Blame and Moral Disengagement in and Beyond the Family
Here, I discuss some basic questions which pertain to the work I do as a custody evaluator, mediator and parenting coordinator. Most important and puzzling is the question: Why do disputing parties in high conflict divorce treat each other as enemies? And why do they use their children as soldiers in their wars? Also, once we warn them that they’re hurting their children, why don’t they stop? Why doesn’t training in communication skills, or education about the effects of divorce conflict on their children help these hard-core combatants? I have concluded that the traditional concepts of forensic psychology, that is, ideas about mental disorders, too often miss the boat…
There is a distinct tendency to label (e.g., to allege mental illness, or Parental Alienation Syndrome) and to blame when dealing with family conflicts. The truth is often a whole lot more complicated.
Let me share some recent experiences:
1. A mother files for a Personal Protection Order and sole physical custody, two years after her divorce. Her motions begin with the allegation that the father “continues to threaten to kill” the mother. I am appointed to do an evaluation.
I asked the mother about the threats. I discovered that no direct or indirect, verbal or gestural threats had occurred. He had been abusive (which involved yelling and other emotional outbursts) during the marriage. She still feels afraid of her ex-husband, she said. That was her rationale for alleging that he was threatening to kill her.
She couldn’t accept the conclusion that her allegation was a false one. It was justified, she said, because she felt afraid of her ex-husband.
2. In another case, a therapist testified in court that it was immaterial whether a dad had actually abused his son. His son experienced him as an abuser, so the therapist was justified in writing a letter saying that the father, whom h e had never evaluated, was an abusive father.
3. I recently received a letter from an 11 year old child whose parents had been sent to me for parenting coordination. He wrote in response to my recommendation that he take the bus to dad’s house for midweek parenting time rather than be picked up by dad an hour-and-a-half later:
“Dear Dr. Friedberg: I DO NOT WANT TO BE WITH MY DAD!! (2 exclamation points) I REPEAT I DO NOT WANT TO BE WITH MY DAD !!!!!! (6 exclamation points)…”
“I do not love him...” he wrote, “If I were a kid picking out a dad out 50 fathers he would be the first person to be rejected... Here are just some of the things I hate about him:
- He is mean
- He is fake
- He is dull
- He is boring
- He is SO CONTROLLING!!!!!
- He is annoying
- He is weird
- He is not a good father
- He is lazy
- He has no emotions
- He is so self-centered
- He does not care about me
- HE HAS AN UNCONTROLLABLE TEMPER!!!!!
- He is a CONTROL FREAK!!!
- I don't think that he loves me truly
The boy’s mom told me that “Jim /not his real name/ used to control me, now he needs them. Jim uses them to control me... I didn’t tell him where I was moving, because my attorney and my therapist were afraid Jim would move next door.” In a letter, this mom wrote to me: “Dr. C (her therapist) told me last month that Jim is so sadistic and sociopathic that in order for him to really change, it would take a lot of intense therapy...”
In a motion to the court, Mrs. J’s attorney stated “... it is the Defendant’s own erratic behavior and verbal abuse to the minor children which cause the children to be uncomfortable around the Defendant and has created tension in the relationship between the Defendant and the children...the Defendant is obsessed with his attempt to control, not only the Plaintiff, but the minor children...has a history of erratic and unstable behavior ...etc.”
In another letter to me, introducing me to the case as the new Parenting Coordinator, this same attorney wrote:
"Mr. J ... abuses, he swears, he threatens and he controls his children and his ex-wife... Mr. J was (and still is) verbally, emotionally and mentally abusive to Mrs. J ... It has been suggested by therapists that Mr. J be evaluated and treated for depression... It appears that Mr. J has one image of being a wholesome and loving church-going father and the reality of being a controlling, mean, obsessive and aggressive selfish angry man ...”
I’m not saying that this guy is a wonderful man. If fact he could be controlling and rigid in interacting with his children. He was not such a good husband, was dominating with his wife, and he had at least one affair. I believe, however, based upon my experience working with him that his parenting deficits are treatable, and that he is not the evil and sick person described by his ex-wife, his son, and his ex’s attorney.
