Whose Life is it anyway: enmeshed relationships after divorce and separation

enmeshment n. a condition in which two or more people, typically family members, are involved in each other’s activities and personal relationships to an excessive degree, thus limiting or precluding healthy interaction and compromising individual autonomy and identity.

APA definition

One of the most common problems seen in post divorce relationships between parents and children, is enmeshment. This problem, which causes serious harm to children, arises from the inability of a parent to promote develpmental stages towards individuation in a child. When it is seen in families where children are outright rejecting a parent, it is one of the red flags which prompt further investigation into the child’s relationship with the parent they are aligned to. Enmeshment causes emotional and psychological problems for children because it prevents normal, age appropriate steps towards independence of mind and body. It is a serious problem when the child is seen to be enmeshed to the degree where they are regulating parental anxiety. When this is seen, the child is highly likely to be parentified, a situation in which they are meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the parent, eschewing not only their own needs in favour of the parental need but being prevented from knowing that they have needs. In such circumstances, where thechild is strongly aligned to one and rejecting the other parent outright and where the child is meeting the emotional and psychological needs of a parent they are aligned to and that cannot be changed in situ, they are considered to be without parental care they are entitled to and beyond parental control, another risk factor which meets the welfare threshold in the UK.

The welfare threshold is crossed, when parents are doing something that has already caused harm, doing something which may cause future risk of harm or when the child is beyond parental control. The welfare threshold being crossed in a case is likely to result in an order for intervention. Whilst enmeshment alone is not enough in most cases to cross the welfare threshold, when it is accompanied by a child being beyond parental control due to the range of issues including parentification, resistance to outside intervention, inability to accept external authority and rejection of a parent who could provide healthy care, the likelihood is that the threshold is crossed and a Section 37 report, in which the Local Authority is asked to make an assessment of the family is ordered. In many cases I have worked in, this is the route through which enmeshment between a child and parent is addressed.

Enmeshed relationships look like love from the outside but from the inside they are a distortion of what is healthy. In enmeshment, the parent experiences their own feelings as indivisible from the childs and expects and demands that the child aligns with their world view after divorce or separation. Not only is the child expected to feel the same, projections from the parent onto the child, mean that the parent sees their own split off feelings enacted by the child, meaning that the interpretation of what a child says and does is coloured by the parents own feelings which they deny. Parents who are enmeshed with their children do not understand that their children may feel differently to them and the signals that they give to the child in the inter-psychic relationship are that the other parent is to be feared/pitied/kept at distance/not trusted/rejected. When the child acts to reflect these unconscious signals from the parent, the parent is comforted that the child is saying and doing what the parent expects and uses that as evidence to show that the child feels the same way as they do.

Differentiating enmeshment from a situation where a parent is helping to keep a child safe from an abusive parent, is undertaken by observation of whether or not a child is using defensive splitting as a coping mechanism. The child who is rejecting a relationship with a parent because of something that parent has done, will show a more ambivalent resistance to the relationship and their pattern of rejection will not have echoes of the other parent’s feelings. A child who is enmeshed however, will show a strong and unrelenting rejection accompanied by a strong and unrelenting alignment and their speech and behaviour patterns, will echo that of the parent to whom they are aligned. In observation of these dyads, the child and aligned parent will act in ways that demonstrate enmeshment, the child will not answer a question without looking at a parent to check the parent’s reaction for example or the parent will answer for the child repeatedly. An enmeshed child will not be able to manage independence of mind and feelings in such circumstances and will be seen to need to regulate a parent in order to feel safe in themselves.

