Ghost busting: on leaving the feminist constructs behind

This week I have been writing about cross generational coalitions in parental alienation and I thought it may be useful to embed this concept within the overall concept of gender equalities work, which as you know, forms one of the foundations stones of the work that we do at the Family Separation Clinic.  I was prompted to think and write more about cross coalitions after my thoughts about how the government responds to interest groups and how the existence of interest groups can distort  for those on the outside, the reality of real people’s lives.  I was also prompted to think more deeply about this by the response from a paternal grandparent to my statement that paternal grandmothers can be one of the most powerful (and toxic) components of a cross generational coalition, usually when they are in a fused and enmeshed emotional and psychological dyadic relationship with their son.  This paternal grandparent felt that I was distorting the truth and that all paternal grandparents are the people who are alienated from their children.  This in her view had to to be the truth because of all of the paternal grandparents she supports in her work.  This is the kind of thinking that both prevents the debates that need to be had about families where alienation strikes AND contributes to the kind of pre boxed and labelled groupings caused by interest groups.  If we are to move beyond this we must open up the discussion about families and we must leave behind the ways in which the women’s rights groups have created a belief system about the family in which who you are in the family system, determines the role that you play, the support that you get and the atttitudes of the outside world towards you.

To unpack that particular box here is an example to describe what the women’s rights groups have done in dividing the family into good and bad.  This has been achieved by using a patriachal analysis, in which the history of human kind has been assessed as having been driven in the best interests of men, with women’s needs secondary and children’s needs last.  This analysis, which sets the foundation for how all of the interest groups are forced to relate to the family, means that the only way that those supporting the needs of men can act is to invert the original analysis, literally turning it on its head but still being forced to work within that original paradigm.

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This creates a situation where those people who support one interest group or the other, are forced to relate to their members and thus those who are causing their members suffering, in ways that box all members of the same grouping together.  Thus, for women’s rights groups, all mothers are good people who only have the best interests of their children at heart and any mother who harms her child must have been made to do that by a man.  Conversely, all the father’s rights groups have to represent men who have been driven out of their children’s lives by mothers who are deliberately harming their children by alienating them.  In the grandparent world, as asserted by this commentator this week, all the paternal grandparents must be good people who have been prevented from seeing their grandchildren because 90 % of non resident parents are fathers which automatically means in this conceptualisation of the world that all paternal grandparents are the people who are suffering.

But the world is not like that.  The lives of separating families are not like that and to believe that people live in boxes labelled resident = good and non resident = bad or the converse of that, is to fail to understand and serve the real needs of families, especially families where alienation strikes.

The reality of the world is that the hierarchy of power which is described by feminism is a construct.  It is a constructed image and a constructed belief system.  It is a political ideology which, when it is applied to the family as it separates, serves no other purpose than to drive a wedge between parents so wide that it creates a gulf which is impossible to cross. If we lived in a world where all children’s needs were last in a hierarchy of power and control and women were wedlocked into subservience. If we lived in a world where men are all born inherently powerful and dangerous and all grandparents were either benign and suffering or wicked and controlling, then this way of thinking and working would be useful.  But we don’t.  We absolutely don’t.  And we especially don’t when it comes to dysfunctional family patterns, cross generational coalitions, fused dyadic relationships and toxicity.  And working in the feminist construct of men at the top of a triangular construct of power and control or men at the bottom of the same inverted construct, is not useful, it does not help parents, grandparents or the children they love.

The world is not a place where people live in boxes labelled good and bad. The world is a confusing mash up of good, bad and indifferent and all of the possibilities in between.  And it is this which is our starting point when working with families where alienation strikes.  Instead of using the dominant model of patriarchal power and control analysis, a new model is necessary, one which takes into account all of the elements of what happens in families where alienation is present.

This looks like this.

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Analysing each individual using this model, allows us to step outside of the imposed feminist construct and into a mental health analysis of the family.  When we are working within this paradigm, things become much clearer and people do not have to be fitted into constructed boxes.  In this paradigm, mothers can be good, bad and everything in between, so can fathers and so can grandparents on either side of the family.  Children, in this model, are the recipients of the generational messages which are positive and negative or a mix of both and their behaviours in alienation situations are much easier to understand and therefore treat.


