Love Lies Bleeding: Trauma and Loss in the Post Separation Landscape

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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 12.42.11

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.



13 thoughts on “Love Lies Bleeding: Trauma and Loss in the Post Separation Landscape”

  1. I was thinking recently about how parental alienation is child abuse that masquerades as love and protectiveness. Unaware practitioners (most of them) see a loving parent trying to protect the child from the other parent, who is supposedly frightening and abusive. The child him or herself comes to believe that their alienating parent was protecting them as well – it’s no wonder it’s so hard for them to sort out. If a parent hits you or molests you, it’s clear that it’s wrong – but when your “loving” parent allows and encourages you to reject your other parent out of supposed concern for your well-being and safety, it must take a long time to label that as the abuse it really is. In my professional experience in my area of the US, most therapists, judges and attorneys do not understand this issue at all, and seem no closer to getting it than they ever were.

    It’s still counter-intuitive to believe a child who is so angry and fearful of another parent isn’t reporting reality. And parents intent on alienation are often given all the power they need to do it easily by the court that buys the false narrative or won’t enforce its own orders. Therapists who do get it are fired quickly by the alienating parent and it’s easy to find one who will help the alienating parent achieve their goal.

    I appreciate your dedication to helping increase awareness and I hope you can do so. My alienated stepson is almost 18 and still as far gone as ever. He no longer texts hateful things, and actually reached out for information a few months ago (which I suppose is progress), but he remains unresponsive and seems to have fallen into depression, poor school performance and pathological video game playing. I wonder if he will ever see which of his parents was truly the abusive one.


    1. He will Cara, the signs you are seeing now are tiny shoots of reality, keep on keeping on being there, be well, be healthy, be hopeful, never let go. He will come. x


      1. Thank you, Karen, I appreciate your hopefulness. I confess I don’t have much hope as it all seems so entrenched, but I know my husband will be there for his son if and when he ever reappears, and that’s what really matters. And we will stay well and healthy in the meanwhile.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Karen you wrote:
    Quote: 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.

    I can most certainly attest to that one!
    Having lost our first child aged five I know what such a bereavement was like and what it cost in terms of pain.
    Having lost my second daughter (our second child) to a father who made her his best friend and ally and pushed me out of the family circle over a long period of time while we were still married and living together, I can honestly say that I have never known such devastating pain and trauma as that of forever losing my second daughter to an alienating, controlling husband who seemed to forget that I was the mother of HIS child when he encouraged her to treat me with the same contempt with which he treated me. I do not know HOW I survived but thankfully I did.


    1. I send you all my love and all my deepest care and support, to lose one child is appalling suffering to lose another to alienation is more pain than anyone should have to suffer on this earth. Know that your life, your health and your survival matters more than you can ever know, in living as well as you can, you honour the children who are blessed to have you as their mother x


  3. Karen,

    Knowing nothing of the UK legal system – were the changes made there in 1973 analogous to no-fault divorce laws here in the US? From my viewpoint laws such as those reduced marriage (family), the foundation of support for children, to a virtual house built on sand. And the forces that would then erode that sand were accepted, encouraged and eventually rewarded via laws and the perverse application of them.

    Oh what a tangled web has been woven…

    I pray that your defenses are ready for the onslaught this article will probably once again invite. I see your stating of truth and logic so similar to what Erin Pizzey bravely did so many years before. And we all know the love and compassion (sic) that brought her. Godspeed.


    1. Hi Peter, I know Erin well, we are kindred spirits in so many ways and have spent some hours discussing the reality of how feminism pushed therapeutic support for families into a place where the real issues were being hidden under the made up political analysis called patriarchy. Those readers who have been with me since the early days of my emergence from feminism will point you to the writings I did then to describe my journey from the ‘cult’ of feminism. I remain of the same view today, that feminism has no place in therapeutic support for the family and it is therapeutic support that the family needs as it transitions. feminism is WHY so many children fall prey to alienation in my view because it prevents an understanding of the traumatic loss of a parent and the services which could support families to help their children better. As I move deeper into my research work I again confront that knowledge. Divorce laws changed in the US around the same time as the UK, the history is similar and of course feminism came straight out of North America in its second wave. So much to think and write about and discuss on the journey to try and put the problem of family back to where it really should be, the place we all yearn for it to be (regardless of those who say they disagree). family is the heart of our societies, it is the crucible for good or ill in which our relational capacity is developed. We cannot erase it, we cannot erode it, some pretend they can but in truth we cannot because we are relational beings with biological strivings. I have at times been asked to think about how speaking about biology affects step parents or adoptive parents and as a step parent myself I do think about that, speaking about biological ties doesn’t detract from or erode the importance of other ties such as adoptive ties but if we try to pretend that they are the same we will simply fall foul of the effort to bury the reality. In the end we are beings who are tied to each other by biology or commitment to love each other and each is as important but different to the other. Erin is someone whose life and work will eventually be recognised for what it is, humanity and compassion and a deep service to others. And one day, all services to families will be configured in the way she first wrote about. K


  4. Working in the Family Courts culture?

    Entering the office one can imagine the need to dump the reality of who you are, your own values and even change ones own understanding of co-workers. Instead the daily work to consist of viewing complicated human beings and simply squeeze and mangle them to fit a feminist perspective.

