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What is Mental Cruelty?

By Felicia Dye
Updated May 16, 2024
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Mental cruelty is a pattern of negative behaviors or an adverse climate that can damage a relationship. Both men and women can be subjected to this type of treatment. When victims are married, such psychological anguish may be used as a legal ground for divorce.

Many people associate the term “abuse” with physical harm. Mental cruelty, however, is regarded as a type of abuse. Its most common effects are to cause psychological and emotional harm and to make a relationship unbearable. Due to these possibilities, in many places, mental cruelty is one of the grounds on which divorce can be based.

In some jurisdictions, divorce must be based on a cause. This is when the use of mental cruelty as a reason to dissolve the marriage is often found. In many places, however, no-fault divorces are permitted and common, which has largely resulted in a decreased need to make claims of faults such as this.

It is often difficult to define mental cruelty because there are numerous actions that can qualify or contribute to this type of abuse. These include public embarrassment and humiliation, being emotionally unresponsive, and inflicting fear with the threat of physical harm. Attempts to create a strict definition could adversely affect many people by excluding harmful behavior. This is why it is usually left open to interpretation on a case-by-case basis.

One thing that is important to note is that a single event does not generally constitute this type of abuse. Psychological anguish also does not have to be limited to a single type of behavior. If a man humiliates his wife at a dinner party one time, she cannot successfully file for divorce on the grounds of being mentally abused. If this woman's husband regularly engages in this behavior or if he mentally abuses her in other ways, and this pattern of behavior has harmed her or threatens to do so, then she has a case.

The law may not require that any of the alleged acts be intentional. It is possible that a person can subject another to mental cruelty without specifically aiming to do so. Both sexes can be victims of this type of abuse.

A divorce based on mental abuse is generally handled by a lawyer who either deals strictly with divorce cases or who specializes in family law. An individual would likely find it difficult to win such a case without legal representation. Although the term is most common in marital situations, it is also possible to be a victim of mental cruelty in other types of relationships.

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Discussion Comments
By orangey03 — On Sep 16, 2012

@StarJo – This just goes to show that mental cruelty isn't always done publicly. In fact, it can be rather subtle. Being made to feel inadequate can take away all your self-confidence, even if no one ever raises a hand to you.

I had a friend who always made me nervous to speak. She analyzed the sentence structure and meaning of every word I uttered. I eventually just stopped talking to her, because I hated the way she made me feel.

By StarJo — On Sep 15, 2012

The best mental cruelty example I can think of is what my coworker has had to put up with from her husband. I could always tell that something was wrong with her, because she stuttered excessively and was very soft-spoken.

It seemed like she was always afraid of being scolded. After I got to know her better, she opened up to me about how her husband questioned everything she said to him and constantly told her that she was stupid and should just quit talking.

I understand now why she is afraid to speak. Imagine being made to feel stupid every time you said anything!

By kylee07drg — On Sep 15, 2012

I think that children are often the victims of mental cruelty. When they have parents who are controlling and narcissistic, or who grew up in abusive households, they often have to endure being mistreated.

It's terrible that the parents who are cruel to their kids can't even see what they are doing to them. If they are aware of it, then they just don't care.

I'm glad that there are agencies out there set up to help kids who are victims of mental abuse. It might be harder to prove than physical abuse, but if there are even suspicions of this type of behavior, agents can be on the lookout.

By wavy58 — On Sep 14, 2012

I've never heard of a mental cruelty divorce. I guess this is kind of the same as one based on emotional abuse, though.

Emotional abuse involves both neglect and harming someone with your cruel words. So, mental cruelty is also emotional cruelty.

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