One Time is Too Many: Cruelty and Vicious Conduct in a Marriage

Cruelty and Vicious Conduct

Maryland law has recognized that if one spouse is cruel or acts viciously towards the other, the party who has been abused may obtain either a limited or an absolute divorce.

What constitutes cruelty and/or vicious conduct?

A clear example of cruelty is domestic violence. A “victim of domestic violence” means an individual who has received deliberate, severe, and demonstrable physical injury, or is in fear of imminent deliberate, severe, and demonstrable physical injury from a current or former spouse, or a current or former cohabitant. Violence or abuse can be acts that cause serious bodily harm or places a spouse in fear of imminent serious bodily harm, battery, assault and battery, rape, sexual offense, or false imprisonment.

Cruelty encompasses physical as well as mental abuse. Controlling behavior, isolation from friends or family, taunting, violence and threats of violence, or other misconduct which is calculated to seriously impair the health or to permanently destroy the happiness of the other spouse may justify an absolute divorce on grounds of cruelty or excessively vicious conduct.

Violence of greater magnitude might render continuation of the marital relationship impossible if the complaining spouse is to preserve his or her health safety or self-respect. With violence on more than one occasion, the courts have granted a divorce based on cruelty or excessively vicious conduct. Drunkenness in and of itself may not be sufficient to constitute cruelty and/or vicious conduct. However, individuals who are drunk may act in a cruel and excessively vicious manner, thus enabling the spouse who is harmed to obtain a divorce. Generally any conduct on the part of a husband or wife that impairs the health or permanently destroys the happiness of the other will give rise to a cause of action for limited divorce on the ground of cruelty. Use of profane and indecent language toward a spouse does not in and of itself constitute cruelty, but it is a material fact that may be considered with other misconduct in establishing cruelty. Treating one’s spouse with silent contempt is also a factor to be considered in determining whether the spouse is entitled to a divorce on the grounds of cruelty. When a husband openly and publicly accuses his wife of adultery when such statements are made for the purpose of clearly intending to debase and belittle the wife, this may be mental cruelty. Compelling one spouse to submit to sexual intercourse at times when it causes the other spouse serious injury and when there is a reasonable apprehension that such behavior will continue to harm the spouse may result in obtaining a divorce based on the ground of cruelty.

Excessively vicious conduct means something higher on the “meanness” scale of cruelty. If the parties live separately within the marital residence and cruelty rises to a level that it is intolerable, making it impossible to continue the marital relationship, and if there is no reasonable expectation of reconciliation, the complaining party may be able to obtain a divorce without the waiting period that is required for other grounds of divorce.

Fred Antenberg is an attorney who practices family law in Howard County and surrounding Maryland counties. Call Fred today at 410-730-4404.