“Some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable.” When Tennessee Williams wrote that for his play, A Streetcar Named Desire, the Mississippi native could well have been thinking of Virginia couples struggling with failing marriages. You can almost understand a spouse who has fallen out of love with you, or been swayed by vices. But a wife who turns venomous, who seeks to deliberately inflict mental cruelty on you, is a spouse you cannot forgive.

What Constitutes Mental Cruelty in Virginia Law?

Many marital topics are etched in exquisite detail in the Code of Virginia, case law, and other proceedings within the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, “cruelty” is left as a somewhat vague concept, though legislators did see fit to include it as one of the reasons you can divorce, in Code of Virginia § 20-91:

“Where either party has been guilty of cruelty, caused reasonable apprehension of bodily hurt, or willfully deserted or abandoned the other, such divorce may be decreed to the innocent party after a period of one year from the date of such act”

So what did legislators feel constituted cruelty? They were explicit regarding cruelty to animals (a major no-no, violating significant portions of Title 3.2. Agriculture, Animal Care, and Food). They were thorough in putting cruelty to children out of bounds, in many spots such as § 40.1-103, § 16.1-279.1, and § 63.2-1530. When protecting spouses, however, the legislators left wording a bit vague.

On purpose.

Given ever- evolving times and circumstances, it is not for a single Assembly to determine what is cruel to a spouse. Rather, with changing traditions and morals, one generation’s attempts to protect and shelter wives out of respect becomes the next generation’s perceptions of suffocating and infantilizing grown women.

So What is Mental Cruelty?

We could narrow a definition of mental or emotional cruelty much the way doctors do with diagnoses: rule out what it is not.

For example, if you and your wife typically have back-and-forth arguments in which you each hold your own, that is not cruelty. Heck, in some families that is just a typical conversation, or even pillow talk. If you play almost-cruel pranks on each other (shaving cream on the sleeping hand; plastic wrap over the toilet seat), that is not cruelty.

Emotional cruelty is a pattern of sustained, deliberate abuse intended to undermine your mental well-being. You asked your wife to pick up groceries and she said she would; then you get home expecting food you can eat, but she did not bother to shop. You object and she screams at you.

She repeats this for weeks on end, making empty promises and undermining the stability of your marriage. That could be emotional cruelty.

Proving Mental Cruelty

Cruelty, though it is a fault ground for divorce, is challenging to prove. Without documentation from outside, unbiased sources (law enforcement officers, ER doctors and medical records, marriage counselors, or spiritual leaders), you and your attorney may have a tough time proving mental or emotional cruelty.

Protect yourself by documenting acts such as these:

  • Deliberate neglect — Her repeated refusal to help with the marital home, pets, finance, or children
  • Oral abuse — Constant denigration of you, your future plans, your decisions, or the children
  • Aggression or Violence — Acts toward inanimate objects or animals; threats or outrageous displays intended to make you fearful or to feel at risk of injury or death
  • Unpredictability — Serious, sudden and extreme changes in decisions, behavior, or commitments that leave you (and your children) confused, uncertain, or fearful

Keep anecdotal records of her acts of mental cruelty, painful as this may be to you. Send a text message to a close friend, describing what your wife did; you could ask a neighbor who witnessed her behavior to note your wife’s actions; call the police if you are in fear of bodily harm.

Family Abuse Statutes in Virginia

Your attorney will likely draw on the power of Virginia’s family abuse statutes to petition for a charge of mental cruelty. Family abuse, unlike “cruelty,” is very specifically defined and codified in § 16.1-228:

“‘Family abuse’ means any act involving violence, force, or threat that results in bodily injury or places one in reasonable apprehension of death, sexual assault, or bodily injury and that is committed by a person against such person’s family or household member. Such act includes, but is not limited to, any forceful detention, stalking, criminal sexual assault in violation of Article 7 (§ 18.2-61 et seq.) of Chapter 4 of Title 18.2, or any criminal offense that results in bodily injury or places one in reasonable apprehension of death, sexual assault, or bodily injury.”

This section means any action your wife takes against you or your children that makes you reasonably apprehensive for your own or their safety can be considered family abuse. By extension, though she leaves no visible bruises, certain persistent behaviors can be deemed as emotionally cruel.

Take a Deep Breath and Call the Family Law Attorneys for Men

Take a breath. Relax. Call 757-383-9184 to speak with a family law attorney at The Firm For Men, or contact us online. We can help relieve the pain, embarrassment, and anxiety brought on by your spouse’s acts of mental cruelty.