Living with an alienated parent: lessons for husbands, wives and partners

This week we have been getting our new project ready for launch and as we do so we have been thinking about the people who live with alienated parents;  the loved ones who have to watch as this horror unfolds and takes a stranglehold of the family.  For those people who have to stand helplessly by, this one is for you.

Being a partner or husband or wife to someone who is being alienated is a little like watching someone being tortured to within an inch of their lives on some kind of medieval rack.  Alienation is a horrible thing to witness in a child and when their behaviours become cruel, cold or mirroring of the parent they are aligned with they can turn into people you wish you could shut the door on forever.

But how can you shut the door on these beloved children of the person you love.  If you are a mother or father of someone who is being alienated, you yourself are likely to be targeted and your own heart will ache with the pain of the alienation against you as well as the knowledge that your own child is suffering.  If you are the partner or husband or wife of an alienated parent you will witness their grief and suffering, their loss and their pain AND the frustration that comes from witnessing the child behave so badly.   In short, to witness alienation brings its own suffering and those who stand by whilst it is happening are not often able to reach out and find the help that they need to keep on supporting the people they love.

In second families alienation is a doubly dangerous thing because it can tear the relationship between partners  apart. it can creep into the seams of the bonds that you are building in your new family and it can seep into the very fabric of the lives that you live. Children who are on the alienation spectrum who are transitioning in and out of step family lives can bring with them the clouds of the alienating parent’s resentment, dislike and hatred and determination to destroy anything good about the world.  Arriving in gloom and cold indifference, these children can set about attacking the peace and quiet of the world you are building until they manage to drive a wedge between you and their parent that feels like a canyon you might drop into at any moment.  Alienated parents, sensitised as they are to the terror of losing their children, can turn from loving patient people into wreckages of fear and blame, seeking to put you in the wrong and their children in the right in an effort to hang on to their approval.  As alienated children lose perspective, driven into this place by a pressurising parent, alienated parents begin to lose theirs, falling down into a place where they are terrorised and terrified to the point where all normal life stops and the family grinds into crisis mode.  Soon you begin to find that the revenge of the alienating parent begins to filter through into your everyday lives as you begin the battle with the ghost of the parent who was once but who no longer is, in your place. Not long after you may find yourself wondering whether all this is worth it. Especially if you have younger children, especially if they too begin to be affected by the alienating behaviour of their half siblings.

There is a way out of this however and the way out is not the way that the alienating parent wishes you to take.  This way out is, like all of the routes out of alienation, counter intuitive and it is often the very last thing that the alienating parent feels able to do.  Nor is it something that you are likely to feel able to insist upon but insist upon it you must if you are to help your partner to build a way out of the bind that they are caught in.  The way out of this is to begin to insist that your relationship with the alienated parent comes first and that your relationship is built into the foundation stone of the new family life that children are expected to live in. This is not an easy thing to do, especially when the drive in your partner is to put his/her children’s demands first but do it you must if you are to survive as a new family and to offer your alienated step children anything of value in the years to come.

Because alienated children need normality.  They normality more than they need anything else.  They need a parent who is not afraid of them, they need a parent who is loved and happy and whole and they need a place where they can go where stability is guaranteed and the world is a predictable place.  If they find that in your home, even though they are angry, uncertain, foul tempered or cold and cruel, it is an antidote to the chaotic emotional and psychological place they live in with the parent who is alienating them.  Your first task is to convince your loved one that you are not the enemy, your second task is to persuade them that working together as a team you can tackle this problem.

When you work together as a team it means sharing values, expectations, rules, ideas and concepts about what a happy family life looks like.  It means being clear with each other on how you will tackle the alienated child’s behaviour and how you will support each other if that means that the child refuses to come to your house.  In many cases children who are transitioning but finding it difficult, will respond well to a unified approach from their parent and step parent.  Providing it is the parent who is doing the bulk of the parenting with you as a firm and present back up, many children will reduce their negative behaviour and come back into line.  Those who do not, who are already on the way to an alienation reaction proper are not going to be rescued by the two of you arguing over the matter.  Alienated children do not care whether they fracture your relationship or not, they do not care whether they make your day good or not, they do not care whether you are even present or not, they are simply only able to act in one way and that is rejecting and difficult. So you may as well make sure that your relationship stays strong and intact because whether it is or it is not is not going to change an alienation reaction in a child when it really takes hold.

