Once upon a time there was a little girl, her daddy called her his little princess. Daddy took his little princess everywhere with him, he was so proud of his daughter and people loved to see her riding beside her daddy in the car.
Once upon a time there was a little boy whose mummy thought he was the best boy in the world. Mummy and her boy had slept together in the same bed since he was a baby. Daddy slept in the spare room so that mummy and her little boy could get plenty of rest.
This isn’t an easy blog to write and I am sure it isn’t going to be an easy blog to read for many of you but it needs writing and I think it needs reading too. So much of my therapeutic work these days is with adults who were alienated as children and much of that work is with spouseified children who were married to mummy or daddy. This work makes me realise how common this family dysfunction is and how hidden it is too. It also makes me realise how difficult it is as a subject to contemplate. Because after all, who wants to talk about incest even in a blog about parental alienation?
The very word incest triggers the reaction which is biologically instilled in us and which protects us (or should) from inappropriate feelings about our biological relations. Incest, the word and the thought makes us feel – well – it makes us feel ‘icky’ as some would say. That is because that feeling is the taboo which our upbringing should support when the time comes that we are sexually developed.
I am not going to go into theories about how our sexuality develops and thus how the incest taboo kicks in because that is a psycho-sexual lecture all of its own. Suffice to say that by the time we reach our teens, relating to mummy or daddy as if they are the centre of the universe should be a long distant memory. Being daddy’s little princess and mommy’s world is something that all children can be for a time but if it persists, if it crosses the boundaries of normal human relationship and particularly if it is encouraged, nurtured and defended by the parent, it becomes not only dysfunctional, it becomes abuse.
I am not talking sexual abuse here although incest in the form of sexual abuse is of course, the physical violation of boundaries through inappropriate sexualised behaviours of an adult towards a child as well as the corruption of the child’s understanding of safety and control over their own self and soul. What I am talking about here is the covert emotional incest which accompanies the broken attachment hierarchy and which places the child of a marriage or relationship in the wrong place in relation to one of the parents.
I hear it many times over and it is very common amongst only children. The cross coalition which Minuchin speaks of has been apparent in my work for well over a decade in therapy with families affected by parental alienation and in children who are now adults who are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the psychologically split state of mind. The phenomenon is common in only children and oldest children and it is this placement in the family line which appears to be very vulnerable to this attachment disruption.
The child who is married to mummy or daddy is in a particularly precarious position in terms of their enmeshment with that parent, which suffocates their capacity to think and feel for themselves. These are the child who, Ferenzi (1933) told us will subjugate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor. It is this aspect of traumatic injury which I believe leads children to the state of mind in which they will cruelly and without any sense of empathy or shame, reject their parent as a method of dealing with the impossibility of being psychologically married to mummy or daddy.
Shame and its management is actually a large part of what is going on for alienated children. Placed in a position where their primary sense of attachment has been threatened by the corruption of their place in the trans-generational family line, these children must find a way to manage the normal feelings of guilt and shame which come with the permission they are given to ‘murder’ their own parent. The psychological murder of this parent, which is encouraged by the unhealthy parent who has bound them into pathological alignment, would ordinarily cause a child enormous grief, shame and trauma. No child in the world would wish to murder their own parent but this is the inevitable outcome of the binding of the child who is vulnerable, dependent and without a sovereign sense of self.
As a normal part of development, all children fantasise at some point about being married to mummy or daddy. In the healthy interactions in the family however, children eventually resolve the impossibility of this and are pushed out into the world by their recognition of the primary relationship between the parents.
In alienation cases where the child has been recruited into a coalition with a parent which has at its basis a covert emotionally incestuous intent, this pushing out never happens, which means that when the time has come and gone for the child to psychologically leave, it is the healthier parent who has been evicted and not the child.
Working with these families shows me that there is a trans-generational pattern at play in which the parent who is pathologically binding the child is often seen to be pathologically bound in a cross generational coalition with one of their own parents. Thus, the daddy who has psychologically married his daughter, will be seen to be psychologically married to his mother and on examination it is likely that she too will have been somehow psychologically married to her own father. These psychological maladjustments, seen across time are subtle but powerful and when they are present they compel a repulsion of anyone who does not fit the pattern.
These are the family configurations seen in the phenomenon I call growing up in a world without windows and a house without doors. This family pattern is inward looking, avoids scrutiny from the outside world and within there are none of the normal health boundaries between the generations which are seen in other functional families.
The avoidance of scrutiny appears to be largely because there is a secrecy to these families which is organised around the covert emotional incest which is taking place. Often presenting in high up places where rigid rules apply (think heads of institutions and other such positions of power), these families appear on the outside to be perfect. On the inside however, the familial relationships are tangled like balls of wool across the generations. Children growing up in these families are party to everything which goes on in the family and are hyper vigilant in terms of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the core players (the elders) who are the link to the past from which this dysfunction flows. These children are often regarded as unworldly by others, they are little adults who often present as wise counsellors, they are the children whose unconscious childhood lives have been taken from them, often before they were born. They are watchful and protective of the family narrative which is that they are perfect and everyone else is not.
What is curious about these families is that they appear to recruit into them vulnerable people who can be manipulated. Which is why rejected parents in this particular alienation scenario end up being there in the first place. Something in the background of the parents who become part of this family configuration means that they are easy to manipulate and therefore easy to push out of the family circle when the time comes.
Being married to mummy or daddy takes a huge toll on these children. When we meet them it is apparent that they are very much slaves to the will of the parent and to the generations before them. Liberating them from this psychological drama is therefore an urgent task.
The story of covert emotional incest is a trans-generational narrative which appears in some (not all) cases of parental alienation. It shows itself through the child’s automatic reflexive support of one parent (who can appear mild mannered and benign hiding the behaviours which are controlling and aggressive) and the cruelty displayed towards the other. Children who assume the shape of partner to a parent and who willingly fill the space where the other parent should be have been recruited into an emotionally incestuous position in which their needs are discarded in favour of meeting the parental demands.
This is a deeply discomforting scenario to watch and uncovering it and building a route out for the child is extremely difficult because by the time we reach these children they are already psychologically married to a parent and that has been normalised. Working to help them to recognise the damage that has been done is about stripping back the psychologically split state of mind and exposing the damage at the heart of the family. Doing this work without leading the child into counter rejection is difficult and there are stages of work which requires us to receive the child’s full discharge of rage which comes on exposure of the secret. Add into this the pathology of the parent, often still psychologically married to their own parent as well as their child and the elemental force which is triggered as the family attempts to cover up the shame by projecting blame outwards can be overwhelming.
In Britain at least, the cult of being married to mum or dad is institutionalised and is linked to centuries of child abuse which is only now beginning to be exposed and healed. Alice Miller in her writings about children and the manner in which their lives are sacrificed to those of their parents, has illuminated so much of this dynamic. It is often to her that I return when I try to work out how this has happened in plain sight for so long.
Parental alienation is so much more than a dispute about contact between children and parents after family separation. Down in the darkest places it is about inter generational stories and those bodies are only just being brought up to the light and the air so that we can more deeply understand them.
For those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see, having the courage to examine that which we have long looked away from, is the first step in building healthier foundations for future generations of children to depend upon.
Ferenzi, S. (1933) The Passions of Adults and their Influence on the Sexual and Character Development of Children.’ Published in Int. Z. f. Psa.