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by Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D. and Dean Hughson

For parents who survive mean-spirited, angry, ugly divorces; an ex-spouse can "win" by alienating their children. We all know of the obvious ways this can be done - outright lying, magnifying the alienated spouse's faults and minimizing their attributes. The courts sometimes encourage such behavior by giving the child 'permission' to stay away from that spouse if he/she simply doesn't want to see the parent. For some parents, the pain involved is immense.

Coping with such pain is much like the jogger who develops asthma. Sooner or later, he/she realizes that it's impossible to run through the pain. Acceptance of limitations is the only alternative. Hopefully, the limitation will eventually go away. Luckily, with children, the initial anger often does melt into acceptance, but only if you are there to receive it. If you are angry and pouting yourself, you might miss the opportunity to change your relationship with your child.

Interestingly enough, with angry children, the same dynamic is often at play. If they are angry long enough, they may get you to change (that is often why people stay angry with us) and/or they don't have to feel the pain of loss. The good news is that they, too, will eventually be forced to accept the loss and accept their limitation and learn to love you as a divorced parent.

After accepting the loss, they often can re-negotiate a relationship with the alienated parent - but only when the child is ready. It falls on the parent, then, to be the adult and non rejecting. This is often complicated by the other parent finding a series of unsuccessful relationships or a new mate. Your finding new relationship(s) and/or a mate makes the picture more complicated. And then again, other children are often present - complicating things even further.

However, this does not mean that inappropriate behavior goes unnoticed or unaddressed. Such behavior should be dealt with fairly, and then, dismissed immediately. Making choices between what is truly inappropriate and what is merely irritating you because you've just about had enough...this is one area where a set of personal guidelines combined with outside feedback can be helpful.

Here is one man's philosophy about dealing with his angry, 11 year old daughter:

  1. I will love my child even though she verbalizes not loving me.
  2. I will show that love by expressing it when I talk to her, no matter how nasty and mean she is back.
  3. I will tell my younger 2 children that angry, mean behavior is not appropriate and that I love their sister, but don't like her behavior right now (but only if asked by the kids or if they witness the behavior and an explanation is in order.) She will be held accountable for inappropriate behavior just like the other children.
  4. I will write letters to my daughter on other subjects, other than the divorce, and continue the relationship.
  5. When I see her I will smile and say "How you doing?" and attempt conversations as possible.
  6. If the alienation continues I will take her to a psychotherapist and learn to have moderated conversations.
  7. I will not take the barbs personally if possible. She is only reflecting a mean spirited, angry person's teachings and isn't old enough yet to have developed this type of opinion of me.
  8. When the time comes, I will sit with her and talk it out if she gives me a chance.
  9. I will ask other people in her life who have contact to talk to her about her father in positive ways and elicit responses from her. (The bagel man who knows her has done this for me in the past---he tells her: "Your father loves you.")
  10. I will take care of myself as well as I can to survive the feeling of loss that is there when you are rejected by someone you love.

Finding a support group, online or offline can be the key to survival. You can often find such groups at a local hospital, church, mental health clinic, through a psychotherapist, or even among your own friends. Wherever you go, share from your heart what is happening and how you feel. Don't bottle up the pain....many people have it and their understanding can be tremendously helpful.


Dr. Maheu is an author, speaker, and researcher. She is the lead author of E-Health, Telehealth & Telemedicine: A Guide to Program Startup and Success co-written with Pamela Whitten and Ace Allen, published by Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Infidelity on the Internet is Dr. Maheu's second book and she's currently working her third, tentatively titled "The Mental Health Professional Online: New Questions and Answers."

For more information about her speaking schedule, see this page: http://telehealth.net/speak.html


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