Supporting someone whose child has finally or suddenly withdrawn is a long term task and it is important you are up to the job because for you it is a matter of watching someone being eaten away by worry and loss, itself a corrosive life experience.  The key factors in this are to be sensitive to the changing moods of an alienated parent who will occillate between fear, anger, loss and grief for many months and perhaps years before being able to assimilate in some fashion (though never accept) the changes that this brings.  Your role in this scenario is to reflect back on a constant and unchanging basis the fact that nothing they could do would change the outcome and that their parenting of their child and their love for their child is not in question. It is likely that you will have travelled a long way with your loved one before the alienation sets in although some will meet an alienated parent after the loss has occurred.  At all times remember that this person is a mother or father, that that aspect of their life is not dead  and neither is their child.  Make room always for the child or children to return and keep open the possibilities for your loved one to talk about their child.  Ask to see photographs if you never met the child, keep pictures of the child around the house.  On birthdays and special days give a flower, a card or plant something symbolic, when you eat meals say their names, wish for them to return soon, make the children who are not with you welcome always.

Never forget to nurture yourself, love the children you have without hesitation and give your loved one the gift of patience and endurance. Have courage to demand love between you is not diminished by the absence of the children, never let the alienating parent win.

We will soon be launching our new project for everyone affected by parental alienation, when we do all of the information about alienation on this blog will be migrated to a new home where you will all be welcome. I will continue to commentate on all matters related to families and family policy here and we will link up all of our projects together so that wherever you visit us you can get help to understand, cope and heal from alienation.  Watch this space.

21 thoughts on “Living with an alienated parent: lessons for husbands, wives and partners

  1. Wow. Thank you for the wisdom you share and insight into the living horror.

    How it is not child abuse to tell a child their mum does not love them I will never know. Nick has kept me going in this hell. You both do amazing work.

    Thank you


    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Karen, this insight is simply your best yet despite the previous great articles.
    A daily living bereavement I the worst thing possible for a loving parent. To lose a child is devestating and heartbreaking.
    But for some alienated parents, and let’s be honest , mainly fathers, it is a monoton


  3. Very interesting read.

    As a mother having been in this situation, I can only say that I got through some difficult times, daughter went to live with her father, but it still continued and I believe in the end because she started to question and not accept what she was being told, was then rejected and it has damaged her relationship with him beyond repair. I feel very sad for her father, I think in the end it took over him, consumed him almost and he couldn’t see the effect on our daughter. We have a very open and honest relationship and talk about everything, nothing is off limits. My relationship now is stronger then I could ever have imagined, she makes me so proud, but there were dark times when I thought that I couldn’t keep going. Over 10 years but I’ve got through it and come out the other side, stronger and proud of the fact that I never rised to the constant criticism. I can hold my head up high. My daughter is back and we are rebuilding.


  4. Karen, thank you for this post. Although all of your posts are excellent, this one was special. It was an affirmation of what it’s like for my partner to live with the reality of what has happened to my children.


