Parental Alienation Can Happen to Adults and In MarriagesWritten by: Rob Print This Article
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Parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse in which a normal positive parent/child relationship is damaged or destroyed by another party using emotional manipulation, threats, false accusations, and other means. It involves at least two basic elements. The first is an alienator engaging in access blocking to keep a child from seeing a parent. The second is a pattern of denigration and destruction of reputation to make the child dislike the parent. When parental alienation becomes severe and/or extended in duration, the child may start to avoid seeing the target parent, repeat the statements of the alienator as if they were the child’s own, and even make up new “reasons” to dislike having contact with the target parent. Often these “reasons” are complete nonsense and have little to no accuracy.
If you’re suffering as a target parent and are aware of parental alienation, probably none of this is news to you. However, what may be news to you is that parental alienation isn’t limited to the most commonly discussed situation of parents involved in divorce or child custody battles. For starters, you may be alienated from your children by your spouse while married.
Moreover, if you step back and take a look at the the changes in your family relationships that happened after marrying an alienator, you may also realize that you are a victim of parental alienation committed against and you and your own parents. The same spouse or former spouse who is trying to alienate you from your children may have already badly damaged the good relationship you had with your parents using similar tactics of emotional manipulation.
Dr. Amy Baker’s Book: Adult Children of Parental Alienation
Recently I read a book written by Dr. Amy Baker entitled Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind. It’s excellent in part because it is filled with real examples and details from 40 personal stories of adults who realized they were alienated from a parent as children. The subjects of her interviews range from 19 to 67 years old. Although many have speculated that parental alienation became common due to changing laws that no longer assumed that children would reside with the mother after divorce, these accounts of parental alienation start from the years before joint physical and legal custody were common. This implies that parental alienation predates shared parenting rulings becoming more common as they are today in many places. Most of the alienated children interviewed were from the United States, some were from the United Kingdom. They have a variety of cultural backgrounds, including from India. While the number of study participants isn’t enough to make any firm conclusions about particular cultures, it is enough to demonstrate that parental alienation is a problem that spans nations, ethnicities, and decades of changing family law practices.
Some of these adult children have managed to repair the relationships with their target parents. Many of them only managed to do so after a major interruption of their relationships with their alienating parent, such as by a falling out or by the death of that parent. All have suffered greatly due to the parental alienation, particularly from mental health and emotional problems. It’s helpful to see both how this happened to them and what the target parents tried to do to continue the relationship.
Dr. Baker describes both common strategies alienators use to keep children from having good relationships with target parents and the attempts many of these target parents made to try to continue the relationships with their children. Alarmingly, even target parents who went to a great deal of effort often could not preserve the relationships because of the continuous animosity by the alienator who was intent on destroying those relationships by any means.
Misleading Debate Over “Scientific Proof” of Parental Alienation
After reading this book, no intelligent, honest, and objective person could claim that parental alienation is not a real phenomenon. Honest people might still continue to debate whether “syndrome” (as in parental alienation syndrome) is appropriate or whether parental alienation should be included in DSM-V, the next version of the widely used mental health professional’s diagnostic guide due to be released in 2012. But these debates really amount to arguing over word choices and technicalities.
You may hear or read the drivel put out by activists and alienators denying that parental alienation is “not a scientifically proven fact.” This is often stated in the pursuit of an agenda that is totally lacking in objectivity such as that of alienating parents who refuse to admit and correct their behaviors. Such statements are nothing but lies using convincingly misleading words, the sort of thing alienators and emotional manipulators are excellent at doing.
To use a very crude analogy likening parental alienation to physical child abuse, that your own child doesn’t like being intentionally hit in the face with a baseball bat swung hard isn’t a scientifically proven fact, either. It appears that nobody has studied it and nobody has experimented on children hitting them in the face with baseball bats to determine what kind of hit is liked and what kind is not liked. But this lack of “scientific proof” doesn’t at all mean that such an act is not child abuse and is not harmful. Similarly, the claims of a “lack of scientific proof” regarding parental alienation don’t make it any less true that alienators are harming children.
