A wave of reunifications between now adult children and their lost loved ones has been happening recently in the UK and in the midst of this I have been helping families to understand the paths and pitfalls which occur in this momentous occasion in their lives.
Whilst so many long to be reunited with the children they have lost through parental alienation and the failure of the family courts to resolve the difficulties the family has in making the transition from together to apart, the reality of that process is often shocking as well as or instead of it being wonderful. For when the longing of the years gives way to the encounter with reality, the buried feelings of the past, which have often been held in emotional aspic, come rushing up like ghosts demanding to be attended to. Again and again I am asked by parents and children and wider family members ‘why, when I have reconnected to the person that I love, do I feel so bad?’
The answer of course lies in the way in which estrangement or alienation from loved ones causes the stultification of normal feelings of attachment and the way in which loss of a loved one who is still alive cannot be mourned fully. This causes a traumatic wounding pattern in which feelings of anger, fear, dread and terror plus sadness, grief and despair become fused into one overwhelming feeling of helplessness. Reunited children experience different feelings which are very much based upon their need for the neglected parts of themselves to be attended to. Of course as those parts which are unattended to are now demanding attention right at the time when the newly reunited adults are coping with emerging unprocessed feelings, there is the very real possibility of a perfect storm of misunderstandings to arise. For onlookers, the confusion about why the reunification which was so longed for is less a happy ending and more an emotional and psychological jumble sale, can become both frustrating and bewildering. Understanding what is going on under the surface helps to steer a steady course through the ruins of the past and into the building of a new future.
The point of reunification is both the ending and beginning and within that moment is contained all of the hopes, fears, dreams and determinations of everyone involved. This is a rebirth of a child/adult relationship and unless it is recognised as being both a point of possibility and of despair, disappointment will surely follow. For the parent the end of a long wait is here, for the child a point at which a new start is signified, two paths which diverged have now come together again and falling into step requires time, patience and a willingness to understand and hear the voice of each other. Those who achieve this are those who will walk on together in life and who will be seen in years to come to be in healthy relationship with each other. Those who do not achieve it will find the estrangement more comfortable than the reunited relationship. And there are many more of these relationships which foundered on the rocks of reunification, than you would ordinarily imagine.
The work of receiving a lost child into your emotional and psychological life is incredibly difficult and for some the fear of failing leads to a preference for the status quo than for change. When someone has not been in your life for many years, welcoming them back takes courage and sometimes the willingness to allow them to bring a little bit of chaos with them. I often liken reunifications to aircraft landings, some are smooth and we barely know that the wheels have touched the ground, others are turbulent, bumping their way onto the ground in fits and starts before coming to a screeching halt or careering to a halt in the long grass. Being able to remain open to that process requires psychological strength and the capacity to be able to maintain perspective. In each reunification process we counsel people to recognise that this is a process not an event, it will bring tears as well as laughter and being open to letting our world be enriched by the people who live within our relational systems is what life is all about.
Sometimes reunifications do not go well. These are the those in which the rigidity of mind in one or both people concerned prevents the resurrection of the warm attachment bonds. For children who encounter this in a parent they have sought out, this is tragedy in their lives twice over. Because not only do they have to deal with the split off and denied feelings of guilt and shame for having pushed a parent away in the first place, they now have to deal with a block to their seeking of health through the restoration of that relationship. It is cruel blow to children and one which in my experience is amongst the most damaging things that can happen in reunification. Why it happens is not difficult to understand. Parents become bitter, enraged by having been denied for so long and fixed in their belief that their views must now hold sway.
Fear populates this relational system too, the fear of the parent that they can no longer bring influence in their adult child’s life and fear that there is no other role for them if that influence is no longer theirs to exercise.
What these parents fail to realise is that their own fear is what maintains the barrier to their child’s longer term health. Those who cannot shift beyond fear based reality will cast their children back out into the wilderness and whilst that may be difficult for many who are alienated from their children now to believe, trust me, it is a far more common outcome for families who attempt to reunite, than the popular narrative would have us believe.
Because at the end of the time apart the beginning of the time apart is also present. The end is in the beginning and the beginning is always in the end. This is because ultimately, alienation, like estrangement, like all of the reasons why people disappear out of each other’s lives, is a human relational issue. And in all that we do we are all, always still human. What we find in reunification work is that which caused the splitting in the first place and being able to hold that with the families we work with is our greatest responsibility of all. Bringing families to the place of dynamic change is what reunification is about, entering into that liminal space on the threshold of the past, present and future, is to be human in relationship to families.
It is both an art, a privilege and a time of great fear as well as rejoicing. Nothing can be predicted in a reunification, which is not based upon how life was to the point where the two paths diverged. And that is the simple truth of the matter. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. Reunification depends upon the openness of heart and spirit and the capacity to take risks. If it was not there in the beginning, it won’t be there in the end which is also a new beginning. Drawing upon those strengths and helping families not to be tripped up by the inherent weaknesses is what reunification work is all about.
See this in perspective, it is not a fairy story and this is not a happy ending, reunification is a process not a one off event and you have to work at it.
Recognise that the dynamics which were present at the point where the paths diverged are going to come howling into the present at the point at which the paths converge again. If you are a parent get help to deal with the reactive shock that encountering long buried feelings brings. If you are an adult child recognise that your parent/other adult relations need time to adjust. For wider family members, keep boundaries and know your limitations in terms of being able to make things different. Above all be patient, let time and proximity do the work of reigniting buried feelings of family, warmth and attachment. Do not expect too much too soon and always always keep in touch, however hard it is, this is what will ultimately oil the wheels and make the vehicle of your relational system work again.
Karen Woodall is a highly experienced psychotherapist who has worked with divorced and separated families since 1991. She is currently studying for a PhD. Karen has specialised in developing new ways of working with alienated children and their families since 2006 and is now widely regarded as one of the foremost experts in the field. Using internationally accepted standards and protocols, she provides both assessment and treatment routes through the family courts. Her influential blog has a worldwide readership.