A Guest Blog By Nick Woodall
Parental alienation is the enactment of power and control over a targeted parent through a child or children by an alienating parent. To that extent, it falls within the widely accepted definitions of domestic violence and abuse (i) which are enshrined in legislation and policy around the world. However, in my experience, whilst domestic violence and abuse may be recognised as an element of the relationship between parents in dispute over children matters, the professionals who advise the courts rarely, if ever, approach the case with an understanding that a child’s rejecting position may be the extension of a pattern of domestic abuse that has been present between the parents whilst the family was together.
Around the world, domestic violence and abuse is almost exclusively set within a feminist framework which argues that it is ‘a consequence of the inequalities between men and women, rooted in patriarchal traditions that encourage men to believe they are entitled to power and control over their partners’ (ii). Indeed, the 1993 United Nations resolution (iii), the first international human rights instrument to exclusively and explicitly address the issue, defined domestic violence and abuse as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women’. This both reflects and reinforces the belief and the standpoint that domestic violence and abuse is perpetrated by men against women. So widely is this narrative believed, so often is it repeated and so powerfully does it match the stereotypes about gender behaviours and relationships that the international research goes almost unnoticed. So, what does the research tell us?
Contrary to the orthodox belief, the international research clearly demonstrates that domestic violence and abuse is not a problem rooted in gender power imbalances. For example, a 2014 report (iv) published in the United Kingdom which examined the male control theory of men’s partner violence, concluded that, ‘contrary to the male control theory, women were found to be more physically aggressive to their partners than men were,’ and that, ‘using Johnson’s typology (v), women were more likely than men to be classed as “intimate terrorists,” which was counter to earlier findings.’ They conclude by suggesting that their findings do not support the male control theory of intimate partner violence (IPV), but that they ‘fit the view that IPV does not have a special etiology, and is better studied within the context of other forms of aggression.’ Similarly, the respected US experts Joan Kelly and Michael Johnson suggest that the data supports claims ‘that women both initiate violence and participate in mutual violence and that, particularly in teenage and young adult samples, women perpetrate violence against their partners more frequently than do the men’ (vi).
Significantly, a 2007 study (vii) in the United States found that almost 24% of all relationships had some violence, and half (49.7%) of those were reciprocally violent. It found that in non-reciprocally violent relationships, women were the perpetrators in more than 70% of the cases. However, it found that men were more likely to inflict injury than women were. These, and many, many other studies demonstrate very clearly that, rather than domestic violence and abuse being a gender issue, it is a result of issues such as individual pathology, substance misuse and relationship dysfunction and that women and men both inflict it and are subject to it.
In their important work (referred to above), Joan Kelly and Michael Johnson argue that empirical research has demonstrated that intimate partner violence is not a unitary phenomenon and propose a differentiation approach to family violence and abuse that recognises four types that can be differentiated with respect to partner dynamics, context, and consequences. These, they describe as Coercive Controlling Violence, Violent Resistance, Situational Couple Violence, and Separation-Instigated Violence (we would use the term violence and abuse in all of the categories except Violent Resistance).
Coercive controlling violence and abuse occurs when one parent controls the other through fear, physical harm, mental and emotional harm or psychological threat. In these cases, there is a clear power imbalance in the relationship. Situational couple violence and abuse occurs as fights between couples where both are involved. It may be recurring or ‘one off’ in nature and usually causes shame and embarrassment. Separation instigated violence and abuse (i.e. that which can accompany a divorce or separation) occurs at the end of a relationship and, whilst it may cause distress, it is not experienced as control. It often involves violence on the part of both parents, both physical and verbal fighting and parents, again, will often feel ashamed and uncomfortable. Violent resistance is the use of violence to resist a violent or coercively controlling partner. It may be almost automatic and surfaces almost as soon as the coercively controlling and violent partner begins to use physical violence. Our practice tells us that, in cases where violence and abuse is either the cause, or is a contributing factor, in a child’s rejecting position, it is that which falls into the coercive controlling violence and abuse category that is at play. By extension, it must be recognised that not all types of domestic violence and abuse can be assumed to be the cause of alienation.