As another analogy, these dishonest people are little different from those in an earlier day and age who dismissed the theories of Copernicus and violated the human rights of Galileo for suggesting the heresy that the Earth is not the center of the universe and that the Earth orbits the sun. Certainly Copernicus and Galileo were not right about the sun being the center of the universe, but that was more accurate than the common view of the Earth being the center of the universe. Likewise, whatever misunderstandings there are about parental alienation today doesn’t mean there is no value to what has been learned so far.
Most Alienators Fall Into Three Groups
Dr. Baker explains how her research shows there are three common groups of parental alienators:
- Narcissistic mothers in divorced families (14 families)
- Narcissistic mothers in intact families (8 families)
- Rejecting / Abusive alienating parent (16 families)
Of the 40 families, there were two which showed a mixture of these patterns. Of these families, it is typical that the alienating parent is the custodial parent. Although the alienating parents from this study group were generally the mothers, it is clear that fathers can be alienators, also. While it appears that most of the alienating fathers fit the third pattern, there was one family in which the alienating father fit the second pattern of “narcissistic parent in intact family”.
In general, Baker found that many alienating parents have narcissistic thinking. Such parents resort to charm and persuasion. Often they talk about inappropriate topics with their children, treating them as confidants to personal information which isn’t suitable for children. Common topics include discussing false accusations of supposed misconduct by the target parent, for instance claiming that he or she has had many affairs or tickets for driving while intoxicated when that isn’t true.
Other common topics include misleading statements about child support payments and divorce battles to denigrate the target parent and make the children feel “honored” to be privy to such information. For instance, an alienating mother may tell a child to go to the mailbox to check for the child support payment. When it isn’t there, she complains about the father being a good-for-nothing bum. She’ll never mention that she already picked up the payment from the mailbox before asking the child to do so because that was the only way she could be sure the child would get a negative impression of the father from such a stunt. Alienators, like many emotional manipulators, are skilled at using tricks like these.
Such alienating parents often appear to have a “close” relationship with the children they are hurting. But that closeness may only last as long as the narcissistic parent is getting what they want out of the relationship. When he or she is not, then they may push the child away in a rejecting fashion. Such parents withdraw their love in response for the children not satisfying their emotional needs. For instance, when a child makes a positive remark about the target parent, the alienating parent may ignore or even berate the child in retaliation.
The children who did not have “close” relationships with the alienating parent generally pointed to that parent using fear, intimidation, and terror tactics on them and/or the target parent. Physical abuse and sexual abuse were among these tactics, too. Both mothers and fathers were involved in committing these kinds of abuses to terrorize the children into submission. Many, but not all, of these alienating and abusive parents had substance abuse problems.
Parental Alienation May Start During Marriage
While reading the book, I realized that my ex and her behaviors today fall into the first category of “narcissistic mothers in divorced families”. However, that’s not how her alienating behaviors started. Surprisingly, we didn’t even have children when she started to use emotional manipulation to damage parent/child relationships. That’s because her alienating started with her behaviors designed to alienate me, a grown adult, from my own parents during the marriage. This doesn’t even fall into the typical three groups of alienators, yet is motivated by similar reasons and uses similar tactics to the narcissistic patterns #1 and #2.
I suspect that a spouse or partner starting to show parental alienation style behaviors even before the arrival of children is far more common than people realize. That’s because it may be commonly confused with normal relationship problems with the in-laws. Part of why I suspect this derives from having the benefit of observing relationships in which the potential for partners having conflict with the other partner’s parents seems they should have been higher yet there was nothing but the occasional minor disagreement.
What’s particularly strange to me is that I hadn’t even considered that I was alienated from my parents for years. I simply became used to keeping a distance and minimizing communications to keep my ex at bay.
Today, after the divorce, my parents and I are closer and we get along well. But during the marriage, my ex regarded my parents as a threat to her. She seems to believe at some innate level that if I love my parents and communicate with them that this is somehow bad for her. Her behaviors against my parents became worse over the years. But the worst of it didn’t occur until after the arrival of our own children.