Paternal grandmother is very much present in the children’s lives and when she is present, her son gives way to her and allows her to be dominant. She is dominant in the family home and she expects to be dominant in her son’s home.  Her son, unable to stand up to his mother, reconfigures her behaviour as being beneficial to the children (after all she was a wonderful mother to him). This deification of his mother elevates her to a powerful position in the family hierarchy, a place she is used to occupying.  When her daughter in law finds this difficult, the grandmother interprets this as her being difficult and unpleasant and uses sulking and withdrawal of affection from her son to force him to put his wife back in her place. Over time, the paternal grandmother’s power erodes the marriage and the mother decides that she will leave the relationship. The children however, without her really being aware, have aligned themselves to their grandmother, forming a cross generational coalition which is toxic to their wellbeing because it is focused upon deifying their grandmother and demonising their mother.  The son becomes a helpless player in this game and is used by the grandmother to enforce the separation between the children and their mother.  The lead player in this family drama is paternal grandmother, the children are aligned to her and the men in this family are silenced and emasculated.

If we were to approach this through a feminist lens we would attribute the power and control not to the grandmother (she cannot be controllling because she is female) and would attribute it to the father.  To treat this we would focus upon the father and changing his behaviour.  However, the father is only a bit part player in this drama and to focus upon him would be futile because the power is held by his mother.  Only by locating the locus of control in this family through analysis of generational messages  and coalitions, can we address the real issue which is causing the children to reject their mother.

In the parental rights based paradigm, where those representing paternal grandparents who are being pushed out consider that all paternal grandparents are by definition suffering the same fate, the opportunity to address this issue at its core is missed.  The lesson is, people do not live in boxes. The family is a curious mix of different experiences and just because we know one group of people who share the same experience, does not mean that this is representative of everyone bearing the same label.

The truth is that where the family is toxic, it is cross generational, it is toxic along the horizontal line of living relatives and it is toxic along the vertical line of our ancestors.  It is often toxic but normalised so that people do not know that it is toxic and it is hidden within the different folds of coalitions which are formed under the surface and not readily visible to the naked eye.

Falling into analysing this through a constructed ideology is both harmful and lazy because it is not so difficult a step out of that paradigm and into the real world.  All it requires is a little bit of thinking, the key tools which help to turn that into critical thinking and the willingness to take off the blinkers and really look at the families we work with.

If more of us woke up to this, more children could be helped and the generational march of dysfunction could be stopped.

We don’t all live in pre-labelled boxes.  We do come in all shapes and sizes and we are, to a man and a woman, the sum total of the ghosts of our ancestors. Raising those ghosts from the dead and understanding the impact on the living is a major task for anyone working in families where alienation strikes.

Ghost busting outside of the feminist construct. It is not for the faint hearted but it changes lives.


  1. Absolutely excellent ghost busting!

    Except that for me this would perfectly describe an ‘equity feminist’ perspective (we all have equal potential to be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, in relationship terms) in complete contrast with the ‘gender feminist’ one (i.e. overwhelmingly women good/men bad).

    But that’s just a matter of terminology.


    1. I don’t want to go around that same argument Woodman, I just want to do this outside of the feminist paradigm if we can. Let’s try to imagine that there is no patriarchal society but one where the different roles of men and women and the way they were confined but have evolved, at least in the western world, do not require reducing everything to an analysis which places women as born disadvantaged and men born advantaged. I want to try that out in our discussions and see how that changes the way that we interact with people.


      1. Of course – I agree that patriarchal power is very much a thing of the past in the West, and certainly has not been uniformly present – even when it did exist.

        My concern is rather, that instead of moving to the situation of equality which is often advocated…we have more fundamentally simply reversed roles into a matriarchal society, where women are now born advantaged, and males disadvantaged.

        For example, by accepting women into the workplace we have acknowledged that the ‘best person for the job’ means that this could certainly be a woman. The local Police Commander in our Greenwich borough, the Leader of the Council, the Council CEO, and the MP, are all women. There are many more such examples, but these are some of the most prominent in this locality. So we have to accept that these women, are (for the time being) considered as ‘better than the men’ – at what they do.

        No problem with that. However, when it comes to Family Services; if it is the male who is actually equally capable as the female at parenting…or even, as will sometimes be the case, far better – then typically, “all hell breaks loose”. Family Services and the related groups appear to almost universally deem it to be “unacceptable”, and “forbidden” – for men to be considered equal or better nurturers – than women.