Enmeshment is very difficult to treat in situations where a child is strongly aligned and rejecting and it is therefore with the aligned parent that we must begin work first. Many practitioners new to this work, undertake the intervention the wrong way around, trying to fix the rejected parent enough to please the aligned parent in the belief that the child will then be released from the enmeshed grasp. This is unhelpful because it does nothing to address the real issue and simply re-traumatises the child by exposing them to the false reality that the parent they are rejecting is the problem. Starting with the parent to whom the child is aligned is the right approach and asking the Court to order a trial of contact between the child and rejected parent which enables the testing of the depth of the enmeshment (the more time the child is asked to spend with the rejected parent, the more the enmeshed behaviours are provoked into plain sight). When enmeshed behaviours are in plain sight, it is then possible to provide the kind of consistent support which regulates the aligned parent (supporting handovers, giving information about how the child is in real time, providing support in situ for the child and assisting with the child’s return home). This allows for testing of whether the enmeshment is transient and related only to the failure to adjust to post divorce life or whether it is deeper and related to psychopathology in the aligned parent.

Alienation of children in divorce and separation is a complex issue which involves parental mental health and prevention of harm to children. I hope that by reading more detailed accounts of what this work is about, the campaign strategy to portray this issue as only a tool used by abusive fathers will be diluted in its power to detract from reality. In my work with families over the years, the notion that children are plucked from innocent mothers to be placed in the care of abusive fathers, is made a nonsense of by the rigorous assessment, differentiation and thorough analysis of the courts who hear these cases. In the High Courts, where I am currently only working, the thoroughness of hearings, the depth of understanding and testing of the evidence in such cases, ensures that every action taken to protect a child, is done so on the basis of careful and detailed excavation of risk of harm. When a child is removed in such circumstances, it is done on the basis of the underlying psychopathologies in the case, not on the basis that parental alienation has been claimed as a counter argument to domestic abuse.

Protecting children and their right to independence of mind and body is what working with alienation in the family courts is all about. Divorce and separation are adult issues and ensuring that children are not triangulated into them is a core aim. Being able to differentiate between childrens needs and parental wishes and feelings is an important skill in this work. Capacity to put the child’s needs first and hold that boundary is a necessity.

Recognising that outright rejection, when accompanied by hyper alignment, causes the child to produce a false self, denoting alienation of the self from the self, enables a child protection approach which puts the child’s right to their own life first. This is what this work is about, children first and nothing else. Don’t let those enmeshed with a false narrative convince you otherwise.


FSC Evaluation

The evaluation of the services of FSC is underway. Accredited training which is based upon the evidence base of the work of the Clinic since 2011 will be available in 2022. I will update on this project here and you will find further details of the project shortly on the Family Separation Clinic website.

EAPAP

I will have news soon of exciting developments in EAPAP, which includes an expansion in geographical converage and launch of a new resource for clinicians working with alienated children and their families. News of the next conference, which will be held in Israel in 2022, will be available shortly.

Supervision

I am often approached for supervision of cases. Whilst I run an international supervision group with colleagues from EAPAP, I do not currently supervise work with anyone who has not been trained by the Family Separation Clinic. This is because we use a model of intervention which requires that a clinician is working in a way which is conversant with international research on interventions with alienated children and families. From 2022, practitioners will be able to access evidence based, accredited training from FSC and anyone completing this will be eligible for supervision. More news on this over the coming months.

Training for Practitioners

I am currently delivering online training for the Family Mediation Association and other Therapeutic Services in the UK.

FSC will be delivering training face to face again when the pandemic allows. Our current suspended schedule of face to face training includes Poland, Sweden, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Malta, USA, Australia and Germany.

Training for practitioners in the evaluated and accredited FSC model will be available from 2022.

3 thoughts on “Whose Life is it anyway: enmeshed relationships after divorce and separation