  5. Karen, thanks for this. As you know I’ve spoken about looking for a support group for spouses/partners so I await your new resource.
    A couple of thoughts; having waited for some time for your perspective for partners I actually found this a really depressing read.
    PA has been a part of my husband’s life for almost 4 years now – we can date it’s start to the first time she persuaded their son to tell his dad he didn’t want to stay overnight with him – even then the reasons his son gave (at age 10 and 2 months) were clearly adult initiated in their language and reasoning. My husband (then partner) described his son’s mother as looking ‘triumphant’ when her son said these things. The court order that duly followed a couple of months later included the caveat proposed by the mother that if the son said he didn’t want to see his father, the father would respect his wishes, and so the die for PA was cast, then forged and hammered into place over the coming years.
    I know that for the last 3 years or so of court hearings, and solicitor meetings, and so on, I have been searching for the one phrase, the magic sentence, that would help my husband enable those who wield the power to truly understand what’s going on, which is all too plain to see if you (want to) look properly, and read all the history, and ask the right questions. My own way through this has been to look for the formal evidence, the intellectual argument, the all powerful logic, and to put my trust and faith in people whose job includes a ‘duty of care’ for the child involved at the centre of this poisonous maelstrom. Only very recently, when ‘contact’ was finally and brutally reduced to two letters/cards/gifts a year, by virtue of a damning report by a guardian who didn’t (wouldn’t? couldn’t?) look below the surface, and even (without irony) referenced how children in this situation act to ‘placate’ one parent by ‘disengaging’ with the other, and talked of how they can be harmed in future relationships, only then did I accept and acknowledge that even though officials may have a ‘duty of care’ that doesn’t mean they actually ‘care’.
    So I found this depressing Karen because I realise that yet again I was hoping for a magic sentence that would help me understand how better to help my husband, and (for me) how better to come to terms with, and get past, this destructive cancerous grief in my life.
    What I actually read in this was a mirror of how we live and what we do. We speak all the time of his son, there are pictures around the house, we speak of not holding resentment for his son’s mother because she will always be his mother and if she were to turn up on our doorstep now she’d be welcomed in and we’d never speak of all this again. We understand, and speak of, letting resentments go so they don’t have further power over us. I care for my husband and I try to take care of him. My husband is a good stepfather to my children. We make space for their father always (we all went away together last Christmas). My children’s father comes to our house, the house he lived in with me for 20 years, and my husband makes him coffee and cooks food for him, and the three of us do this because we know this is the best thing for my (our) three children. My children’s father came to our wedding reception, a year and a half ago, in part because he wanted to be with his children on a day that they were a central part of, and in part to show them, by his example, how one can accept change and move on in a dignified way.
    My husband and I understand, and agree between ourselves, that nothing my husband could have done would have stopped this, although he knows that if they’d stayed in his native country he would have had a stronger legal position – so an extra world of pain there to get beyond, added to the loss of his family being nearby.
    Meanwhile my husband’s son has ‘insisted’ on no contact with his father and no contact with any of his paternal family (because they remind him of is father) and the powers that be think this is reasonable. The result of all this is that my husband lives just as you describe – each a day waking death for him. But it’s worse than a death, because there is still a strand of hope which at the end of each day is found to be unfulfilled, again. It’s a hostage situation, with no ransom demands, and just scraps of news leaking out, from time to time, by accident.
    Your writings are powerful Karen and much appreciated – in the age old phrase it’s not you, it’s me – the truth always hurts – I’m just left hollow by the realisation that what I have and how we live, is what I’ve got, for now at least.
    We really are making the best of a bad job – I just was looking, yet again, still, for some magic panacea, when the truth is as its always was – only I can help me, and only my husband can help himself, although I will continue to try to make my husband’s daily life more palatable, and the only way forward is by one, slow, careful, step at a time.


  6. I would also add Karen that, as a partner, there is also the need to come to terms with, and move beyond, when you yourself have been the innocent victim of the alienator’s hate. In my case this includes vile insults made about me in front of the child, and gossip spread, and lies spoken about my own children. I take comfort from the fact that on the last day I saw and spoke to my husband’s son (over 2 years ago now) he apologised to me, from a place of truth and honesty, for the behaviour of his mother and grandma. I take comfort that he is his father’s son, and his father is a good man, and before all this took off he’d had a few good years to actively parent his son, and I pray that this foundation will overcome all the harm he is now suffering.


  7. Karen,

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve watched this horror unfold over the last 12+ years with my 14 year old SD. Hard to describe the horror, the frustration, the anger…especially when you get to a point where therapists are telling you the damage is done and it’s time to move on and let go. We grieve a child as if she died, yet she is very much alive and aligned with her Alienator. All my husband ever wanted was to just be able to be her dad. The Alienator (I can’t bring myself to calling her by name) had a totally different agenda, I’m sure brought on by narcissistic injury. She has gone out of her way to create and sustain conflict, and she hates me for existing. She hates my children for existing. It’s all so irrational. And there was nothing I could do but watch the madness unfold. Worst feeling ever!


