Contact Disputes due to Implacable Hostilities
(A Psychologist Advises)
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
Having seen and dealt with hundreds of cases of implacable hostility between parents leading to contact disputes of children I have decided to provide parents and the Court with my views over many years on how best to deal with such problems.
We begin with seeing and advising both parents and children when such disputes occur. Unfortunately this is rarely the case since the parents are so alienated towards one another that very rarely does one see both parents who are willing to be advised and who are willing to exceed to such advice to the benefit of their children. The very fabric had been destroyed when the relationship breaks up and acrimony takes over leading to implacable hostility between the parents. Normally such hostility is on both sides but it can also merely be on one side, such as when the absent parent has a tremendous desire to have contact with his/her children but the custodial parent makes every possible excuse for preventing this. This even occurs when the Court has made definite rulings about the fact that the children should be seeing the absent parent. It is also sad to note that many courts do not act upon their rulings but allow things to continue without the absent parent having contact.
This provides for a weak court system and many parents are disillusioned with family courts for that reason. The other reason for parent being disillusioned further with family courts is that when a child decides that he does not wish to see his/her father/mother this is accepted as the ‘status quo’ and nothing else can change the matter. Little credence is given to the fact that such children have been alienated by a parent against the other parent, and that the voice of the child stating that he/she wishes no contact with the absent parent is in fact the voice of the custodial parent who alienates. At the present time about 75% of those who complain about having no or little contact with their children are fathers. It is also sad to note that 25% are in fact mothers who have lost contact with their children and come to me in tears to ask if I can help and try to see whether such contact could be developed. To me it matters not whether the custodial parent or absent parent are male or female.
The important thing for me as the psychologist advising parents and the courts is the fact that the child’s best interest is that he/she has two parents with whom he can associate and have a good relationship. This is in fact is my basic principle allowing however, for the fact that if one of the parents is likely to be an abuser, either physically, emotionally or sexually such a parent has no place in the child’s life. Of course help can be provided for such parents in the form of treatment and then to reassessing the situation of perhaps in the future allowing such a parent to have some contact supervised, and eventually unsupervised, with the child/children in question.
Having spoken about the rarity of being able to see both parents before courts are involved. The second type of case is when one is seeing only one of the parents and advising that parent on how best to seek contact without involving the courts in the initial stages. This is a more common form of interview between the psychologist and the non custodial parent and sometimes it bares fruit in the form of letters that may be interchanged between the parties, especially the absent parent communicating with the children and/or the acrimonious and now custodial parent.
The final section deals with advising parents and the court on how best to deal with the problem of implacable hostility, by either one or both parties, facing them including the hostilities that have taken place.
1. Seeing and advising both parents and children.
Although one is often left with seeing but the parents, sometimes children can also be part of the non court directed meeting between a psychologist and parents seeking to solve their problems or being willing to listen to advice about how this can be done. Here there is no pressure on either parent or children by the courts to seek a resolution. It is they themselves who have decided that they would like to have help in solving their problems in relation to contact of the absent parent with the child. In such situations the psychologist will see initially both parents separately and the child/children separately in order to gain some indication of what is happening. It must be remembered that no two cases are exactly alike. Hence, any general statements made will apply in general terms only but are not specific to individual cases that the psychologist advises.
This process is one of mediation. Once one has assessed the various viewpoints by the individuals involved in the once solid family which is now torn asunder, work can begin on how best to address the various grievances that have occurred. Frequently those grievances have nothing to do with the children themselves such as when one of the parties has already develop, or is seeking to develop, a relationship with a third party and may in fact decide upon marriage, or living together with another partner. It is my current view that children should never be used as pawns in the acrimony between parents. Children deserve to have good parents who care for them above all else and will even sacrifice their hostility towards one another in order to make certain that their children feel loved and secure and are living in a stable environment.
My advice to parents once I have assessed their various problems and sought to deal with them, is to make certain that they both agree to the following:
- That they will praise the other parent to the children whenever possible and that such praise must be sincere and meaningful.
- That each parent seeks to put the child/children and their welfare and happiness before anything else, even their own lives and their own desire for contentment and happiness perhaps with another partner. If this can be achieved the children will benefit tremendously but it is a difficult thing to achieve when there is already great hostility or acrimony between the parents.
The fact that both parents and perhaps their children have come for help may mean that they honestly seek a solution to their implacable hostility towards one another for the benefit of the child/children. If only “lip-service” is being paid to this mediation then nothing will have been gained by it. The parents must be sincere in wishing to have help and to accept that help and follow it for the benefit of their children and secondly, for each other. This approach eliminates the approach for legal wrangling and the courts and is obviously preferable to any form of legal involvement.
