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Peter Griffiths Western Producer Column 1986


What Is Mental Cruelty?

Western Producer July 24, 1986

Q: What type of action, one person to another, would be called mental cruelty or mental anguish? Would this include yelling, swearing crudely, taunting and making fun of a wife?

I have been married close to 40 years, and have put up with the above for the past 10 years. I am offended by it. When I try to tell my husband how much his behavior pains me, he starts all over again. I truly believe he is trying to drive me away. Please help!

A: Mental cruelty is an expression used by courts as one of the grounds for divorce. Marriage breakdown is now seen more as the death of a relationship, not an event for which someone must be blamed and punished.

However, "fault" is still used as grounds in divorce court at times, and mental cruelty is one of them. You would need to consult a lawyer for an accurate definition of what mental cruelty means in law, and what evidence is required to prove it in court, if you were thinking about leaving the marriage.

You can cope with your marriage in three ways. One is to learn how to be "deaf" to any insults or comments, which are not worthy of your attention, or of being listened to. This is the "thick skin" or "sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me", strategy. However, some people aren't strong enough to do this. They have allowed the situation to go on for so many years that they are weak and vulnerable to all putdowns.

A second approach is to remove yourself, physically, from verbal abuse. Put on a coat. Go for a walk. Leave dinner half-prepared, or even go on a homemaker's strike if necessary. This strategy presents your partner with real consequences for his rude behavior and words.

A third approach is to move out of the home for a while, and stay away until your partner has agreed to counseling, particularly in an abuser's treatment program, and has attended several sessions.

I suspect these upsetting behaviors existed in your marriage for many years, but perhaps not to the same extent as during the past ten years. Your tolerance to cope with this behavior may have decreased as you got older. Your husband's self-control may also have decreased with age.

I suspect that one or more of the following has occurred:

  1. An increased use of alcohol, or more likely a decreased tolerance to it. After years of drinking, people get drunk on less. Alcoholics frequently revert to yelling, swearing and putting people down, as a way of hiding behind their own feelings of inadequacy.
  2. A growing negative outlook on life, perhaps caused by a feeling that life has let him down, or passed him by. Untreated depression can be the cause of much marital strife, particularly in older men.
  3. If your husband has been crude and insensitive towards you for years, the increase in the problem is a result of the behavior becoming more ingrained in him. If you behave a certain way, long enough, you soon justify your behavior as being normal, even though it isn't.
  4. Physical changes may be occurring within your husband's brain or other parts of his body. If your relationship was good until ten years ago, and these changes are progressive, either slowly or suddenly, have your husband see his family doctor for a complete medical check-up. Such changes in personality require medical attention.

Excluding the last point, if your husband wants to change, he likely can, but you can't make him want to. Get help for yourself. I've enclosed the name of counseling services in your area. Your husband may not agree to go. Go by yourself, if necessary, and learn some strategies for coping more effectively, either within the marriage, or outside of it.

One warning: if you find you have to leave the relationship, DO NOT go back because of promises from him, that he that will go for counseling. Wait until both have occurred! This may be your only leverage to get him to take responsibility for himself and for his behavior.

Return to 1986 Index of Western Producer Columns


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