  8. Brilliant post Karen. I have to say the insights, deep understanding and compassion that you demonstrate in this and other posts sets you miles apart from other experts on PA.

    As an alienated parent myself, albeit one that gradually is winning the battle, I have come to realise just how hard it is to be a partner (my partner) in that situation. It took me years to realise the truth of your central message: protect your new family because in doing so you also protect your alienated children. There is no conflict or trade off between these two objectives. Alianted kids loose all sense of what is normality. Teaching them, through persistent demonstration of your own family life, what they can expect from normal parents and equally important what normal parents expect from them is essential. Having the courage (and it took me a long time to muster that courage) to insist on protecting your boundaries, for the good of the new family and your new kids, is absolutely critical in dealing with the alienated children and the alienating parent. Allowing the alienating parent, through them, to destroy your new family leads only to more misery and is definitely not a solution. But I will be the first to admit that avoiding this trap is easier said than done.


  9. Thank you for this writing and this page. The uncertainty of what to do for best outcome for all of us is difficult to endure. After my children being taken by my ex, false charges of child abuse used to gain custody and 13 years of learning to adjust, I have discovered it was and is my daughter-in law instigating the alienating, to exact revenge on me. OMgoodness, the suffering endured by my daughters and I is unfathomable. I am still blamed and she recently promised to alienate my grandchildren from me as well. I have no idea what to do to bringus to normalcy.


  10. Very insightful and painfully accurate
    As usual Karen, always a crumb of comfort to know we are not alone, and others are even worse off, what kind of civilisation and government allows this evil pain to continue ?
    Now in our fifth year of true alienation ,how can we reconnect with my kids, when everything so far has failed?
    Reduced to also letters, I hoped this phase would pass quickly, is hasn’t .;(


  11. I read with interest and memories, for I came by this blog to try to minimise harm that my partner and I do to our 3 year old girl as we slowly live more separate lives. But what it takes me back to is being a child of unhappy and/or angry parents long before their separation, the seemingly harsh punishments (not abusive) then the separation and somewhat excitement of visiting an aunty with my mum and sister for 2 weeks instead of going to school….change and living between parents, the teacher calling me out of class early one day, “who are you going home with today?”, both my parents standing there hoping to collect me….later, on weekend visits, the 1 1/2hour lectures from our dad why we should live with him, horrible criticism of my mum and what to say if we spoke to social workers or had to go to court…the time that my dad got my sister to hatch a plan to go to his house instead of swimming as we had told mum.. later..being instructed by dad to ignore my mum if she came to see me at the station, to refuse her letters or gifts, or to accept hurriedly in order to get away but always to dispose of them somehow..tearing up a card and curiously looking inside, sad that I’d torn up a £10 book voucher and that my mum’s money had been wasted…hiding a gift at the back of a divan base in my friends house. I never spoke to a social worker, or court welfare officer, I was wary of them, and could neither disobey my dad or obey him, so I would go to hide if they attended. I was an exceptionally able child academically, but struggled realatively from secondary school. My dad met the headmistress concerned that I refused to read the Sunday newspaper he’d bought, she told him not to worry, but never spoke to me.
    The day I met my mum again properly was about 2 or 3 years later. We had moved a few hours drive away so it was a big deal. I had been hit by a car as a pedestrian, and when I could just about walk with crutches, we went to visit my mum in my old house. I don’t recall the actual meeting, I guess it was tentative as dad was there too. The house had been redecorated, but the garden was the same and it was summer. Lots of other troubles affected me in my teens whilst living with my dad who was highly critical and rigid, was ruled by labile emotions and distrust. I became, like my mum, a target for unfair and harsh criticism, though he loved me and still loves me and even then I recognised his qualities of devotion and sacrifice and that he was doing the best he knew how. Later, 10 years later, my mum and dad meet for my sister’s wedding, then for my mum’s mum’s funeral, then for the first grandchild,on the arrival of my daughter and now, my dad speaks positively of my mum and they even stay in the same house at special times!
    I can still be a bit dismissive towards my mum, I can take her, and my much older sister (at uni at the time of separation), for granted and am quick to criticise.Maybe I understand this more and I’ll be able to work at improving it.
    As for my partner and I, I came looking for advice on managing communication and childcare and all that, but the most important thing I have learnt is to stay strong, and empathise.


