Divorcing Due to a Dysfunctional Marriage: What to Do

It may come as no surprise that many people who come to see me are in deeply dysfunctional marriages. I’m not talking about people who have grown apart over the years or those who just “can’t get along”. Instead, they are in marriages with a partner who has a substance abuse problem, who has some other addiction like gambling or spending, with a partner who is mentally ill, or part of a cycle of emotional or physical abuse. When I meet with these clients, I’m always surprised at how much they have endured before they have sought legal advice. Many times, what drives them to act is when they see the toll the unhealthy dynamic is having on the children or their own sanity.

Understanding Codependency: A Personal Journey

I learned the term codependence many years ago.  I was trying to face the inequity in my own parents’ marriage and to understand how it had shaped me as an adult when I stumbled on the term. I remember reporting to my own mother that she was codependent and how well that went over!   I have had the same conversation with many, many people since then. If you aren’t familiar with the term, codependence has been defined as:

“Codependency is a circular relationship in which one person needs the other person, who in turn, needs to be needed. The codependent person, known as ‘the giver,’ feels worthless unless they are needed by — and making sacrifices for — the enabler, otherwise known as ‘the taker.’”

Dr. Exelberg.

Empathizing with Codependency Through Seminal Works

Melodie Beatty wrote “Codependent No More” in 1986 and has recently revised the book. Her work was seminal in helping me understand what I observed growing up and to a large extent why I’m a caregiver now. Her work, among others, has helped me empathize with the people who have been sacrificing their own life for their partners. Make no mistake, if you are living with someone with a mental health issue or an addiction, or even a health condition, your life is also impacted.

Rescuing Oneself: The Case of Martin

Take for example, Martin (not his real name), who went from one marriage to someone with a personality disorder to another woman with a bipolar diagnosis. My “not legal advice” for him after this second divorce, was to take some time to determine why he drawn to relationships with women who have severe mental illness. He has spent his lifetime rescuing one woman after another. My advice was to take time off and rescue himself by spending time on who he is and what he wants from his life without considering how he can take care of someone else.

A Caregiver’s Struggle: The Successful Executive

Another highly successful executive came to see me because his wife wanted to “find herself.” He recounted the last twenty years of the marriage, and it was easy to see how many years she had been searching for herself while he tried to appease her every need. He had never had a true partner, instead it was a relationship based on her neediness and his attempts to meet her needs. In the beginning of the divorce process, he was trying to fight but ultimately, he realized it was a losing battle. It can be very difficult, even if the marriage was unrewarding, to leave a partner who you’ve been carrying. You can feel bereft for the loss of someone to take care of.  It can seem hard to take care of yourself when you’ve been managing another person.

The Importance of Self-care in Legal Proceedings

When we are negotiating cases like the ones above, I must be firm with my clients when they are still trying to “rescue” when their spouse is divorcing them. I can’t force the reticent to look out for themselves first, but I can remind them that it’s not their job to take care of every need of their soon to be ex. My understanding of codependency has served my clients well. It may seem to an outsider that the person who is hanging on to someone who is clearly bad for them is crazy. Clients have told me that other attorneys have treated them with disrespect because of a lack of understanding.

Navigating Your Journey: A Commitment to You

I’ve learned a lot since I spouted off to my mom. I know how challenging this time is and if this is your situation, I will help you navigate this by taking care of you. It’s time to take care of you.


A respected Huntsville family law attorney with more than 20 years’ experience, Leigh Daniel is known for her positive attitude and her skills in the courtroom. She prides herself in the care and compassion that she and her team put into every case. Her goal is to instill a sense of confidence in her clients so they know success is on the horizon. As an author, inspirational speaker, coach, and founder of Project Positive Change, Leigh stays focused on the positive impact she can make on every client’s case.