Forensic psychiatrist Dr Richard Gardner identified parental alienation syndrome in the 1980s, defining it as the brainwashing of a child by one parent to denigrate the other parent, commonly in divorce battles. The child is usually adamant they made the decision to take sides independently.
Psychiatrists now said there is no such syndrome; there is just parental alienation.
For Justin, his case of parental alienation has nothing to do with divorce. His parents have been married for 40 years but he hasn’t spoken to them in more than 12. They were not invited to his wedding and they have not set eyes on their two young grandchildren.
Why such unrelenting animosity?
“My father has always been under the sway of my mother, who takes control issues to a new level. I am an only child. I found the best way to escape her need to control me growing up was to tell her very little. Often, I resorted to lying.
“I work with a woman who admits to severe power struggles in her marriage, which she has to win to sleep at night. Her husband loves her but the strain is beginning to tell,” he says.
“The difference between her and my mother is that she admits to the problem and she is committed to working on it. My mother has always denied that she holds the reins of power.”
“Maybe that works for some marriages,” I said.
He smiles. “At the age of 22 I finished studying and had a business opportunity with the son of a friend of my parents. His parents got behind their son’s idea. I decided to approach my parents, not for a loan but for surety so that we could obtain a bank loan. I spoke to my dad and he was delighted, promising to give me any support I needed, including a loan.
“At breakfast the next morning he had changed his tune: he said he felt I was a little young to be going it alone. Also that their finances had to be secure for retirement, so he was forced to withdraw his offer. When I asked why he had changed his mind overnight, he was at a loss for words. He wouldn’t look me in the face,” he added.
“Was your mother around?” I asked.
“She had sneaked out of the house without breakfast.”
“How did you know that it was her decision rather than his?” I pressed on.
“She made all the decisions in our family. When I wanted something badly growing up, it was always my mother I had to win over.”
“Yet, when push came to shove, it was your dad you decided to approach for support. In retrospect, was that a mistake, knowing what you knew about their relationship?” I asked.
“Like all controlling people, my mother is very manipulative. I knew, at best, she would give me some rope – which she could later withdraw – and at worst turn me down. Perhaps I hoped that my father would assert himself, for once. Later, I confronted my mother and she denied responsibility – she made my father parrot to my face that it was his decision, taken for their financial security.”
Justin shrugs and says: “My friend’s dad signed surety and the business hasn’t looked back since.”
“It could have gone the other way,” I said.
He answered. “Sure. But I felt betrayed and I realised the feeling of instability was far too familiar: I had felt it my entire life.”
“So your children have no grandparents on your side?” I asked.
“My wife’s parents are loving and supportive.”
“Have your parents tried to make contact?” I asked.
“My dad has, repeatedly. He speaks with my mother’s voice and I don’t listen to that any more. I miss him but I don’t miss her – that’s what’s sad. Yet I blame him almost as much as her; he gave her the power and he sacrificed me to his weakness.”
I have since had contact with other adult children who, for various reasons, have no contact with their still-married parents. The offending parent is usually the mother, except in one case, in which the father regarded his children as rivals for their mother’s affections and forced her to choose between them. She chose her husband and financial security.
In some cases, the problem stems from incompatibility between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.
Losing a child is the most painful trauma conceivable for any parent. When that child is still living, the loss is unimaginable.
Rosemund Handler has written four novels