“The Medea Complex and the Parental Alienation Syndrome: When Mothers Damage Their Daughter’s Ability to Love a Man”
by Robert M. Gordon, Ph.D.
When doing custody evaluations, I am often struck by the frequency in which mothers aggress against their children’s fathers by turning their children against him. In the process, they do great harm to their children.
As a therapist, I am often struck by the resistance of patients who were brainwashed as children against a parent. I believe that brainwashing by a mother is both more common and more powerful than that of a father, since the child’s bond with the mother is more intense and primitive.
Such brainwashing and alienation usually leads to a life long problem with establishing and maintaining a healthy intimacy. Their mother’s perception and definition of their fathers, if programmed at an early age becomes a core fundamental belief, and if questioned, the person’s core sense of reality seems shaken; “If my mother lied to me about my father, then can I trust her love for me?” Thus there is a great deal of resistance to the awareness of having been brainwashed.
In this chapter I will discuss: The mother-daughter bond, The Medea Complex ( The mother’s revenge against her former husband by depriving him of his children), brain washing and the Parental Alienation Syndrome (The children’s pathological unconscious wish to please the “loved” parent by rejecting the “hated” parent), the subsequent disturbed intimacies that the brainwashed child suffers later in life, and a case history of three generations of Parental Alienation Syndrome and it’s unusual resolution.
In this chapter, I will bring together two separate issues: the Medea complex and the Parental Alienation Syndrome. To my knowledge, I have not seen these two concepts brought together. I believe that the Medea Complex in divorcing mothers is a frequent cause of Parental Alienation Syndrome.
The Mother-Daughter Bond
Mothers are more likely than fathers to be alienators and brainwashers (Gardner,1987). Mothers are more likely to take out their aggression on their children. Selma Kramer (1995) refers to Steele’s research (1970) in stating that children are more physically abused by their mothers,and sexually abused by their fathers. Women may have few means of expressing power, and thereby may use their own children as scapegoats.
The mother’s brainwashing of a daughter is particularly powerful due to the daughter’s identification with the mother. Juni and Grimm (1933) in their study of adults and their parents found that the strongest relationships were between mother-daughter and father-son dyads. Troll (1987) found that mother-daughter relationships “… appear to be more complex, ambivalent and ambiguous than do other parent-child configurations.” Olver, Aries, and Batgos (1989) found that, “… First born women had the least separate sense of self and reported the greatest degree of maternal involvement and intrusiveness…Men showed a more separate sense of self than women.” They also found that mothers were reported to be more highly involved with and intrusive in the lives of their daughters than their sons. Gerd Fenchel in this text, points out that the mother-daughter relationship is a primitive latent homosexual one, that is intense and ambivalent; one that requires first fusion, then separation for the proper development to occur.
When the mother encourages her daughter to see her father as bad, this may become an Oedipal fixation in that the daughter may be attracted to men who will mistreat her, or she may mistreat them. The daughter will also have problems with separation from the mother and have problems with attachment and abandonment with subsequent love objects. The son has his mother as his Oedipal love object, but is aided in his separation from her when he must go to his father for his male identity. The daughter is more closely tied to her mother as both a primary love object and source of her identity. Her Oedipal drive toward the father fosters development in helping her to separate from her mother and to master the outside world which father represents. If the mother devalues the father, and sees separation as betrayal, the daughter does not make that necessary break from her mother. The daughter remains with a parasitic mother, insecure and dependent.
Fathers are very important to their daughter’s feminine development. Biller’s research review (1971) supports that girls who had positive relationships with their fathers were more likely to have satisfying heterosexual relationships. When a mother poisons her daughter’s love of her father, she is also compromising her daughter’s ability to maturely love any man. The mother is programming her daughter to be her ego extension without a will of her own, and to be with her and no one else, narcissistically bound.
Although both boys and girls are greatly harmed when they are turned against a parent, the harm is often different. Studies indicate that boys suffer the most harm when the boys are stuck with mothers who express hostility towards their fathers- the source of their male identity ( Hodges, 1991; Kelly,1993). This chapter, however, will focus only on the mother-daughter bond in the Parental Alienation Syndrome. Although the daughter’s self esteem may not suffer as much as the son’s, her ability to deal with separation and mature relationships with men is very deeply affected. Wallerstein’s (1989) 10 year longitudinal study of girls from divorced families found that the nature of the mother-daughter relationship, and the daughter’s identification with her mother were predictive of the daughters’ ability to address the tasks of their relationships with men later on. Daughters who identified with hostile mothers had the poorest adjustment.