A child therapist once talked about themes in the child’s symbolic play which had convinced her that the child was intimidated by her father, and that dad’s parenting time should be reduced. In the child’s play so-called “masculine” figures, such as dinosaurs, soldiers and cowboys acted in a violent and frightening fashion. ‘Had the child said anything specifically negative about her father?,’ I asked. The therapist seemed shocked that I asked such a naïve question, failing to appreciate the nature of child therapy ( I am a child therapist, but I know the difference between a clinical hypothesis based on symbolic play, and evidence for intimidation by a parent).
Diagnosis: An Explanation or a Part of the Problem?
Dr. Janet Johnston an eminent psychologist who presented at MIPA in the past, has in a number of books and articles, talked about varieties of what she called “narcissistic vulnerability.” In other words, people mired in high conflict divorce are exceptionally vulnerable to feelings of loss or rejection. They are vulnerable to threats to their self-esteem and identity as spouse, parent or person. They also are more likely to use others to buttress their self-esteem, or to validate their view of themselves. And they may use others as receptacles onto whom they project negative and unacceptable parts of their self-image. They’re more likely to experience their children as psychological extensions of themselves, wanting to control their minds as well as their behavior. They are more likely to use primitive psychological defenses like splitting, projective identification, idealization and devaluation.
Other psychologists have talked about paranoid delusions, about folie a deux, paranoid projection or about symbiotic parent-child relationships as more characteristic in high-conflict divorce.
To be fair, Dr. Johnston talks about a variety of causes of high conflict divorce (see her book Divorce Impasses), most of which are not rooted in personality or other psychological disorders. My opinion is that Johnston's concept of narcissistic vulnerability is probably best described as a continuum of narcissistic vulnerability, from with a normal end of the continuum and a pathological end [After this presentation, I presented a paper on this topic to the Society for Personality Assessment].
In one case, a man coming in for divorce mediation wanted to be sure that I had read a book about how to cope with being married to a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, since this book exactly described his soon-to-be-ex-wife. He repeatedly stressed her purported severe personality disorder. Over the course of years working with this woman, I never observed the kinds of symptoms characteristic of this disorder, nor did a therapist who treated her.
In another case, a woman brought me some books which she hoped would help me to work with her family (as a Parenting Coordinator). These books, she stated, closely described her soon-to-be ex-husband who was, as her therapist had explained to her, suffering from a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In this case, sadly, both parties were highly functional, successful and attractive people who also had significant narcissistic personality features.
The antennas of a psychologist get raised when words like Personality Disorder, splitting and projective identification are used. I agree that such concepts apply to a subset of the people we see, and explain why some high conflict families seem unreachable.
But I suspect these concepts are wrong or exaggerated as applied to most families enmeshed in divorce conflict. I believe that there is a contiuum of narcissistic vulnerability, from the normal to the pathological. Part of the reason for my rejection of pathology as the primary cause of these problems is that we---therapists, lawyers, custody evaluators, and court personnel often get caught up in these same cycles of blaming, feeding conflicts, polarization.
Therapists often assign labels to these parties (especially the party they have met once or twice or never seen). Psychologists and attorneys will too often allocate 100% of the blame to one side or the other, write a one-sided report, or a slanted motion, citing only positives about one parent and only negatives about the other. Therapists far too often use terms like character disorder, emotional, verbal or physical abuser, alcoholic, narcissistic, borderline, or manic-depressive. This is for people they’ve never met or properly evaluated. What about motions for custody, or to diminish or suspend or supervise parenting time? These are too often masterpieces of distortion, exaggeration and half-truth.
In one case an attorney without any clinical credentials tried to convince a judge that a woman I had evaluated suffered from Antisocial Personality Disorder, in spite of my expert opinion in court to the contrary. After all, he argued, hadn’t the patient shown a spike on an MMPI-2 scale formerly referred to as "psychopathic deviate"? How could joint custody continue with an antisocial woman, he asked?
In another case, for example, a father was arrested and eventually pled no contest to a charge of Domestic Violence agaisnt his wife. Children's Protective Service also substantiated his children's allegations that he was physically abusive towards them. Yet his attorney has repeatedly stated, in motions, emails, etc. that he is the abused party and a victim of Parental Alienation. Our colleagues and patients sometimes use terms like ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome,’ 'False Sexual Abuse Syndrome,' and ‘Divorce-Related-Malicious-Mother Syndrome’.
