Blame and Moral Disengagement in High-Conflict Divorce

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 admit that her leading questions, her reports to the police and to Children’s 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.   “Well yes, the mom, said, my four year old does lick me sometimes.” (4-year-olds will lick their parents on occasion, in a non-sexual manner).

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 Stanford prison experiment (Zimbardo), and the Kitty Genovese phenomenon (Bystander Effect) 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. 

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.