  1. I am a loving father of 2 daughters and will remain vague as the process is going through the courts. I have just been assigned a 16.4 and am going to ask (again) for a psychiatrist- this was refused almost a year ago. Your analysis is spot on relating to my case. There are no safeguarding issues with regards to myself. Since I brought the case to court Contact stopped with my 14 year old, who I haven’t seen in over a year and I have seen my 9 year old for just 5 hours in 7 months. Despite their being an order for every other weekend contact. With regards to behaviour of my daughters its almost like someone has flicked a switch. We were extremely close. They are genetically very similar and we share a lot of similar traits. We were once, inseparable but now the girls deny ever having loved me. They claim they hate me and always have. They say every photo and video where we are happy is ‘faked’ and they are smiling or laughing under duress otherwise I would ‘shout at them’.
    My eldest daughters (14) school report made note she was still sleeping with her mum. I tried to suggest to Cafcass this was a sign of enmeshment but the Officer claimed this was irrelevant. When Mum took the eldest to the doctors in an attempt to get a letter to override the court order my daughter told the doctor that ‘when she stays at her dads house she lies awake all night worrying about her mum coming to serious physical harm-her mother also says she has panic attacks’.
    On the only occasion Mum dropped my youngest daughter off she ran up the street screaming ”I am going to die”. mum was bizarrely calm while I ran after my daughter mum just stood nonchalant with her hands in her pockets. Within about 90 minutes of Mum leaving we were happily making cookies, taking great care to name each cookie.
    The worst thing for me has been the helplessness of what has taken place and the ‘professionals-Cafcass’ fail to see/acknowledge what is going on. I think it would be really beneficial if Cafcass received input form an expert such as yourself to help them identify the red flags associated with PA. In my case they consistently fail to apply the PA matrix. Its so blatant that it is almost as if there is an element of denial going on. I am sure there are some fantastic Cafcass Officers out there, just, not in my case.
    I see a lot of gender vigilantes trying to be dismissive of PA as some sort of ‘silver bullet for abuse fathers’. Its unfortunate they cant see that PA is not gender specific.
    Thankfully there are people out there such as yourself who have the knowledge, ability and fortitude to identify the truth. Please keep up the excellent work. When you are in the abyss, any parent who is going through the hell of losing ones children, knowing that they are suffering too-being unable to comfort them, even reading articles such as this can be of enormous comfort and help.

    Thankyou.

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  2. Is there anything a rejected parent can do before an official separation when they can see alienation happening to their children? Years ago I spoke to a psychologist about my eldest daughter’s behaviour. My partner would always make light of things and would not let me take her to see anyone. I couldn’t see how controlling he was back then. The psychologist suggested that she saw herself on the same level as her dad and me and the other kids were lower down in the family hierarchy. Unfortunately, she didn’t explain how damaging this could be. As she’s got older it’s got worse and I woke up to her dad’s controlling nature and our relationship broke down completely. My relationship with my daughter has got worse. He treats her like she is his partner. They plan holiday’s together, he talks to her about is work and interests, and when I’m not around to intervene he encourages her to discipline her younger siblings. She has been very critical of my parenting of my younger children, talking to me as if she’s the parent. It has been very difficult to address because when her father is around he will agree with anything she says and when I stand up for myself he becomes very verbally abusive and aggressive, which scares my youngest child. I’ve noticed that my eldest will look at him before responding to me if I ask her about something and he might not have the same perspective. She’s 14 and has been rude and disrespectful to me since around the age of 8. I’ve been ineffectual at dealing with it as her father was so controlling and demeaning towards me that no matter what she said or did he would blame me. I’ve been a dedicated stay at home mother. I’ve no illusions that I was perfect, but it was only when he started to tell me my children didn’t need to respect me for just being a loving, dedicated mother (apparently they only respect super-parent’s who manage to do all the housework, care etc but also have sparkling careers, exciting hobbies etc) that I stopped looking at what I might be doing wrong and realised how abusive he was. The older kids have witnessed him yelling at me, calling me names, mocking me, shoving me. Sometimes it was very overt, but also in subtle ways like calling my home country miserable, rolling his eyes at any suggestions I’d have for activities, getting cranky if I wouldn’t join in high adrenaline activities that I don’t enjoy and can give me migraines, rubbishing any kind of emotion coaching I tried with them. Just overall denigrating me and undermining my parenting. A very toxic environment and the more I read about parental alienation, the more I realise that he’s already been engaging in many of the behaviours while the family was intact. Now I find with my 14 year old that she will barely speak to me. Although she seems close to her dad, his affection is very conditional. For example, he is very critical of her interests when they don’t align with his. He used to throw their toys in the bin with no warnings and he’ll just stomp off saying things like “oh do whatever you want” when his perspective is not agreed on by them. I think because they have had to work for his love and mine is always unconditional that they join him in being nasty to me as it’s safe and they get approval from him.
    I suspect when we officially separate my daughter might request not to spend time with me. I don’t know if there is anything I can do before we separate to work on improving things? I live in Australia and it’s hard to find any mental health professionals who understand parental alienation.

