Saturday, March 23, 2013

It happened to us

BaldwinKen and I both recently read Alec Baldwin’s book A Promise to Ourselves, after I got it for him for Christmas. Baldwin describes his messy divorce with Kim Basinger, and his struggles when it came to maintaining a relationship with their daughter. Undoubtedly, he bore some culpability in things going wrong, and he does not deny that. However, what struck us both was his description of Parental Alienation Syndrome.

Many of you know that Ken and I went through something similar with his kids from his previous marriage. I have described at length some of the things that occurred as the alienation progressed. Ken has also written about Parental Alienation, but I felt the need to write about it as well. Like Baldwin, we both realize that there were some things we should have done differently, and would change if we could. For example, we felt that we were removing the stress from the kids by stepping out of the picture and letting them enjoy their high school years by not adding to conflict (which was occurring constantly with their mother); instead, it was portrayed as us not caring about them and “writing them off.” Simply untrue, but we had no idea that our actions would be portrayed as such. We also made it clear that we were not cutting off contact...numerous phone calls and messages left were unanswered, and email addresses were changed. We had no way of contacting them short of knocking on their door, and we were threatened by their mother that she would call the police if we did that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding Parental Alienation Syndrome. Some feel that it is not a legitimate syndrome, and it has not been included in the DSM, the diagnostic manual for psychological disorders. Some feel that it should be classified as a disorder rather than a syndrome, which if I understand correctly is a matter of one physical or mental abnormality versus a collection of associated abnormalities. I am not qualified to weigh in on which it is, but I can tell you that of the eight symptoms listed, we experienced every single one. Whether it is ultimately dubbed a disorder or syndrome, I would argue that it is very real. I will list them here, and give a brief description as to how it applied to our case. Some of these things we experienced via emails and phone calls. Others we gleaned through reading their mother’s blog, which was publicly available, both to us and to the children.

1. Campaign of Denigration
The custodial parent targets the noncustodial parent, often portraying the target as dangerous, angry, and mentally unstable. The target is blamed for the divorce, often labeled as “walking away” from the marriage and from the children. Phone calls are often refused and messages are not delivered, and the children are then told that the other parent never calls, or doesn’t care enough about them to call. Key events are not mentioned to the target parent until after the fact, as in, “He doesn’t care enough about you to show up,” although no notice of the event was ever mentioned. The target parent is often portrayed as not supporting them financially; in our case, although Ken never missed what was a substantial child support payment, it was written that many of the kids’ toys had to be sold in order to put food on the table.

2. Weak, Frivolous, and Absurd Rationalizations for the Deprecation
When asked about why they do not want to be around the target parent, the kids will often use nonexistent and exaggerated reasons. For us, it was that we were forcing them to do hours of yard work, or that the “lazy step-parent” (that would be me, I guess) was making them do all the housework. Ken was portrayed as some sort of angry monster, with one child expressing fear that he would hit them. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and further from Ken’s personality. For such thinking to have become entrenched, there could be only one source.

3. Lack of Ambivalence Toward Both the Alienating and Targeted Parents
Rather than the reality that everyone has both good and bad characteristics, the kids see the alienating parent as completely good and the targeted parent as completely bad. How could anyone love a monster that is completely bad? Even when evidence showing “good times” is presented, it is brushed off as the child putting on an act, or behaving in a happy way only because they were afraid of what the target parent would do to them if they didn’t act happy. For us, it seemed that all fun times—and there were plenty—were completely obliterated and forgotten in the shroud of anger at Ken and me. Fun vacations, being around loving family, Christmas and birthday celebrations, funny ghost stories told around a bonfire...all good things were negated and ignored.
4. The “Independent-Thinker” Phenomenon
Even when one parent is accused of alienating the child from the other parent, this is denied by the alienating parent. They say that they have always encouraged the kids to come for visitation, even when they didn’t want to come. The children pick up on this, and deny that the alienating parent is engaging in any sort of campaign of alienation. We heard this one verbatim, as in “My mom always encouraged us to come and see you, even when we didn’t want to.”

5. Reflexive Support of the Alienating Parent in the Parental Conflict
This often happens when parents make children feel as though they have to make a choice between the two parents. Ken never did this, but was accused of doing so. At one point, he told one of the kids that if they wanted to come and stay with us, they were welcome to. There was no, “If you don’t come stay with us, you don’t love me,” or any sort of coercion whatsoever. It was simply stating a fact that it was an option they could think about. Ken’s statement was portrayed as “putting pressure” on the children to move. This was undoubtedly framed to the children in such a manner, and Ken’s comment was portrayed as coercion and seen as a bad thing, while the alienating parent was portrayed as the victim. The alienating parent was sided with completely, and Ken’s remarks were seen as wrong and mean.

