“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance,
and there is only the dance.”
T.S. Eliot, from Burnt Norton (‘Four Quartets’)
This is the point in the Calendar in which we all enter into liminal space. Here we are neither in the old year or the new, betwixt and between we linger, remembering the old, wondering what the new will bring.
Liminal space is that place we enter when our lives are in transition from one state of being to the next. Liminal space for alienated parents becomes a kind of purgatory, in which the natural progression of change is halted. If parents allow themselves to become poisoned in this space, their fate is to live in this hellish wasteland unable to process the feelings of anger, grief and the rage that comes in the face of impotence.
Keeping parents out of this place is what we are aiming to do with our coaching support at the Family Separation Clinic. When parents are enabled to move through the liminal space created by a child’s use of psychological splitting, they are protected, educated and informed. Their loss is no less than before but the impact upon them and thus the future of their relationship with their child, is reduced significantly.
Alienated children are in liminal spaces, stuck in a regressive defensive reaction to the problems in the post family separation landscape, these children feel that they have taken it upon themselves to resolve the unresolvable. In the conscious awareness,the rejection is justified and justifiable, but just beneath the conscious level of awareness, they know the truth of the matter.
The diagram above shows the way in which liminal awareness is held between the conscious and unconscious world of the alienated child. This is the place where the normal feelings that a child who has rejected a loved parent are held. Grief, shame, guilt and confusion are all alive in the liminal space in the mind, which is why at times you will see an alienated child experience shifts in behaviour which are difficult to understand.
An alienated child who has split off their loving feelings for a parent and pushed those into the unconscious, sets about forcefully trying to keep those feelings out of their conscious mind. This is achieved through the use of psychological splitting in which all of the positive healthy feelings for the parent they are attempting to reject, are pushed into the unconscious.
Sometimes however, the liminal space between the conscious and unconscious mind, experiences bleed through, in which the normal feelings of guilt and shame which have also been split off, emerge into the liminal space and the child once again feels the horror of what they have done. For many of those children however, the horror is so great that they must swiftly push the feelings back into the unconscious. This is why, when we are working with alienated children we must be careful not to put them into a place where those feelings are brought into consciousness but the child is left in the same impossible position. Doing so is to abuse the child and contribute to entrenching the problem of psychological splitting.
There is a reason a child has used the defence of psychological splitting, it is because they have been abused by the parent with whom they are aligned. Correcting the outer dynamic to prevent that parent from holding the power to keep abusing is the first action any practitioner should take. Only then can the child be brought carefully out of the defensive reaction to feel the feelings they have split off. In doing so we work alongside the rejected parent who acts as our co-therapist until the child is once again able to allow the relational flow to stabilise, at which point our work in the liminal space is done as the transition to recovery is completed.
Liminal spaces in parental alienation are key places for any reunification worker to understand and know. Being unafraid to work in the ‘still point of a turning world’ is about being comfortable with change and having the courage to work with what other people cannot see. In my court work, when we are carrying out a residence transfer, other professionals are often stunned to see a fiercely rejecting child shift across the liminal space to a loving connection with a parent they have vehemently put at distance. In the face of this I often hear unaware professionals working hard to force this shift into their own model of understanding of what is happening, even hearing some say that the child is only doing it because they have ‘no choice’. Given that the child has entered into the place of rejection because they had too much choice in a world where they really didn’t want to have to make a choice, this lack of awareness in professionals who work with separated families, astounds me.
A child who makes the shift from rejection to warm loving acceptance, is a child who has been liberated from the coercive control which forced them into the psychologically split state of mind. As such that child has been freed to once again use the whole of their mind, to experience the full range of emotions and feelings they are entitled to feel and is able to once again recognise that good people sometimes do bad things but that doesn’t mean they have to be rejected forever. That child has re-entered a healthy mindset in which liminal spaces are once again part of a natural flow of life, not the purgatory of a split way of thinking.
I once worked with an alienated child who had become so stuck in the liminal space in his mind that he was unable to make any kind of choice about any kind of action he could or should take in any capacity whatsoever. This child could not walk to school, he had become so avoidant of even the pavement upon which he feared his father might walk on that he had to be driven. Later his drive to school took a five mile detour as he was unable to tolerate even the sight of the road where his father had lived. Each time his mother drove the route which would take him past his father’s road, this boy would be sick and so she ended up driving him the long way around in order to keep him regulated. What was happening to this child was that the guilt and shame which he had pushed into his unconscious mind, leaked into the liminal awareness space in his mind and he reacted with great force (the trauma of being forced to reject his father was so great that the guilt and shame literally made him vomit). By the time I came to work with this child, a horror story of epic proportion had been created in an effort to explain why this child was so afraid of his father. Ignoring all of the evidence which countered this horror story, the professionals continued in their quest to find the ‘truth’ about this father – the only truth being that he had been rejected by his son because his son’s mother was so determined to drive him out that her anxiety and fury leaked through into the liminal spaces in her relationship with her son that she was terrorising him into rejection.
There is a reason why alienated children dream of wolves with fangs and knives and guns and being locked in cupboards or chased and stolen away. These children are steeped in fear and anxiety in the liminal spaces which stem not from the parent who is being rejected but from the alienating parent who has terrorised the child in the inter-psychic world (inter-psychic means between two minds).
When this boy was removed from his mother’s leaky terrorist activities, he was introduced to his father again and all of the sickness and avoidance stopped. Whilst he had to be assisted to tolerate a lot of distress in the first hours of introduction to his father, our pendulation approach to exposure to his father, meant that within a day he was once again able to receive his father’s love without blocking it.
Working in the liminal space with alienated children is a particular skill requiring particular knowledge and capacity to assist children to tolerate discomforting feelings. It also requires us to be able to hold two realities in mind, that which the child begins with and that which the child is moving towards. Being the person who can hold two different realities for a child requires the capacity to hear the child say no I don’t want to but encourage and support them to do it anyway. That is about being willing to be the adult in the child’s world and to work from a place of knowing that a child requires us to make decisions and choices on their behalf so that they do not have to.
So much of what we are doing in the liminal space of parental alienation awareness in the world, is showing others the truth of what is required to assist these children. In this place, where there is still so much conflict, being able to be calm and stable is key.
As we move between 2018 and 2019, contemplation of liminal space and being comfortable in the ‘still point in a turning world ‘ is an important meditative theme for me. With no work to do on the outer, the inner space becomes a place where I regain peace and readiness for the year ahead.
For all alienated parents too, the theme of liminal space is essential to get comfortable with. No matter how much your children appear to be firm and fixed in their rejection of you, in reality they are stuck in the transitional liminal space of attempting to fix a problem on the outside via a maladaptive response on the inside. That means that at any point, breakthroughs in the defence can occur which will propel them out of alienation into integration (and back again). This is particularly true of older children who are less controlled by the parent who has enabled this continued defence. This is why we always tell rejected parents to be ready and able to receive a child, the psychologically split state of mind is not as fixed as it appears and when breakthrough feelings occur, the child can seem to ping pong back and forth until the integration is complete.
One day all of this will be common knowledge but for now, in the liminal space of growing awareness, those of us who know must keep building the evidence base.
In the rear view mirror, we will know that we did a good thing.