Which of the following scenarios may give rise to a divorce based on the fault ground of cruel and abusive treatment:

1. A husband publicly makes false accusations that his wife is having multiple affairs with her medical patients; he once threatened to slash her.

2. A wife calls her husband vile names and berates him in front of their children; she has also blackened his eye one two occasions.

3. A husband forces himself upon his wife and has sex with her, despite knowing that he has a sexually transmitted disease.

4. A wife forces her wife to sleep alone in the attic, orders her to leave the marital home, and slaps her multiple times on multiple occasions.

The answer? All of the above!

Cruel and abusive treatment is a fault ground for divorce in Massachusetts, along with many other jurisdictions. It has been defined by the Massachusetts courts to mean “that it must ‘appear to be, at least, such cruelty as shall cause injury to life, limb or health, or create a danger of such injury, or a reasonable apprehension of such danger upon the parties continuing to live together. This is broad enough to include mere words, if they create a reasonable apprehension of personal violence, or tend to would the feelings to such a degree as to affect the health of the party, or create a reasonable apprehension that it may be affected.’”

As noted above, cruel and abusive treatment includes words as well as physical actions, provided that those words either create an apprehension or fear of violence, or hurt a spouse to such extent that the spouse’s health is reasonably affected. As the Supreme Judicial Court explained in one case: “acts or words are sufficient to constitute cruel and abusive treatment within the purview of R. L. c. 152, § 1, now G. L. c. 208 § 1, where the acts are committed or the words are spoken with a malevolent motive, or intention to injure, or to cause suffering to the libelant, if it is found that injury or the danger of injury to the libelant’s life, limb or health, or a reasonable apprehension thereof, is thereby caused.” In that case, the wife claimed to suffer serious mental suffering (so much so that her physical health was impacted) after she learned of her husband’s infatuation with another woman and his intentions to continue his relations with the other woman.

The defendant’s “malevolent intent” or the intent to hurt, is required to prove cruel and abusive treatment. From case law, it seems debatable whether one instance of cruelty is enough to prove cruel and abusive treatment, or whether ongoing cruelty is necessary: while some cases have granted a divorce based on this ground involving only one major incident, others have declined to do so.

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[1] Brown v. Brown, 323 Mass. 332 (1948), quoting Bailey v. Bailey, 97 Mass. 373 (1867).

[2] Curtiss v. Curtiss, 243 Mass. 51 (1922).

[3] See, for example, Collis v. Collis, 355 Mass. 25 (1968); Mooney v. Mooney, 317 Mass. 433 (1944); and Sylvester v. Sylvester, 330 Mass. 397 (1953).