This has been a long and strange week in the Woodall household, long because of enforced feebleness brought on by an attack of influenza, strange because it has given me the time to do a lot of things that I do not normally have the time to do. Read books, ruminate and reflect upon the things have stood out for me in my work with families in the past twelve months.
One of the things that I find myself turning over in my mind, like a pebble in my pocket or a piece of cloth that I fold and fold again, is the issue of how, when we decide to leave a relationship, an almost universal reaction appears to occur. This universal reaction happens in three stages and is observable in the first few days and weeks after the relationship ends, it goes something like this –
stage 1 – a retreat back to our family of origin (safety)
stage 2 – a projection of blame onto our ex spouse/partner (self protection/denial)
stage 3 – attack as the best form of defence (bring in the legal team)
These stages, which we map at the Clinic in our assessments are quite probably something biological. They are without a doubt psychological and driven by the initial emotional reaction to the life changes that are taking place. What they also are, are stages in which the chance to move forward in a co-operative way with the mother or father of our children is often lost. What we know in our work with families is that if we come to the family when stage 3 is underway, the psychological processes that govern our survival after separation will sometimes prevent us from being able to recover any kind of goodwill for co-operation.
For my rumination purposes however I have been thinking a lot about stages 1 and 2 and the way in which these are often interlinked. When we are wounded emotionally and psychologically we need safety and support and who better to give it than those who know us best, our tribe, the people we belong to, the place where do not have to explain ourselves because love is enough. In our family of origin, love is indeed often enough, in ways that it can never be enough in our romantic relationships. Whilst our partners and spouses may seek to change us, rub the edges off us or improve us, our parents, our siblings, our extended family members often love us just the way we are. They don’t need us to change, they just need us to be happy. Which is why the safety and security of our family of origin is such a powerful antidote to the horrors of the war with the one we hoped to love forever but who we now consider to be the embodiment of the devil.
Which brings us onto stage 2 and the issue of projection of blame. Now there are not many people who, at the end of a relationship are not compelled to run the projector of blame that separates out the good times from the really really bad times that caused the separation or at least made it possible to understand. Ending a relationship, in which one has invested a whole lot of hope, trust and sense of self, is not an easy thing to do and so we further the ending with a new narrative about our once beloved, in which we throw shadows of doubt and despair upon them and see in them all that was wrong with the love we once shared. This renders our once beloved the carrier of so much negativity that it is hard to understand (at least when we first meet people in this place) why they would ever have been chosen as a spouse or partner. So wicked are these people portrayed to us (and to others in the vicinity) that it would seem that the projector of this negativity must have been duped.
But you weren’t duped were you? Wasn’t there a time when this person, who you now characterise as being so impossible, so pathetic and so dangerous to you, filled your heart with love? Those photographs, of you smiling and waving, those films of your wedding, in which you are the stars of your own show, those are not lies, are they? Those days which are depicted in letters of love and pictures of happiness happened, didn’t they? They happened. And you were not a captive bride or bridegroom were you, no-one waltzed you up the aisle, shotgun at your head and made you say I do. You said that willingly. And then something happened to turn this marriage made in heaven into the hell that became your life with this person. So what happened to that sunshine which turned into tears and the icing on the wedding cake which melted into the smears that you project onto the other person without a second thought. What happened and what was your part in that.
Some of the owning your own stuff is about letting go and getting free and some of it is about processing something called denial. A whole host of it however is also about the family court processes that enter into separation at stage 3 and which ratchet up the psychological blame game if one is not careful, exploiting hurt and pain and rendering both sides incapable of change. The key issue is that when you are in the psychological throes of family separation you are in a vulnerable place and you are at risk of falling prey to the negatives that come with stages 1-3 instead of the positives. The negatives are –
Stage 1 – Your family of origin enters into tribal warfare….sabres rattle…emotions heighten…your anxiety increases
Stage 2 – helped along by a healthy dose of tribal identification, you are encouraged to see everything as the other parent’s fault which has the knock on effect of blinding you to your own faults….
Stage 3 – the big guns are wheeled in and the tribe primes the pump for the battle ahead…the possibilities for collaboration are whittled away as the space in between you grows ever wider and more peppered with booby traps
What I am saying here is that when you are working your way through family separation, when things are tough and you cannot work out why they are getting tougher, refocus your mind on the fact that this is a psychological as well as emotional and physical process and recognise the risks of going through this unconsciously.
This is your stuff too…own it.
Owning it does not mean accepting the blame or accepting the responsibility. In alienation, it definitely does not mean blaming yourself. What it means is this. Own your part in the process that got you here. You married him, you had children with her, you decided once upon time that he/she was the person with whom you could create life. When you own that you begin to withdraw the projections of blame. When you own it you begin to see the bits which are you and the bits which are not and in alienation you get to see very very clearly what you can do and what you cannot. That allows you to see what you need to highlight and how to do that and it stops you clouding the space with your stuff so that what emerges is what is really going on.
And then when you reach stage 3 it is less about setting the dogs on them and more about articulating the narrative that places the needs of the child first.
Of course all of that is simply shouting in the wind if you are up against a determined alienator. But at least if you know your own part in what got you into this mess with this person in the first place you are less likely to repeat the mistake you made in closing your eyes and ears to the warning signs. And going through this consciously also allows you to make the right choices and avoid the pitfalls that projection of blame can bring – like everyone seeing this as a he said/she said problem.
Owning your own stuff allows you to draw on the warmth of your tribe without allowing tribal warfare to break out. It also allows you to sort out what is yours and what is not. When you can do those two things consciously, your choices to use or not use the family courts or legal processes are made from a position of strength not psychological vulnerability. I wrote earlier this week about wounded people in the court process being re-traumatised by it because of the lack of psychological care the system can give. Don’t be one of those people who enters into the fray without protection. Own what belongs to you and learn how to carry it yourself and you will find yourself in stages 4 – 8 (acceptance and integration) feeling stronger, more hopeful and better equipped to avoid the next time.
(This is a light whizz through some of the concepts of self care and awareness that we teach at the Clinic where our aim is to help parents to become more conscious of the psychological and emotional tasks of separation. We know that by helping parents to do this they are in a better position to support their children. We also know that when parents are conscious of the pressures upon them they are more likely to withdraw projections and be in a place to collaborate. Our therapeutic mediation service is underpinned by psychological education and we never ask anyone to enter into mediation without preparing them fully for the task. We aim to build conscious co-operation between parents who are healthy and psychologically well. We use some of these self care approaches with alienated parents too, but in our experience, severe alienation cases will always require robust court management as well as a consciously healthy parent).
The Clinic offers coaching and therapy as well as therapeutic mediation and specialist services for those affected by parental alienation. See our website http://www.familyseparationclinic.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org to obtain our help.