It is always tragic when parents murder their own children with the intent to hurt their spouse or partner. Although there may be many reasons for such incomprehensible acts, retribution seems to be a motive when one parent kills a child to hurt the partner or spouse. These child murders are known as revenge filicides.
“Spousal revenge killers murder their own child to afflict hurt or retribution on the partner, spouse or ex-partner. In this type of murder, the spouse specifically wants the partner to suffer and feel misery," say Dr Melanie Moen from Stellenbosch University and Prof Christiaan Bezuidenhout from the University of Pretoria.
In a study published recently in the Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, Moen and Bezuidenhout shed light on the motivations behind revenge child murders in South Africa. For their study, which is the first of its kind in the country, they analysed media reports and court documents about revenge filicide cases from 2003 to 2021. Cases of this nature were difficult to identify, but they managed to classify 20 of these types of child murders since 2003.
In 12 cases (60%) the offenders (male and female) were married at the time of the murder(s). They killed their children by strangling, hanging, poisoning, suffocating, stabbing, or beating them to death.
According to the researchers, the motivations for revenge filicides (child killings) are often linked to complex personal and interpersonal relationship problems. They point out that in several cases, the offenders mentioned that they experienced marital and relationship discord such as an argument, rejection, jealousy and anger shortly before they killed their children. Other reasons of revenge filicide include a marital discord, a breakup, a new love interest for the receiving partner, or a divorce that can strip the murdering partner of their investment, control and social status in the relationship.
“Our analysis showed that a parent can kill a child because of a loss of social identity due to rejection, extreme rage and anger, blaming others for their misery, sadism, a desire to cause pain and a need to inflict harm.
“The sense of loss of social identity and the anger and disappointment experienced by the murdering partner becomes an overwhelming, blinding rage that sweeps away everything in its path. The murdering partner becomes enraged by the pain they experience and wants to hurt their partner or ex-partner because they themselves are emotionally and psychologically hurting.
“The blinding anger is caused by extreme emotional distress. The accumulation of the overwhelming negative emotional experiences leads to a desire to cause pain at all costs, sometimes sadistically, to ensure a reciprocal justice balance, i.e., the murdering parent believes that killing the child will cause the spouse or partner to experience the same hurt and that this type of 'justice' will bring about some form of equilibrium."
The researchers add that the offending partner wants the receiving partner, who they believe inflicted this emotional and psychological pain on them, to experience the same pain by murdering a child or children in retaliation.
“The principle of lex talionis (an eye for an eye) comes to the fore with devastating consequences for the receiving partner and the children due to the reactive-impulsive expressive violent behaviour of the murdering partner who ultimately wants to restore their sense of control and sense of self."
They argue that a form of narcissism – an extreme self-involvement to a degree that it makes a person ignore the needs of others around them – was at play in the analysed cases where a parent decided to kill a child.
“The narcissistic rage culminates in the murdering of the child to punish and hurt the other parent and to restore control. The 'narcissistic' injury has been counterbalanced by an act of revenge filicide. Sadly, the receiving parent and child's needs have been negated."
- Source: Moen, M & Bezuidenhout, C 2022. Killing your children to hurt your partner: A South African perspective on the motivations for revenge filicide. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 2022:1–15. DOI: org/10.1002/jip.1603