Interparent Hatred and its Impact on Parenting: Assessment in Forensic Custody Evaluations

Steven Demby, Ph.D.

The concept of parental conflict, as it is used in the custody evaluation literature, rarely conveys the motivational complexity of chronic parental acrimony. The concept of pathological hatred better describes and explains why some parents continue bitter fighting years after their divorce. Kernberg’s classificatory schema of pathological hatred is applied to high-conflict divorces in which such hatred may be viewed as an effort to destroy, while at the same time desperately needing, the other parent. Difficulties mourning the lost marital relationship, stemming from either character pathology or childhood trauma, create a fertile breeding ground for pathological hatred. The concept of parental competence is also frequently oversimplified in the custody evaluation literature, where it is viewed as an assortment of unrelated skills. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the capacity for parenting is viewed as an outgrowth of a parent’s object relationships, defensive structure, ego functioning, superego functioning, and unresolved developmental conflicts. Pathological hatred of the other parent tends to erode the parent’s capacity for nurturance, as the parent sacrifices support of the child’s developmental needs to the goal of making the child a pawn in the interparental hatred.

The negative impact on the child’s development can be insidious. An understanding of pathological hatred in high-conflict divorce enables the forensic custody evaluator to assist courts in making appropriate recommendations for therapeutic intervention, as well as custodial and visitation plans that have the potential to ameliorate or at least contain the damaging impact of the interparent hostilities on the child’s development.

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