In looking at this category more closely and in examining how it is a constituent part of parental alienation, we consider that the exercising of coercive power and control by one parent over another is invariably reflective of a learned family narrative that is passed down through the generations and it is, therefore, within this framework that we examine the potential for domestic violence or abuse to have played a part in causing or contributing to a child’s rejecting position. Gendered models of violence or abuse, such as a patriarchal analysis, leads to omission of critical aspects of understanding. It conceptualises women’s and children’s experience as being the same rather than different and legitimises or dismisses women’s use of violence against men and against their children. Worse than this, it transmits generational trauma and prevents an interruption of the cycle of power and control through the resolving of trauma patterns. Understanding how power and control plays itself out in the family means understanding dysfunction and how the use of violence to uphold power and control, whether that is physical, emotional or psychological, is woven into both the horizontal and vertical relationship patterns.
Working within an understanding that domestic violence and abuse and, in particular that which takes the form of coercive control, is a generational issue rather than a gender issue, it is important to examine and understand the specific family and the specific family dynamics and to recognise and understand the unspoken messages that play themselves out in the family drama. In exploring whether domestic violence or abuse is either the cause of, or is a contributing factor in, alienation, it is necessary to analyse the family history of both parents, the attachment patterns of children and parents in those family systems, parental behaviours, and power and control patterns. This is known as psycho-genealogy and it is an extremely important tool in understanding your own alienation experience.
A Generational Model of analysis of power and control patterns looks for the presence of unresolved trauma, personality disorder, a lack of empathy, poor interpersonal skills, abandonment issues and an inability to manage rage. Importantly, it recognises that power and control through violence is a learned behaviour transmitted in childhood experiences of being parented and establishes where trans-generational transmission of trauma patterns may be being played out in the parent/parent and parent/child relationships. It also conceptualises male and female responsibilities for violence and abuse as belonging to each, individually and separately from that of their children but identifies where children are being used as conduits for the continued use of pre-existing power and control behaviours. In this way, it protects children by highlighting and preventing risky behaviours in parenting and recognises that children who are subjected to parental alienation are, themselves, victims of abuse. By differentiating between different elements of behavioural violence, it is possible to establish its roots and determine the treatment for it.
Notes and references:
i. For example, the UK Government defines domestic violence and abuse as ‘any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality’. https://www.gov.uk/domestic-violence-and-abuse [Accessed 10 March 2015].
ii. Women’s Aid (2006). What is the cause of domestic violence? [online]. London: Women’s Aid. Available from: http://goo.gl/Jd4y2z: [Accessed 11 March 2015].
iii. United Nations General Assembly (1993) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. A/RES/48/104
iv. Bates EA, Graham-Kevan N and Archer J (2014) Testing predictions from the male control theory of men’s partner violence.
v. Johnson, M. P. (2008)A Typology of Domestic Violence: Intimate Terrorism, Violent Resistance, and Situational Couple Violence. New Hampshire: Northeastern University Press.
vi. Kelly, J. B. and Johnson, M. P. (2008), Differentiation among types of intimate partner violence: research update and implications for interventions. Family Court Review, 46: 476–499.
vii. Differences in Frequency of Violence and Reported Injury Between Relationships With Reciprocal and Nonreciprocal Intimate Partner Violence. Daniel J. Whitaker, PhD, Tadesse Haileyesus, MS, Monica Swahn, PhD, and Linda S. Saltzman, PhD. American Journal of Public Health. May 2007. Volume 97, Issue 5.
From my experiences both personal as a former house husband and voluntary work with Families Need Fathers and as a committee member of Central and North London Branches and Chair since 2011 of both, I find that Domestic Violence is the prime driver in most cases of parental alienation. By DV I mean the use of DV agencies as a weapon of choice rather than as a shield which they portray themselves as and receive so much funding for.
The hi-jacking of Local Authorities DV approach from the feminist patriarchial mindset is the most damaging element against children that I can think off. Effectively an alienating parent especially if female has unlimited power because she has all the institutions of the State to automatically assist. I make this comment based on 5 Ombudsman Investigations incl 3 Parliamentary and Health Service with findings all in my favour. And saddest factor of all is that so many local authorities DV agencies in constitution and practice automatically discriminate in service provision based on gender, refusing men. This means children are denied the protection of half their parents because of this crude child endangering gender discrimination.
A great blog by you as usual Karen and hopefully the priceless work you and Nick are doing in the field of Parental Alienation will get the success it so richly deserves.
Vincent you took the words out of my mouth but wrote them much better than I could. I’ll just exchange your UK experiences for my NZ ones, sadly much the same. The biggest ‘fear’ I have for guys when they contact me is that their ex will try to abuse the system to get a protection order against them thereby putting the Dads on a back foot from the start. A good term is ‘administrative violence’ . Thanks again Karen and Nick.
