Divorce Related Malicious Mother Syndrome

With the increasing commonality of divorce involving children, a pattern of abnormal behavior has emerged that has received little attention. The present paper defines the Divorce Related Malicious Mother Syndrome. Specific nosologic criteria are provided with abundant clinical examples. Given the lack of scientific data available on the disorder, issues of classification, etiology, treatment, and prevention appear ripe for investigation.


A divorced man gains custody of his children and his ex-wife burns down his home.A woman in a custody battle buys a cat for her offspring because her divorcing husband is highly allergic to cats.A mother forces her children to sleep in a car to “prove” their father has bankrupted them. These actions illustrate a pattern of abnormal behavior that has emerged as the divorce rate involving children has grown.

Today, half of all marriages will end in divorce (Beal and Hochman, 1991). The number of children involved in divorce has grown dramatically (e.g., Hetherington and Arastah, 1988) as well. While the majority of such cases are “settled” from a legal perspective, outside the courtroom the battle continues.

The media has spent considerable effort raising public awareness about the problem posed by divorced fathers who do not provide court ordered child support payments. Hedges (1991) has noted that less than 20% of divorced fathers provide child support payments three years after their divorce. Research on the decline of women’s economic status following divorce (e.g., Hernandez, 1988; Laosa, 1988) has contributed to recent legislation to address the “Deadbeat Dad” problem.

While the media correctly portrays the difficulties imposed upon women and children by the “Deadbeat Dad” phenomenon, the cameras have yet to capture the warfare waged by a select group of mothers against child support paying, law abiding fathers. Every day, attorneys and therapists are exposed to horror stories in which vicious behaviors are lodged against innocent fathers and children. Unfortunately, there are no scientific data on the subject. Similarly, the clinical literature has relatively ignored the problem.

A notable exception can be found in the clinical writings of Gardner (1987, 1989) who has provided excellent descriptions of the Parental Alienation Syndrome. Here, a custodial parent successfully engages in a variety of maneuvers to alienate the child from the non-residential parent. Once successfully manipulated, the child becomes “…preoccupied with deprecation and criticism of a parent–denigration that is unjustified and/or exaggerated” (Gardner, 1989 p. 226). In the typical case of Parental Alienation Syndrome, both mother and child engage in an array of abnormal actions against the father. Gardner views “brainwashing” as a concept “too narrow” (Gardner, 1989) to capture the psychological manipulation involved in turning a child against his/her non-residential parent.

While Gardner’s pioneering descriptions of the Parental Alienation Syndrome provide an important contribution to our understanding of divorce related child involved hostilities, the present paper is concerned with a more global abnormality. As noted in the examples provided in the beginning of this manuscript, serious attacks on divorcing husbands take place which are beyond merely manipulating the children. Further, these actions include a willingness by some mothers to violate societal law. Finally, there are mothers who persistently engage in malicious behaviors designed to alienate their offspring from the father, despite being unable to successfully cause alienation. In sum, these cases do not meet the criteria for Parental Alienation Syndrome. Nevertheless, they portray a serious abnormality.

The purpose of the present paper is to define and illustrate this more global abnormality with the hope of generating increased scientific and clinical investigation of this problem.