Blame and Moral Disengagement in and beyond the divorced family

Larry M. Friedberg, Ph.D., presented at MIPA in 2003

I have been thinking a lot about 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…

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:  [All identifying information in this article has been deleted/changed/disguised]

The letter read, in part: “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:


  1. He is mean
  2. He is fake
  3. He is dull
  4. He is boring
  5. He is SO CONTROLLING!!!!!
  6. He is annoying
  7. He is weird
  8. He is not a good father
  9. He is lazy
  10. He has no emotions
  11. He is so self-centered
  12. He does not care about me
  14. He is a CONTROL FREAK!!!
  15. 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 a 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 (who I call Jim) is a wonderful man. If fact he can 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, that his parenting deficits are treatable, and that he is not the person described by his ex-wife, his son, nor his ex’s attorney.

Robert LaCrosse and Janet Johnston, who presented at MIPA in the past, told us about forms of personality pathology which they find more often in parties stuck in high-conflict divorce.  Johnston talked about varieties of what she called “narcissistic vulnerability.” In other words, people mired in high conflict divorce are, Johnston argues, 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, we are told, to use primitive psychological defenses like splitting, projective identification, idealization and devaluation. Other psychologists talk about paranoid delusions, about folie a deux, paranoid projection or about symbiotic parent-child relationships.  The antennas of a psychologist get raised when such words are used. Diagnostic labels like narcissistic and borderline personality disorder are evoked by such concepts.

I agree that such concepts apply to a subset of the people we see, and explain why some high conflict families seem unreachable.

I suspect, however, that these concepts are wrong or exaggerated as applied to most families enmeshed in divorce conflict.  Part of the reason for my rejection of pathology as a cause of these problems is that we, therapists, lawyers, custody evaluators, and court personnel often get caught up in these same cycles of pathologizing and blaming these parties.  Therapists often assign labels to them. Forensic psychologists and attorneys will too often allocate 100% of the blame to one side or the other, or 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.  Our colleagues and patients use terms like ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome,’ False Sexual Abuse syndrome, and my personal un-favorite- ‘Divorce-Related-Malicious-Mother Syndrome.’  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 and is to blame for the problem. There is a target parent who is a passive victim.  Dr. Turkat, the discoverer of the “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. This is the exact opposite of Johnston and Kelly’s argument. He feels that this alienator should be punished, but is often just given a slap on “her” wrist.

I suggest that you read Johnston and Kelly’s excellent formulation of parental alienation which takes a completely different view. They focus on the child’s difficulties rather than focusing on blaming one parent.

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, 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.

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 to the contrary. After all, he argued, hadn’t the patient shown a spike on the MMPI-2 “psychopathic deviatea scale? How could joint custody continue with an “antisocial woman?”

What about motions for custody, or to diminish or suspend or supervise parenting time? These are often masterpieces of distortion, exaggeration and half-truth.  Let me share just one recent example: A mother files for a PPO 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 the evaluation.

Well, I asked the mother about the threats. I discovered that no direct or indirect, verbal or gestural threats had occurred. But she feels afraid of her ex-husband, she said. He had been abusive during the marriage, she claimed, and the children are afraid of him, she said. That’s it.  Mom wouldn’t accept the conclusion that her statement as a false one. It was justified, because of her fear.

So we all can do it, sometimes. How? And what can we do about it?

I want to introduce Moral disengagement theory, an import from social psychology. 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 the tobacco and alcohol industries, toxic spills, 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.

Let me make clear that what I am talking about is not psychopathology, but about the psychological mechanisms underlying a specific kind of immoral action.

How do normal people justify the treatment of others as objects, as enemies and targets? How do we square such behavior with our consciences? How do we disregard the harm we do to others, most significantly children?

Moral disengagement theory is the product of the developmental and social psychologist Albert Bandura.

Many of you are familiar with Milgram’s experiments. In Milgram’s one, 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.

There are many social and psychological maneuvers, Bandura argues, 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.

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.


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 their father 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 they 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.”

In the family conflict arena “the truth” is the most common euphemistic label for providing information designed to do damage to someone else’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 their child patients, in their own minds.

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 “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 beg to differ with her, when denying contact with a parent, such as she recommended, is involved.

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.  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.”

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 likewise 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.  “Well yes, the mom, said, my four year old does lick me sometimes.”

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 also 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 adolescence, 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.

Johnston and Campbell 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 lie if they have not had 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 unfortunately part of how people fight 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 moral principles 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 sons 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?

  • 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?

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’m not saying that we shouldn’t take strong positions and 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.