I am prefacing this article with an explanation of what a gendered experience really is. Experiences being a ‘gender issue’ has been taken by feminists to mean that it only affects women with men as the problem and women as experiencing problems. Actually, a gendered issue simply means that it affects men and women in different ways and using a gender analysis, it is possible both to see that difference and also what needs to be done differently to give both men and women access to the power they need to resolve their issues. Thus, my writing does not conceptualise anything as men causing problems and women suffering problems but as men AND women having problems which are caused by gendered beliefs and expectations in the societies in which we live. I am not a feminist, I do not hold with feminist analysis, when I say alienation is a gendered issue I mean it causes men and women, boys and girls to face different challenges as well as some which are the same.
There are constant debates in the PA community about whether alienation is a gendered experience, the received wisdom being that it is not because it affects fathers AND mothers. I beg to differ. From my experience, in working with alienation and in working with gender analysis tools, not only is parental alienation a gendered experience in the way that it affects mothers and fathers, it is a gendered experience in the way that it affects boys and girls. In short, when you look at parental alienation through a gender analysis lens, the whole construction of alienation as a phenonmenon cannot be taken out of the gendered lives that we all lead and to argue otherwise is to miss big opportunities not only for understanding how it happens but for understanding how to stop it happening or reverse it when it has happened.
Parental Alienation is not a phenomenon which arises in a vaccuum. It happens within a gendered framework which is shaped and maintained by the different cultures that families live in across the globe. When we analyse alienation in a children at the Clinic we use cross cutting themes of culture, history, race, class AND gender. We also use analysis of family narratives of the same themes to understand what the imperatives are upon the child and the way in which these have caused the alienation reaction to form.
Narratives are the words that weave together the reality of every person’s existence on this planet. Our own story, which is formed from two different family narratives as they are criss crossed around us, develops in our early years and continues throughout our childhood to create the history of our lives for us. By the time we reach the age of eight or nine, our life history is largely that which is created by the narrative our family has woven for us and in that history lie threads of class, culture, race and gender as well as the story of our ancestors. Our lives up to the age of eight are almost wholly subjective and we are like clay in the hands of the important adults in our lives, moulded not in the shape that we individually choose but in the shapes for good or bad that our parents and others make of us. What we learn in our early years, about what it means to be a boy or girl in this family at this juncture in this time, is mostly imposed upon us in our receptive state of being. By the time we reach the age of eight, the fundamental building blocks of who we think we are are in place. From then on, to change them or challenge them requires our own objective self to do the work of individuating and making objective choices based on our own developing life experience. But our notions of gender continue to be shaped by those internalised messages and externalised reinforcements of the society around us, made up of other individuals who have also been shaped in their internalised landscapes by the hands of their parents or others.
In this way generational narratives are passed down from family to family and society itself changes in shades as the slow work of challenging inculcated narratives is undertaken by the next generation of young people. Gender plays a large and significant role in these narratives and it is foolish for anyone to dismiss this in working with children and families affected by alienation because to do so ignores completely the different ways that treatment routes need to be tailored to meet the different needs of men and women and girls and boys.
It is absolutely not possible to say that the experience of an alienated father is exactly the same as the experience of an aliented mother. Neither is it possible to say that the experience of an alienation girl is the same as that of an alienated boy. In all of our analysis, understanding how mothers and fathers are impacted differently and how boys and girls develop those reactions in different ways, gives us a critical view point and way in to understanding the often very closed narratives of the families that this phenomenon creates. Mothers and fathers who are alienated experience pressures which are sometimes the same and sometimes different, they experience different reactions from their children, the world at large and their own internalized narratives create very different challenges. Naming those differences is an essential part of analysing how to help a parent and child, listening to those gendered narratives is an essential part of planning any kind of intervention. Recognising the ways in which professionals around the family, steeped in their own gendered narratives and expectations, will serve as a force for assistance or restistance is key to working in this field. We cannot ever take parental alienation out of the gendered world we live in and it is folly to try. Alienation IS a gendered experience even though it affects men and women boys and girls and when we wake up to that as parents and professionals we take a big step forward in understanding AND treating it.
Put it this way. If your Surgeon said to you that treating your cancer was just a matter of blasting you with chemotherapy and radiation because cancer is just cancer and it affects everyone the same you would have more than a slight momentary panic would you not? Treating cancer these days is a delicate business of differentiating the problem, weighing up the pressures caused by many different factors which intersect to cause the problem and treatments are becoming increasingly individualised to meet the needs of individual cancer patients. And all that set against the wider framework of arguments about how our health and wellbeing are affected by big pharmaceutical companies and money making companies who sell us things that are bad for us. The cancer of parental alienation is no different, it is specific to the individual, it is impacted by your place in the family, your gender, your class, your race and your cultural and family narratives. It is set within a framework of different legislative approaches throughout the world, some of which make money out of the difficulties that arise after family separation rather than acting to ease the suffering. Treating alienation against this backdrop requires depth understanding of the meta landscape and the micro details of the individuals within the family accompanied by dedicated support and intervention.
As we say in the UK. You can take parental alienation out of the gendered landscape but you cannot take the gendered landscape out of the families that are affected. And it is foolish to even try.