The web is filled with descriptions of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Clinical psychologists, forensic psychologists, attorneys and court personnel have all dealt with cases in which children refuse to see one of their parents, or make outrageous and ultimately false allegations about the behavior of this parent, see this parent as a bad person, or want nothing to do with this parent. PAS was first proposed by the late Richard Gardner, M.D. to explain these phenomena. The criteria for PAS were:
1. One parent, the Alienating parent, attempts form a coalition with the children, to exclude the children’s other parent from the children’s life, and
2. The child or children become active partisans in the conflict. They willingly join in a coalition with the alienating parent to reject and to denigrate one parent, the Targeted parent. They are convinced that this targeted parent is bad, does not love them, can not be trusted, or is a danger to them. Although they say things that are exaggerated or not true, they feel that such statements are justified, because the alienated parent is bad.
3. The Alienating parent uses programming techniques to influence the children to join in a coalition against the Targeted parent. This programming includes repeated negative messages about the Targeted parent.
4. Exclusion: PAS does not apply to situations where a children or children have actually been abused (physically, sexually, or emotionally)
This syndrome quickly became controversial, and PAS is still controversial years after it was introduced. Some psychologists still use this syndrome to describe high-conflict families, while many others, like myself, do not.
PAS has not received the kind of research backing that establishes clear diagnostic criteria (such as the research responsible for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM). Diagnostic criteria have to be unambiguous, specific and sensitive (distinguishing true instances from false positives and false negatives), and be reliably administered.
A more serious problem is that the use of PAS to describe a case requires blaming one party (the "Alienating Parent") exclusively for the child's and the family's problems. When we say that Parental Alienation Syndrome is present, what we are saying is that there is an alienating parent who has brainwashed the children. The target parent is a passive victim, in this syndrome. This syndrome ignores the child's level of development and other behavioral issues (such as separation anxiety, the child's effort to make sense out of the divorce, or a child's own willingness to take sides in a dispute).
Dr. Turkat, who coined the phrase 'Divorce-Related Malicious Mother Syndrome,' refers to the custodial parent, in cases of PAS as “suffering from a Parental Alienation Syndrome,” as if this were a diagnosable mental disorder suffered by the parent. He feels that this alienator should be punished, but is often just given a slap on “her” wrist.
First of all, it's not always mothers who manipulate their children's feelings against the other parent. Second, sometimes it is both parents who attempt to program their children against the other parent by presenting negative information about the other parent. And sometimes the "target parent" contributes to the problems in his or her relationship with the children.
I suggest that you read Janet Johnston and Joan Kelly’s excellent formulation of The Alienated Child (in the journal Family Court Review) which takes a different view, one which I support. They focus on the child’s difficulties, rather than focusing on blaming one parent for those difficulties. We shouldn’t reflexively assume that a child who resists contact with a parent is the victim of an immoral and manipulative alienator. Children are frequently allied with one parent or prefer one parent over the other. They can reject a parent for a variety of reasons, including that parent’s own behavior towards the child or towards the former spouse. And sometimes they don't want to visit because they are afraid to be separated from one of their parents (this is a problem, but its treatment is very different than what makes sense if we blame an alienating parent).
In one case, I was engaged as the therapist for a nine-year-old child who didn't want to see her father. She did not want to visit with her father, said she was scared of him. As I usually do, I met with both of her parents. Her dad turned out to be suffering from a substantial psychiatric illness, which made him frightening to his child (and to many others). As the child's therapist I could not tell the court what to do (my role was not that of evaluator), except to raise the child's concerns and ask the court to find someone to do an independent evaluation.
Many a therapist, however, has written letters recommending no contact between a child and his or her parent, and often without ever meeting the accused parent, or based on very limited contact
And, in some cases, a child can harbor distorted and exaggerated negative views of a rejected parent, this being due to a variety of factors, including alienating behaviors from the parent with whom the child becomes aligned. The example of the 11-year-old whose letter was described above fits this description. There was clear evidence that pressure to reject his father and to align with his mother was a strong factor in his attitudes and behavior.
Why do these kinds of issues come up so frequently, and why do we have so much difficulty dealing with them?
Moral Disengagement Theory
I want to introduce Moral Disengagement theory, an import from social psychology.
