Contrasting Complex with Highly Complex Contact Disputes Between Parents
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
This article discusses the complexity of seeking a solution to problems associated at times with parental alienation. Two scenarios are presented. It involves in both cases a child who does not wish to have contact with an absent parent after the separation of the parents due to implacable hostility between them. In the first case, the child had a good relationship with the now absent parent. In the second case the child never had a close relationship with the absent parent. Each case needs to be assessed on its own merits. Conclusions are drawn and recommendations made as to how to deal with such issues.
Contrasting Complex with Highly Complex Contact Disputes Between Parents
This article has been written after having considered deeply the problems associated with a parent who has failed to become an effective and valued parent and has not necessarily bonded with the child.
Most family problems following an acrimonious divorce leading to conflicts regarding contact disputes are complex. Despite this, efforts must be made by the expert witness and the courts to resolve issues which effect children and their parents, in the short as well as the long term.
Each case must be considered individually and yet it is of value to have some guidelines. It is the object of this article to provide such guidelines as well as the limitations of these guidelines. Our first consideration should always be: what is in the best interest of children in the short and long term. This on the whole needs to be kept in the front of one’s thinking. The ideal should always be both parents working together in harmony in order to provide for the best possible future of their child. Unfortunately this does not always happen.
The situation of parents in conflict over contact with children becomes even more complex and difficult to resolve when there are other issues such as when one of the parents has somehow failed to live up to what the child considers to be a good parent. Firstly, it must be said that when one parent (usually the absent parent) is unable to have good contact with a child, this could be for a number of reasons. The most common reason is the fact that the parents are and continue to be in conflict and hence there is much animosity by one parent towards the other. Frequently the animosity is on the side of both parents. Children never benefit from such a scenario. Children wish their parents ideally to be united and in harmony even when they are separated. One perhaps should add, especially when they are separated.
We will now consider two potential scenarios: 1) complex issues regarding potential alienation against a parent; 2) dealing with “highly” complex cases of children who do not wish to have contact with the natural parent.
1. Complex issues regarding potential alienation of a child against a parent.
In the case where a child/children at one time had a warm and loving relationship with the now absent parent, such children would be expected to continue to seek for regular contact with that parent after separation of the parents. Due to the conflict however, and the animosity between the parents, such contact is often made difficult and even totally prevented by the custodial parent subtly or directly when opposing such contact. Expert witnesses and the courts are involved in investigating contact disputes and why they occur or contact fails to occur. The experts particularly are always seeking solutions to such scenarios.
When a child claims that he/she fails to wish for contact with a formerly loved parent, this must be investigated thoroughly and in depth. It must be reiterated that the child did have at one time a warm and loving relationship with the absent parent before the dissolution of the relationship of the parents. The question which must be answered is: Why has the child changed in the desire to have good contact with the now absent parent?
More often than not the child has changed their opinion due to influences from the custodial parent and/or the family of the custodial parent or has received some other influence. Since there was a close relationship between the parent and the child in the past, the child has had a change of mind and the reason for this must be investigated in depth. The term “parental alienation” may be the reason for the child’s change of mind. This has undermined the chance of a doting parent albeit now absent from the home in continuing to have a warm, loving and guiding relationship with the child.
If the alienation by one parent is the reason for good contact no longer taking place with the absent parent, the expert witness working with the courts needs to establish this and to diagnose the situation, and if possible, make relevant recommendations. The conclusions and recommendations reached need to be considered by the Court who will make the ultimate decisions in how to proceed in each case. The expert witness needs to be highly experienced and rely on a number of tools at his disposal. These tools include in depth interviews, and the use of objective and projective psychological tests.
2. Dealing with “highly” complex cases of children who do not wish to have contact with a natural parent.
The expert witness in such cases needs to respond to a very pertinent question: Has the natural parent the right to expect contact with his/her child when there has been an inappropriate or poor relationship in the past between the child and that parent.? To put it another way: “Is there ever justification for a natural parent not having contact with a child who does not desire contact?
In order to illustrate these two questions and reply to them, it is important to consider an actual case which has been disguised sufficiently to prevent recognition. It presents in stark contrast the difference between the complex issue in the case of parental alienation where there are two valued parents and a different situation altogether.
The case that follows is much more complicated and difficult to resolve than the previous case mentioned, where alienation has caused problems and interfered with good contact between the child and the absent parent.
