Gaslight, with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, is a 1944 thriller that tells the story of husband who tries to make his wife believe she is insane as he tries to retrieve some jewels stowed away in their attic. “The only way he could get the jewels was to make her think she was crazy. As a result, she started to have a real breakdown, and that’s what some people do in real life,” says Susan Hais of Hais, Hais, Goldberger & Coyne. “Usually, it’s people who are suffering from a condition called narcissism—characterized chiefly by a person being focused entirely on his or herself and is motivated by the desire to look good at the expense of others.” She says in a marriage, the situation can play out in a number of ways. “For example, the husband gets irritated with the wife due to something called a narcissistic insult. This could be something perceived as mildly critical against him, but he takes on an attitude of incredible revenge and never gives it up.”

Hais describes a case she once tried when a psychiatrist thought the husband was ‘gaslighting’ (coined by the film) the wife. “He tried to make her look mentally ill, and he was very clever about it,” she explains. “He picked up different things that had happened in her lifetime and tried to string them together to make her look like she was mentally ill. As the psychiatrist said to me: It’s like if you sneezed in 2008, blew your nose in 2009 and had a headache in 2010, you then have the flu. Of course, the whole focus was that he wanted custody of their young child, so he tried to make her look mentally unstable. We then had to bring in a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists to show what really had happened. It did end successfully, but the husband was trying to prove the wife was narcissistic, when really—as the psychiatrist said—he was the one who was narcissistic.”

According to Margo Green of Green Cordonnier & House, there is no question that a mental illness will make the divorce process more difficult. “If someone is bi-polar, they can go from elated to depressed very quickly. It’s very hard to negotiate a settlement with someone who is severely depressed, because no matter how fair the settlement may be, that person will only look at the negative and make it very difficult to settle.” 

Green also points out that a mental condition can be used as something to hide behind or as a weapon. “It can be used as a shield or as a sword,” she notes. “As a sword, it can be used viciously, and the person may be more eager to obtain revenge. As a shield, a person with a mental condition will try to say, I’m too depressed to go out and obtain a job so I need support from my spouse forever. Or, My mental condition means I need to have more custody of the children because the children are a comfort to me. I try to determine early in the case if that is being done on the other side so I can consciously try to advise my client how to disarm that shield or sword. If it’s my own client experiencing that behavior, then I have to advise the client why that direction may not be in his or her best interest.”

Jim Carmody of Carmody MacDonald indicates that in a severe case, a court can appoint a guardian ad litem to represent a party with a mental disability. “The court can determine that a party is not sufficiently capable of comprehending what is going on,” Carmody explains. “So in addition to having an attorney, the court can appoint a guardian ad litem if the person isn’t competent enough to make decisions on their own behalf.”

In most instances, Carmody notes that the guardian ad litem is a parent or a close friend. “You solicit their assistance to help the client understand the process and all the decisions,” he says. “It’s important to try to slow down the process, because sometimes in these cases, decisions in court are made quickly. But for the person with a diagnosed mental condition, you have to make it a more deliberative process. It’s very challenging and much more time consuming.”