This post is long. I describe how and why I became alienated from my parents, and how and why the alienation ended. I write about how about the alienation distorted my thoughts, behaviour and feelings – how it felt hating people I used to love. Although the particulars of this story are unique, you can extract much that will be applicable to your situation. I hope it will give you some insight into how your alienated child thinks and feels. I will offer some suggestions about how to interact with your alienated child based on my experience.
As an adult, I was alienated from my own parents and siblings for about five years. It’s painful for me to remember how horribly I behaved, and painful and embarrassing to face the reality that I was brainwashed, or allowed myself to be brainwashed. I’ve thought a lot about my own experience, and how it fits with the literature about cults and mind control and the psychology of how we influence each other. I’ll write later about mind control in general. Here is my experience.
I was alienated from my parents (and siblings and all other relatives) for five or six years, when I was 37 to 43 years old. In my case, the alienation was not caused by a parent but by my then-husband. I was so old then that you’d think this would be impossible, but no, it really happened. Before the alienation, for all my life I had a happy and loving relationship with my mother. We went through periods of varying closeness because of geographical distances and the normal busyness of life, but generally I felt very lucky to have her for a mom and any observer would see a warm and comfortable relationship. My relationship with my father was not unfriendly but it was not close. He could be bad-tempered and irritable; dictatorial, mean and intimidating. Essentially because of these aspects of his personality my parents divorced when I was 25, but they always spoke of each other respectfully and communicated sincere goodwill toward and about each other.
My relationship with my ex was happy for the first 10 years. We never fought. I would describe myself as agreeable, positive, and flexible…all great qualities when balanced with a good sense of self and self-confidence, but that can become problematic without that self-confidence. My ex was insecure, thin-skinned, and at first just mildly paranoid, but this got worse over the years. He couldn’t tolerate anyone disagreeing with him, would interpret it as criticism, and was a very black-and-white thinker. At first I found ways to cheerfully compromise so that I could always agree with him. I thought that my love and devotion would mend his suspicious heart, soothe his fears, and solve everything. (I was wrong.) There was also a great insecurity in me, and it turns out that many partners of alienators share this quality. Fear of conflict, passivity, and anxiety for approval are traits common in many target parents. Anyway, I was flexible and accommodating, and for a long time the compromises I made felt reasonable and worth making, as no relationship is perfect, right? However, I kept on making compromises and sacrifices. I supported the family financially. I cut off friendships with people he had conflicts with. I did whatever was required to make things comfortable for him because it was too uncomfortable for me otherwise. He could not accept any opinions not in accord with his own. When a rift developed between him and my sister, in order to maintain peace with him and keep his “love” I eventually chose to cut her off. Then “we” asked my parents to join in denouncing my sister. They wouldn’t, so they had to be cut off too.
This was a gradual process. First there were many long, agonizing “talks”. My ex would have to “explain” to me over and over why my family was so bad, because I would disagree and try to change his mind. He wouldn’t stop talking until he had convinced me, even if it took hours, and I was a willing listener. I wanted to be on the same page with him. Over time he began to get angry with me for having doubts and challenging him, which I would do less and less as I became more afraid of upsetting and offending him.
When we would talk to my family members it would basically be basically us criticizing, blaming and making accusations. They were baffled, confused, and hurt. Sometimes they’d be outraged and angry. They tried reasoning with me, and they tried to appeal to the empathy and compassion I used to have. When they agreed to go to counseling with me, I just complained and attacked and didn’t care that I was wounding them. I found fault with everything they said. Whenever they questioned or said anything critical of the alienator (my ex) I became defensive and furious. Every instance of their not admitting their wrongness and choosing not to agree with me and him was seen by us as a new crime, and the negativity just grew and grew. As well, alienation made it “us against them”, so every interaction with them was automatically a fight, even when they so obviously wanted just to reconnect. Every interaction became another occasion to take sides against them, which would become an intellectual and emotional pledge of allegiance to my husband the alienator, and another investment in his version of reality. Finally my mom & sister gave up and backed off. My dad kept trying to continue as if nothing was different, which sometimes angered me, and sometimes pricked my conscience.
My then-four year old would say “I miss granny!” and this would pierce my heart, because – “out of the mouths of babes” – I knew he spoke the truth, and that he missed her because she was sweet and loving and fun and was not at all the monster I had convinced myself she was. Interestingly, the older boys did not mention her. They had absorbed the message that they were no longer to love her, to miss her, or even to speak of her. Eventually the younger one forgot to miss his granny any longer too.
My love of my then-husband was intense, and my loyalty to him was fierce. I think that being forced to choose and give up so much for him polarized and intensified my feelings, both my feelings for him and my commitment to my rejection of my family . I kept trying to prove my love to my husband, but at the same time he was never satisfied and I could never do enough. I had to make many sacrifices to keep his approval, and also to convince myself that I was doing the right thing by following his opinions and beliefs. Deep down I did know I was wrong. I remember allowing this into my consciousness for a few seconds on two occasions, and also having the conscious thought that I was not ready to deal with it and pushing it away. I continued to invest in the choice that I had made. I was not willing to accept the reality that this was craziness and could not get better, but I was always arguing with my ex’s opinions in my mind, trying to expunge the doubts. I was secretly in turmoil, 98% of the time.
As time went on my ex found more & more wrong with me, and criticized me for not doing enough to keep my alienated family members away, and then he decided that that I was responsible for the way they thought in the first place, and in fact just as bad as them, and so on. Whenever a letter or call came from them it meant I was in trouble with him unless I could come up with a really good response. I’d write angry notes back to them, and show the notes to my ex like a student offering homework to the teacher for grading. Usually what I wrote was not good enough, but the angrier I made it sound the more likely he was to be satisfied with it.
