already a magnet for controversy because of his closeness with former President Donald Trump, West, who is Black, has more recently evoked outrage by praising Hitler, denying the existence of the Holocaust, and supporting white nationalists.
While mental illness is no excuse for racism or anti-Semitism, bipolar disorder can make an offensive outburst more likely by removing someone’s “filter.” When having a manic episode, a person with the disorder is often reckless, with racing thoughts and speech, can feel “invincible” and can make extremely bad decisions. For instance, it is well-documented that manic episodes can trigger financially disastrous gambling addiction.
In 2020, West briefly ran for president and made other shocking and controversial public comments, such as calling for the abolition of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, and claiming that he had been trying to divorce Kardashian for several years. That kind of behavior could have been a manifestation of his bipolar disorder, and undoubtedly harmed his relationship with Kardashian. (When they finally called it quits in 2021, Kardashian was the one who filed for divorce.)
We do not know exactly to what extent West’s mental condition contributed to his divorce. But, likely, his disorder and disturbing public behavior (whether it was or was not influenced by a mental health crisis) significantly strained his marriage. Being a focal point of such massive media attention also likely didn’t help matters. There are useful lessons we can take from their experiences, however, which can help examine how mental illness relates to divorce. Here are some reasons why mental health problems can exacerbate difficulties with a spouse and lead to a split:
Strained communication: Communication is key to maintaining the health of any relationship, but when a person is in the throes of a mental health disorder, they often lose the ability to communicate in a productive manner with friends and loved ones. Instead of working through conflict, they may choose to avoid it, or become irritable, volatile, angry, and possibly mentally or physically abusive.
Burden of care: Caring for a loved one with either a physical or mental health problem can be stressful and overwhelming. The effort that it takes to help a loved one manage their condition and ensure their needs are met can be emotionally exhausting, leading to burnout and resentment. A spouse may find they simply no longer have the energy to keep shouldering the burden of caring for their partner.
Disorienting behavior changes: Healthy relationships are built through trust and comfort with one another. But when mental illness triggers sudden emotional and behaviorial changes, such as getting extremely angry about something that wouldn’t ordinarily make the person angry, the effect is disorienting for a partner.
Not knowing how a spouse will react creates anxiety. You may be left feeling like you are “walking on eggshells” around a spouse whose moods and behavior have been exceptionally erratic. That dynamic is extremely uncomfortable, increases conflict, and can easily turn a relationship “toxic” and unsustainable.
Inability to fulfill responsibilities: When a couple has children or other shared responsibilities, the strain increases substantially when one person is not doing their part. While every marriage is a bit unique in terms of how couples decide to split up “duties,” such as childcare, yard work, housework, and financially supporting the family, if one person is doing everything, the marriage can easily be pushed to the breaking point. Mental illnesses and mental health crises may render a person unable to contribute meaningfully to the partnership.
Lack of understanding: Compounding the struggles of mental illness, friends, family, and society at large can sometimes impose ignorant and unhelpful judgments on the situation. Undoubtedly in Kardashian’s and West’s case, the magnitude of public intrigue surrounding their relationship and its breakdown increased the tensions.
Although, again, there is no excuse for racist and anti-Semitic rants, abuse, or other harmful behaviors, feeling a lack of sympathy and understanding can often worsen a mental health crisis. And a spouse who feels unfairly judged and unsupported for his or her involvement in the relationship is also more likely to leave.
A vicious cycle: While mental health disorders can stress a marriage, ending a relationship can also make a mental health disorder worse, adding to the difficulty. Divorce is stressful for everyone, even people who do not ordinarily have mental health challenges. For West, and for many other individuals who have mental health disorders, relationship issues may have triggered a vicious cycle from which there was no coming back.
The end of a relationship can bring about feelings of loss, sadness, and insecurity, which can all easily exacerbate symptoms of conditions such as bipolar disorder. It's possible that West's behavior during and after his divorce from Kardashian could be related to his mental health and the impact it has on his life.
Remember that if you are experiencing negative effects from being in a relationship with someone suffering from mental illness, their condition is not your fault. Leaving the relationship or obtaining a divorce to protect your own mental and emotional well-being is not a personal failure. An experienced divorce attorney can help you work through the logistics of this difficult and stressful period.