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Separation Counseling: Brief Interventions for Divorcing Couples
10 CEUs Separation Counseling: Brief Interventions for Divorcing Couples

Section 9
Fault After Divorce

Question 9 | Test | Table of Contents | Couples CEU Courses

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In the last section, we discussed the five emotional losses divorced client may experience after infidelity.  The five emotional losses a divorced client may experience after infidelity are the loss of the sense of specialness, the loss of self-respect, the loss of the feeling of control, the loss of a sense of order, and the loss of a sense of purpose.

In this section, we will discuss self critical behavior in divorced or separated clients and its three components.  These three components include:  self-hatred, injustice, and a lack of compassion for oneself.

In many self-critical divorced clients, you may have noticed a tendency to be overly vocal about the criticisms, verbally berating oneself or even condemning their own character. This tendency causes such clients to be what I call the "Hanging Judge" – like the stereotypical judge of the old Western frontier, this critic extends an extreme punishment, such as death by hanging, for even minor infractions.  His interest in punishment is not an interest in rehabilitation; it is an interest solely in retribution.

Olivia, age 33, was a divorced mother of 3.  She had developed an addiction to alcohol her first year after her divorce and since that time her outbursts of self-criticism had gotten continually worse, which increased her depressive states. One day while driving to work, for example, Olivia missed her exit on the highway. Even though the next exit still got her to work and did not make her late, Olivia punished herself extensively in the car, screaming obscenities at herself and pounding her fist on the dashboard repeatedly. Olivia later said to me, "I was so mad at myself, I just had a fit."  Because Olivia had failed to achieve the level of perfect behavior she had lined out for himself, she condemned her mistake much too harshly.

3 Common Characteristics of 'Hanging Judge'

I have noticed that in divorced clients with the "Hanging Judge" syndrome like Olivia that there are three common characteristics: self-hatred, injustice, and a lack of compassion for oneself.

♦ #1 Self-Hatred

The first characteristic of the "Hanging Judge," self-hatred, is distinguished from other forms of self-criticism because it is overly harshvindictive, and has a prosecutorial quality.  As you saw in Olivia’s case, the qualities of hatred and rage came out in his string of screamed obscenities at herself.  It was not simply a quiet quality that one can find in clients who simply draw negative comparisons between themselves and others.


These obscenities served no purpose other than expressing Olivia’s self-contempt. Olivia stated, "I couldn’t believe how stupid I was for missing my exit.  I just hated myself so much – I had to yell at myself."  This self-hatred can be particularly damaging to divorced clients as it could contribute to their feelings of worthlessness or "badness".

♦ #2 Injustice

The second characteristic of the "Hanging Judge" is injustice.  An unbiased observer seeing a "Hanging Judge" punishing him or herself would see the self-critical attacks and punishments as seriously out of proportion to the alleged offense or crime.  Again, you can see this in Olivia’s case.  Her abuse of herself in the car for missing an exit on the highway was severely out of proportion considering the size of her mistake.

Taking the next exit did not delay Olivia in reaching her destination, yet she launched an enraged and hateful tirade against herself.  She stated, "It was such a stupid little thing, but I should have known better. I take that turnoff practically every day!"  In her daily life, Olivia constantly uses the phrase "I should have…" creating an unrealistic standard for herself.

♦ #3 Lack of Compassion for Self

In addition to self-hatred and injustice, the third and final characteristic of the "Hanging Judge" is a lack of compassion for self.  As you know, a lack of compassion for oneself is exhibited when the divorced or separated client displays little interest in helping him or herself.  Instead, his or her interest seems to be focused entirely on punishing and reviling his or her character.

 Again, Olivia exhibited this lack of compassion clearly; her screaming obscenities and pounding her fist on the dashboard did nothing to improve her behavior or benefit her in the future. Olivia’s criticism was delivered with the desire to punish alone; she had no desire for self-improvement in the delivery of the criticism.

♦ Technique:  Critical List

One technique that that I have used with divorced and self-critical clients like Olivia, who are also suffering from the "Hanging Judge" syndrome is a "Critical List." To make a "Critical List" I asked Olivia to make a list of five things for which she criticized herself .

Olivia wrote 3 Things for which She Criticized Herself ,

1. Getting lost driving

2. Not spending enough time with the kids

3. Disappointing my father, again.


Once she made this list, I asked her to go back and put the date that she began criticizing himself for each behavior or action.  Olivia had been criticizing herself for each behavior for many years, with some starting while she was still in high school.  I used Olivia’s list to help her see that the criticism and punishment that she was delivering as a "Hanging Judge" had not had any positive changes on her behavior.

I then asked her to instead try to tell herself positive statements.  Olivia protested, saying "I can’t do that. I don’t know how to tell myself positive things. I don’t deserve to hear positive things."  I told Olivia that it may take a while for her to accept the new, positive messages because she was so used to being negative, but that eventually she would become accustomed to the positive messages. She agreed to do it, saying "I guess I could try."


Do you have a divorced or separated client who, like Olivia, is a hanging judge?  Does she criticize him or herself for minor mistakes and punish himself too severely with no intent to benefit herself?  Would your Olivia benefit from making a "Critical List"?

In this section, we have discussed the "Hanging Judge" syndrome in divorced or separated clients and its components, self-hatred, injustice, and a lack of compassion for oneself.

In the next section, we will discuss separation stress.  Generally speaking there are two types of stress symptoms shown by divorced clients.  Two types of stress symptoms are common symptoms and unique symptoms.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Nash, B., & Chapman, N. A. (2019). Building a culture of caring: Lessons learned from managing professional expectations while navigating the emotional upheaval of divorce. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 29(2), 95–107.

Øverup, C. S., Ciprić, A., Gad Kjeld, S., Strizzi, J. M., Sander, S., Lange, T., & Hald, G. M. (2020). Cooperation after divorce: A randomized controlled trial of an online divorce intervention on hostility. Psychology of Violence. Advance online publication. 

van Scheppingen, M. A., & Leopold, T. (2019). Trajectories of life satisfaction before, upon, and after divorce: Evidence from a new matching approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. 

Votruba, A. M., Braver, S. L., Ellman, I. M., & Fabricius, W. V. (2014). Moral intuitions about fault, parenting, and child custody after divorce. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20(3), 251–262.

Question 9:  What are the three common characteristics of a divorced and self critical client with the hanging judge syndrome? To select and enter your answer, go to the Test.

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