Moral disengagement theory is the product of the developmental and social psychologist Albert Bandura. There are many social and psychological maneuvers, Bandura argued, by which moral standards and self-controls can be disengaged, resulting in inhumane conduct. What these mechanisms share in common is a process of blaming one’s adversaries and denial of responsibility.
Moral disengagement theory attempts to explain how normal people become enemies, dehumanize others in order to fight or kill or mistreat them. Think racism, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, war, and high conflict divorce; but also think about certain actions by the tobacco and alcohol industries, chemical companies who have covered up toxic spills, and actions by gun manufacturers and arms dealers.
In war people become enemies, or targets, rather than individuals we can hurt, with whose problems or pain we can empathize or help. And in high-conflict divorce, the same can apply.
Bandura described a number of mechanisms for moral disengagement. The key to this theory for our present purposes is that these mechanisms can operate in normal individuals as well as individuals with psychological pathology. How do normal people justify the treatment of others as objects, as enemies and targets, rather than as victims? How do we square such behavior with our consciences? How do we disregard the harm we do to others, when we act this way?
Bandura tried to study these issues experimentally. Many of you are familiar with Milgram’s experiments. In Milgram’s paradigms experimental subjects were led to believe that they had administered electric shocks to other subjects when given orders to do so. Bandura, in one of his many projects, elaborated on Milgram’s paradigm. In one study, he found that it was easier for a group than an individual to administer the intended shock. In a variant of this experiment, the recipients of the punishment were described to the research subjects in either humanistic, animalistic or impersonal terms. Not surprisingly, when the victims’ human qualities were emphasized, they were treated more decently.
Moral Justification: is the reconstruction of conduct itself so it is not viewed as immoral.
This is a frequent mechanism in war. We don’t turn people into dedicated fighters by persuading them to abandon their moral codes. Rather, we redefine the meaning of violence so that it can be done free of guilt. In this mindset, the victim needs to be punished for his past misdeeds.
We help people to see themselves as fighting, or bringing to justice, ruthless and evil oppressors- commies, Nazi’s, terrorists and the like- or as protecting their cherished values, saving humanity from subjugation and the like. Many atrocities have been construed as justified in a higher morality, even in religious terms.
In a custody case, a mother and her children tried to convince me that the ex-husband and father was a violent person, with whom the children should have as little contact as possible. His violence- lets see, he once raised his hand during an argument, convincing his wife that he was going to strike her, so that she ran down the stairs in fright. In another ‘violent’ incident, he banged on the hood of her car to warn her against backing into the refrigerator in the garage. She and the kids sped off. She told the kids she was too afraid to spend the night at home. On a third occasion, the eldest son stepped in between dad and mom. He was sure dad was going to hit her. That’s it. No one has ever been punched, or choked, or restrained by this man. His children don’t talk with him when they are forced to see him. The way they treat him, he is their enemy. They don’t care about his feelings. They don’t believe he loves them and say they don’t love him. They are cold and distant towards him and his extended family. They want to stop seeing him altogether.
Euphemistic labeling: Is widely used to make harmful conduct respectable and to reduce personal responsibility for it: soldiers “waste” people rather than killing them, bombing attacks become “surgical strikes,” civilian victims are "collateral damage."
In the family conflict arena “the truth” is the most common euphemistic label for a parent providing to his or her information designed to do damage to the other parent's reputation or relationships. The visit to the pediatrician or the call to CPS designed to elicit an abuse investigation shows a similar defense mechanism: “I wasn't accusing anyone of anything. I was just trying to find out if this was true…”
I can’t tell you how many times attorneys have used the same kinds of euphemistic labels about their client’s foolish, wrongful or outrageous behavior. The word “advocacy” is another common euphemism. Child therapists who offer opinions favoring one parent or the other in child custody cases are just "advocates" for the children, in their own minds.
Exonerating Comparison: operates when our behavior is justified by the relatively worse behavior or morality attributed to our adversary. Terrorists, or freedom fighters, see their acts as ones of selfless martyrdom, when compared against the cruel inhumanities perpetrated by their victims.
