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What is 'unreasonable behaviour' in divorce?

View profile for Steven Payne
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Earlier this year, a divorce case made the headlines when Tini Owens was not granted a divorce from her husband, Hugh Owens on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. This was a highly unusual case: the vast majority of divorces go undefended, but in this case Hugh Owens refused to consent to the divorce – as is his right under UK law. The evidence given was deemed, in the eyes of the law, not sufficient to demonstrate that the marriage had irretrievably broken down, and the divorce petition was subsequently dismissed.

The Owens v Owens case led to calls from pressure groups in the legal profession to introduce ‘no-fault’ divorce, where a divorce can be obtained without having to show wrongdoing. Under the current system, even couples who wish to split amicably are forced to either make allegations of adultery or unreasonable behaviour, or wait at least 2 years before seeking a no-fault divorce.

So, to get a divorce in the UK, you must be able to prove that your marriage has broken down irretrievably. You must cite one of five possible reasons for this – also known as the grounds for divorce. These are:

  • Adultery
  • 2 years’ separation (with consent from your partner)
  • 5 years’ separation (without need for consent)
  • Desertion
  • Unreasonable behaviour

Of these five reasons, unreasonable behaviour is by far the most commonly cited ground for divorce in the UK. But what constitutes unreasonable behaviour, and when can this reason be used in divorce proceedings?

What counts as ‘unreasonable behaviour’?

The definition of unreasonable behaviour is your spouse behaving in such a way that you cannot reasonably be expected to carry on living with them. The term can therefore be used flexibly and encompasses a huge range of potential issues. It can be based on a particular incident, such as domestic violence or abuse, or a culmination of certain behaviours over a long period of time, such as lack of intimacy or refusing to contribute financially.

Unreasonable behaviour can vary a lot in severity, and the courts usually adopt a realistic approach when dealing with it as a reason for divorce. Most cases are accepted as grounds for divorce, as it is acknowledged that if one partner feels so strongly about it then the marriage has probably irretrievably broken down.

What are some examples of unreasonable behaviour?

  • Domestic violence or abuse
  • Verbal abuse and insults
  • Lack of emotional support
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Refusing to contribute financially e.g. by getting a job
  • Being financially irresponsible e.g. gambling or getting into debt without your knowledge
  • Drunkenness or drug taking
  • Not socialising together
  • Being excessively moody/argumentative

What should you avoid when citing unreasonable behaviour?

In any divorce, the ‘respondent’ (i.e. the person who did not initiate the divorce) has the option to dispute the reason given and refuse to consent to the divorce, at which point the couple would have to go to court and have a judge decide whether it should be granted.

Accusations of unreasonable behaviour can be incredibly contentious, and can lead the accused to dispute the claims and subsequently drag out the divorce by fighting over what really happened. For example, allegations of your partner being bad around the kids, or being irresponsible with family finances, can be a sensitive subject and citing these will make it more likely that disputes will follow.

For this reason, when citing unreasonable behaviour as a reason for divorce it is sometimes best to keep your reasoning as simple and non-confrontational as possible in order to maximise the chances of your divorce going through without a hitch. Detailing your every grievance, however truthfully, can leave you open to a bitter dispute. Rather than getting into specifics, it’s often practical to focus on wider issues such as moody or argumentative behaviour, or lack of intimacy.

If you plan to cite unreasonable behaviour as grounds for divorce, it’s best to consult a specialist divorce solicitor on what to include in your petition. An experienced family solicitor will advise you of your options and help you determine the best course of action, ensuring the divorce process runs as smoothly as possible.

At Gepp & Sons, our divorce and family solicitors are there to help families to come to the best possible solution when going through a marriage breakdown. To find out about how we can help with your divorce, and many other matters surrounding family law, call us today on 01245 228106 or make an enquiry.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.