Let me tell you a story of a marriage.
There was a young attractive woman who met a confident and assertive young man. She liked his sense of self-assured ease and self-confidence. She was capable enough in voicing her opinions, but she preferred to take a more supportive role in things, and she liked that her new suitor took charge. He was also funny and charming.
Eventually, the confident and self-assured suitor won her hand in marriage. She was a little worried after she accepted his proposal because there was something missing emotionally for her in the relationship, but he was so wonderful and social and gregarious. It must be that the relationship is new, and they will grow into deeper intimacy with time.
They marry, and things go well at first. She always wanted family, and having children and creating a family would be an important center for her sense of being and fulfillment. They had their first child, and things began to gradually change. The child was wonderful, and such a joy. But the husband became more irritable and demanding. The increasing intimacy she hoped would develop with him, instead turned the other way. There seemed to be increasing emotional isolation and loneliness in the relationship, she felt empty and emotionally unfulfilled, except with her children.
Fights became more frequent, and the fighting was harsh. He said hurtful things. Over time, he began making degrading and caustic comments to her, even if they weren’t actively fighting at the time, a caustic criticism of something she was doing. She tried to work with his complaints, to keep him calm, but sometimes they seemed unreasonable and demanding, and when he became rude and demeaning she became angry and said some unfortunate things to him as well.
Still, between the fights there are still some good times. She tries to work on the marriage and bring a positive attitude. She hopes that by having a second child, this would help stabilize things in the marriage and family. He’d calm down more, into the father role, and she’ll have the wonderful family she hoped for. She has a second child, and the family is wonderful. Her older child is now in the early school years, and she has a wonderful new child.
Things with her husband, though, take a much darker turn after the birth of the second child. Her husband becomes more verbally abusive and degrading in his treatment of her. His open contempt is hard for her to bear. Her children are still young when the more serious verbal abuse begins, so they don’t understand their parents’ fighting, but she’s worried that over time, their father’s verbal abuse and open contempt for her would transfer to her children’s similar treatment of her.
Still, she has a new young child and a child in the school-age years, she doesn’t want to create a lot of fights and arguments. She tries to get along with her husband, giving in to his controlling demands as much as possible, and it keeps most of the verbal abuse and demeaning caustic statements at bay, but the children are also starting to treat her with defiance, sometimes saying rude things to her.
For the most part, though, she and the kids are great. She is an actively involved mom, tending to to their feeding and daily routines, homework and school, extra-curricular activities, all the normal mom stuff of family. The kids are happy, and mom and kids share a good bond. Sometimes the mom decides to have a third child because the family side of her life is wonderful and she’s hoping the marriage will get better, sometimes she stops at two children because she’s worried about the deteriorating marriage.
The marriage gets worse. The husband becomes more openly demeaning and verbally abusive of the mother… in front of the children, and the children are being affected. She can no longer simply absorb the level of his emotional and verbal abuse to avoid arguing with him in front of the children, she is being put in a position of having to stand up for herself in front of the children in response to his degrading and demeaning treatment. But this then leads to some nasty fighting.
The eldest child is poised to move into the more advanced years of education, middle school and high school, and the mother cannot envision tolerating the husband’s verbal abuse and demeaning treatment long enough to get her youngest through high school, so she makes a decision that for the sake of her children she will divorce the husband now, deal with the conflict and divorce, and then move on with a quieter and healthier home for her children.
That was her plan at least. The divorce issue became a source of exceeding conflict with the husband. Sometimes he would become seductive, charming, and cajoling, promising change and better times. But when these were rejected he became snarling and abusive.
He started in on controlling the eldest child immediately. A “special” bond was almost immediately formed between the father and the eldest child, and the mother could feel the slight breach in her bond to her eldest. But her loving bond with both children remained strong, and she was focused on managing the financial side of the separation.
Over time, and not very long after the separation part of the divorce, the eldest child’s attitude starts to change. The child becomes more critical of the mother, and she can hear that same caustic tone of her ex-husband in the child’s criticism of her. Their fights increase, but they’re manageable, and the bond with the youngest child remains strong. The eldest child keeps accusing the mother of “breaking up the family,” and sometimes the child asks the mom if she can find a way to fix it with dad (“dad wants to fix it with you, why don’t you want to fix it with him? Why are you being so stubborn?”).
It’s not long, however, before her relationship with the eldest child becomes highly hostile and aggressive. At one point, the eldest child became so angry, threatening, and out of control, that the mother has to call the police, because she just can’t think of any other way to get control of the child (or protect herself). The therapist who was involved at the time told her that if she felt threatened she should call the police, so she did.
Soon after this escalation and intense-conflict breach, the eldest stops coming on visitation-custody to her. The father says it’s the child’s choice. According to the father, the child is old enough and mature enough, and should have the choice in where the child wants to be for visitation (“We shouldn’t force the child to go on visitation to the mother. You can’t force a child to have a relationship with someone if the child doesn’t want to”).
Besides, the father says, it’s the mother’s fault. She doesn’t listen to what the child wants. When asked what the child wants, the father says the child wants to live at the father’s house full-time, and the mother doesn’t respect the child’s decision, and that’s why the child doesn’t want to be with her, because she doesn’t listen to to the child, she doesn’t respect the child’s decisions.
