"Mother Theresa does not marry Saddam Hussein." Judges and court-appointed psychologists recite this bromide when one parent complains about the other. It is meant to convey a sophisticated, balanced, it-takes-two-to-tango view of divorce-related conflict. The system labels these parents a "high-conflict couple," and assumes that both contribute equally to their disputes. Talk show hosts blithely tell parents to stop fighting as if it is equally within each parent's power to cease fire. And in some cases, it is. Both parents are so busy slinging mud that they do not see, or do not want to see, how much lands on their children.
When celebrity spouses air their dirty laundry in public, oblivious to their kids' confusion and shame, we want to slap them silly, tell both to grow up. But it is wrong to always paint both parents with the same brush.
Nearly every parent is disappointed and angry when the marriage fails. Some parents do a good job of harnessing the emotions unleashed by divorce. Some do not. Most parents understand the importance of keeping kids out of the middle and they do a fairly good job of honoring this responsibility. Some parents, though, are so blinded by rage that they lose sight of their children's need to love and be loved by both parents. These parents enlist children as allies in a battle against the other parent. Through persistent bad-mouthing, lies, exaggerations, overlooking positives, and drum-beating negatives, they manipulate their children to reject the other parent in the same way a politician paints a unfavorable picture to alienate voters from the opponent.
Children who absorb the lesson of hatred suffer what is known as parental alienation. They pull away from a formerly loved mother or father, and often an entire extended family, leaving the rejected relatives puzzled over what they might have said or done that caused a total rupture in relations. Some hurt parents lose their temper with a child who either refuses to communicate or does so only with utter contempt. Before assigning equal blame to the rejected parent we need to differentiate between a pattern of mistreatment and isolated lapses of judgment, between a cause of the alienation and a desperate, helpless, ultimately inadequate response.
Naturally, it is wrong to assume that all children who reject a formerly loved parent do so exclusively under influence of the favored parent. Children may reject a parent who deserves to be shunned (although many of the abused children with whom I have worked cling tightly to their abusers). Elements in the family situation (for instance, a remarriage), in the child's own personality, and in early responses to alienation may contribute to the problem. Alienation can become entrenched when we give a child the power to dictate the terms of contact with a parent. Or, the problem can be nipped in the bud when the court makes it clear that a child's irrational avoidance of a parent, with the other parent's blessing, will not be tolerated.
Also, not every child exposed to divorce poison succumbs. With diplomatic finesse, some maintain warm feelings toward both parents despite pressures to take sides. Some children reject the parent who pressures for alignment. Many strands make up the tapestry of parent-child relations. In the interests of avoiding a simplistic approach to nuanced issues, though, we should not overlook or excuse the cruelty of teaching children to hate those who love them.
Society has awakened to the widespread prevalence and damage of physical and sexual abuse of children. We are still asleep when it comes to acknowledging the emotional abuse of children by parents who demand, as a badge of loyalty, that children disrespect, dismiss, and disown their other parent.
Dr. Richard Warshak is the author of Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing (HarperCollins), and Welcome Back, Pluto: Understanding, Preventing, and Overcoming Parental Alienation. You may find him at www.warshak.com and his blog, Plutoverse.