        So what is going on here? Some sort of very powerful discrimination paradigm and construct IS operating – so can we identify it, and talk about it?

        Women are now free to develop unlimited roles – but men are not?

        Why is it so important NOT to acknowledge male nurturing – and in fact to attempt to destroy it – wherever possible?


  2. Hi Karen

    Excellent thank you for this.

    There was an article doing the rounds this week on domestic violence which rightly challenged the men-bad/women-good paradigm promoted by advocates for female victims of domestic violence.

    It then attempted to recast domestic violence as good people (victims) versus bad people (perpetrators)—when in reality it seems we may actually be dealing with a wide-range of paradigms that includes perpetrators, primary aggressors, secondary aggressors, mutual agressors, victims etc

    However, those working for male victims (rather like those working with fathers in your article) tend to take the existing feminist paradigm and try and turn it on its head.

    While this serves some (some) male victims who fit neatly into the female perpetrator/male victim narrative, it makes it very difficult for men who are secondary or mutual aggressors as we have sold the story that there is not such thing as “six of one and half a dozen of the other” and there should be a zero tolerance policy towards violence against women (but not a zero tolerance policy to violence against men).

    I have encountered therapists who have worked with couples but these only seems to be acceptable when the woman is the primary aggressor (though it’s also not an uncommon approach in child-to-parent violence where they work with the adult victim to understand their role).

    Would you say a similar issue applies in the domestic violence arena where rather that working with bad-perpetrators and good-victims, we need to working therapeutically with individuals (and where appropriate couples) to identify and resolve the underlying causes?



    1. Hi Glen

      In a way Karen’s diagrammes show the problem quite clearly. Despite its lack of explanatory power the “patriarchy” model has two virtues. It is very simple to understand and it actually chimes with conservative social mores from the mid 19th Century and so doesn’t actually challenge at all. Of course these are superficial but are sufficient for most debate. The problem with better understandings, such as that presented by Karen in this excellent analysis is that they are necessarily more complex and include challenging ideas. As a follower of the work of Prof. Archer and Dr. Graham-Kevan,and someone making use of material from them and their colleagues I have to admit that the explanatory power of their models is great but thy are complex and require one to suspend cherished beliefs about mothers and indeed relatives in particular. As you say this means that a “one size fits all” approach is hopeless. As an observation we do appear to be in a really novel era where relationships are considered to be only partners or partners and offspring.
      Certainly it s good for men to break the power of the simplistic but it is also vital for the whole family,which an often include an extended family.
      I was actually alerted to the political power of the simplistic paradigm by the co-option of two areas of social work. Firstly abusive relationships for under 18s which the early response, rightly, regarded this as an issue for education and support to all young people as they learned to be adult and for some this included dealing with past issues. Secondly abuse of older people. Often a complex issue with family relationships, illnesses (dementias especially), personal history and so on playing a part. Both reduced to the “patriarchy” model with males always intentionally an aggressor. With grotesque results for older men with acute dementias or eleven year old boys given no guidance attempting to be “grown up”.
      I cannot over emphesise the importance to people damaged and tried in ways hard to comprehend for those of us blessed with ordinary lives, the importance of seeing the person not the label.


    2. Without a doubt Glen, this is the basis of my discussions with Erin Pizzey over the past couple of years. Her understanding of the family set in its historical context and her analysis of the way in which familial messages and imperatives impact upon children is absolutely the right way, in my view, to approach the issue of both violence in the home and family separation. The silencing of Erin’s voice and the subsequent championing of her amongst the father’s groups, again is the result of the way in which the feminist paradigm holds sway in all things to do with the family. In reality Erin’s lifelong work has been transformational for families because what she is doing is interrupting the family scripts that are handed down through the generations and she is liberating people from those chains in terms of how they understand themselves and how they manage their behaviour. Erin’s work for women as well as men is astonishing in its clarity and is so because she does not work (and has never worked) within the feminist paradigm. Her thinking is clear therefore of all constructed doctrine and she is focused purely upon the wellbeing of the relationships between people set in the context of their history. In working with Erin I have that the work that we do at the Clinic has been assisted enormously because we have begun the work of building up the theorectical framework which allows us to develop critical thinking tools for working with families. Actually, the power of the work that Erin does is to support the structure of the family as well as the individuals within it and to empower individuals to become the transformational character with their family line. In this way violence between men and women, which is located in learned behaviours is stopped and new patterns of understanding and behaving are learned. Therapeutic assistance in this way prevents the generational march by protecting children from absorbing the messages about violence which they internalise and take forward into their own parenting. Erin was brutally attacked by the feminist movement for writing her book Prone to Violence, this was because she was absolutely exposing the myth of the women’s rights movement and had her analysis been allowed to stand, the whole feminist movement and domination of family services would have failed completly. As it was she was threatened, sidelined, belittled and discredited in order that the feminist movement achieved and maintained power over the family services sector. What followed was, in my view, an absolute travesty which has lead us to the complex and problematic position we find ourselves in today where family services simply do not meet the needs of real people.

