The law of love

While the lack of love typically takes center stage in divorce courts, a law in North Carolina allows spouses to take legal action if they feel someone has wrongfully alienated their husband’s or wife’s love.

Though legally separate from divorce proceedings, the tort, or wrong involving a breach of civil duty owed to someone else, is known as alienation of affection and exists in only seven states across the country.

Graphic by John David Parsons

According to Catherine Wasson, director of legal research and writing at the Elon University School of Law, alienation of affection arises from judicial decisions, first recognized in New York in the mid-1800s.

“At one time I think all states allowed this kind of lawsuit, but the law no longer treats women as the ‘property’ of a husband who can be stolen away by someone else,” Wasson says. “Although we may well disapprove of the ‘home wrecker,’ we tend not to ascribe all of the fault to the ‘other’ man or woman any more.”

The modern form of the law is gender-neutral, as either spouse may sue the “other woman” or “other man.” The injured party must prove a marriage with genuine love existed before being alienated by malicious acts by the accused. If the person succeeds, Wasson says the awards can range from minimal to quite large.

Wasson says the fact that the law persists in North Carolina cannot be interpreted to mean loss of affection is more significant here than elsewhere in the nation.

“Very few of us enter marriage lightly, indifferent to its ultimate success or failure,” she says. “Rather, most couples believe and intend that their marriage will endure and strengthen through the years. The loss of that dream of true love, or ‘happily ever after’ is heartbreaking whenever and wherever it happens.”


By Caitlin O’Donnell ’13