Children Trigger Fear of Abandonment
After we had children, relations with my parents become very strained. It wasn’t their fault. They were far more helpful and supportive than many grandparents are with new grandchildren. But that helpfulness and supportiveness was viewed by my ex as a threat to her. She wants the children to love only her and cannot accept that children are better off having many good relationships with adults who love them. It is as if she is afraid of being abandoned by the children if they love others. These kinds of deep-seated fears in alienators are often tied to personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). They may develop during troubled childhoods in which the alienator of today was the abused children of yesterday.
My ex moved on from trying to damage my relationships with my birth family to attempting to alienate our first child from me starting years before divorce. As Dr. Baker discovered, parental alienation in marriages is common. However, it is not as well known as the most frequently discussed cases which involve divorced alienating parents. I believe from my own personal experience and experiences of friends and acquaintances that this scenario is far more common than is realized. Often children are not aware of the access blocking and denigration being abnormal behaviors for parents. They grow up in these toxic environments from birth. Only when the toxicity grows far worse, such as more extreme behaviors triggered by a divorce, may they start to understand that something is amiss.
I didn’t understand how powerful my ex was at alienating me from my own parents, but could see exactly what she was trying to do with our child. She would involve our child in fights and encourage taking her side by using badmouthing and denigration. She would start fights over the most inconsequential things simply so she could use these tactics to sow hatred. Given that my own parents never did anything like this, I could not understand why she was doing it. But it seemed very wrong, even though I didn’t have a name for it.
She also engaged in systematic access blocking, doing everything she could to shift schedules to minimize my time with our child. While it is normal for parents to adjust schedules to ensure that there’s adequate childcare, that’s not what was happening in this case. She behaved oddly, insisting that relatives and childcare providers keep the baby out of the house while I was home and racing to put the baby to sleep before I arrived home from work.
She used a newfound interest in church, something that had never interested her previously, as an excuse to take our children away from home on Sunday and keep them out all day, even though by this time our oldest child wanted to spend time with me and said so. Having been emotionally pummeled by her for years, I was not of the mind to put up much of a fight about this as I knew there would be a huge price to pay for disagreeing with her.
About the only times she seemed content with having me around the children was when it was for her own benefit. She could go pursue some personal activity to which it was not suitable to take a child by having the kids spend time with me. I was happy to take care of them. Meanwhile, she complained to all of her friends that I was an absent father, was violent, abusive, and a threat to the children. That this is completely nonsensical in the context of her leaving the children with me while she pursued her personal activities doesn’t seem to cross anybody’s minds. After all, she is very convincing with her emotional intensity and lies. Years of feeding these lies to other people seems to sap them of any ability to be objective or to question what she claims. It’s much like how alienators brainwash children. Say the same lie over and over again with convincing intensity and even most adults will eventually believe it.
Insults From Kids May Not Be Their Own
The result of the frequent denigration and emotional abuse was disturbing. After many months of being exposed to this, our two year old child greeted me with exclamations such as “bad Daddy!” when I walked into a room, despite there being not only no good reason for these words but also no recent conflict or any other evident reason to say this.
When such negative words are combined with a smile from the child saying them, it’s clear that there is a significant incoherence. The child is repeating programming from the alienating parent, but does not understand the meaning of the programming and has not internalized or accepted its meaning even though the words have become part of the child’s vocabulary.
I became increasingly disenchanted with the relationship as I knew it was very wrong to be doing this to a child. But I, like far too many, did not yet know anything about parental alienation even though it was happening to me in two different ways — as a target parent and as a target child — at the same time.
Alienators Are Like Cult Leaders
Dr. Baker also explains how alienators are like cult leaders. This was a particularly interesting analogy to me. Years earlier, my ex was involved in group reputed to be a cult. I now wonder if she learned some of her control and alienation tactics from her time in the cult.
Isolation is a key technique used by cults. Cult leaders assert control over people by cutting them off from others who don’t believe the same as the cult. In my case, my “cult leader” was my ex-wife and her cult was based around her being the all-powerful center of the family around whom everything must revolve. Obey her and worship her or else I’ll suffer.
