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Family Wars (PAS) — The Family Systems Approach


III. The Family Systems Approach

All families are made up of individuals who live together in relatively stable intimate groups with the ostensible purpose of supporting and caring for each other.  Family members develop their own rules and boundaries, spoken and unspoken, about the ways that they will behave with each other, support and care for each other.  Each family's rules and boundaries change over time to reflect modifications in membership, the evolving needs of its members and the realities of the outer world.  Most changes in the family system are gradual, but some events force cataclysmic upheaval.  Divorce is usually such an event. 

Unless a separating family can change its own rules and boundaries without outside intervention, the divorce process itself may reach an impasse, the term applied when the divorce process itself becomes "stuck" and the family system fails to appropriately restructure itself.  When there is an impasse, any move by anyone, family member, attorney, spouse, is met with a counter move resulting in no forward progress. 

The impasse creates a system of its own, with its own membership, rules and boundaries.  Although little recognized by professionals, membership in the divorce impasse system will include all members of the family living together and all professionals involved in "helping" the family get a divorce, i.e. the lawyers, mediators, therapists and even the judge.  A divorce impasse can occur at three levels: an internal level (inside an individual); an interactional level (between two individuals); and/or an external level (within the larger social and familial system.[6]  An impasse at any one of the levels will affect the entire system, and how each individual member responds will affect all members, especially the child. 

The children themselves are members in both the changing family system and in the developing broader divorce impasse system.  As a member of the family system, a child is attached legally, emotionally and psychologically to each of his parents.  As a member of a divorce impasse system, a child is often asked to ally himself with one parent or the other, a request which clearly places the child in a loyalty bind.  Sometimes the request, either overtly or covertly, is that the child make the alliance exclusive. All members of the divorce impasse system, including the professionals, are affected by the loyalty struggles and may become polarized. 
 

IV. Motivation for Alienation

An alienating parent most likely has strong underlying feelings and emotions left over from earlier unresolved emotional issues which have been resuscitated and compounded by the pain of the divorce.  The individual, in attempting to ward off these powerful and intensely uncomfortable feelings, develops behavioral strategies that involve the children.  One solution to the pain and anger is to sue for custody of the child and to endeavor to punish the other parent by seeking his or her exclusion.  The internal world of an alienating parent can have complex origins which are beyond the scope of this article. 

If the motivating factors are unconscious, the alienating parent may not feel and/or may not be aware of the feelings and emotions described above.  Unaware parents may deny alienating behavior convincingly, but nonetheless, be involved in it. 

Parents may also be aware of their angry or hopeless feelings but may consciously desire to protect the child.  They tell their attorneys and the court of their conscious plans; however, despite the conscious desires, they may, unintentionally and unwittingly, engage in alienating behavior, driven by less conscious needs. 

Frequently, the unconscious or unintentional alienating behavior results in the milder form of alienation of the child from the target parent.  Nonetheless, it is important to recognize the concrete signs of alienating behavior in order to thwart its development. 

Courts should not tolerate alienating behavior simply because the intention to alienate is denied. 

Neither should the courts predicate a custody award on the hopes that the behavior witnessed and cited in court is merely a product of the acrimony generated by the litigation.  Parties engaged in a high conflict divorce may show their worst behavior to all, but it is impossible to predict, as the courts so often wish they could do, whether this behavior will lessen after the final resolution of the case.  In a case in which the Plaintiff father was awarded custody against the recommendation of the Guardian ad Litem, the Marital Master concluded: 

"The (Father) has also demonstrated some behaviors which have been troublesome to the Master as well as the Guardian ad Litem.  The (Father) has been manipulative in the presentation of this case, the Master concludes that he has inappropriately attempted to influence and pressure the children into giving negative information about their mother and he has demonstrated a lack of cooperation and flexibility in respecting the (Mother's) parental rights.  It is the hope of the Master that these factors have been the result of this litigation and the hostility between the parties will resolve themselves and not be a factor following this decree." S.L. v. S.L., Superior Court, 1989. 

Here, the master has been witness to a divorce impasse which may not resolve itself without intervention, and the parties' statements of good intentions should not be relied upon to bring about a reversal of a behavioral trend already witnessed. 
 

V. Recognition of Alienating Behaviors

A. The Continuum: Distinguishing between "Typical" Divorce and Alienation

In a "cooperative" divorce, both parents work together to restructure their own relationship and their family to allow the children as normal a relationship with each of them as is possible.  This means cooperating as to finances, logistics and schedules as well as actively supporting the children's emotional relationships with the other parent and the extended families. 

All parties to divorce experience a wide range of intense emotions, including rage, disappointment, hurt and fear.  In "cooperative" divorces the parties consciously try not to engage in behavior they understand to be inflammatory to the other side. 

However, an angry divorce is not necessarily an alienating one. Alienation occurs when the parties to divorce or custody litigation use their children to meet their own emotional needs, as vehicles to express or carry their intense emotions or as pawns to manipulate as a way of inflicting retribution on the other side.  The focus in determining whether or not there is alienation in an angry divorce must be not on the degree of rage or loss expressed, but on behavioral willingness to involve the children. 

Parental alienation occurs along a broad continuum, based on the level of internal distress of the alienating parent, the vulnerability of the child and the responses of the target parent as well as on the responses of the external system (family, attorneys, mental health professionals, the legal system).  The range may be from children who experience significant discomfort at transition times (mild), through children who feel compelled to keep separate worlds and identities when with each parent (moderate), to children who refuse to have anything to do with the target parent and become obsessed with their hatred (severe). 

There are alienating parents who are completely unaware of either their emotional state, the motivation to alienate, or the effects of their behavior (unconscious), while at the other end of the continuum, there are parents who absolutely intend to bind the child to themselves in an exclusive relationship and are explicit in their statements and behavior (overt). 

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Updates:
2001 02 09 (format changes)
2002 03 05 (added link to Table of Contents)