Hello KeninNZ. Many thanks for your comment. It is sad that families are facing the same issues around the world. Kind regards, Nick.
What you have experienced shows only too clearly how a dogmatic adherence to a socio-political approach to family violence and the handing over of public services to pressure groups leads to poor outcomes for families. I can only admire your courage and tenacity in trying to highlight these issues.
With parental alienation, of course, comes the additional problem of patterns of coercive control being exercised through the children, so that the abuser simply hides behind ‘the voice of the child’. In that respect, we find that services appear, all too often, to be blind to it, irrespective of whether it is being enacted by a mother or a father.
Peut-être d’intérêt professionnel ? Langue un peu compliqué, mes référence a des chiffres ressortis des études sur la violence conjugale qui bouleverse les idée reçus !!!
Un créneau pour mardi 19 avril ?
Bien a vous, Ross
Journalist, Editor & Trainer
M: +33-6 30 10 60 26 O: +33-5 34 59 71 35 email@example.com http://www.rosstieman.com
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A great article, and extremely accurate in my experience.
My estranged wife’s mother was (as documented in psychiatric reports) both physically and emotionally abusive to her as she was growing up. This included belittling her educational achievements, controlling her relationships (as an example, calling her daughter when she was out with a boyfriend to tell her her father was having a heart attack to make her return home. No heart attack had happened) and physically assaulting at least one boyfriend.
My wife was abusive to me during our marriage, controlling my friend and familial relationships, verbally abusing my older children to me, assaulting me when I returned from a business trip with my leg in plaster and was therefore unable to buy her birthday presents due to immobility. This included throwing all of my clothes out of the front door of the house we shared and watching me crawl to retrieve them.
When I finally asked for a divorce after being told by her to visit my GP and admit to being a violent husband and father, parental alienation coupled with false allegations hit me like a ton of bricks. It was only on reflection that I realised my children had been alienated from me during our marriage, and had become enmeshed with their mother.
18 months of the hell that is a contact centre, all thanks to false allegations, were only ended when the only professional in my case decided that it had to end. My children were brought to me one sunny summers day, and the relationship re-established in an instant.
It is so sad however, that my children still show signs of alienation, and enmeshment, by constantly texting their mother telling her my financial situation, that they miss her so much while they are with me, and taking things from my home to give to her without my knowledge.
There is so much evidence that alienation was, and still is present.
In a letter they were asked to write to the Judge in my (now ended case), they complained about a holiday I had taken them on last summer to the point of saying they never wanted to go on holiday with me again. This was unravelled last week, when, on day 1 of a 9 day stay with me, they asked if we could go on holiday.
It seems that the alienation was used as a tool to dupe the court and CAFCASS (who swallowed it hook, line and sinker) in order to take the children from their previous primary carer, and leave me with a laughable child arrangements order whereby I see my children too little. Oh, and undoubtedly for the financial gain of a CMS order too.
It baffles me that many so called experts and Judges cannot see how obvious strategies are utilised by some for their own gain, and simply do nothing about it.
I think your story illustrates, very well, the trans generational nature of family violence and how the past plays itself out in the present. I’m pleased to hear that you have been making progress and that you are seeing your children.
Kind regards, Nick.
TMP: I am not allowing you to speak to other readers as you are in your comment, I have told you before that I will not post your comments either as TMP or anyone else if you cannot respect other people’s experiences. No-one is more turned off than I am by the kind of unempathic rudeness your comments displays, if what you are trying to do is get people onside with you, this is not how to do it and you are not going to do that on my blog. K
Well written and will blow the whole debacle open to our society; Department Directors of Education throughout our 40 Local Authorities watch out – for you will be in the firing line and you will be defeated by love and best interests…..of all our children.
Thank you for your comments, Nigel. This is definitely an issue that needs to be tackled in many areas of public life. kind regards, Nick.
I forgot to add that the wearing of button video cameras (micro size) would help provide empirical evidence as required…to support the evidence found!
Perhaps professional interest? Language a little complicated, my reference has figures emerged from studies on domestic violence that disrupts the idea received !!!
A niche for Tuesday, April 19?