Looking back, it’s clear she liked to isolate me from my family in order to control me. It is something she tried to do even after filing for divorce. She attempted to use false accusations to obtain restraining orders to get rid of my parents. While she ultimately didn’t succeed at getting the orders she sought, she caused massive emotional and financial damages in the process. Given her pattern of conduct, it’s clear that she intends to harm other people to control and punish them.
She’s very able to use the courts, police, CPS, and many other naive parties to harm her targets. The courts in particular reward these behaviors. At the very least, false accusers and alienators like her typically get temporary restraining orders out of their attacks and cause the people they are attacking to be financially damaged by having to hire attorneys to defend themselves. Then the courts typically do nothing about holding aggressors like her responsible for their actions.
While the government should be prosecuting people like these for perjury, false police reports, and other crimes, they typically do nothing. This just encourages these people to do it again and again. They learn quickly that they are rewarded consistently and seldom pay any price for their aggressive manipulations.
This is a large part of the reason why family law judges frequently contribute to and enable parental alienation. A judge who looks the other way while these abuses are being committed is an accessory to child abuse. They fail to protect the children and target parent from the alienating parent until the damage is so severe that the children suffer from long-term psychological damage that will last into their adulthoods and the target parent has been severely emotionally and financially harmed, also.
While it may be reassuring to read stories like Alienating Mother Ordered to Pay $286,641.75 in Fines and Fees which feature courts finally holding an alienator responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and banning him or her from seeing the children, this is not the right way to be handling these cases. It needlessly destructive and cruel. It is like letting a known serial rapist to be on the lose for years, choosing only to do something about stopping the problem after the 10th victim is attacked.
Judges who are committed to protecting children from emotional abusers (which is exactly what these alienators are) should seek methods to block the effects of their alienation tactics early, before they can do a lot of damage. Some methods to do this include mandatory therapy, ensuring that the target parent has at least 50% time with the children, and banning the alienating parent from filing police reports, CPS reports, and other attacks against the target parent without first going through some gatekeeper to ensure that there is justification for the reports.
Afraid To Talk With My Parents
My ex would “allow” contact with my family if she could get a benefit out of it. That benefit might be money, a vacation, gifts, or help with childcare. What mattered is how it would benefit her, not whether the contact was reasonable or healthy for anybody else.
If she didn’t control or permit the contact, she would punish me for it in the form of aggressively insulting my parents and me for weeks. She would complain so vociferously and for so long that I became afraid to even talk with my parents or mention them to her as it would likely mean weeks of her multiple-times-per-day tirades about how my parent are horrible and that I’m horrible for having anything to do with them. A fifteen minute phone call could result in two or more weeks of retribution. I finally decided to just stay away from my parents because the price to be paid was too high.
It’s this kind of behavior that affects many children attacked by an alienator. As Dr. Baker relates in her book, some of the alienated children were so afraid what the alienating parent would do to them in the form of emotional abuse after contact with the target parent that they would avoid having anything to do with the target parent. Although I was an adult, this is exactly the kind of psychological torture my ex inflicted upon me to make it so emotionally expensive to be involved with my parents that I would accede to her control, further isolating myself from people who cared about me and making it possible for her to control me even more.
Although she seldom used physical violence as a means of control, she routinely used emotional and verbal violence. Having read many books about people with personality disorders as I’ve tried to understand why she is the way she is and how prevent her from victimizing our children, my parents, and me further, I’ve come to believe she shows behaviors consistent with more than one personality disorder. She’s very narcissistic, doesn’t have a sense of ethics or morality apart from what she thinks is best for her, and thinks nothing of hurting innocent others if it will help her achieve her goals.
It it is common for people like her to become like this from a history of child abuse. But knowing that your abuser is a former victim turned victimizer doesn’t make it any easier on those of us who are suffering. The incompetent manner in which the courts and government typically deal with such people prolongs the suffering and increases the damage.
