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Would emotional distress be grounds for divorce in my state?

By Spodek Law Group | July 27, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 13, 2023)

Last Updated on: 13th October 2023, 06:16 am

Ending a marriage is never easy. While some couples may mutually agree to divorce, others may experience emotional distress when one spouse decides they want out. This can lead to the question – could emotional distress be grounds for divorce?The short answer is no. Currently, U.S. divorce law does not include emotional distress as a basis for granting a divorce. However, the emotional impact of divorce is complex, and there are some cases where emotional factors may play an indirect role. Let’s break it down.

In the United States, each state establishes its own legal grounds for divorce. The most common are:

  • Irreconcilable differences – this is a no-fault ground meaning neither spouse has to prove wrongdoing. The marriage is considered irretrievably broken.
  • Adultery – one spouse cheats on the other. This is a fault-based ground.
  • Abandonment – one spouse deserts the other for a certain period of time, such as 1+ years. Also fault-based.
  • Physical or mental cruelty – one spouse abuses the other, causing physical injury or mental distress. Fault-based.
  • Separation – couples live apart for a set period, such as 6 months to 1+ years depending on the state. Can be no-fault.
  • Imprisonment – one spouse is convicted of a felony and imprisoned for a certain period of time. Fault-based.
  • Drug/alcohol abuse – one spouse’s substance abuse negatively impacts the marriage. Fault-based.
  • Insanity – one spouse is legally declared insane and confined to a mental institution for a period of time, such as 2+ years. Fault-based.

As you can see, emotional distress itself is not included as grounds for divorce under current U.S. laws. The reasons tend to focus more on conduct and separation versus emotional impact.

When Emotions May Play an Indirect Role

While emotional distress alone cannot end a marriage, emotions can influence other divorce factors. Some examples:

  • Irreconcilable Differences – Even though this is a no-fault ground, one spouse’s emotional distress could motivate them to claim irreconcilable differences. If their unhappiness is severe enough, they may want a divorce even if their partner wants to work things out.
  • Cruelty – Emotional distress caused by physical, verbal, or mental abuse could potentially be used as evidence to prove cruelty and seek a fault-based divorce on those grounds.
  • Separation – If one spouse’s emotional distress leads them to move out and separate from their partner for an extended time, this separation could then be used as grounds for no-fault divorce.

So you can see how emotions may play an indirect role in establishing other grounds for divorce, even if distress alone is not sufficient.

Should Emotional Distress Be a Ground for Divorce?

Some legal experts argue emotional distress should be added as grounds for no-fault divorce. Reasons include:

  • It could allow couples to divorce with less conflict if they can show the marriage led to emotional anguish versus arguing over who was “at fault.”
  • Emotional distress may indicate the marriage is irretrievably broken even if the couple has not been separated long.
  • It may motivate unwilling partners to agree to a divorce more quickly if the other spouse can prove emotional impact.

However, there are also arguments against making emotional distress grounds for divorce:

  • It may encourage short-term distress as an excuse to seek divorce even if the marriage could be reconciled with counseling.
  • “Emotional distress” is hard to define and prove compared to more objective measures like physical separation.
  • More divorces could increase family instability if distress alone is sufficient cause to end a marriage.

Overall, there are good-faith arguments on both sides of this issue. For now, emotional distress remains an indirect factor in divorce rather than grounds in and of itself. But as social values around marriage evolve, divorce laws may eventually shift to include emotional components.

If one spouse’s conduct causes severe emotional anguish, the other spouse may have additional legal options even if the behavior is not enough to warrant divorce. Some examples:

In some states, couples can pursue legal separation instead of full divorce. This may involve filing for separate maintenance and living apart while remaining legally married. This can provide financial protections while evaluating if divorce is the right move when emotional distress results from issues like:

  • Mental illness
  • Substance abuse
  • Midlife crises

If such issues improve, reconciliation may still be possible.

Restraining Orders

If one spouse‘s behavior is threatening or abusive, the other can obtain a restraining order even without filing for divorce. This provides protection when emotional distress results from:

  • Physical violence
  • Stalking
  • Intimidation
  • Harassment

Restraining orders can prohibit contact and establish temporary custody/support orders when needed for safety.

Tort Lawsuits

In rare cases where conduct is truly extreme, one spouse may be able to sue the other for emotional distress under tort law. This could include instances of:

  • Battery
  • False imprisonment
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress

However, legal standards for proving such claims are high and courts are cautious about allowing them within an intact marriage.So while emotional distress alone isn’t grounds for divorce, other legal options may be available depending on the circumstances.

How to Make Sound Decisions During Emotional Distress

Divorce is a major life change under even the most amicable circumstances. When one spouse is experiencing emotional distress, it can be extremely challenging to think clearly and make wise legal choices. Here are some tips:

  • Seek counseling to process your emotions and gain an objective perspective. Therapists can help prevent temporary distress from leading to permanent decisions.
  • Consult an attorney to understand your legal rights and obligations. Don’t let sadness or anger lead you to make risky choices.
  • Take time before acting. Filing for divorce or separation in the heat of the moment often leads to regret. Give yourself space to calm down.
  • Consider trial separation. Moving out for a set period, such as 3-6 months, can help clarify if divorce is the right move or just a response to temporary pain.
  • Focus on your children. Making decisions from a place of emotional distress can harm kids long-term. Get guidance from a child psychologist.
  • Seek support. Talk to close friends, family, or support groups to avoid isolation. Don’t go through this alone.

With wisdom and guidance, emotional distress can be worked through over time in many cases. But if divorce does prove necessary, you’ll know you explored every option first.

In Conclusion

Emotional distress alone is currently not grounds for divorce under U.S. laws. However, it can indirectly influence other factors like separation that then enable divorce. Arguments exist on both sides as to whether emotional components should allow no-fault divorce. Yet for now, sufficient separation or conduct-based fault must be shown.When one spouse‘s actions cause severe distress, legal separation or restraining orders are options to provide protection while evaluating if divorce is advisable. And if conduct is extreme, tort lawsuits for distress may be possible though difficult to pursue during an intact marriage.

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