A woman has two internal sexual love objects, the mother representation-the original love object, and the father representation-the later Oedipal love object. Both affect object choice. The boy has a more narrow band of “chemistry”. His love for a woman will always be affected by his internal mother representation. He has his mother as his ever powerful love object. His father is a latent homosexual love object and source of identification that does not play the same gyroscopic object role as does the mother. A man will not marry a woman like his father. A woman however will choose a man in reaction to her mother or her father. If the daughter is brainwashed against her father by a hostile paranoid mother (which is often the case), the daughter has internally two core love objects, the hostile mother and the devalued father. These internal objects will guide her love choices and her behaviors in relationships with men. By picking, provoking or by distorting , she will try to repeat her emotional past with men. I caution the reader to the distinction of “emotional past” verses “actual” past. Our neuroses may be based on real events as well as on false perceptions and fantasies. For example, in the Parental Alienation Syndrome the “hated” parent may in fact be loving, and the “loved” parent may be very disturbed and unloving. This sets up a complex system of layering of object relations in the ego. At one level the child is traumatized by the perceptions and not the reality of the “hated” parent and consciously hates that parent, yet at the unconscious level, the child often secretly loves that parent, who was in fact loving. The “loved” parent may be loved on the conscious level, but feared and hated on the unconscious level. The patient may start therapy claiming that she was traumatized by her father, and later in therapy realize that her trauma was based partly on the image of her father, and largely on the her mother’s exploitation and hostility. The patient who was brain washed will not present this as a problem, and has special defenses to guard against this awareness.
Why would a mother do this to her own children? The story of Medea may help us to understand such motives. The Greek drama served the purpose to not just entertain, but to provide a catharsis for the collective unspoken traumas and pains of the audience. These classic stories express most beautifully powerful human conflicts characteristic of our universal psychology.
The Medea Complex: The myth.
Euripides wrote Medea around 400 .B.C.. It is a story of intense love turned to such intense hate, that Medea kills her own children to get back at her husband for betraying her. Medea is so madly in love with Jason, that she tricks her own father, King Aeetes, who guards the Golden Fleece, and kills her own brother so that Jason could steal the Golden Fleece. (Jason might have done well to consider how she treated her father and brother before he married her.) Jason leaves Medea to marry yet another princess. Medea plans her revenge. The chorus blames Aphrodite for causing all the trouble, in having intense passion turns to hate. (The Greeks often displaced their psychodynamics onto their gods.) Medea offers the bride her gifts of a beautiful robe and chaplet. When Jason’s new bride puts on the gifts, her head and body burst into flame and she dies a horrible, painful death. When her father embraced her corpse, he too bursts into flames and dies the same tortured death. Medea then takes her sword and kills their two children. The chorus amazed at the degree of Medea’s vengefulness doubt that anything can rival a mother’s slaughter of her own innocent children. Medea escapes Jason with a dragon drawn chariot. She taunts Jason not allowing him to embrace or bury his sons. She rejoices at having hurt him so.
Fred Pine (1995) refers to Medea as an example of a particular form of hatred found in women.” Medea’s internal experience is a compound of a sense of injury- a sense that builds to imagined public humiliation and a sense of righteousness. … The righteousness implied here in “the wrong they have dared to do to me” has struck me clinically. It is a frequent accompaniment of hate and hate-based rage. I think it stems from something self-preservative(“I have been so mistreated that I have this right…”) and some flaw in the super-ego, possibly based on identification with the child’s experience of the rageful mother’s giving herself full permission- and without subsequent remorse- to express her rage toward the child.” (p.109). That is, Pine suspects that for a mother to be so destructive to her own children, she herself must have been exposed to her own mother’s unremorseful hostility.
Jacobs’ (1988) paper entitled, “Euripides’ Medea: A psychodynamic model of severe divorce pathology” views the Medea mother as “narcissistically scarred, embittered dependent woman…(who) …attempts to severe father-child contact as a means of revenging the injury inflicted on her by the loss of a self-object, her hero-husband.” Jacobs’ idea that the Medea mother is so dependent that she cannot deal with the loss, and thus holds on with hate.
Medea certainly has a flaw in her superego. We know this early on when she betrays her father and kills her brother to help Jason steal from them. But she not only kills his new bride and her father, but her own children. Her love turned to hate is so passionate that she destroys that which intimacy between them produced. The hate goes beyond her instinctive need to protect her own children. Medea must make Jason suffer more than she suffers for it to be a punishment with revenge.
Jason, “You loved them, and killed them.”
Medea, “To make you feel pain.”
The Medea Complex involves a mother who is still pathologically tied to her (ex)husband. She has a great deal of rage probably as Pines suggests (1995) from her interactions with her hostile mother. This rage is rooted in part with a wish to destroy the child, whom she at some level resents being stuck with and may turn her rage into overprotectiveness as a reaction formation. She is unable to let her children separate from her. She tells them the harm that will befall them when they are out of her control. When the mother wishes to punish the father by turning their children against him, she is also aggressing against the children. In her unconscious, both the children and the husband represent the same thing (others that did or might betray), and destructiveness is wished on them both. In short, a mother who brain washes her children against their father has a Medea Complex. She probably has paranoia or at least paranoid features within a borderline or psychotic character structure. She can not deal with the loss, and remains tied to her (ex)husband in an intimate hate, and keeps her children tied to her out of fear.