In this situation one parent, in this case the mother, had an extremely close and warm relationship with the child from birth onward and hence bonded firmly with the child, while the other parent, the father, appeared never to have truly bonded with the child. Mr X wished to establish contact with his son of 10 after having left the matrimonial home several years ago. He left in order to establish a new relationship but also to escape the acrimony which his partner showed and made life extremely difficult for him whenever he attempted to have good contact with his child. He did not seek contact with his son therefore for several years due to such difficulties claiming this was due to implacable hostility of the other parent towards himself. Father stated he did not wish his son to be present when his parents were in such disharmony.
After several years the boy wished to have nothing to do with the father as he considered the father had in essence abandoned him. This indeed was not the father’s intention but this was the impression he created in his son which was reinforced by the mother and her family. The fact that the father was the natural parent was the reason he now wished to have good contact with his son. To make matters more complex, the mother had established a new relationship with a man which whom the boy had a good relationship. It must be said that the mother had encouraged this relationship to the point where the child was engaged in calling the step father his father. In so doing of course the natural parent (the father) was totally sidelined.
The boy was happy with his new father and wished totally to forget or even to see his natural father. The expert witness had a dilemma in seeking to deal with this matter and to advise the court accordingly. In cases where a parent committed abuse against a child be it sexual, physical or emotional, decisions are more easy to make, and that is that no direct contact should take place between the child and such a parent.
In the present case, father had not been abusive towards the child except by the fact that he had left the home and probably given the impression to the child that he was rejected. This, it must be remembered, the father claimed was due to the hostility of the mother towards him and the constant friction when he was present with the child. He had decided to leave the home for that reason and considered this best to prevent the child witnessing ugly scenes and arguments.
The father had never intended to abandon or reject is son. He did not seek custody of his son because it would have been so difficult from the point of view of his wife’s hostility. He merely wished to have some contact with the boy and this was his wish now. The fact that the boy refused this contact, and was hostile and rude, father attributed to the influence of the mother and her new partner. The father felt that although he had been absent this should not have produced a child who was so opposed to having any contact with him now. He felt this was totally due to the negative influences of the mother and the stepfather, neither of whom wanted the father in their lives.
The questions one needs to ask oneself are:
1. Has the father any right to seek and expect any contact whatsoever with his son, merely because he was the natural father?
2. Had the son the right to refuse contact with his natural parent, the father?
3. In respect to what was in the best interest of the child, is in the long term as well as the short term there a need for effort to be made to encourage contact between the child and the natural parent, in this case the father?
4. How should this be done?
As previously mentioned each case needs to be considered as a individual one with conclusions based on the particular case. The role of natural parents who have failed to be valued in the past to live up to their responsibilities would appear to be of minimal importance in playing any part in the child’s life. There is however, some evidence that when such a parent seeks to involve himself with a child they can never be totally obliterated from the child’s psyche and should not be totally obliterated.
The way forward when such parents seek some kind of contact with their offspring who is opposed to such contact is:
1. For the custodial parent and step parent to avoid alienating the child further towards the natural parent and to encourage and even insist that the child make some effort to have some good contact with the absent natural parent, despite the acrimonies of the past.
2. For the absent natural parent, to be contrite due to the failure of being a better parent and to speak to the child about this.
3. To seek forgiveness from the child for past events, and hope the child will accept this.
4. To make the child aware of the reason why no contact was made for several years. This may be due to the acrimony between the parents. To also make the child aware that despite being absent the natural parent still loved his child and wished to have good contact with him/her.
5. To be aware that such contact cannot be merely forced. The child must eventually wish to bond in some way with the natural parent and this can only be achieved through encouragement and therapy.
6. To engage in therapy with the child together and to help the child to understand what happened in the past to make the absent parent appear to abandon the child or otherwise to behave inappropriately.
7. To accept eventually the decision of the child to make or not make an effort of contact with the natural parent.
8. To not assume that such natural parents have a undeniable right to insist on involvement with the child whether the child wishes this or not.
9. The child needs to understand that the animosity he/she feels towards the natural parent is understandable, but that with time the child should be encouraged to follow the well known adage: “To have erred is human, to forgive is divine.”
The child who can be influenced to adhere to this adage and avoid being hostile towards the natural parent has the best possible chance of developing into a truly positive and happy human being.