Jed remembers that he took flowers to his mother and she didn’t say thank you. He remembers that he felt very hurt and told his dad. His dad told him that was how his mother was, she was never grateful. Jed remembers that his mother was ungrateful and entitled, she ignored him as a child.
Alice remembers that her father hit her and laughed at her when she cried. Alice remembers the felt sense of her mother’s arms around her comforting her, she remembers that her mother told her she would keep her safe. Alice remembers her father was a cold, cruel and angry man.
Peter remembers his mother as a friendly warm person who caused him to reject her by turning into a wild and terrifying person who would blame him for not loving her enough. Peter remembers his father telling him that his mother was dangerous and unpredictable and that’s why he left her. Peter remembers his mother as someone who let him down.
Andrea remembers her mother as a distant object, she cannot recall her face or her voice. She remembers her father as kind, laid back and ‘always there for her.’
All four of these adults have returned to some kind of relationship with the parent they rejected in childhood after divorce.
All four have difficulties with adult relationships now. None have had long term relationships, all are anxious about having children, none feels that they can move on from the memory of what was done to them in childhood.
If you listen to the BBC Radio 4 programme aired yesterday in the UK you will hear Sam talking about his experience of his parents divorce. Sam is an adult now, when he was a child I worked with him and have worked with him again recently to assist him in the same difficulties described in the four vignettes above.
What Sam tells us in the programme is key to how to help children of divorce and separation who suffered psychological splitting as a defence against what was happening to them. Sam told us that he would tell himself and his brother to look at their hands and remember that no-one can take those away. In the midst of psychological armageddon, this young man used a defence which placed him as the omnipotent self, capable of coping not only with the fragmentation of his own self but with the fragmentation he was witnessing in his brother. His brother survived because of Sam. His life is not as troubled as Sam’s. Sam, being the person who carried his brother out of the holocaust alive, was left with the lifelong scars of being forced to defend the defenceless. A child’s delicate and fragile sense of self in the midst of all out psychological warfare.
What children do in the midst of this horror is utilise a range of defences which are designed to enable them to retain the care of at least one parent. Whilst children like Sam start off with awareness of what is happening, their capacity to rationalise is limited and they soon sink into the use of defences which draw their alignment to one parent and drive the rejection of the other. In this regard it is not the rejection of a parent which signals the red flag, it is the alignment with a parent which gives the truth of what is happening. The alignments seen are with the parent who is placing the most pressure upon the child. The outcome of that alignment is that the child uses a range of behaviours to uphold that alignment, one of which is splitting their feelings, beliefs and experiences into good and bad.
My research in this area is showing me that adults alienated as children (forced to use splitting as a defence), have memories which are 180 degrees in reverse to what really happened to them. That is that even when they are reconnected to a parent in later life, their memory remains fixed in the back to front position – they continue to see the parent they rejected as the cause of the problem and the parent they were aligned to as being the safe and warm and most loving parent.
When asked how many times his mother didn’t say thank you for flowers, Jed looks confused. Only the once as far as he can tell. So how come that one time has become the talismanic evidence that ‘proves’ his mother was ungrateful, to the degree where he still believes that she is an entitled ungrateful person and he still feels offended by that one incident.
Jed doesn’t know, he only knows that his felt sense for his mother (the way we feel inside about others) is disconnected and wary. He knows that even though he sees her he is watchful and waiting for her to upset him.
Alice cannot recall more than that one incident when her father hit her. When pushed gently to go further she admits he didn’t really hit her, he sort of tapped her because she had stepped over the yellow line at the railway station. She doesn’t remember him laughing out loud but she remembers feeling embarrassed and him smiling down at her. She still feels uncomfortable in his presence at times and doesn’t fully trust him.
Talismanic events are those which are held up to the child by the parent causing alignment, they are objects which are enlarged and exaggerated in the child’s felt sense before being introjected by the child. Introjection means the unconscious adoption of the ideas and attitudes of others. It is an action which seeks to stabilise the self by adopting those things which steadies the self in an uncertain world.
Thus it is not the events that are remembered which cause the child to create distance in the felt sense of a parent, it is the enlargement and exaggeration by the parent to whom the child is being forcibly aligned of those events. It is the force feeding of the negative beliefs of the other parent which leads to the lives of children like Peter and Andrea and Sam being blighted by defences which prevent them from having normal relationships. That the force feeding leads from events which actually occurred is what causes such confusion in these children who are now adults.
Memory in alienated children is not reliable. It is not reliable in the immediate psychological wasteland the children are having to navigate and it is not reliable in the rear view mirror either. Memory is distorted in alienation. That which appears as truth is not the truth. That which appears in the felt sense as dependable and real is an illusion.
Which is why therapy for adults alienated as children must be delivered in ways that fits their needs. It must address the landscape of the past through a reversed mirror in which the eye must focus on the alignment and not the rejection and the past must be excavated for the points at which the feelings in the child were pressured in splitting. When that point is found there is a sequential approach to treatment which can pull out the introjected talismanic objects and replace them in ways that enable healthy relationship to past events. When this point is reached omnipotence recedes and normality returns.
As Sam shows us, the tentacles of alienation reach far into the distant future affecting not only the children in the here and now but their children and their children’s children if it is not addressed.
Understanding alienation, working with it and healing the impact of it in children of all ages is what we do at the Family Separation Clinic.
As part of my research I am developing a new therapy for children and adults who are affected by alienation. As part of that work I am currently seeking adults over the age of 18 who were alienated from a parent between the ages of 8 and 18 to assist me in a project to examine themes in therapy.
If you are interested in sharing your experience in the current day (not your experience of alienation from a parent) please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am planning to begin work on interviews in the Autumn and would therefore appreciate being able to contact you over the summer to make arrangements.