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