When we think of spousal abuse, most of us envision a person with a raised hand, about to strike a person often cowering from them in fear.  We don’t often think about the other forms of abuse, forms that can be equally if not more damaging.  Verbal abuse is a form of abuse that can be just as damaging as physical abuse, and while the scars may not be visible on the skin, if you are on the receiving end of verbal abuse the effects can leave permanent scars on your psyche. You may be asking yourself, is verbal abuse grounds for abuse? Will a verbally abusive spouse still get custody of the children? 

Verbal Abuse and Divorce

Being in an abusive relationship is unhealthy for you and can be especially unhealthy for your children.  Verbal abuse, when consistently observed by a child, can be very confusing and scary. It can result in significant changes in a child’s behavior. If you have made the decision to file for divorce based on verbal abuse, there are some things you will need to know:

Is Verbal Abuse Grounds for Divorce or Not?

Shockingly, in the vast majority of states, it is not. While it is not considered grounds for divorce, this is actually a good thing. Let’s take Illinois divorce for example. Prior to 2016, Illinois required grounds for divorce to be filed when filing for divorce (irreconcilable differences was still possible, but grounds like abuse, adultery, etc. were also allowed).

Having to actually prove mental/verbal abuse required more than just saying someone yelled at you. It required showing proof, at trial, via testimony, that you suffered great mental anguish, that you were seeing a counselor, and that unless you were divorced, your mental health would continue to seriously deteriorate. This was not ever very easy to prove. 

Irreconcilable Differences vs. Verbal Abuse

Since grounds are no longer required to be filed in almost every state, the law (Illinois is our example state) requires the court to make the finding of irreconcilable differences, as stated below:

“Irreconcilable differences have caused the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage and the court determines that efforts at reconciliation have failed or that future attempts at reconciliation would be impracticable and not in the best interests of the family.” 750 ILCS 5/401(a).

So, what does this mean?  This means that when you file for divorce, your lawyer will state that the verbal abuse you have been experiencing in your marriage has led to the irretrievable breakdown of your marriage and the court will not require you to prove mental anguish to enter the Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage based on a finding of irreconcilable differences. This means the divorce proceeds on what is called “no-fault” grounds. This saves time, money, and additional mental and emotion trauma.

Will a Verbally Abusive Spouse Still Get Custody of the Children?

This answer may be surprising; a verbally abusive spouse will still get some form of custody of the children in many instances. The court system presumes that regardless of how spouses treat each other they are still fit to be parents. (Again, Illinois family law is our example, but the majority of states are quite similar).   

“In allocating parenting time, the court shall not consider conduct of a parent that does not affect that parent’s relationship to the child.” 750 ILCS 5/602.7(c)

“It is presumed both parents are fit and the court shall not place any restrictions on parenting time.” 750 ILCS 5/602.7(b)

Verbally Abusing a Child and Custody

This does not ring true in situations where a child or children are being verbally abused.  In cases of suspected abuse, whether it be physical or verbal / emotional, the courts may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem or Child Representative to investigate the alleged abuse. This is an attorney that represents children and her or his only concern is what is in the best interests of the child. So, verbal abuse against a spouse might not factor much, if any, into a recommendation as to which parent should have primary custody.

Verbal Abuse as Grounds for Divorce

At the end of the day, most courts care about facts and not emotions.  It is difficult to prove verbal abuse as often times it is a case of ‘he said she said.’ This ends up making people go through abuse all over again and likely has little or no impact on a judges eventual decision. Don’t be discouraged though – just because verbal abuse as grounds for divorce is no longer one of the main standards for which a divorce is granted, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t factor in at all. In extreme cases, verbal and emotional abuse might mean that a spouse didn’t work, so maintenance (alimony) might come into play. And if the verbal abuse took place in front of kids, the court might view that in a very negative light against the other parent.

Next Steps

Getting out of a verbally abusive relationship only gets harder the longer you stay in one. Your lawyer will present you with the facts and will explain your rights and those of your children when determining custody (many lawyers will even provide a free consultation to discuss your rights). You do not have to stay in an abusive relationship, know your options, get informed, seek emotional and financial help, and free yourself from the pain.  

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