For this reason I dreaded any communications from my family. Perhaps if they had had a means of communicating with me that he wouldn’t know about, it might have been different, it might have helped me break free of the abuse sooner, although earlier on when I was still receiving approval and “love” from him I voluntarily told him about any letters I got. (A “culture of confession” and a lack of privacy is a hallmark element of cults and cultic relationships.) I ignored all of my relatives. I missed weddings and funerals. I didn’t send holiday cards. I avoided places and events where I might meet people connected to my family and former friends.
It is strange to try to reconstruct how I thought at that time. I saw everything in a very two-dimensional, black & white way. My sister says I had an extreme personality change and became hard and tough. She said I had a different look in my eyes.
I was tense and exhausted, arguing with myself constantly in my own mind, trying to convince myself that my then-husband’s views were correct, and worried about him detecting my doubts. When I mentioned aspects of my family life to other people, or just answered the usual politenesses of coworkers, for example, they tended to ask questions that would expose the irrationality of my actions. I found this disturbing so I tried not to discuss my life. I had no close relationships anymore with anyone other than my ex and our children. Gradually I had broken off most of my friendships because my ex had conflicts with my friends. I still loved him. I had to work hard at it, but I did convince myself to believe what my ex told me – that he, so misunderstood! was the wisest, kindest, most genuinely caring person in the picture, the one with real insight into everyone’s true motivations and who understood what everyone really needed, unlike all those other people out there “faking it”. Then I’d be able to believe in what I was doing. I could believe that my mom really was awful and that she deserved the heartless treatment she got from me.
My ex got worse. He eventually had conflicts with basically everyone he got involved with. I hung on, trying to “earn his love” even after he told me he didn’t love, want or even like me any more, (but he still wanted to share the same house & parent together – it’s all about control!). He had begun to involve the children against me about 2 years after our marriage problems started, first just the oldest, then the others at progressively younger ages. At a certain point I was getting nothing positive from the relationship to outweigh the anxiety and fear and misery I was living with, and had lost hope that it would get better. Little by little I found the strength to start trusting my own judgment and and to resist his influence and control. A few months after I made the decision that my relationship with my ex was over I called my parents & sister, secretly, and apologized and reconnected with them. Still, my fear of my ex’s disapproval was such that I hid the the fact that I was in contact with them for another year.
I can see much of my behaviour while alienated in my own children now.
Their intense devotion to their dad is not what you’d see in a typical child-parent relationship, especially with teenage and young adult children. The normal ambivalence that you would expect at their age is not there. I see the same ferocity that I used to feel, as if he was both victim and hero. They are compelled to obey, champion and defend him. I think the crux of it lies in the forced choice. They CAN’T love both their parents. He has made me his enemy, and how could they possibly love his enemy? I was alienated from my sister and parents because he saw them as his enemies, and loving his enemies was an impossibility. He forced me to choose. When I would not choose him any longer, he forced our children to reject me. Not only has he forced them to choose, but they have been forced to make a huge investment in his reality. They too have had to make enormous sacrifices that have further deepened their commitment.
Of course every situation is different, but based on my experience here are three important ways you can make things much better or much worse in dealing with your alienated child (By the way, I myself still forget and fall into all of these traps):
1. Do not let your child make you lose your temper! Whenever I was able to provoke my “hated” family members into getting angry and behaving imperfectly I would feel great relief, even joy. Then I could feel some justification for my beliefs and renew my faith in the alienator’s judgment, and feel that I made the right choice in sticking by him and rejecting them. I could be cold and hateful without a tortured conscience.
2. NEVER criticize the alienator. This is guaranteed to backfire and cause your child to reflexively entrench more deeply in loyalty to the alienator, no matter how illogical or irrational this is. Strive to avoid talking about the alienator at all. When you have to refer to him/her, or to something he/she did, be as neutral as possible.
3. Do not argue or attempt to reason with your child about the alienation. Just tell your child that you love them, miss them, care about them. When my “hated” family members tried to reason with me, I got defensive, even enraged, and fought them. When they stopped trying to convince me of anything and just communicated that they loved me, I was disarmed. Although I tried not to show or acknowledge it, the message got through.
Just for the sake of completeness I will end with the summary of my experience of being an (adult) alienated child that appeared in the previous post.
What caused it? Nothing my parents did. It was completely, 100%, caused by my ex demanding that I reject them.
Why did I comply? I loved him. I wanted his love. I wanted to believe in him. I wanted to keep my family together. I wanted to maintain a happy relationship with him for my children, and overcome our conflicts to make it worth it in the end.
How exactly did he get me to shun and hate people whom I really loved, and when I knew that shunning and hating are wrong? 1. Relentless, persistent, unceasing messaging. 2. Suppression of argument by any means necessary – sympathy, flattery, gentle coaxing and “discussion”, anger and outrage, criticism and emotional abuse, and the threat of being shunned and rejected. 3. Isolation from others, removal of outside support and influence, increasing my dependence on him. 4. Requiring me to INVEST in my “choice”, and to make sacrifices and commit more and more heavily to that choice.
What ended it? His criticism and emotional abuse of me finally became too much. Although my investment had been huge, there was no more payoff, and no more hope of a payoff in the future. To maintain my willingness to perpetuate my alienation from my parents and relatives, I would have had to enter a deeper level of insanity, to give up even more self-respect. Perhaps if he had treated me just a little more kindly, had given me some scraps of affection, I might still be alienated.
How did the alienator react to my defection? With intense anger and outrage that continues today, and by alienating our children from me.