      In my view and experience, the only way forward for anyone working in the field of the family, is to approach the issues from a mental health perspective and from a transgenerational as well as horizontal analysis of the relational world that individuals inhabit. This does not prevent us from spotting the dangerous people, the murderers, the rapists, the controllers, neither does it prevent us from spotting those involved in primary, secondary or mutual aggression. Using a triage approach, each of these can be differentiated, each can be understood and each can be treated, whilst at the same time working to support the structure of the family and the protective factors that this offers to children.

      It is not the box ticking or categorisation or dividing into all good and all bad that is seen too often in family services. Instead it meets the individual where they are and galvanises understanding, insight and supports changing behaviours.

      Erin has further thoughts on the nature of her early work in the refuges which I also think has enormous power to support change and I hope that when she is back in the UK she will write about that on here for our discussion and debate. K


  3. I describe myself as a gender feminist but do not believe that all women are good or men bad. We do live in a patriarchal society that needs a lot more improvement.


    1. could you describe how that patriarchal society that you live in babs25, demonstrates men’s inherent advatnage in the field of family services. So for example, how does that patriarchal society advantage men and boys over women and girls when it comes to caring for children and the support that men and boys get in doing that. If this society is patriarchal I would expect that men and boys would have priority access to control over children and that they would be enabled and empowered to make the choices they want to make over caring for their children as well as providing for them. Could you explain how that works for us?


  4. This is an excellent article – had to read it twice to digest it all as there is so much in it!! The part I can personally relate to is that grandparents can play a large part in the alienation and are not always victims. My ex-husband’s mother with whom he was far too close with and the relationship was dysfunctional was an extremely powerful force behind the alienation and abduction of my 2 sons and still is today although she is in her 90’s!! It was 15 years ago that this all started. Also, if you read Lady Catherine Meyer’s ‘They are my Children Too’ you will we see the same pattern there. Her ex’s parents played a large part in the abduction and alienation. I was treated as a mere vessel that gave birth to them and they wanted complete control and me out of their lives. I am sure there are many others who can relate to this as well.


    1. Something that the woman who commented this week on how paternal grandparents are always the alienated ones, completely missed ecamp2014. The reality is that parental grandparents can be the most toxic of all when they are in a dysfunctional relationship with their children. The power of the cross generational coalition in those circumstances can be enormous. This is why analysing outside of the feminist paradigm is so important.


  5. Makes the obvious everyday experience of the lives we live make sense. Encourages us to make adjustments and change to whatever experiences we are living. It places responsibility right back into the hands of families with difficulties were it belongs and a real chance to change for the better.

    The feminist construct instantly straight jackets children as it ignores the reality of family dynamics. To denie the truth that men and woman can equally be the ‘power’ players for both good or ill within families has harmed many children.

    When has the law ever allowed ignorance to be used as an excuse for breaking it?


    1. For me the part which is the most powerful is exactly as you have pinpointed here Nick – it places responsibility right back into the hands of families with difficulties ….that is where we have to start in my view.


  6. Hi Karen,
    I’ve only just read this and it was enlightening for me, it fills in the gaps regarding family dynamics. The feminist paradigm of patriarchal power was total alien to the reality in my family, I have come to realise that often women have implicit and unquestionable power in families unless there is over coercive power by the dominate male, and men use their power to please their mother, wife partner, etc. and take the blame for when things go wrong, even if not there fault, because men take the risks and are told they are in control as providers.


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