2. Seeing and advising one parent
Seeing an advising one parent is the more common way that psychologists like myself help parents to seek contact when there has been little or no contact, or where the contact has been unsatisfactory due to the fact that the custodial parent, and sometimes the non custodial parent, has tried to alienate the child/children against the opposite parent. This does great harm to the child/ children and again advice is given to the parent attending the meeting, that whatever happens on the side of the custodial parent the non custodial parent should never speak badly about the other parent despite feelings of hostility that are present. This will be of benefit to the child/children, and once the child/children hear that one of the parties is speaking well of the other, even when the hostile parent continues their alienation, the child/children will begin to learn who is the better parent as far as help and security being provided. There are great advantages in seeing only one parent since little can be done to influence the custodial parent who is not part of the interview(s). There are however, ways in which I the psychologist will advise either a father or mother on how best to go forward without involving the court at this stage.
As already stated a letter, such as the one given below as a sample, is of a general nature rather than specific to any particular problem and can sometimes help to bring parents together for the benefit of a child/children. The letter that I frequently propose that a parent write to the custodial parent is as follows:
We were once very much in love, otherwise we would not have come together and had children. Unfortunately we have not managed to continue together as good parents and I am very saddened by this. The greatest casualty in this situation is obviously the child/children involved. If we can both manage to think of that child/those children before ourselves we may be able to improve matters between us. I always speak well of you with (name of child/children) when I have him/her/them and would speak well of you when I don’t have him/her/them. I hope that you are doing the same because only that way will our child/children have a good future and feel secure about the fact that both parents are loved, even though we do not get on with one another, and that we both love our child/children.
I would like, despite your feelings, hold out my hand of friendship to you because I believe it is more important for us to do all we can to make our child/children happy than anything that exists between ourselves which has broken our once loving relationship. I hope you will be able to reciprocate and take my hand in friendship along with a desire to solve this problem between us. I would be happy to meet you at any time if you feel you would like to do so. It is my intention not to argue or to find fault or to criticise but rather to find a solution which will help our child/children and his/her/their future. I would be happy to see you in combination with a mediator in order for us, if we have difficulties, to be able to solve our problems for the benefit of our child/children.
I hope to hear from you and I remember many happy times together which I don’t think should be forgotten by either of us.
With friendship and affection,
This is a very generalised letter and should not be considered one that fits every situation. It is a letter however, in its various shapes and forms has sometimes brought parents together to seek help and to solve the problem by attending together, sometimes even with the children, for the benefit of mediation. This has led to the elimination of the need for the courts to be involved.
The second letter is to the child/children in the implacable hostility situation:
“Dear …………(name of child/children)
I have not seen you very often or not at all in some cases and I feel very sad about this. You and I were once very close and we enjoyed each other’s company and had some wonderful times. I do hope you can remember this. Can you remember ………………………….. and can you also remember ………………….? At that time we got on extremely well and now I rarely if ever see you.
Although your mother and I are no longer together and no longer feel the love we felt at one time, we still care a great deal (both of us) about you in making sure that you are happy and that we are doing all we can to be good parents to you.
I still feel a great deal of affection for your mother/father and certainly for yourself. I am so sorry that you have been put in the situation where you feel you have to choose between us. You do not have to choose between us. You can love both of us as we both love you and that is the important matter. This will benefit you in the short and long term and will make us happy knowing that we have done the right thing towards you by thinking about you as our child/children first and foremost and not thinking about how we feel towards each other as parents.
I would of course love to see you as often as possible. You have a wonderful mother/father and I will always say this even if you hear from other people that I am not as great as wonderful as I could be. In other words you do not have to choose and you do not have to be loyal to only one parent, you can be loyal and want to be with both parents and enjoy their company. This is what I would like and I am sure that it would be to your benefit. I love you very much and will always do so, and I will always look forward to hearing from you if you want to communicate with me.
With all my love,
Such a letter is again of a general nature. A more specific letter needs to be considered in specific cases. Sometimes such letters do not reach the child/children in question and the implacable hostility of the custodial parent is responsible for this. In this case neither will telephone calls or presents from the absent parent be acknowledged or given to the child by the custodial parent. Sometimes the child will actively refuse to read letters from the absent parent or accept telephone calls or accept presents sent by the absent parent, but this is due to the feeling that the child has by accepting such calls, letters or presents, it will somehow diminish the loyalty between him/herself and the custodial parent, thinking the custodial parent will be unhappy by the fact that the child does not adhere to the views of the custodial parent about the absent parent. This is a typical example of where the child will say: “I do not wish to see my father/mother”, merely to please the custodial parent. Out of earshot or out of sight the child will frequently relate well to the absent parent as he/she feels free to communicate the love that was present in the past towards the absent parent in the absence of the custodial parent.