Sincerely yours, Ross
Journalist, Editor & Trainer
Thankyou Someone, very helpful translation
A fantastic article, ive worked on the Fnf helpline and in domestic violence, this has to be the way to look at these issues, ive leant a lot as a counsellor from yours and Karens work.
Many thanks for your comments, Phill. There is some excellent research out there and some important practice recommendations. I’d definitely point you towards Kelly and Johnson if you haven’t read it before. You can pick it up on here:
Kind regards, Nick.
Apologies in advance if this has been covered in this article and I didn’t understand – it is possible it may well have been by those parts of the article related to References (iv) and (v) above.
Apparently one of the largest UNREPORTED crimes, worldwide, is that of physical violence against men by their partner or spouse. Certainly, in my case, even after being deeply embroiled in a Parental Alienation court case for more than 3 years, I just could not bring myself to admit having suffered this, probably out of embarrassment.
In our case, I don’t think it happened due to the above referred “four types that can be differentiated with respect to partner dynamics, context, and consequences”, but was more a result of physical changes that take place and present themselves in behavioural changes.
Great article Nick.
I think you are very right that many men struggle to admit that they are victims of domestic abuse. Some as you say may be too embarrassed, but I also think that many men simply do not see what is happening to them as domestic abuse. However, the problem goes far wider than that. There was a study into men’s experiences of DV not so long ago, which showed that a man who reports domestic violence is very likely to be arrested by the police. https://www.tees.ac.uk/sections/news/pressreleases_story.cfm?story_id=6028&this_issue_title=September%202015&this_issue=268
……….yes, “not being believed” – where else have we heard that story in relation to victims? the deafness that accompanies “denial” when the guardians of law and order have no clue (or lack the gumption) to come up with the appropriate response or action!
In my opinion, the real and underlying problem here has always been the inadequacy of too many Judges within the Family Courts System which, when all said and done, is responsible for dispensing justice to all without fear or favour. Along with so-called professionals within the Support Services, charged with acting in the child’s best interest, far too many lack the knowledge, competence and, often, the honesty to establish the reality of what lies behind the false allegations of DV that muddy the water in this whole area.
The adversarial nature of the Family Courts play right into the hands of the uninformed and nicely sets up the “zero-sum” game of winner-takes-all in cases where one party (usually the resident parent) has an acute personality disorder of some sort of other.
It seems quite clear that, for some time now, false allegations of DV have been the weapon of choice for many parents who want to be “wrong and strong” (ie. to inflict unnecessary pain on the other parent whilst simultaneously claiming to be the victim and staying in control) in a society where infidelity and unreasonable behaviour are terms rarely used as grounds for divorce or separation anymore.
When looking back over the history of a relationship, can it really be that difficult to ascertain the likely truth behind false allegations of DV – to establish the motives of each parent (when they met, when the child was born and at the time they separated)? Whether the parent is putting their adult needs before the Court rather than those of the child?
In the end, false allegations of DV are a very cruel form of bullying and, all too often, the authorities are complicit in the victimisation of those accused. Until the issue of false allegations is tackled, head-on (and punished), the good work done on all these reports will be under-utilised.
Great post, Nick
Extremely well put, EHFAR.
I could only add that most disturbed bullying parents out to break up the family and eliminate the other parent, simply wouldn’t know how to go about this without the overwhelming help and encouragement of certain Social Service and Police units. It’s difficult to decide, but even more than the Judges, perhaps, as Vincent has emphasized – these individuals are the ones responsible.
To continue on the domestic violence abuse discussion above which I am in total agreement with. Now the children are grown and are young adults in their early to late twenties. At what point do you let the children know that their father used domestic violence of abuse strategy to eliminate their mother out of the children’s lives? Will these children ever figure it out on their own? Will they want to hear the abuse strategy of their favored parent? How do you soften the message of this bullying strategy? In my case this pure and severe case of parental alienation form has been 12 years. The children are grown but the favored parent is still in full control of the children’s lives but they do not see the manipulations and control. All they see is a victim. One child decided to have a relationship with me and we have been building our relationship for 5 years, but still under full influence of the father and siblings. The oldest child is a target child and whips all 3 in place. The youngest child most vulnerable. The oldest child is the target and espoused child and has taken my place in the family hierarchy. If I have an opportunity to tell my adult child whom I have a relationship with of his father’s abuse strategies, do you feel that the child will listen? Has anyone here have a similar situation and tried this?
