Being a veteran in the post separation landscape (I first began work in this field in 1991), I find myself again and again returning to the same places in my research work. This week, in my investigations, I find myself back at the place where the divorce laws changed in the UK (1973) and women began leaving marriages in their thousands, taking their children with them. Those who know my work in this field, will remember that I have worked in the voluntary sector for a single parent charity, before I shifted the focus of that work toward whole family support in the post separation landscape. After which I worked for the UK government for some years, developing services to help children retain relationships with both parents after family separation.
I left the voluntary sector after twenty years, when I recognised that the underlying dynamics of the family support services in the UK are completely driven by feminist policy and practice. In my work as a psychotherapist, I recognised the way in which this feminist underpinning of ancillary services, both pushed men out of family life whilst blaming them for not being there. My work with Oxfam in the late nineties, enabled me to understand at depth the way in which feminist trained practitioners, demonised both men AND women who were rejected by a parent. From there it was but a short hop to recognition that feminism is unhelpful in the post separation landscape, because it both distorts and misinterprets the reality of what is really happening in family separation.
Examining this all over again leaves me feeling somewhat despondent because it is now almost twenty years since I first realised that social policy in the UK shapes outcomes for children whose parents separate. Beneath the statistics, behind the proclamations that parental alienation is about high conflict, the reality is that the frameworks upon which our separating families are assisted, rest upon the false belief that women HAVE problems whilst men ARE problems. Unless of course, you are a mother whose child says they do not wish to see you, in which case you are a much much bigger problem than any father and you really should be kept away from your child because of that.
Nick and I used to train the staff in the Child Maintenance Service to understand gender equality in practice. Given the remit of these members of staff was to collect child maintenance, it was always fascinating to us that the first question anyone asked in the training, when confronted with a case study in which a woman did not see her child was, ‘what did she do to cause that?’ Whereas the first question asked of a father in a similar case study was ‘does he pay child maintenance?’ Gender assumptions in the post separation landscape were (and probably still are) led by the way in which the subjective beliefs of those operating the systems, drove the services. It is the same with those who work at the forefront of families where children say they do not want to see a parent. The first reaction is ‘what did he do?’ And if it is a mother it is ‘My god, that’s awful, what on earth did she do?’
The post separation landscape is an apocalyptic space in which the days and weeks after separation see parents doing things that they may look back on one day with horror and shame. Family separation is no less traumatic than bereavement and the eruption of long buried trauma, which comes howling up through the schisms in the shifting emotional sands and tectonic plates of blame and mistrust, is truly capable of destroying lives. Children’s lives more than any, are vulnerable to this volcanic spewing of generational buried trauma and the question I always ask myself in doing this work is not how does alienation happen to children, but why does it not happen to more?
In this post separation landscape, where parents are urged to seek mediation and other interventions designed for people thinking with their right minds, (instead of the shocked reactive minds they are actually using), helping parents is about patching and propping up rather than healing and mending. The healing and mending comes later, much later, when parents have traversed the psychological journey of recovery which must be undertaken after such a life changing event. At the outset, it is about caring for traumatised people who must make urgent decisions in a fragile emotional and psychological space.
For some those decisions are about where to live, for others they are about how to ensure that they are still a child’s mum or dad. All such decisions however in the early days of separation, are likely to have long lasting effects. Often the first seeds of alienation are sown in the hours and days after the decision to separate is made, that is if the green shoots of alienation are not already being tended by one parent who sowed them long before the present moment was recognised by the other.
I have been looking again this week at the post separation landscape in the UK and am shocked and saddened to see how little has changed since I was working in that space. With the landscape firmly divided into support for mothers or for fathers, even the national relationship charity Relate remains pretty much on the fence when it comes to giving real information about how children cope with post separation family life. It is as if no-one wants to go near the reality of what family separation means in the lives of children, no one truly wants to face it.
But face it we must if we are going to understand and help another generation of children because the truth of the matter is that children in the post separation landscape are like lost souls trying to find a way back to a place where inside they can feel whole again. As we write in our book, the transition bridge, which is a metaphorical way of understand how children manage the space which opens up between parents, is only crossed by children. Whilst parents, in the post separation landscape only have to cope with their own individual experience of separation (alongside those of their children), children have to cope with their own feelings, those of their mother and father AND the crossing back and forth of the transition bridge, an experience which becomes too much for too many children who are left to do this alone without help.
The diagram above is from our book and it depicts the emotional, psychological and physical journey a child must make. In a landscape which is completely unknown to the child, in a space where their parents are angry, grieving, suspicious and worried, and where some parents may be decompensating, children are being asked to move back and forth across this bridge alone and without help. And we wonder why children become alienated?
The problem with the post separation landscape in the UK is, that since the early seventies the approach to supporting families has been driven by a feminist agenda instead of what is really needed which is therapeutic. The reality is that family separation is second only to bereavement when it comes to adverse emotional and psychological experiences and yet parents are routinely treated as if they should simply get on with it. Far from being able to just get on with it, many parents struggle to cope day by day and find that rather than being helped they become judged, viewed as deficient and failing and eventually as if they are a burden on the state. Meanwhile, children, whose parents are lost in the pain and grief of the ending of a relationship, are routinely asked to make decisions about what should happen to them after separation. Madness? It is state sponsored cruelty, nothing more nothing less and in my view the continued reliance on feminism to underpin what we do to help parents in the post separation landscape is a major contributor.
The family is the place where children learn who they are and how to have relationships which are healthy. Treating the family with respect whilst together or apart is the first step in improving what we do for children and in preventing alienation reactions from taking hold. Bringing therapeutic support to families instead of rights based interventions, brings different outcomes as each parent is held through the grief and recovery journey of family separation and children are enabled to grieve the loss of what was and adjust to what is now their new reality. Therapeutic support which triages those families who show the signs of needing extra help into services which truly meet their needs, is an essential element of this work. Giving clear guidance and setting out the base line needs of children in post separation family life is critical. Just as in all groups of people there will be parents who can and will do everything their children need, alongside those who struggle to do so and then those who really can’t (or won’t). Early recognition of this is essential in post separation services and reform of the post separation landscape, which was first proposed in the early part of this century, is a simple and beautifully curated way of switching from a politically driven framework to the necessary therapeutic framework which will assist children most.
It is some twenty years since I first began to unravel the reasons why outcomes for children are so poor in separated families in the UK and why we have the highest number of inter-generational family breakdown in Europe. It is almost twenty years since I first began to say in public that the internalised templates we are giving children are alienation based, in which one parent is pulled close and the other is pushed at distance by the policies which govern the post separation family. Almost twenty years later and the same dynamics are seen in the delivery of services to support families.
Love lies bleeding in the space which opens up between parents after family separation and that love belongs to children and their right to an unconscious childhood.
Working as I have been doing, at the far end of trauma and loss in the post separation landscape, it is far too easy to forget that so much of this could be stopped if the trauma and triage services were underpinned by therapeutic intervention instead of political ideology.
The work ahead of us is clear.
Time to move upstream. Time for change.
Tomorrow we will be opening bookings for the landmark conference on prevention and practice with families affected by parental alienation which will be held in London.
Read more here this coming week.