This mechanism is evident in the sometimes cruel treatment by children of parents from whom they are estranged, as described above in the case of the “violent” dad. To his child, this dad deserves any kind of cruel treatment. Ask these children questions about their behavior, and you’ll get some interesting answers. For example, dad takes the children to church. At the end of the service the congregation offers each other the Peace of Christ. The children refuse to engage in this peaceful greeting to their father. Their behavior, they say, is nothing compared to what he has done, his violent behavior.
In one case a child’s therapist called a father “sadistic” and recommended, based upon his self-assigned duty to advocate for his patient, that this father have only court-supervised contact with the child. He had met with this father on one occasion. A later psychological evaluation found no evidence of abuse or sadism. But after 18 months with minimal contact, the relationship between father and son was too far gone to fix.
A mother called a Licensing Board to accuse her ex-husband of a variety of misdeeds, in an effort to block his re-licensure as a physician. This was in spite of the fact that she was denying her children child support by blocking his effort to earn a decent living. She wasn’t trying to hurt him , she said, she was simply “sharing information” (euphemistic labeling).
Later, she informed his employer in a different state that he had been convicted of domestic violence. How could I question this behavior, I was told, in light of what he had done in the past? He had abused her, she reminded me.
The combination of moral justification, manipulation of language and exonerating comparison is a most powerful mechanism for disengaging moral control, Bandura argues. Not only is the person spared self-criticism, guilt or shame. He or she can actually feel good about behavior which destroys the other person.
Displacement of Responsibility: is a mechanism by which the person lessens the responsibility of the self in deciding on a course of action or causing a consequence. In this instance the person acknowledges that they have caused harm, but denies that he or she intended or was otherwise responsible for the harm. For example, in Nazi Germany, the commandants and officers of the death camps were only following orders from higher ups.
‘It wasn’t my idea to question my child about sexual abuse,’ a mother told me. ‘My attorney suggested it.’ She couldn’t see that the leading questions, the report to the police and to Protective Services somehow involved planning and responsibility on her part. The attorney wouldn’t acknowledge that he had done anything wrong. He customarily asked if there was anything unusual about the child’s behavior, anything which concerned the parent. ‘Anything of a sexual nature?...’, he had asked.
Another mom stated “I only asked a therapist if she thought my child might have been sexually abused.” She claimed that the child told her he had been abused by his dad, but the child told no one else. The motion for supervised contact was her attorney’s advice, she said. This helped her to ignore the fact that this sexual abuse allegation was introduced immediately after the court had denied her attempt to refute the father’s paternity. This lady’s attorney tried to take the blame for her client’s decisions, hoping that the judge wouldn’t blame his client for trying to interfere with father’s relationship with the child.
Diffusion of Responsibility: is another way in which an individual can minimize their role in causing harm. If I am not the sole agent of destruction, but only part of a group, it is easier to attribute guilt to the group or to others in the group. The awful teasing of pre-adolescents and early adolescents, the behavior of the jailors in the Zimbardo prison experiment, and the Kitty Genovese phenomenon are examples of this powerful mechanism.
Similarly, group of siblings can provide support for one another in verbally attacking, taunting, hating, rejecting one of their parents. I have seen cases where one child rejects the parent, while the other chil wants to continue
Johnston and Campbell (Impasses of Divorce) observed the phenomenon of tribal warfare, in which high-conflict litigants found individuals, including friends, families, therapists, attorneys, and their children to support their warfare against the other parent. It is good that divorce litigants find support systems, but not good when these support systems make it easier to point blame and conspire in a destructive fashion.
Disregard or Distortion of Consequences: People can deny, disregard or minimize the harm done to others as a way to avoid self-censure. It is easier to harm someone when their injury or suffering is not visible, as bomber pilots have always known.
As Milgram found, people’s aggressiveness increases when the pain of their victims becomes less obvious. Similarly, children for whom contact with a parent is suspended find it easier to blame (or even lie) if they have not contact with that person.
Dehumanization: is the ultimate form of moral disengagement, and in a way, underlies all the other mechanisms.
Empathy, guilt, and regret can be disengaged by stripping people of human qualities. This is how we fight our wars and perpetrate inhumanities. People are portrayed as godless savages, gooks, or vermin. It is harder to have empathy for an inhuman creature, and empathy is one of the emotional engines of morality. If we can picture others as predators with whom we share no human traits, then we can minimize guilt for the pain we cause them. Combined with the other techniques of moral disengagement, our self-controls based upon of principle and emotion can be made irrelevant.