Yes this is a very important point. Whatever the letter of laws the really important thing is the behaviour of the agencies charged with advising or taking action for the courts. What guides them is the training and guidance documents they have to set out their practice. These are frequently at the least outdated and often simply produced by “Charities” for quango’s. With little actual expert input from, for instance, research publication. What ever the law may say it is the action of these agents/agencies that guides what happens. It is a long job but changing these are what is needed to make any material changes. As an example some years ago now the Home Office concluded that the treatment programmes for DV perpetration were completely ineffective. Identifying the “Duluth Model” as innapropriate to effective outcomes. Accordingly they tendered the programmes out on the basis of a different approach that had shown some success (addressing issues such as substance abuse, confidence, mental health etc. which are in the risk profiles for abusers). However the tenders were on a large scale and the organisations able to deliver the required volume were the very same who had the contracts already. With the consequence that the result saw very few new providers taken on, and in fact all the HO got was the old training slightly re-badged. The result is of course little improvement on success outcomes. In fact money still being poured into programmes that a the HO itself decided were ineffective nearly a decade ago now.
Attempts to explain to children how they have become so disproportionately controlled by one parent seem to be more of an appeasing process to vindicate the target parents predicament. Learning that the parent they have spent most of their formative years with is detrimentally controlling is not something they will take lightly. It’s a bit like asking someone to deny themselves.
If you want your child to have a better understanding of how your former partner has been able to exert coercive control and thereby fashion the minds of the family in their favour you will probably have to be subtle about it. To a certain extent we cannot escape the influence of those closest to us and as children aligned to one parent at the expense of the other it must be very difficult to go against the wishes and desires of the parent they have become preferentially aligned to.
Just as every bully needs a victim so too every alienator needs a target.
The best action a target parent can take is to perceive themselves as a justifiable parent in their own right. They have to get on with the task of being a good parent and in this respect there are many good books which can assist us. The psychological impact on the children whose parent perceives themselves as powerless will be to arouse pity and disdain eventually leading to criticism and rejection from the child.
I think the children need to see you as a strong adult in your own right, carving your own furrow, with a strong sense of self and a focussed attention to the individual desires and concerns of people closest to them, especially their children.
The controlling parent and/or child may try to draw you into a competition in which they announce themselves as the winner. You are best suited to absorb these attempts by acceptance of their behaviour and acknowledgement of their enthusiasm. Remember you are dealing with feelings, not facts nor opinions.
On the other hand, trying to explain why the other parent has been so dominant and controlling and said such horrible lies about you is of no consequence. What does matter is the here on in. If you have the opportunity to find out about the individual child and make time to show your appreciation and support, then gradually your child will arouse themselves from the barriers and restrictions to your relationship that they have self-imposed. Be sensitive and appreciative of your child’s opinions and feelings if and when they choose to unwind.
I have no qualifications for saying what I do. My experience is simply that I have been co-parenting with an Ex for the last eight years and experienced a full gamut of difficulties, all of which might have led to alienation
Sage advice, Anonymous
As a TP of 15 years (plus an additional 10 I unknowingly endured prior to separation) my hard-fought experience drives me to suggest that anyone looking for meaningful direction in this area could do worse than read “The drama of being a child – Alice Miller”.
As a child of PA and a TP, for over 40 years, I’ve search far and wide for answers to how someone condemned to this syndrome can move on with their life whilst avoiding the pitfall of “denial” that can lead to increased devastation further down the line. Following Karen’s post “The drama of the alienated child” (and reading the above book), for the first time in 25 years, I now believe I have the first seeds of knowledge to, potentially, ascertain what my children needed (and I couldn’t give them) when they were born as well as following separation, why I became a TP in the first place and how to do my best for them going forward.
……but MOST importantly, it further supports my efforts to empathise with and feel compassion for my ex who, when all said and done, is as much of a victim as I once was. I, deliberately, use the past-tense because once you shed the label of victim you’re, then, free to take responsibility to pursue creative “opportunities” and solutions to the problem rather than relying on non-productive accusations, criticisms and blame….to “respond ably” to the situation and/or circumstances rather than the person and their behaviour. In short, you retrieve “power” over your own life and the ability to change what you can rather than waste energy on what someone else can’t (or won’t) change
Your book has arrived EHFAR – am posting it on now, it’s a bit tatty and it’s the first edition not the revised one but I have just checked it with the revised edition and all of the key points are in there. K
Thank you for the sage advice. This is very helpful.