The absence of guilt is one of the most striking features of parental alienation. It is especially noteworthy when it occurs in the context of otherwise morally intact children. The child’s hatred of the parent stands in marked contrast to a personality organization that is generally modulated by guilt. How is it possible to feel hatred for one who previously has been loved?
Johnson and Szurek noticed the paradox of antisocial behavior in delinquent children who otherwise presented no pervasive disorder of conscience. These children violated norms and acted on forbidden impulses selectively rather than universally. In other spheres of their lives, they lived in accordance with rules and social conventions. They evidenced a capacity for moral deliberation and, in some instances, possessed a developed ethical sense. Johnson and Szurek explained the paradox thusly:
“…[P]arents may find vicarious gratification of their own poorly-integrated forbidden impulses in the acting out of the child, through their unconscious permissiveness or inconsistency toward the child in these spheres of behavior. The child’s superego lacunae correspond to similar (unconscious) defects of the parents’ superego…” (p. 324). In circumstances of uncertainty, conflict, and moral ambiguity, the child adopts attitudes on the basis of unconscious fantasies that find direct expression in transgressive action. Whereas these attitudes may be activated when the child interprets parental passivity as tacit approval of antisocial actions, they are engendered as well by wishes to protect a vulnerable parent or right a perceived wrong. While motives vary, what is critical is that the child’s fantasy correspond to an aporia in the aligned parent’s value system. This correspondence promotes and sustains dissociation and explains the intractability of alienation over time. Unconscious encouragement leads the child, first, to believe that it is permissible to act on otherwise forbidden wishes; and, second, that focusing of his or her frustration and hatred on the alienated parent will be respected, reinforced, and interpreted as an expression of love.
Especially important about Johnson & Szurek’s view is its appreciation of how parents unconsciously influence particular attitudes and behaviors in their children. Unlike Gardner whose view rests on conscious and deliberate programming, these investigators draw attention to how a child may interpret his or her actions as permissible when they are sanctioned tacitly by the parent. On this view, parental alienation requires neither indoctrination nor brainwashing in the strict sense of these terms. Rather, it rests on the creation of an intersubjective space in which selective transgressions no longer are perceived as wrong. A high conflict divorce provides fertile soil for this dynamic to root.
Mrs. X., the mother of Mark and Sarah, engaged in a host of behaviors that were alienating. They were offensive to her children and strained their relationships directly. She seemed to impose her will arbitrarily, without regard for the children’s needs and interests. She held Mark especially to standards so high that successes were treated like failures. Teachers were horrified by her criticisms of the children. She berated them even when they won awards, turning triumphs into failures. It was not enough to take first place in a contest or competition; the children had to meet her standards. She was so competitive, demanding, and intrusive that she alienated all of the local professionals working with children, such that she had to spend hours per day transporting them for voice, dance, and acting lessons. By all accounts, she was relentless and uncompromising, intolerant of any advice to give her children some space.
At the same time, Mr. X. was not blameless in this matter. He contributed to the children’s estrangement from their mother by passively acceding to her wishes, however much he privately disagreed with them. His were largely sins of omission. He feared vicious recrimination when he took the children’s side. Feeling powerless and fearful of making matters worse for everyone, he rationalized his inaction as the only way to keep the peace. Ultimately, he concluded that divorce would protect him and the children from abuse. He felt ashamed, a failure as a husband and as a father. He secretly turned to the affections of another woman, leaving his children emotionally on their own to deal with their mother.
From the examiner’s perspective, parental alienation in this case was significant, but failed to conform to Gardner’s paradigm. It was sustained and deepened by Mr. X.’s behavior, but not unilaterally caused by it. Instead, the children had legitimate grievances with their mother. Various family members and third party witnesses described her as impossibly controlling, devaluing of the children’s efforts, and oblivious to the impact of her behavior on the children. Sarah’s wish to escape from her mother’s influence was no different from that of the many adults who avoided her—there was no way to avoid her wrath when one did not do what she wanted.
Yet, his mother’s impossible behavior did not completely explain the intensity of Mark’s hatred. He seemed to feel nothing but contempt for her, even when she took a conciliatory stance. On one occasion, when she refused to allow his sister to attend a social function, he pounded on her bedroom door, screaming obscenities at her. His father intervened only after the door began to tear away from its hinges, preventing any further escalation of Mark’s aggression.
To say that Mark presented with parental alienation does not do justice to what was transpiring psychologically within him. He exhibited an extreme form of hatred whose aim was to dehumanize or symbolically destroy his mother (Kernberg, 1991). So consuming was this hatred that it compromised any ability to mourn the loss of his relationship with his mother. This degree of dysregulation always implicates a reliance on primitive defenses and affects personality as a whole. In concert with a strong identification with his father and intolerance of the latter’s helplessness, Mark endeavored to coerce, dominate and punish his mother, taking a perverse delight in causing her emotional pain. While both children averted guilt through actions designed unconsciously to protect their father, Mark actively sought revenge for the wrongs that had been perpetrated. His mother would enjoy no mercy.
That children act on unconscious identifications and wishes in order to avenge injustices suffered by one of their parents enlarges Hartmann’s (1960) claim that moral beliefs and behavior do not follow directly from identifications and internalized prohibitions. Rather, they are continually reshaped by contemporary influences and must accord, at least in part, with rational standards as well as with the rest of personality. On this reading, parental alienation represents a compromise formation, an effort by the child to preserve an idealized, loving, nurturing relationship with a good object at the expense of estrangement from or the symbolic destruction of a bad one. Sadly, the dissociative processes that undergird this stance do not always accord with the reality of the situation, which is typically more complex. While parental behavior plays a key role, it is but one factor whose contribution must be evaluated in the context of the child’s personality organization as a whole. Mr. X.’s passivity and refusal to hold Mark accountable for his actions caused his statements to the children for greater love and respect of their mother to fall on deaf ears. He neither insisted on compliance nor imposed consequences when the children behaved poorly. Even when evidence emerged suggesting that Mr. X. encouraged an “us against her” mentality, Mark’s reactions remained out of keeping with what was communicated. It is important that Sarah felt and acted differently, although she had arguably endured the same “abuse.”
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