Intimate partner violence and ex-partner violence can have many different faces and be played out by turning the children against the former spouse, thus a form of emotional child abuse. In this article (1) with the title above, I was reflecting on these issues based on in-depth interviews and a focus group I held with fathers, focusing my attention especially on the rejected mothers (2) I met in and through my work. The paper was originally presented at the second European Conference on Domestic Violence held in September 2017 in Porto, written up for the E-book in March 2018 and published in August 2019 as an E-Book. As a domestic violence specialist (3) I am involved in discussions on issues on relational and social safety and disruption in family relationships. Last decade I developed accredited courses for social professionals on child abuse and vulnerable family relationships, intergenerational trauma, complex divorce parental alienation. (4)
Investigating the roots and the penetrating effects of disrupted post-divorce family relationships is essential to raise awareness and guide practitioners and researchers in their attempts to understand and treat complex family matters. Only with greater awareness can society promote greater safety, diminish emotional harm, and promote healthy parenting. More specifically, post-divorce relationships are becoming a worldwide issue. Yet research is limited concerning how post-divorce relationships are poisoned by prior and continuing domestic violence. An issue of special interest is how post-divorce relationships are shaped by the continuing tactic known as coercive control, through which one parent reorients their children’s view of the other parent to sabotage their parent-child relationship, often with severe short-term and long-term consequences. The following two examples from the e-article show how coercive controlling tactics in different (abusive) relationship dynamics during and after the relationship between the (ex)partners go along with alienation.
Sophie (45) lives with her ten-year-old son, while her thirteen-year-old daughter lives with her ex-husband. She describes how in her view her ex-husband’s two-faced behaviour and his manipulation of the children’s perspectives became evident at the conclusion of their marriage. She also reveals that he hides his anger, remaining outwardly calm, and how he uses the alienation allegation against her:
‘I did not know how manipulative he is until the end of our relationship. I had breast cancer then and one breast had to be amputated. He was like a chameleon until then, but after the divorce nine years ago his anger was really provoked. What kind of person is he? When I raise my voice, he stays calm and in control: his legs are spread wide, his body relaxed. He spreads his hands with open palms and looks up with puppy eyes. He is a very charming man who is pleasing, but who turns on you, manipulates while remaining outwardly calm. For years he did not look after our kids (now ten and thirteen). I was the nurturing parent. Now to the outside world he claims to be the alienated parent.’
Carey (48), nine years divorced with three adolescent children, spoke about severe emotional abuse in her previous marriage. She has sole custody. Nowadays her ex-partner tries to turn the children against her. The two elder children, fifteen and nineteen, refuse to see their dad, but the youngest, of fourteen, is getting angrier all the time under his father’s influence, and as a result tensions between the siblings in her home are growing. His father has promised him a bigger room a puppy, but according to Carey her ex-partner cannot take care of them:
‘He indulged the children and compensated them. When my youngest of fourteen complained that he had to mow the lawn, he said, ‘Oh my! Don’t do it. You are far too young for this. Just come live with me.’ He made my son write a letter to the judge saying that he wanted to live with his dad. All three of my children are affected: my eldest has a gambling addiction, my youngest is full of anger, and my daughter falls for dominant, nasty males. After nine years I am just a shadow of the woman I used to be, and very, very tired. My ex turns everything around, twists all the facts. My family fell apart regardless of whatever I did.’
Alienation is recognised as a mental health issue (Woodall & Woodall, 2017) and alienation that disrupts the parent-child bond is a form of child abuse and of ex-partner violence which should be addressed. A deeper understanding of this kind or pattern of alienation, often unrecognised by social professionals even in its most flagrant form, is likely to improve the quality of professional care. A lack of understanding makes it more likely that professionals will simply reproduce the power imbalance and overlook the mental violence happening right under our collective nose.
(1) Dijkstra, S. (2019) ‘I did not see my daughters for years:’ The impact of coercive control on post-divorce relationships between mothers and children. Theme Intimate Partner violence, E-book, Second European Conference on Domestic Violence, Porto, 50-56.
(2) The women interviewed were between 40 and 65 years of age and had been divorced for between three and 22 years. Each was a mother to two, three, or four children who at the time of the interviews were between nine and 38 years of age. An article based on the accounts of ten alienated women as mothers, is submitted for review tot an international journal.
(4) https://www.rinogroep.nl/opleiding/5395/omgaan-met-vermoedens-van-ouderverstoting.html and https://www.rinogroep.nl/interview/331/meer-zicht-op-geweldspatronen-verbetert-de-hulp-bij-complexe-scheidingen.html and https://www.kingnascholing.nl/cursussen/kindermishandeling-en-kwetsbare-gezinsrelaties
Dr. Sietske Dijkstra is a specialist in violence within relationships. She offers research, education and advice to professionals, practitioners, managers and policy makers in many welfare, social and juridical sectors and educational organisations.