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Divorce Helping Children Through the Crisis of the Separation
Divorce & Children continuing education psychologist CEUs

Section 15
Remarriage and Parental Alienation Syndrome

CEU Question 15 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Couples
Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

Cordial post-divorce relations do not insulate former spouses from the tension generated when one of them has found love again Patients are often surprised at the intensity of their reaction to the news that an exspouse plans to remarry. They may have expected to be unaffected by such an event. Instead, they find themselves reexperiencing much of the hurt and anger that accompanied the divorce. Those who kept themselves unaware of any residual emotional attachment to the former spouse, or unaware that they harbored fantasies of reconciliation, are most likely to have difficulty coping with the jealousy and narcissistic injury triggered by the remarriage. Rather than acknowledge the source of feelings that they regard as unwanted or inappropriate, they use a variety of defenses.

A popular maneuver is to claim that one's anger stems from concern over the children being upset by the remarriage. Wilhelm Reich (1949) called this a "pretended" motive. Therapists can recognize this rationalization when a parent says, "I don't care what she wants to do with her life. But my children are very upset by all of this." If the children had not been demonstrating signs of distress, it is a good possibility that the parent is either attempting to rationalize his own distress, or projecting it on to the children and distorting his perception of their true reactions.

Another rationalization is to claim that one is not upset by the remarriage itself, but by the specific character of the stepparent, or his manner of relating to the children. Parental alienation syndrome comes into play when a parent channels unwanted, confusing, and unpleasant feelings triggered by the former spouse's remarriage into unwarranted denigration of the former spouse and his or her new partner. As Reich (1949) recognized, "The true motive is revenge on the partner through robbing him or her of the pleasure in the child" {p. 265}. "The lack of any consideration of the child is expressed in the fact that the child's love for the other partner is not taken into account" {p. 265}.

As with most cases of rationalization, projection, and displacement, facilitating awareness, acceptance, and appropriate expression of genuine feelings can obviate the need for destructive acting-out. The parent must be helped to acknowledge the lingering feelings of attachment. This will be easier if the therapist genuinely regards such feelings among exspouses as normal. Therapists who believe that any sign of emotional connection between exspouses indicates that the couple are evading the reality of the divorce--that they are not "emotionally divorced"--will exacerbate the problem (Warshak, 1992). The attachment feelings do not create the problem. The problem occurs when such feelings are disowned and drive destructive behavior. The therapist can assist parents to respond appropriately to the remarriage by inviting them to imagine how they would want their former spouse to react to their own announcement of a remarriage. Naturally, when a campaign of denigration is rooted in the belief that the new partner contributed to the divorce, it will be more difficult for the alienating parent to give up the desire for revenge.

Up to this point reactions of the parent who learns of his or her former partner's plans to remarry have been discussed. But as shall be seen below, destructive criticism is probably just as likely to come from the remarried spouse and the new partner. In work with remarried families, three key dynamics have been identified, in addition to seeking revenge, which often trigger attempts to alienate children:
     1. the wish to erase the exspouse from the child's life in order to "make room" for the stepparent;
     2. competitive feelings between the exspouse and stepparent;
     3. the new couple's attempt to unite around a common enemy.

These dynamics are discussed separately for heuristic purposes. But it is clear that they are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, are often interrelated. Also, they do not exhaust all the possible dynamics of PAS that occur in remarried families.

I Wish He Would Just Disappear
Parents who remarry often believe that they now have the perfect family setting in which to raise their children. But one thing mars this image: the former spouse. Many remarried couples harbor the fantasy, "If only the ex would disappear from the scene ..." One way to fulfill this fantasy is by driving a wedge between the children and their other parent.
A parent is most likely to regard the other parent as dispensable when her child was very young at the time of the divorce, or the parents were never married, and the new marriage occurs soon after. In these cases, each parent has had little opportunity to observe the child around the other parent. A mother may believe, in the abstract, that children deserve to know their real father. But if she has not lived very long together with the father and child, she has not experienced first hand, how her child benefits from spending time with the man. Certainly a 1-year-old child cannot tell her how much he looks forward to seeing his dad.