The younger child still goes back and forth, and the mother’s relationship with the youngest child remains strong, for now. But she worries about the future, and the influence of the family conflict on her youngest.
The father doesn’t follow through on the court-ordered visitation schedule, and the mother hasn’t seen her oldest child in several months. She has to go back to court to get an order enforcing the visitation schedule. This is hard on her financially, to hire an attorney to do this. Finances are tight after the divorce, and her ex-husband has been difficult and uncooperative with her surrounding the financial separation part of the divorce, so having to spend additional money to hire an attorney is troubling for her.
But it has to be done, because she needs her visitation time with her child. She loves her child, and its been several months now and she has not seen her child at all, so she has to hire an attorney and go back to court.
Getting enforcement of court orders for visitation is not nearly as simple as it seemed it should be. The father disputes custody, claiming a change of circumstance, and now the father wants full physical custody of the eldest child. After several preliminary court appearances and mediation, the father asks for a custody evaluation to decide. The mother objects that waiting that long is unreasonable, that her visitation is being violated, and that it’s a simple matter of enforcing the visitation.
The court decides to order the custody evaluation, and also “reunification therapy” to restore the oldest child’s relationship with the mother while the custody evaluation process takes place. Then everyone waits for the conclusion of the custody evaluation. By now, however, the mother hasn’t seen her eldest child in over a year, and the younger child is now also refusing to come on visitations to her, saying the child has other plans at the father’s house (neighborhood, sports team, friends, events).
Reunification therapy starts slowly. The therapist meets three or four times with the child individually, and a couple of times with the mother individually. The therapist says the child isn’t “ready” yet, and that the child was “traumatized” by the time the mother called the police on the child. The mother tries to explain that she called the police because the child was out of control, but the therapist doesn’t seem to understand, and still says the event was “traumatic” for the child, so the child is not “ready” to reunite with the mother.
When the custody report eventually comes back, the mother hasn’t seen her eldest child in a year and a half, and she hasn’t seen her youngest child in three months. The custody evaluator describes intimate details of the marital relationship and break-up of the marriage, with each parent blaming the other in detail in the report for why the marriage failed. The report then describes how both children criticize their mother’s inadequacy. The father’s section says he thinks the children are mature, and we should listen to what they think and want. He tells the children to visit their mom, but they won’t listen. She destroyed the relationship with the oldest child when she called the police, and the child just hasn’t gotten over the “trauma” of that. The father says he just wants what’s best for the children, and he just wishes the mother would get help and change.
There’s testing in the report too. It doesn’t say much. It says dad was defensive in reporting. She was apparently defensive, too. Well who wouldn’t be defensive if you’re being criticized and rejected by your children and this testing would determine if you were allowed to see your children, your own children.
The custody evaluator says there is some “parental alienation” by the father, but there is also some “estrangement” – indicating that the time the mother called the police damaged her relationship with the child. Apparently, she shouldn’t have done that. But she didn’t know what else to do. The child was threatening violence and was so angry and out of control. And the therapist at the time had told her that if the child gets out of control like that (this wasn’t the first time), then she should call the police. So she called the police and now she’s being told that calling the police created the “estrangement.”
The custody evaluator recommends keeping the current custody visitation schedule (100% custody visitation time with the father, although the mother may still get limited time with the youngest child who still agrees to see her sometimes), and the custody evaluator recommends “reunification therapy” to restore the mother’s bonds with the children.
By the time the first “reunification therapy session is arranged, the mother hasn’t seen her eldest child in two years. She meets separately with the “reunification therapist” a couple times, and the therapist meets individually with the child a couple times. The therapist then says that the child isn’t “ready”
The mother doesn’t know what to do. She did absolutely nothing wrong. She is a wonderful and loving mother. The father twisted her kids up into a loyalty conflict surrounding the divorce, manipulating them and coercing them into taking his side in the spousal conflict, blaming her for the break-up of the family. And now she hasn’t seen her oldest child for two years and her youngest for a year.
She is absolutely heartbroken. She’s missed the lives of her children, that can never be recaptured. And her children miss her. She just wants to love them so much. The mother’s grief over the loss of her children is the most profoundly dark abyss she has ever experienced. Sometimes she doesn’t know how to go on… it just seems impossible emotionally to go on. The grief and loss are unbearable.
She has to go back to court to prove “parental alienation.” She hires another attorney, she’s mortgaged everything she has and drained all of her finances and taken on debt to pay for the attorney in this round of fighting for her children. They muster their resources and construct their argument of “parental alienation” using emails and text messages. The initial custody evaluation does mention “parental alienation” and there has been zero progress in “reunification therapy.”
In response to the initial contact with the court, the court orders a second update evaluation from the same evaluator who did the first one. After several months, the second evaluation comes back and finds probable “parental alienation” and recommends more “reunification therapy.”
Traumatic grief is a form of complex trauma. It is being so incredibly sad, with so much grief, for so incredibly long… that is becomes a trauma. Traumatic grief.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857