Coercive control is a hot topic in the UK at present. Dominated and manipulated by the women’s rights lobby groups as being solely about masculine power in a patriarchal society, we are asked to believe that only men coercively control women. In a recent paper proposing to amend Practice Direction 12, statistical evidence from Women’s Aid and other political ideological women’s groups appear to be relied upon and balancing evidence from other groups concerned with childrens needs and the experience of men who suffer violence in the home, appears to have been overlooked. Thus the reality that coercive control is a behaviour which is perpetrated by men AND women, often, in the case of family separation, involving the use of children to further that control, is overlooked.
In cases of parental alienation, where coercive control is the behavioural dynamic underpinning a child’s absolute refusal to countenance a relationship with a parent, this omission of reality in such an important part of the legislative procedure is concerning. Therefore, lest we believe that parental alienation, like coercive control, like violence in the home, is only perpetrated by one gender against the other, let’s take a closer look at how this dynamic is gendered and why it is important to know that.
I read many papers and many articles which proclaim that parental alienation is not gendered. This is untrue. Parental alienation IS gendered and it is important to understand what that means if one works in this field. Having arrived at this work through many years of working on gender equality policy and practice, I understand that for many lay people, saying that something is not gendered, to them means that it affects men and women. Let me tell you this. Saying something is not gendered is a bit like saying that something is not real. Everything in the world is gendered. Not because it is inherently gendered (before anyone gets on my case about trans issues) but because we project gendered ideas and assumptions onto the world. Sex is fixed, it is what we are born with (and again, forget the trans arguments because sex IS fixed, it is why trans people have to go through transition) but gender is not fixed, it is changeable, mutable and how we present our gendered selves depends upon how we are taught to believe about the world, how we believe that sex and gender are interrelated and how we feel comfortable in our subjective experience of the world. Sex is fixed it is in your genitals and endocrine system. Gender is not fixed it is how you experience and perceive the world as a result of that. Got that? Right onto parental alienation as a gendered issue.
Parental alienation IS gendered. That means that how it is enacted by mothers and father is different depending on the gender roles those mothers and fathers play in their children’s lives. Thus mothers who alienate do so most often in the subjective world and fathers who alienate do so most often in the objective world. This means that children who become alienated by a mother against a father will often have become that way because the mother has manipulated the child in the subjective relationship through enmeshment (mother’s inability to tell the difference between her own and her child’s experience) and through the playing out of the mother’s unfulfilled needs using the child as an extension of her own psychological self. Children who are alienated by fathers against their mothers are most often those who turn their objective controlling behaviours towards their children when the mother leaves the relationship. Analysis thus allows us to see that the alienating strategies of mothers have become hidden in the external narrative of the women’s political lobby groups (all women who prevent contact are only doing so because of a coercive controlling father) whilst the alienating strategies of fathers, whilst more easily recognisable because they match the political ideological narrative of coercive control, often become silently accepted by practitioners because of their own gendered narrative which is – if a child rejects a mother that must be because the mother is a really really bad mother.
In this way, the gendered narrative of parental alienation becomes submerged beneath the women’s rights narrative which is fully present in family law through the ideological training and beliefs of practitioners in this field. A field which is also increasingly reliant upon the voice of the child. Ask an alienated child what they wish for and you can be sure that the reply you get will not be their own but that of the coercive controlling parent. That’s because they are being controlled coercively, the very definition of which is – a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self. (Evan Stark).
I have not yet met an alienated child who has not had their liberty curtailed and their sense of self stripped away. Nor have I met an alienated child who has not submitted to the emotional terrorism that is parental alienation, not because of anything other than they are a child, they are utterly dependent upon their parents and if one of their parents is psychologically unwell and driven to control the child, the only thing the child can do is submit to that. I don’t think there is a clearer example of coercive controlling behaviour than parental alienation in its pure form and whether it is being caused by mother or father, the impact upon the child is just as bad if not worse than the experience of an adult suffering the same. At least an adult can escape. What chance has a child to do that, especially in this era of listening to the voices of children and elevating them to the top of the decision making hierarchy.
Imagine a woman, who will try to leave many times before they actually do, being believed by the political ideological groups, when she parrots her abuser. Imagine a woman, who tries to convince others that she is safe and well in the hands of her abuser, being told that her voice matters and will be listened to. The political ideologues have done a great job in convincing the outside world that abused women’s voices should be analysed in the shadow of patriarchal control, how about we start to analyse abused and alienated children’s voices in the shadow of the coercive control that it really is?
To do that we need deeper understanding of what the world of alienated children looks and feels like. To do that we need to educate professionals to look beyond their stereotyped ideas of what good mothering and good fathering is and we need to impress upon those who safeguard our children through family law, that coercive control looks and feels to a child like the loving (but suffocating and damaging) arms of their mother or the deepest held fear that their father will, if they do not conform and support his beliefs, do to them what he did to their mother.
It starts with gender. It starts with the self. It starts with what goes on in the mind of practitioners and it starts with developing a wider, broader, much much more sophisticated understanding of what the family does as it goes through separation. It requires focus, knowledge, experience and an understanding that children’s voices are not more highly evolved than those of their parents and that children have needs and rights to a healthy childhood which are not indivisible from those of their mother or father.
We need a movement for children, to protect them from the way in which their needs are seen as part of a movement for women’s rights and we need a new way of ensuring that their wellbeing is protected through and beyond family separation so that they are not caused by a lack of gendered knowledge, to remain captured as prisoners of an unwell parent’s mind.
And in the light of the proposed amendments to Practice Direction 12, we don’t need it soon. We need it now.