    This must be some task! Outside Courtrooms to live and experience the reality of life and people, on the inside to disown ones own experience and uphold what is only an ideology that is at odds with the scientific understanding of people.

    People stay in jobs because they enjoy or at worst tolerate them and those that don’t simply leave. The Family Courts offices and corridors filtered by the same process. An independent perspective from the people within?

    By survey 7% of people in the UK consider themselves feminists, yet 97% of people believe in equality. People are unlikely to consider it a loving act to place a ‘Childs Best Interest’ beneath a discredited ideology.


    1. The reality of working in the family courts for most practitioners (social workers/CAFCASS/Judges etc) is that they do not have to either understand themselves and their own internal landscape or the internal landscape of the people they work with. What they are taught to do is to listen to the voice of the child and adhere to article 12 of the UNRC and then to ensure that they follow the structures of the framework they are working in. This they are then told, is enough and so they do this unconsciously incompetently – they don’t know they don’t know. When CAFCASS cherry pick the research they base their tools upon – ignoring worldwide scientific evidence in preference for research done by Liz Trinder and Joan Hunt, two of the most feminist scholars in the country, one knows that the unconsciously incompetent staff are being led down a further route of incompetence – in fact they’re off on a wild goose chase – but it doesn’t matter because there is a) zero accountability in CAFCASS in that there is no standard operating framework, no standard training framework and in fact no framework at all as each of CAFCASS’s employees are independent people when they are in court. And so off on the wildest of wild goose chases, hunting down the conflicted parents and solving parental alienation by pushing parents into intensive therapy until they give up and go away (thereby in CAFCASS terms solving parental alienation once and for all – after all who cares what happens after the family courts, no-one keeps any records or follows up so if it is not written down anywhere, it doesn’t exist anymore).

      And in this space, children can be abused by a parent, abused by the state, abused by social workers and other ancillary staff and exit minus their relationship with a primary attachment figure, left in the care of a certifiable parent in some cases and no-one but no-one either knows or cares.

      Such is the world of the family court in the UK.

      Staying sane and sober in the middle of all of that for the past ten years hasn’t been easy I can tell you. Watching children’s needs be subsumed into the needs of their mothers and knowing that this is all part of family policy in the UK has been somewhat dispiriting to say the least.


  5. Dear Karen – please don’t be despondent. You are a huge inspiration and reaching it to so many. Being undertood is half the battle and enables people to learn and start trying to deal with things and be empowered when finding solutions. You are speaking out for all of us – and that matters.

    As with the earlier poster I am recently experiencing the pain of being alienated – as a step-parent. It seems to be a way of getting at stepson’s Dad. When you have had the love and trust of a child from being a toddler, to see them change towards you gradually in the space of six months, see them resisting and trying to compartmentalise, and then gradually see them change into a different child with you – it is beyond words. It is so painful. But we have been helped to cope and take steps to manage things and change things, by your blog posts, your new book, a book by Amy Baker – helps with practical things – and learning how to parent when you can’t just do it as normal – showing empathy. The hardest thing for me is hiding my feelings when I hurt so much inside at the rejection, the silent dismissiveness and the looks – as if I am evil.

    Forewarned is forearmed and because we know the pitfalls of the legal route, through your blogs and wider research, and because we now realise it is not just our pain and loss, we are able to negotiate things as best as possible and find the right words to convey during our legal process.


  6. “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?”

    So well said, Karen. Last week I saw my daughter face to face and spoke with her for the first time in nearly a year. She allowed me to give her a hug and a kiss. She is now twelve and I get the occasional text or even voicemail message from her, always practical, usually a request for something, but always polite. This is a child who, aged seven, was (I am sure) coached to make false allegations of a sexual nature against me and to write me hate mail saying that her life was better without me and she didn’t want to hear from me any more. The court and its ‘professionals’ took all this at face value as the ‘voice of the child.’

    How has she succeeded in negotiating this volcano of anger, vindictiveness and coercive control without succumbing to it, and at what price? I was reading Simon Baron-Cohen recently on the ‘internal pot of gold’, his term for the gift of security, stability and resilience that a child can receive through good parenting in the early years and which is, in his words, “something the child can carry inside throughout their life, even if they become a penniless refugee or are beset by other challenges… the ability to bounce back from setbacks, and the ability to show affection and enjoy intimacy with others, in other relationships.” Did I succeed in giving her something of that gift? Did her mother, too, despite everything?


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