A Medea mother must kill off her own femininity in order to be destructive to her own children. As Lady Macbeth prays so that she will be able to help murder, “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe topful of direst cruelty!” (Macbeth, act 1, scene 5 ).
Brain Washing and Parental Alienation Syndrome
I agree with Gardner’s (1987) assessment that most mothers in custody disputes do some form of brain washing. I have done custody evaluations for over 15 years. I have found that mother’s attempts to turn their children against their fathers in custody disputes are very common. I have also found that this is by far the most destructive aspect of divorce on children. I now consider brain washing children against a parent as a form of child abuse, since it leads to enduring psychopathology.
Kelly’s (1993) longitudinal research of child’s postdivorce adjustment found that the majority of children adjust to divorce, and older children express relief. Most symptoms last 6 months to 2 years post separation, and usually only involve adjustment disorders. Only about 10% of divorcing couples with children fight over custody. Of this group, at least one parent often has hostile and paranoid features. In a study of MMPI’s given to parents in custody evaluations, the MMPI’s of the parents who lost the custody dispute had significantly higher scores in Psychopathic Deviant (hostility), Paranoia, and Mania (narcissistic and impulsive tendencies), than parents who won the custody dispute (Otto and Collins, 1995). Children do adjust to divorce, except if a disturbed parent uses them as a pawn to punish the other parent. This traumatizes the child, and it’s effects may be life long, and is often passed on generation after generation.
Gardner (1987) stated, “Although the mothers in these situations may have a variety of motivations for programming their children against their fathers, the most common one relates to the old saying, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ … Because these mothers are separated, and cannot retaliate directly at their husbands, they wreak vengeance by attempting to deprive their former spouses of their most treasured possessions, the children. And the brainwashing program is an attempt to achieve this goal.”p.87. Gardner also feels that these mothers are aggressing against their own children by brain washing them against their fathers. “These mothers exhibit the mechanism of reaction formation, in that their obsessive love of their children is often a cover-up for their underlying hostility.”p.87…”And when these mothers “win”, they not only win custody, but they win total alienation of their children from the hated spouse. The victory here results in psychological destruction of the children which, I believe, is what they basically want anyway.” P.88
Brain washing are conscious acts of programming the child against the other parent. But Gardner went on to describe what he refers to as “Parental Alienation Syndrome”. The concept of the Parental Alienation Syndrome includes the brain washing component, but is more inclusive. It includes not only conscious but unconscious factors within the programming parent that contribute to the child’s alienation from the other parent. Furthermore, it includes factors that arise within the child- independent of the parental contributions. The child may justify the alienation with memories of minor altercations experienced in the relationship with the hated parent. These are usually trivial and are experiences that most children quickly forget. These children may even refuse to accept evidence that is obvious proof of the hated parent’s position. Commonly these children will accept as 100 percent valid the allegations of the loved parent against the hated one. “All human relationships are ambivalent… the concept of ‘Mixed feelings’ has no place in these children’s scheme of things. The hated parent is ‘all bad’ and the loved parent is ‘all good'(Gardner,1987).p.73.
Dunne and Hedrick (1994) in their research found that Parental Alienation Syndrome, “appeared to be primarily a function of the pathology of the alienating parent and that parent’s relationship with the children. PAS did not signify dysfunction in the alienated parent or in the relationship between that parent and child.” This study supports Gardner’s definition of Parental Alienation Syndrome as a pathological reaction to a parent, and not a conflict arising out the real relationship with the rejected parent.
Gardner also refers to factors arising within the child which contributes to Parental Alienation Syndrome, such as the fear of losing the love of the alienating mother, since “the loved parent is feared much more than loved.” p.90. Additionally, Oedipal factors are sometimes operative in the Parental Alienation Syndrome. A daughter may resent the father’s new female partner, and may identify with her mother’s jealousy and rage, and the daughter may revenge by rejecting him.
Damaged Ability for Separation and Intimacy
A daughter has first her mother as the primary love object, and then shifts to her father as the Oedipal love object. These two internal objects guide her attractions and patterns of intimacy. If she had in fact a rejecting father, but a healthy loving mother who does not turn her against the father, the daughter will have damaged relationships with men. But she has a good prognosis for overcoming this problem. Since her mother was healthy, the daughter can form love relationships built on that basic love relationship. If however, her mother has a Medea Complex, that is she turns her daughter against her own father out of revenge, the daughter is more likely to have a damaged ability to love maturely. Both her primary love object, the mother and Oedipal love object, the father, are internally driving her to self defeating relationships. To love a man is to betray her mother. And, she can only love as she has been taught and shown. The daughter will find unconscious ways to undermine relationships. She can unconsciously undermine them in three ways: picking, provoking and distorting.
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