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  3. Lucie you’ve practically told my story too. The only ways it differs from what you’ve written above are:

    1. He wasn’t that interested in her until he discovered her when she was 15 (by which time she was fully immersed in his hobbies which all involved taking part in motor sports/ riding motorbikes. Her enthusiasm boosted his ego and it went from there) He never did anything to help when she was small and did no childcare whatsoever when she was a baby/toddler even though her sister became profoundly mentally and physically handicapped and died aged five. I used to try to get him to come with us when she took up horse riding (and then competing) but he used to say ‘I can’t sit around doing nothing all day being bored” and so he never came with us ………….. until she went to equestrian college at 16 and started competing in more serious events (she got interesting in other words). Guess who does and who doesn’t get to go with her now when she’s competing (she’s just turned 40). They forged a huge bond because of the social life his racing afforded. I loved it too and had supported him before we ever had children, but he declared I was boring and did exactly what you describe, putting her on a level with him, well above me. She became all powerful with regard to me and I had no way of dealing with it or any idea HOW to.

    2. I knew by the time my daughter was 15 that if I ever left him I’d never see her again (both were very open about that fact) so I hung on, treading on eggshells and being treated like something the cat dragged in the hope that I could get through to him but of course, I never did or would ever be able to get through to him. I finally left him (and her) early in 2015 after 45 years of marriage. She was so muddled up by then she wrote: “I find it extremely sad that you are so bitter towards dad and have shown absolutely no consideration for his feelings whatsoever. You threw away 40+ years together without a
    second thought and at no point have you made any effort to try and resolve things either with me or with dad.” (I leave you to conclude how true that statement is).

    3. By leaving him and moving 150 miles away to live near my sister I seem to have swapped my daughter for my sister but I know who makes me happier when I’m with them and the peace that I’ve found without him in my life is something that will always amaze me because by comparison, it’s HEAVEN. No more verbal abuse, no more name calling and character assassinations, no more controlling behaviour, no more hell at the bottom of the pack. Would it have helped if I’d left him before my daughter was 15? Who knows. I suspect not. He’d told me when she wasn’t even three years old that if I ever left him he’d fight for full custody and he would WIN, of that he was certain. Quite what he’d have done with a toddler is another thing since he’d never lifted a finger and his hobbies would ALWAYS come first. Neither did he always have much patience – one example: he got so fed up of her refusing to eat sprouts that he got up from the table, grabbed a handful of sprouts, stuffed them into her mouth and held his hand there until she gagged. – all things I was too afraid of when I thought about him having full custody. I was a full time teacher (I went back to work when my daughter started school). By the time she was 7 and was interested in horses I was driving her to the local pony club after school every night then going back to finish my work. Other than the garden and mending things around the house (which he was very good at), I did everything else but I still wasn’t good enough – according to him I was a parasite and a leech. I was taxi driver at 3 in the morning when the night clubs turned out. I was there when she travelled to shows with her horse (sometimes at four in the morning while he was still in bed). I took her to riding lessons. When she wrote off her car on black ice I paid for a replacement. The list of things I did to help her is long, but it meant nothing to her. (she accused me of trying to buy her love and that, she said, couldn’t be earned) Her dad didn’t need to do anything in particular but I did, no idea what though because nothing I did was right! I couldn’t live like that anymore.

    Quote “Is there anything a rejected parent can do before an official separation when they can see alienation happening to their children?” (end quote)

    Who knows!

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