Blame and Moral Disengagement in High-Conflict Divorce

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, ‘animals,’ ‘gooks,’ ‘kykes,’ or ‘vermin.’  It is harder to have empathy for an inhuman creature, and empathy is one of the key 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 our principle and emotions 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 (an amusement park).  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, he said, 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 say that marital problems that lead to a divorce 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 Christmas 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, this man 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.