Without a history of family interaction involving mother, father, and child, it is harder for the mother to appreciate the father's role in the child's life. When she remarries, she would rather such family history be centered around her and her current husband. The father is seen as an interloper. His involvement complicates the picture. Essentially, the mother would like to pretend that her relationship with the child's father never happened. When he won't bow out gracefully, he is seen as thwarting her second chance for a happy family. One remarried woman told her exhusband, "My daughter has a mother and a father in her home. She doesn't need you."

Some people believe that the less time the child has been with the father, the less that is lost if the stepfather replaces the father. To a certain extent this is correct. Generally speaking, younger children find it easier than do older children to become attached to, and develop a relationship with, a stepparent that approximates a parent-child bond, and to benefit from a competent stepparent's involvement (Bowerman & Irish, 1962; Duberman, 1973; Hetherington, Stanley-Hagan, & Anderson, 1989; Lutz, 1983; Ransom, Schlesinger, & Derdeyn, 1979). However, there is no reason why children should have to choose. They are capable of having strong ties both to their father and stepfather.

Even when her child is so young that the stepfather could adequately replace the father, a mother still has reasons to promote the father's involvement. When the child is older, he or she may want to know the father. Many children suffer intense feelings of rejection when a divorced parent has not remained involved. Boys and girls who have lost contact with a parent following divorce are more likely to have problems with interpersonal relationships and lower self-esteem (Biller, 1993; Hetherington, 1972). The children's problems may, in turn, diminish the quality of their relationships with custodial parents and stepparents.

It is worth considering, too, what would happen if the mother's second marriage failed (not an unlikely event since second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages). In most such cases children lose all contact with their former stepfather even when he has been a central figure in their development (Brody, Neubaum, & Forehand, 1988). Maintaining a close tie to the father is good insurance against such a loss. Much less likely, but also possible, is the death or incapacitation of the mother. In these cases, custody is usually transferred to the father. A good strong relationship with their father can help children through such hard times. A history of alienation from the father would compound the tragedy.

A parent who has simply not considered some of the issues discussed above may benefit from an educational intervention. It is essential to involve the new partner because he or she is likely to exert much influence over the ultimate decision regarding the child's contact with the other parent.

When the effort to remove the other parent from the child's life reflects the wish to deny the reality of the relationship that produced the child, the alienating parent must be helped to appreciate that this denial may satisfy the parent's short-term desires, but will sacrifice the child's interests and, therefore, the parent's long-term interest in raising a healthy child. Furthermore, denying the former relationship handicaps the new marital relationship. The new marriage will stand on a much firmer foundation if the spouses face, rather than avoid, the existence of the former partner. Therapists should attempt to facilitate communication between spouses of unspoken thoughts and feelings regarding the former partner. This can result in a general reduction of anxiety and may reduce the need to eliminate the other parent from the child's life.

If the remarried parent is genuinely worried about the impact on the child of maintaining a relationship with the other parent, these anxieties should be explored with all the adults involved. Each party should think of things that they can do, and that the others can do, to ease the anxieties. For example, a father may provide some indication to the mother of his value to their child, if he describes some of the activities and routines that father and child share. The goal is to help the mother see the reality of the relationship. This gives her a concrete experience of what she would be destroying if she succeeded in alienating the child from the father.
- Warshak, Richard A; Remarriage As A Trigger of Parental Alienation Syndrome; American Journal of Family Therapy, Jul-Sep2000, Vol. 28 Issue 3

Personal Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information about remarriage and parental alienation syndrome.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Beck, C. J., Applegate, A. G., Adams, J. M., Rossi, F. S., Jiang, L. J., Tomlinson, C. S., & Hale, D. F. (2020). Intimate partner violence (IPV) and family dispute resolution: A randomized controlled trial comparing shuttle mediation, videoconferencing mediation, and litigation. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Advance online publication.

“Latent profiles of postdivorce parenting time, conflict, and quality: Children’s adjustment associations,”: Correction to Elam et al. (2019) (2019). Journal of Family Psychology, 33(7), 763.

Zemp, M., Johnson, M. D., & Bodenmann, G. (2019). Out of balance? Positivity–negativity ratios in couples’ interaction impact child adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 55(1), 135–147.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 15
According to Warshak, when does Parental Alienation Syndrome occur? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Test

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