Children observe both parents very carefully, about how they behave in relation to their problems and acrimony. Only very few children have the strength of personality to consider that both parents are important to them and they wish to retain such a relationship with both the absent parent as well as the custodial parent and not sacrifice either. There is however, a great deal of pressure on these children to take sides and of course the custodial parent has the greatest power of getting the child to identify with them rather than with the parent who is no longer present.
3. Advising the court
Two areas are suggested here for helping acrimonious parents using children against the other by preventing contact. These are:
1. Suggesting mediation.
2. Suggesting treatment approaches.
1. Suggesting mediation
In suggesting mediation the Judiciary hopes that by meeting with an expert dealing with human relationships and especially implacable hostility between parents some form of solution can result. The current psychologist believes very strongly in one important principle which has already been mentioned, and that is, all being well and no abuse occurring by one parent or the other, both parents should play as equal a part as possible in the lives of their children. It is towards that end the psychologist should work regardless of the difficulties involved. It is important for the psychologist to strive to make peace between the parents, always making them aware of the fact that such a harmonious result will lead to a happier and more adjusted, as well as secure, child. If both parents feel closeness to their children they may as a result of the mediation decide to avoid being hostile to one another openly or indirectly for the benefit of the children concerned. This again is one of the major aims of the psychologist working with parents in the mediation situation.
If the mediation has been ordered by the courts this is of the greatest of value and the report which should be written by the psychologist following a number of mediation sessions should form the basis for resolutions by the court on how to best move forward and to make certain that both parents have good contact with the child. It is vital of course for the court to be strong in commending a good result but also being strong in dealing with the individual concerned who is in opposition to the principle of both parents having good contact with a child. Such a parent is in fact emotionally abusing the child, often with the courts help! The court should aim for equality as much as possible of contact between parents and a child. Any parent who fails to exceed to this should be punished even to the point where the child is removed from the home of the custodial parent and placed with the non custodial parent for a period of time, or perhaps permanently. The parent to whom the child is removed to however, must allow contact between the child/children eventually and the now absent parent who was formally the custodial parent. If however, any parent appears to attempt to demolish the situation by abusing the relationship with a child by venting anger or hostility against the other parent such a parent may have to eliminated from the arrangement of contact as he/she is essentially abusing his/her power by seeking to turn the child against the other parent.
2. Suggesting treatment approaches
In the case of implacable hostility which cannot be mended easily it is vital to treat either one or both parents, and sometimes the child as well, in seeking to remedy the acrimony which exists between them and the harm that this is doing to the children as well as to, at least, the absent parent in the relationship.
The treatment will consist of cognitive behaviour therapy which is essentially to change the attitude or feelings of the individual concerned as well as dealing with the behaviour which results from this. Hence the person who is actively brainwashing or alienating the child/children against the other parent requires treatment to change that pattern of behaviour as it is not to the advantage of the child. In fact it is a detriment to the child/children to be turned against one parent. This type of turning the child against the opposite parent is more likely to happen by the custodial parent against the absent parent for whatever reason. Sometimes however, it also occurs when the absent parent has contact with the child/children and seeks to turn the child/children against the custodial parent. In both cases it is a situation which has to be resolved and changed totally.
The objective of the therapy is to make parents understand the harm they will do by turning the child against the opposite parent as opposed to the good that can result when both parents speak well of each other to the child/children. This provides the child/children with security which is so important in children’s lives. This is especially important when the two parents are no longer living together. The reaction to the treatment by one or both parents needs to be recorded and may have to be presented to the court. The parent who is co-operating in this enterprise is likely to be the best parent to have residence of the child. While the other parent, who seeks to undermine the relationship and seeks to turn the child/children against the other parent, is likely to be best left out of the parenting situation until that parent realises the harm that they are doing by so acting. It is the purpose of treatment to make both parents aware of the importance of working together to provide security for the child by speaking well of one another in the presence of the child or when the child is alone with them.
A report by the psychologist to the court should indicate which parent is responsible for the alienation process and the court will need to decide whether that parent should play a role in the child/children’s lives if they still continuing to alienate, or whether the child should be with the parent who does not show implacable hostility towards the other parent. It is therefore vital for the court, the expert, and the therapist, to work together to resolve matters to the best of their ability always keeping in mind that the primary aim is the security and happiness of the child.