Splitting up shouldn’t mean splitting the kids.
The term "splitting" refers to a familiar tactic often used by children to manipulate their parents -- if Mommy says, "No.", then go ask Daddy.
For parent couples in the throes of separation or divorce, the adult version of splitting -- largely characterized by one parent vilifying the other in order to manipulate the children into choosing sides and, ultimately, alienating the other parent from them -- can be much more insidious.
The children may, at first, be only pawns -- tools for gaining some sense of leverage or perceived control -- but, in due course, they can become nothing more than weapons of vengeance, unwitting victims of ego and arrogance.
We are not alone in our relationship, nor is our partner. Establishing any relationship is an act of social co-creation in which all parties must be both responsible to, and accountable for, their actions, inactions and the consequences held therein. To that point, a relationship - any relationship -- demands cultivation; it doesn't just happen.
Should a relationship break, it is vital that both parties step back, take a moment to examine their personal role in that break, and hold onto that self-revelation. When the break is something not mutually agreed upon, the "wronged partner" - a term used quite loosely here - in denial and ignorance of their own responsibility, will often attempt to exercise some means for regaining a perceived semblance of control.
When benign, these means can appear as gestures of reconciliation, promises of change, pleas to seek counseling and all manner of self-effacing behavior. In instances more menacing, money is hidden; credit cards cancelled; documents disappear; cell phones are checked; computers scoured and private detectives hired, even when there is nothing to detect. A pattern of latent abuse [1, 2] emerges, escalating from a point somewhat removed from normal, to one that veers dangerously close to pathological.
These efforts to regain control are often fruitless; mostly because they are generally an illusion in the first place. Their abject futility, however, can foster a further, even more ominous, escalation - the co-opting of social connections. Friends, family, co-workers - anyone who will listen to the spinning of fantastical yarns that describe the evils of the other is approached, for good, ill or indifference.
Couched within this drama of social distortion, the saddest moment of all can come when an otherwise reasonable adult utters to a child fateful words that might go something like, "I don't want a divorce. This is all your mother's idea. She's just a selfish bitch." In that moment, in an ego-driven and one way war of wills, the child becomes so much collateral damage.
The mechanism of parental alienation is fueled by a gross failure of emotional intelligence, and further compelled by the anger and resentment of ego. It is roundly destructive to everyone involved; disrupting or destroying familial connections, rending the fabric of the post-marital relationship and effectively compromising any chance at successful co-parenting.
Indeed, the most oppressive aspect of parental alienation is that it creates a false issue -- or set of false issues -- for children whom it is very likely do not have the social or emotional intelligence to discriminate between fact and fancy. The inaccuracies and misinformation proffered by one parent in service of discrediting the other shakes the very foundations of a child's model of the world, leaving them stranded outside the bounds of the very structure and consistency upon which they thrive.
Children caught up in this system of abuse [1, 2] are subject to a campaign of unjustified and unjustifiable denigration focused on one parent and perpetrated by the other. In mild cases, there is some programming fostered on the part of the alienating parent, but, all in all, relationships remain intact.
In moderate cases of parental alienation , the level of programming escalates, introducing two artifacts - firstly, the relationship with the targeted parent is more disrupted, created anxiety for the kids and, second, the children become co-opted into the alienating parent's system of unjustified accusation and begin to believe it, causing a whole separate set of psychosocial issues for them.
In severe cases, the programming has taken hold and the child/children come to develop an irrational and unfounded hatred of the targeted parent, often disrupting the parent/child bond to the point of breaking.
While this all sounds like a horribly Machiavellian system of social pathology - and, at its worst, it is -- some space needs to be held for the unintentional or naïve alienation fostered by simple resentment and frustration. Snarky remarks about financial matters, living arrangements or general behavior not personally directed at the other parent constitute a sort of indirect and somewhat unintentional alienation that a child may or may not take to heart.
A more active, and destructive, form of this is compassed by critical comments that remind a child about past disappointments or situations that had negative outcomes. It might also include more personal attacks on character, or descriptions of alleged (and typically false) activities that would reflect on character.
In severe cases, attempts at alienation are obsessive and irrational. The alienating parent literally subjugates the child, enmeshing them in their own irrational belief system and making it virtually impossible for them to think for themselves. The child is interjected into the social reality of the targeted parent as the mouthpiece of hatred for the alienating parent and, objectified in this way, becomes nothing more - and nothing less - than a weapon of social and emotional destruction.
The take away here is fairly straightforward -- if we can't figure out how to be married, fine, but, with children involved, we need to figure out how to be divorced; and certainly not at the expense of the children's state of mind simply for our own small, petty and vindictive satisfactions.
So, play nice -- and if you see this happening or catch yourself doing it, either speak up, or knock it off. In the end, it serves no one and the only ones who suffer are the kids.
Gardner, R.A. (1998). The Parental Alienation Syndrome, Second Edition, Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics, Inc.
© 2009 Michael J. Formica , All Rights Reserved
Michael's Mailing List | Michael's eMail | Follow Michael on Twitter
Michael on Facebook | The Integral Life Institute on Facebook
Separation, Divorce and Parental Alienation Syndrome | Psychology Today.