House Divided: Hate Thy Father
She worked full-time as a legal secretary to put him through medical school. She also bought the two of them a town house with money she’d saved before marriage. When she gave birth to a boy, Matt (not his real name), she was as happy as she’d ever been. Over time, she saw signs that her husband was cheating on her, but she always forgave him.
Their second son, Robby, was born autistic, and things went downhill fast. The boy had speech and learning problems and was frequently out of control. Her husband was appalled. “He’s dumber than a fish,” he said.
Still, they had one more child, Harry (the name has been changed), hoping to give Matt a sibling without Robby’s problems. Harry turned out normal, but he bonded most closely with Robby; they became inseparable.
Cathy was granted primary custody of the kids, and her ex soon married the woman he’d been seeing on the side. Because of all she had to do to help Robby as well as her other two kids, Cathy could no longer hold a full-time job. Meanwhile, her ex declared two bankruptcies and, at one point, even mental disability, all of which kept alimony payments to a trickle.
Eventually Cathy was so broke that her electricity was turned off; she and the boys ate dinner by candlelight. Then she became so ill she had to be hospitalized for life-threatening surgery. She had no choice but to leave the kids with her ex. “He promised to return them when my health and finances improved,” she says.
That was almost seven years ago. Her health has long since returned and she has a good job she can do from home, but the only child ever restored to her, despite nonstop court battles, was Robby. In fact, her ex got the courts to rule that the children should be permanently separated, leaving the other two children with him, since Robby was a “threat” to his younger brother’s well-being.
Through all those years, Cathy says she faced a campaign of systematic alienation from Matt and Harry. “When I called to speak to them, I was usually greeted with coldness or anger, and often the boys weren’t brought to the phone. Then my ex sent letters warning me not to call them at home at all. Whenever the kids came to stay with me, they’d report, ‘Dad says you’re evil. He says you wrecked the marriage.’ ” Then he moved thousands of miles away, making it vastly more difficult for her to see her children.
As time has passed, the boys have increasingly pulled away. Matt, now grown and serving in the military, never speaks to Cathy. Thirteen-year-old Harry used to say, “Mommy, why can’t I stay with you? All the other kids I know live with their moms,” before leaving visits with her. Now he often appears detached from her and uninterested in Robby, whom he once adored. His friends at his new home think his stepmother is his mom, because that’s how she introduces herself. “She told me she would take my kids, and she did. The alienation is complete,” rues Cathy. “All I ever wanted was to be a mom.”
Divorcing parents have long bashed each other in hopes of winning points with kids. But today, the strategy of blame encompasses a psychological concept of parental alienation that is increasingly used—and misused—in the courts.
On the one hand, with so many contentious divorces, parents like Cathy Mannis have been tragically alienated from the children they love. On the other hand, parental alienation has been seized as a strategic tool in custody fights, its effects exploited in the courtroom, often to the detriment of loving parents protecting children from true neglect or abuse. With the impact of alienation so devastating—and false accusations so prevalent—it may take a judge with the wisdom of Solomon to differentiate between the two faces of alienation: a truly toxic parent and his or her victimized children versus manipulation of the legal system to claim damage where none exists.
A Symptom Of Our Time?
Disturbed by the potential for alienation, many divorce courts have today instituted aggressive steps to intervene where they once just stood by. And with good reason: Alienation is ruinous to all involved. “In pathological or irrational alienation, the parent has done nothing to deserve that level of hatred or rejection from the child,” explains University of Texas psychologist Richard Warshak, author of Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent-Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex. “It often seems to happen almost overnight, and neither the rejected parent nor even the rejecting child understands why.”
Often, in fact, it’s the emotionally healthier parent who gets rejected, Warshak adds. That parent tends to understand that it’s not in the child’s best interests to lose the other parent. In contrast, the alienating parent craves revenge against the ex—then uses the child to exact that punishment. “It’s a form of abuse,” Warshak says. “Both parent and child are victims.”