Estimating Your Risk for Becoming A Parental Alienation Target
Interestingly, Dr. Baker found that many of the adult children of parental alienation become target parents for parental alienation. The cause/effect relationship is unclear here. On the one hand, it could be that being alienated from their own children helped them recognize the relationship between their target parent and themselves was similarly destroyed. On the other hand, it could be that they developed a psychological model for an appropriate choice of partner or spouse based upon their alienating parent and therefore were prone to pick a person with behaviors that are manipulative and controlling. Another aspect may involve an abused child learns to submit to control to avoid more pain and therefore grows up to be more easily dominated by an abusive partner or spouse. From what Dr. Baker found, it is difficult to make cause and effect generalizations in this area.
After observing the huge difference in interactions with my parents during committed partner relationships I’ve had, I believe that one of the best means to determine if parental alienation may become a problem with your own children is the ability of you and your partner or spouse to get along with and accept each other’s families. If there’s a relationship problem yet it doesn’t appear there is a reasonably objective source for the problem, you should be seriously asking yourself if this is a safe relationship in which to have children.
I also strongly believe that the risk for being targeted for parental alienation is much higher in relationships with a person who was abused by a parent for many years. My observation is that such abuse significantly increases the risks for a person to suffer from a personality disorder that involves a fear of abandonment and an insecurity about relationships. Such people are also more prone to use emotionally manipulative tactics to control people around them. This means they may have both the motivation to be alienators and the skills to do so successfully.
There are certainly some former abused children who will never become parental alienators, so please don’t take the above cautions as hard and fast rules. If you do suspect your partner or spouse may have been abused as a child, I’d highly recommend working through these issues extensively with a qualified mental health professional long before you decide to have children and preferably even before you marry.
Help Your Family and Friends
If you see family or friends going through such dismal experiences as I’ve described above, you should pass along to them information about parental alienation, personality disorders, and emotional child abuse. They likely know little to nothing about these topics, even though they are probably living them firsthand. Our schools are seriously deficient at educating children and young adults in these areas except for a subset of those who delve into psychology or related fields in college. You informing them of your concerns about possible parental alienation may be the only chance they have to get a handle on the problem before it permanently destroys family relationships.
One of the best ways to convey the true destruction that parental alienation causes and how alienators engage in their brainwashing is by passing along a good book on the topic. This helps establish that it is a legitimate problem recognized by experts, it hurts childly badly, and it can grow far worse than what is likely evident in your situation to date. Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind is an excellent choice. Below is an excerpt from the book that introduces the book by outlining the cases of three alienated children that author Amy Baker interviewed along with introductory observations about parental alienation. It gives a flavor for how she’s approaching her study and shows her writing is engaging and not overly academic. I enjoyed the book myself.
Kate’s angry divorcing mother alienates her from her father, making her question everything he does and believing that he must not love her. Over time Kate figures out her mother is a hateful emotional manipulator and eventually moves in with her father who she appreciates for how he has always loved her and refused to engage in ugly brainwashing.
Larissa’s story involves her alienating mother who remains married to her father despite teaching Larissa to hate him. Like Kate, she eventually figures it out and reduces contact with her mother but maintains contact with her father.
In case you mistakenly believe that only mothers are alienators, Jonah’s case shows otherwise. His divorced alcoholic father teaches him to hate his mother and spy on and verbally and physically abuse her. He ends up totally enmeshed with his abusive father and suffers from having no relationship with his mother.
Amazon Kindle for the Web
A tip for using the Amazon Kindle for the Web reading tool below is to click the full-screen expanding box to the right of the “Aa” settings button to let you see more text at once. That box will expand to full-screen. Click it again to return to the normal view.
Use the arrow buttons to flip pages left or right, or you can use the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard. The viewer may start on the first page of regular content in the book. If so, you can view the publishing credits and table of contents by flipping backwards several pages.
If you’re interested enough to buy it and money is a concern (as it is for many parents suffering the onslaught of alienators who often also financially assault their targets) note that the Kindle edition of the book costs less and you can read it on your computer or phone if you don’t have a dedicated Kindle reader.
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