  12. Thank you Karen and to all those replies I have read. I am the wife of a father suffering PA we have a daughter together and the three of us live in this hell everyday. U find it so hard to have a happy and wonderful life together in order to give our daughter a magical childhood when we all have a piece of our lives missing. We have struggled for years, in and put of court, but we have not seen our darling daughter and sister for 10 months now and if it so hard. I often think it would be easier if she had died, we could at least grieve but this is never ending torment unable to let go and unable to help and watch her grow. I want to take all of the pain away for my husband yet I am left helpless so I will continue to plod on and try to build our strong unit up hoping and praying that one day the little daddies girl inside of her will come to the forefront and she will be able to break from this curse. Thank you for your words and I pray all those wonderful children suffering alienation will have the time before it is gone to know and love their complete families.


  13. I read this when you first wrote it and thought I understood. 16 months on and I’m reading it again, waiting for the court to do something, staring into the oblivion that is our future, desperate for someone to tell us how to pull it all back from the brink.

    The children used to just be distressed. Now the nastiness is creeping in. This is, without doubt, the hardest thing I have ever done.


  14. By Wife of Moishky1 – Ohhhhh Thank you so much! It has been such a long hard slog but thankfully some how “unknowingly” we have followed most advice posted. The recognition and support in future shall be so welcome!
    It is sooo hard to stand by, witness to so much suffering and rejected genuine love. Karen Woodall and to all who do this very important work Thank you! – Mrs Moishky1


  15. Wow. This is what I have been going through for two years. We knew what was happening and managed to get custody of the alienated children but the home situation just devolved into chaos. We ended our custody of each child within less than a year of each of other and are only now finding these space to recover and care for our own daughter. By taking custody of the kids we began to resent each other and still have unresolved anger that flares up. I have lost jobs and gone into debt through the manipulation and guilt that was directed at both of us. I feel like my life was destroyed all because a mom wanted to help and reconnect with her kids.


  16. Thanks so much Karen! Not long after my partner and I moved in together, his ex partner stopped his daughter from coming to stay with him. They legally have 50/50 custody (still). A few months after this started his ex stopped his son from coming to stay with us also. It’s completely breaking my partner’s heart as he’s never been anything but a gentle, loving, fun, supportive, generous, stable father to his 2 kids.

    Seeing him fight for 9 months now to try and get the court order enforced which his ex is continuing to break without 1 repercussion, we’re still waiting for a hearing from the family courts. It’s absolutely disgusting that she can alienate the children from him, damaging them along the way without any interference from social services, the family courts or the kids lawyer!!

    My heart aches for him as the kids are being alienated from him for no other reason but for her own unhealthy and psychotic personally benefit.

    Not knowing how to support him as his new partner and not having my own kids, it’s been 1 of the most difficult situations I’ve had to deal with my whole life. Thanks for the little words of advice!! Times are tough but I hope we’re strong enough together to get through it.

    Keep up the fab work xxx


  17. An excellent article Karen. Sadly I have just broken up with my partner who was being alienated by his daughter. His son was still seeing him but his son was also aware he could behave however he liked because he knew the fear in his father that if he disciplined him he may go the same way as his daughter. Both children have no respect for him and did not accept it on the very rare occasion he told them off. As a partner it is so hard to go through. I feel terrible about walking away but I have two children who are wondering why they have boundaries and my partners son didn’t. It is a real case of my partner’s ex not letting him parent and be a proper father to his children. I don’t think they realise the damage they will cause to their children now and in their adult years. It’s totally heartbreaking.


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