Saturday, May 5, 2007

Relationships: Seperate, and not equal

Relationships: Separate, and not equal

After the voice-mail message heard 'round the world, Alec Baldwin & Handlers had significant spin control to do. There was the apology. The talk-show circuit. Then something new: the buzz phrase.

Baldwin, whose ex-wife is actress Kim Basinger, said he was sorry for losing his temper with his 11-year-old daughter, Ireland, but he had been driven to the edge by "parental alienation."

While the term is likely unfamiliar to most media junkies, it's far from new to those working in the trenches of divorce litigation. Parental alienation, they say, has occurred for decades.

The term refers to parents who consciously turn their child or children against the other parent during or after a divorce. The degree of alienation varies significantly, from name-calling to "missing" phone calls from the other parent, to refusing to honor court-ordered parenting time, to severe, and often unfounded, accusations of physical or sexual abuse.

While it was once believed that mothers were the primary perpetrators, or "alienators," legal and mental health professionals now say both parents are equally guilty of this punishing treatment, and equally victimized. But the biggest losers, they agree, are their kids.

"It's a very sad thing when it happens," said Minneapolis family law attorney Jane Binder. She remembers a case where a mother renamed the children with her last name so the father would not be notified about their activities, medical histories or whereabouts. "She acts like he's dead," Binder said. More common, though, are parents who degrade the other: 'I can't believe your mother did/said that.' That goes on way too often," she said.

While most people cringed at hearing Baldw! in call his daughter "a thoughtless little pig," some observers said they understood all too well the tipping point that got him there.

Rick is a St. Paul father in the middle of a drawn-out custody battle who said he has been alienated for eight years. He asked that his full name not be used to protect his two children.

"I don't agree with what [Baldwin] did, but I can understand where it came from," he said.

Toward the end of his marriage, he said, the tension and anger between him and his wife was palpable and, "plain and simple, I was out of line in how I treated her." After they separated, he said his ex-wife didn't answer his phone calls for two years. "Not one. [I was] just calling to say hi to the boys." He later had mandatory answering incorporated into a court order, but said it is still not followed. He's back at court for the fourth time trying to enforce and increase his parenting time. (He only sees his boys every other weekend). He estimates that he's spent "100 grand, easy," in legal fees.

The bottom line, he said, is this: "If she chooses to not forgive me, that is her choice. I still deserve to have a relationship with my children."

The power of no

The late child therapist and forensic psychiatrist Richard Gardner began writing about parental alienation, particularly its effects on fathers, more than 20 years ago. Others have followed his lead, including Doug Darnall, a psychologist in Youngstown, Ohio, and author of "Divorce Casualties: Protecting your children from parental alienation" (Taylor Publishing Co., $14.95).

Darnall said in a phone interview that the alienating parent typically feels justified. "Very often, you have one parent who is very angry, who feels betrayed or threatened." If the parent also feels powerless, using the child is a way to fix that. "The parent who says no is always the one who has the power," he said.

Some alienators have significant psychological disorders. In most cases, though, the parent sees himself or herself as the child's protector.

Sometimes, he emphasized, the parent is right in trying to protect the child. "If there is real physical or sexual abuse, that's not alienation if the child doesn't want anything to do with the [offending] parent."

What about the future?

Those interviewed agree that any form of alienating behavior can hurt kids both when they're young and as they grow into adults.

Minneapolis psychologist Mindy Mitnick said that in many cases, children mature and begin to understand the complexities of relationships and people, and mending can, and often does, occur. "They can reflect back on their lives and see that things are a lot more complicated than they understood when they were younger," Mitnick said.

But sometimes it's too late. In a tiny number of cases, she said, the parent to which the child has been aligned was so forceful in undermining the relationship with the rejected parent that the bond is severed forever.

Rick, the divorced father in St. Paul, is doing everything in his power to prevent that. "I've pretty much committed to not walking away," he said.

"We seem to be making some progress. My hope is that, as the kids get a little older, they'll develop more of a sense of self, more of an ego, where they can stand up on their own and logically think for themselves. But that's also my fear. When they start to see what's going on, who knows how they're going to react? They could just as easily turn on her, but that doesn't mean they're coming back to me."

Originally published by

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 •

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