6. Absence of Guilt over Cruelty to and/or Exploitation of the Alienated Parent
There were many instances of the kids ignoring or forgetting Ken’s birthday or Father’s Day, even when we were seeing them on a regular basis. When he would try to contact the kids, his efforts were labeled as ‘harassment’ by the alienating parent. Ken got very few responses to emails, but would get requests for extra money for a new MP3 player, or for school trips, etc. In other words, contact was initiated only when something was desired. Even when these requests were granted, there was an attitude of entitlement. As the book states, quoting the psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who first wrote about Parental Alienation Syndrome:

Commonly they will say that they never want to see the hated parent again, or not until their late teens or early twenties. To such a child I might say: “So you want your father to continue paying for all your food, clothing, rent, and education—even private high school and college—and yet you still don’t want to see him at all, ever again. Is that right?” Such a child might respond: “That’s right. He doesn’t deserve to see me. He’s mean and paying all that money is a good punishment for him.”
Even after Ken received letters from both children saying that they did not want him in their lives (one of the letters addressed him as “Ken,” not as “Dad”), he was denigrated for removing one child from health insurance when they graduated from high school. I believe it was something like, “Fuck you, asshole. I’m sorry I have your last name.” In their mother’s blog, Ken was portrayed as loving money so much he didn’t want to pay for their health insurance or college costs (although we were willing to do that if we’d had any contact with them). Our feeling was that once they were legal adults, if they wanted nothing to do with either of us, why would we continue to voluntarily give them money?
7. Presence of Borrowed Scenarios
In this case the children will often describe situations with the target parent that they would have no way of experiencing, e.g., an argument that occurred between the alienating parent and the target parent with no one else around, or describing the circumstances of the divorce without knowing all the details (“You abandoned me.”). False accusations might also be leveled against the target parent, especially accusations of abuse, including sexual abuse. In our case, the accusations were made not against us (although for all I know, they may very well think that now), but someone we had befriended who previously had a place in the children’s lives. Because we had befriended this person, we were said to be horrible people, because that person had “abused them.” This was the first we had ever heard of it. If such abuse was going on, why wasn’t Ken informed before, either by the children or by their mother? Ken would have taken immediate action to remove them from the situation and from the abuse. If such abuse was going on, why did their mother keep them in such a situation? These are legitimate questions, and we never received any answers. We remain unconvinced that any “abuse” took place.

8. The Spread of the Animosity to the Extended Family and Friends of the Alienated Parent
Both Ken’s small family and my larger one were subjected to this aspect. Ken’s family was portrayed in writings as “dysfunctional,” and I’m sure that was said in front of the kids. My parents were called “pseudo grandparents” and it was written that they should stop calling the house (my Mom would call to wish the kids a happy birthday) and “disrupting” their family. The kids’ godparents, our friends Kim and Steve, were personae non gratae (I believe the actual quote was, “They are dead to me now.”), and the kids’ mother wanted them to have no contact with the kids. My sisters were also left out. These were all people who would be positive influences in any child’s life: a WWII veteran, a woman who grew up in the Depression, a former police officer, a woman who had lived through life-threatening illnesses, a science teacher, a community college teacher, a museum director, a nurse...all good people who could have provided positive feedback and support for the kids, and possibly career advice and help. Ken and I aren’t chopped liver, engineer/project manager and a medical technologist/microbiologist could have helped with science classes or careers. The systematic dismantling of our relationship with the kids extended to these good people, too, and I can honestly say that it is a loss to the children. The more positive influences in a child’s life, the better!

Those are the eight points, and as I said at the beginning, we experienced them all. As I was reading through that chapter, my responses were something like, “Wow. WOW.” I told Ken, “All of these happened. Some of this stuff we heard verbatim!” It was quite an eye-opener for me. Although I know it has happened to others, including some in my own family, I had never seen all the symptoms laid out like that, and to have them apply so perfectly to our own situation was astonishing. It made me feel like someone really understood what we went through, and at a level of detail that was amazing. I actually tweeted to Alec Baldwin to thank him for writing this book!

We bear no animosity towards the kids. We understand that they were manipulated to a degree that even they don’t realize. Our hope is that one day, the anger will fade, and their eyes will be opened the way mine were when I read this book. It is so tempting to send it to them, but I doubt that they would receive it...or be receptive to it, for that matter. But as long as I live, I will never understand any person who is so lacking in self-awareness and so unable to put their own feelings of hurt, anger, and bitterness aside that they would systematically destroy a relationship between their own children and their father, someone with a strong work ethic, a sense of compassion and generosity, and an all-around decent human being.

THAT is unforgivable.


  1. and those are some of the 8 reasons i have no desire to ever speak to my biological mother again.


  2. It wouldn't surprise me that it was some phsycological phenominum as the result of all the head games that have been played to, with and in front of the children by the parent that puts control or "winning" above the welfare of the child. Praying their eyes are opened to the truth of your situation for their sakes. Not so that they can turn around and hate thier mother, but so that they can forgive her while reaching out to restore a relationship with Ken.

  3. I was the daughter in a situation very similar to this. I am happy to say that after years of confusion and alienation, my dad, step-mom, and I have an amazing relationship. I no longer speak to my biological mother now that I understand just how badly she attempted to destroy my relationship with my dad.

  4. I will never understand any person who is so lacking in self-awareness and so unable to put their own feelings of hurt, anger, and bitterness aside that they would systematically destroy a relationship between their own children and their father, someone with a strong work ethic, a sense of compassion and generosity, and an all-around decent human being.

    Neither will I Beth, neither will I.

  5. Beth, thank you for this blog. Now I am thinking about my own son who turns 50 this month and is alienated from both me and his Mom for reasons I don't know.


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