Cruelty and Divorce

Another popular fault ground was cruelty, both mental and physical. Often the cruelty was mental, which is a catchall term that often meant that one spouse verbally and psychologically abused the other. Sometimes, the cruelty was physical, wherein one spouse -- almost always the man -- physically abused his wife.

Cruelty, physical or mental, is a legal term that is but the visible part of a dangerous and destructive marital situation. Situations of mental and physical cruelty are often very dangerous for both spouses (although the abusive partner may not know it). The darkly comic movie War of the Roses depicts the tragic consequences of a couple who visit every imaginable form of mental cruelty upon one another as they destroy their marriage and themselves. The movie is an extreme example of a couple pulled in a destructive vortex they cannot abandon nor abide.

Usually one act of cruelty is sufficient for a claim of fault in divorce. The law did not require persons to stay in marriages in which they were physically harmed, in order to reach a magic number of incidents. However, before no-fault divorce, many woman endured abusive marriages because they could not find a way to escape the husband who abused them.

In some jurisdictions, cruelty is called extreme cruelty or cruel and inhuman treatment, which can be "as innocuous and benign as a pattern of conduct resulting in repeated annoyance or just about anything that makes it unreasonable or unhealthy for the parties to continue to cohabit as spouses." In many jurisdictions, court interpretations of the meaning of this legal phrase have been so diluted that it functions as "irreconcilable differences" in many no-fault states.

In general, cruelty doesn’t mean just being mean, nasty or disagreeable to one another, but rather that unnecessary physical or emotional pain is being gratuitously inflicted by one spouse upon the other. Thus, Bessy Smith’s classic blues song "Mean to Me," a lamentation of the sorrows of a loving women trapped in a bad relationship with a nasty man, probably would not be grounds for divorce, then and now.

Cruel and inhuman treatment may mean either physical or mental cruelty to the degree "that makes it unsafe or improper for the parties to reside together as man and wife." Often there is a time limit for this conduct, often within five years before filing for divorce.

Cruel and inhuman treatment means more than incompatibility. Incompatibility is not getting along and functioning as partners. Cruel and inhuman treatment involved "physical, emotional and financial abuse," including physical attacks, such as beatings; gambling away money; unexplained absences from the home; dating someone else and/or abusing the children.

Obviously, physical beatings or intentional physical violence constitute physical cruelty. Pushing, slapping, beating, punching, burning with cigarettes -- all are examples of physical cruelty. Physical cruelty, which is commonly called "domestic violence," almost always means harm delivered by one spouse to another.

Physical cruelty can also include threats of bodily harm or violence or the reasonable apprehension of bodily harm. Reasonable apprehension of bodily harm happens when a person is in imminent danger or fear of being struck. The law did not require a spouse to be struck in order to claim cruelty. The reasonable fear of violence is sufficient.

In the 1950s, The Honeymooners, a popular television program starring Jackie Gleason, comically portrayed the lives of a New York City bus driver, his wife and their two best-friend neighbors. Gleason portrayed Ralph Cramden, whose wife Alice, portrayed by Audrey Meadows, frequently argued with him. In frustration, Ralph often said, "One of these days, Alice. One of these days. Pow, right in the kisser" and gestured as if to strike her. Alice ignored Ralph. The effect was comic. Everyone knew Cramden would never strike Alice; but had it been serious, Ralph’s threat put Alice in reasonable apprehension of bodily harm.

Cruelty required actual physical damage to a person. Over time, the effect of the cruelty on the victim became more of the standard than the actual harm. It was determined that one of the reasons for cruelty was to control the behavior of the victim, which often did not require physical contact at all. For example, as has happened, a man who kills his wife’s pet is trying to terrorize her and control her with fear. (Domestic cruelty is nothing new. The 1916 play Trifles, which explores gender stereotypes, symbolically develops the idea of a man’s oppression of his wife when he cruelly kills a bird she dearly loved.)

Insults and mean words must be more than an argument. In some jurisdictions, insults or cruel or cutting remarks are evidence of mental cruelty. In states that recognize mental cruelty, there usually is a requirement that the victim’s health, physical well-being, or mental health are directly affected. Once again, however, the he says-she says quandary arises to torment the judge who struggles to determine the truth.

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