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The Common Enemy
Hal Q. and his second wife, Annette, spent much of their time colluding in trashing Hal's first wife, Melinda. The more they did so, the closer they felt. Annette's children joined the chorus of denigration. Hal's son, Josh, couldn't resist participating. At first he felt disloyal to his mother, but he wanted to be accepted by the family, and complaining about his mother seemed to be the price of admission. Josh had another motive. In a contest between his father and mother, Josh sensed that his father had more power. Although he was not consciously aware of it, Josh feared that the family's criticism could turn on him if he defended his mother. Like most people, Josh wanted to side with the winner. He wasn't in a position to stem the tide of denunciation, so he chose to affiliate with it. Essentially, Josh was following the strategy of "identifying with the aggressor." It is more popularly known as, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Uniting against a common enemy has one fatal weakness. When the enemy is vanquished, conflicts usually arise among the former allies. That happened in this case. Melinda finally gave up her efforts to counter the trashing and she moved to another state. The family had virtually no contact with her. They lost their common enemy. Soon after, conflicts in their own family relationships began to surface. These had been present all along, but they were able to avoid them by making Melinda the target of all their hostility.
Children's Contributions To PAS
The child who feels caught between two homes may try to resolve the conflict by declaring a clear allegiance to one household. This dynamic can result in alienation from either parent. A child who is anxious or angry about the remarriage may channel these feelings into unwarranted denigration of the remarried parent and stepparent, or the child's alienation may express the disappointment of reconciliation wishes that have been dashed by the remarriage. Most children of divorce harbor strong wishes for their parents to reconcile (Warshak & Santrock, 1983). Regardless of the child's underlying motivation, if the favored parent welcomes the child's allegiance, or passively accepts the child's estrangement from the other parent and fails to actively promote the child's affection for the other parent, the child may cling to this maladaptive solution.
A central goal of therapy with alienated children in remarried families is to help them appreciate that they do not have to choose sides. We can try to help them appreciate the benefits that come from avoiding unhealthy alliances, while working with the parents to support this concept.
What is it, then, that allows loving parents to act on the impulse rather than inhibit their behavior as they do other behavior they regard as destructive to their children? In many cases the answer is simple: They do not regard it as destructive to their children. Many parents who badmouth are so preoccupied with hurting their exspouses or the new stepparent that they choose not to think about the impact on their children. Other parents appear incapable of recognizing that their own thoughts and feelings and their children's needs may not be identical. So they pursue, with singleminded determination, their goal of demeaning the exspouse, even when this means embarrassing the children, and even when this means confusing them, depriving them, or scaring them. By treating their children as accomplices in the campaign of denigration, these parents obliterate the usual psychological boundary that exists between adults and children.
This article has presented some of the dynamics often found when PAS occurs in the context of remarriage. It has been shown how PAS can arise in remarried families from motivations other than custody-related concerns. By recognizing the potential for PAS, therapists consulting with stepfamilies will be in a better position to help prevent or alleviate the disturbance. The emphasis should be on early intervention and maintaining access between the target parent and children, while concurrently addressing the PAS dynamics in therapy sessions. As with other emotional disturbances, interventions in the early stages are most likely to meet with success. Also, work with these families is unlikely to be successful without the support of the court in enforcing access between the target parent and child, and in providing external motivation for the parties to engage in treatment.
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