What Constitutes Mental Cruelty in a Divorce?

By Jim Thomas

Couple holding two torn parts of a heart

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In 2010, New York became the 50th state to adopt a no-fault divorce law, which generally eliminates the need to use fault grounds such as mental cruelty, adultery or abandonment in order to get a divorce. But some states, such as Illinois, make it a little more difficult to meet the residency requirement for a divorce. As a result, rather than wait until residency is established, some spouses file for a divorce on grounds of mental cruelty, which has shorter residency requirements. Or they file on grounds of both irreconcilable differences, the no-fault standard, and mental cruelty.

Defining Mental Cruelty

The legal term "mental cruelty" goes by different names in different states, such as extreme cruelty or cruel and inhumane treatment, and is defined in diverse ways by state statutes and family courts across the country. In Illinois, for example, you need to convince the court that your spouse's ongoing behavior created emotional distress and you didn't provoke the behavior. Examples include starting unnecessary arguments, yelling and screaming, relentless criticism of your abilities as a parent, spouse or breadwinner, taking off at odd hours without explanation and refusing to communicate in a reasonable way. Belittling behavior, such as constantly correcting a spouse in social situations, might also rise to the level of mental cruelty.

Provoking or Accepting Mental Cruelty

Some states deny a divorce to a spouse who alleges mental cruelty but acts in a way to provoke the cruel behavior. For example, if a spouse commits adultery and it provokes angry verbal attacks by the other spouse, the adulterous spouse is unlikely to successfully claim mental cruelty. Statutes in New York say the longer the marriage, the more severe the cruelty has to be to warrant a divorce. But that seems to be an anachronistic view. The more modern view is that any conduct by a spouse that causes mental suffering for the other spouse is sufficient to be deemed mental cruelty.

Physical or Psychological Damage

Mental cruelty is insufficient to obtain a divorce in some states, unless your spouse's conduct caused you physical or psychological suffering. Courts have expressed the standard for physical or psychological damage in such terms as "grievously wounds the mental feeling of another," "utterly destroying the peace of mind of a spouse in a way that impairs their health or life," or "utterly destroying the legitimate end and objects of matrimony." Applying these standards in practical terms, courts in various states have granted divorces in cases when a wife refused to attend to her household duties, when a wife attacked her husband's character and campaigned to have him expelled from a private club, and when a husband insisted his wife submit to abortions.

Proving Mental Cruelty

Testimony from the spouse who is subjected to mental cruelty is sometimes enough to obtain a divorce. However, you are on firmer ground if you have witnesses that can corroborate your version of events. In cases where mental cruelty has exacted a physical or mental toll, testimony or records from your health care provider can bolster your case.

Modern View

In an old Oregon case, a husband exhibited lewd and indecent conduct toward his step-daughter. The court ruled that such conduct did not rise to the level of cruel and inhuman treatment and entitle the wife to a divorce. However, in the 21st century, statutes that once made it tough to prove mental cruelty have taken a more enlightened view. As the Marquette Law Journal explains, "Divorce is not punishment of the offender but relief to the sufferer."