Most marriages start off as a game of mixed doubles, but in too many cases the partners later find themselves playing against each other in a no-holds-barred match of singles. In some cases they end up lobbing hand grenades instead of tennis balls and, in the most tragic of circumstances, the children themselves are enlisted as weapons.
Once upon a time this was not so much the case as mothers were almost always given legal control of their children after a divorce. However, beginning in the early 1970s, parents began litigating over custody as a result of changes in societal attitudes and laws, increasing the chances of fathers winning custody. It is essential and good that the rights of fathers are evenly considered. However, an unfortunate consequence has been that many divorces have become even more complex and more fraught with conflict.
What can be more personal than fighting your ex-partner for the right to raise ‘your’ children in your own home?
As I suggested earlier, the tennis metaphor is too facile. War is a more fitting comparison, with volleys of anger fired across the trenches. But when parents start enlisting their children against their ex, consciously or unconsciously, the results are particularly devastating.
In my practice I have seen how many children in divorce situations end up feeling torn between their parents, despite well-intentioned and thoughtful attempts by the parents to manage this. Children will commonly express guilt and anxiety about the parent they have less contact with.
At an extreme end of the divorce experience is the situation where a child refuses to have contact with one parent. In 1987 American psychiatrist Richard Gardner defined this as Parental Alienation Syndrome. This refers to a significant breakdown in a parent-child attachment relationship, with the child unreasonably rejecting a non-custodial parent.
There are instances where one parent is especially difficult or even abusive and therefore the main cause of the post-divorce distress and pain.
But research indicates that in most high-conflict divorce situations both parents engage in some degree of alienating behaviour. The American researchers Joan B. Kelly and Janet R. Johnston, who have studied this phenomenon, go even further and suggest that all family members (even extended family members) play a role in alienation, and that a ‘systems-based’ view is needed fully to understand these families.
Here’s why a systems-based view might give us more insight into how such unCivil Wars get started.
Imagine a married couple with two children. Perhaps the daughter is sportier than the son and generally spends more time with her athletic father, even though she loves her mother. Perhaps the father is a little rigid and critical of his son, whom he also loves, but whose sensitivity doesn’t quite fit with the father’s expectation of how men should behave.
In such a scenario, it requires no stretch of the imagination to see how a bitter divorce might lead to an alignment of daughter with father, or son with mother. Maybe abusive, blaming and critical remarks are consciously tossed around in front of children. More likely, it’s at the level of the father allowing his daughter to criticise her mother without contradicting the daughter; or the mother always unconsciously being late for the ex’s arranged visit, or speaking in front of her son about how badly his father has behaved.
The end result is two camps and at least one alienated parent. As you can see, this is not necessarily caused by abusive, bullying fathers trying to further their ill-treatment of mothers, or bitter and manipulative mothers on single-minded quests to punish their ex-husbands, no matter the impact on their children.
Parental alienation is not gender-specific; both mothers and fathers engage in this behaviour. Research indicates that many men who are alienators are characterised by narcissism, a sense of entitlement, arrogance and low empathy. Female alienators often have personalities marked by insecurity, a strong fear of abandonment and chronic emptiness.
A parent who has been alienated from a child is in an indescribably painful situation. And that child has experienced a huge loss. As a psychologist I am struck by how challenging and frustrating these situations are.
The remedies are seldom straightforward and one strategy will not suit all families. Helpful recommendations are likely to include some of the following:
- A court-ordered parenting plan that recognizes the value of on-going contact between the child and the alienated parent and establishes practical structure around that contact;
- A mental health professional working with the child and/or family to therapeutically support the contact; and
- The use of a case manager or guardian ad litem who would monitor cooperation with the parenting plan and have the authority to enforce compliance or report to the court quickly when one parent is non-compliant.
These mechanisms may sound like political treaties but are necessary as empathy, common-sense and adherence to the law are often casualties when the bullets are flying.
The situation will only improve if both parents are able to suspend guerrilla tactics, call a cease-fire and commit to the wellbeing of their children.