Several children I have worked with refused to refer to their fathers as their ‘father’ or dad. One boy and his mother referred bizarrely to his dad as ‘The Father.’ Two boys referred to their dad by his first name. Jesus, they said, was their real father. One girl I worked with didn’t want her mother, who is bipolar, at her bat mitzvah. Mom was 'crazy,' an 'embarrassment.' These are children who report no positive memories of one of their parents. Parents who tell their children that they have missed them may be met with laughter or hostility.
A twelve year old girl described her dad turned into a devil. She told me that her older sister had seen her dad, on a day he showed up for his parenting time, but her mother had taken this girl and her sister to Cedar Point. Dad, according to the older sister, had an evil look on his face, and had grown an Afro. I saw dad within days of the incident, and his hair was cut short, as always.
A man, a litigant in a child custody dispute, described his wife as a paranoid schizophrenic, a pathological liar. In one memorable phrase, he referred to her as a “paranoid schizophrenic pathological liar.” His son came in and referred to his mother as a pathological liar, among other statements borrowed from his father.
A man whom I evaluated several years ago helped me immeasurably to see what is going on. Someone else had to be blamed for the divorce or he was to blame for what went wrong and what his kids were going through. He left me the following phone message:
“You know, Dr. Friedberg, you always say that marital problems are a two-way street. Well maybe that's usually true, but not in this case. In this case its all her fault, a hundred percent her fault. You don’t have any idea how vicious she can be...”
This man initiated a separation from his wife by throwing her out, I mean literally picking her up and throwing her out the door. There was one other incident of physical violence during the divorce. His wife was cutting vegetables for Xmas dinner. He was arguing with her about sharing Christmas. He had celebrated with his parents the night before, but he was angry when he found out that his sister and mother had prepared a plate for his wife. Since she had celebrated Christmas the night before, he said, she had forfeited her own Christmas dinner.
As I said, she was cutting vegetables. As they argued he came over to her, grabbed the hand holding the knife and pushed down, accidentally stabbing himself in the leg. He said he thought she was threatening him with the knife.
He immediately he called out to his 7 year old son, “Call 911, Call 911, your mother stabbed me in the leg.!!” He repeated this falsehood to the police, but later admitted that this was untrue when the officer didn’t believe his story.
He explained to me that he lied because he wanted his son to know that the divorce wasn’t his fault, that their mom was to blame too.
What are implications of this Moral Disengagement approach to high conflict divorce? Here are some thoughts:
• Runaway, destructive blaming is a frequent, but not an inevitable, symptom of interpersonal conflict.
• Dehumanization is not always a symptom of psychopathology. It is systemic and should be modifiable.
• Moral disengagement is more common than we may feel comfortable admitting.
• Professionals need to change ourselves in addition to helping our clients. What we need to do is to activate, promote and encourage the parts of ourselves that are capable of moral engagement, and to make ourselves, and our clients, aware of the cycle of blame and harm.
• Interventions for high conflict divorce should take into account moral disengagement and destructive blaming. Just as therapists teach our patients about cognitive distortions which support states of depression, feelings of helplessness and anxiety, I hope to be able to teach parents to change their thinking, increase awareness of the destructive mechanisms I have outlined today. Awareness of these tactics of disengagement, blame, and dehumanization should be an important step in intervention.
• Finally, a question: Is the system we use for resolving family conflicts one which encourages moral disengagement and runaway blaming?
When is an adversarial legal system a trap into which we fall prey when dealing with the intense and highly personal issues in the renegotiation of family relationships? I am not saying that we shouldn’t take strong positions or advocate for them, but this needs to be tempered by an awareness of these issues.
While I might fantasize about a radical change, I don’t expect us to dispense with this system. But we participants in this system need to understand how the system, as currently practiced, can contribute a breakdown in our clients and our own ethical and moral controls. It is harder to dispense with our moral standards and sanctions if we think about the people with whom we are dealing as human beings like ourselves, with whom we can identify and empathize.
(Based on a presentation I gave to the The Michigan Inter-professional Association for Marriage, Divorce and the Family. Cases, including attorneys' and therapists' contributions to family conflict, are discussed, but with identities disguised).