Children need to be allowed to have a relationship with both parents
One of the occupational hazards of the mental health professions is hearing horrendous, heartbreaking stories of man’s cruelty to his fellow man. And some of the most egregious examples are cases of parental alienation.
Parental alienation refers to the situation wherein one parent deliberately attempts to cause his or her children to become estranged from the other parent. Most often, this occurs during or following a contested, messy divorce. In some cases, it can take place even within intact families. Generally, perpetrators harbor intense hatred for their ex-spouses, which they justify with the irrational belief that any contact with the ex-spouse would be psychologically and emotionally damaging for the children. As a result, the perpetrators will use any and all means to manipulate support for their diabolical and, at times, demonic tactics.
Of course, whenever a parent is physically or emotionally abusive to their children, it is a matter of pikuach nefesh for the other parent to do whatever is necessary to protect the children. That is not called parental alienation. What makes parental alienation so complex and difficult to recognize, therefore, is that perpetrators often attempt to portray the other parent as abusive, when that is simply not the case.
Take the “Steins,” for example. Whenever the family was together, such as at the Shabbos table, Avi often made disparaging remarks about his wife, Gitty, to their children. He then would encourage the children to speak similarly to her and even purchased gifts and treats for them when they did so, literally rewarding them for disrespecting their mother.
After almost twenty years of this mistreatment, Gitty begged Avi to join her for some long overdue marital counseling. Avi flatly refused and told her that if she felt she needed help, she should consult a therapist on her own — without him.
The following year, Gitty went to a beis din seeking a divorce. Six months later, no hearing had yet been conducted. In desperation, Gitty contacted another beis din. The second beis din did not want to take on her case, because her file was still open at the first beis din. She did learn, however, why the first beis din had been so unresponsive; because prominent askanim, whom Avi had somehow deceived and then enlisted, convinced the dayanim that he and Gitty were “working on making shalom,” as if they were engaged in conjoint counseling, which was not true. During all of this time, Gitty moved out with her four children, who were all, except the baby, gradually lured by Avi to live with him and cut ties with their mother.
Perpetrators of parental alienation usually rationalize their animosity toward their spouses by claiming that their actions are taken to protect their children. In reality, however, there is little they could do that would be more damaging. Children who have been subjected to parental alienation suffer such long-term anxiety and depression that they often require years of medication and therapy to help them recover.
What these misguided individuals fail to understand is that children need to be allowed to have a relationship with both parents. As Chazal (Kiddushin 30b and 31a) have taught, “There are three partners in [every] person: HaKadosh Baruch Hu, his father, and his mother. When one [is allowed to] honor his father and mother, Hashem considers it as if He dwells among them and they [the parents] honor Him… However, if a someone causes pain to his father or mother, Hashem says, ‘It is good that I do not dwell among them, because if I had, they would be causing Me pain.”
Parental alienators are not only fathers. Mothers can also attempt to separate the children from their fathers, as the following case illustrates.
Many years ago, I received a phone message from a lawyer whose name I did not recognize. That is usually not good news. I was, therefore, understandably apprehensive. Nevertheless, I braced myself and returned his call.
When we spoke, the lawyer explained that he was representing a divorced man whose ex-wife had filed a lawsuit trying to rescind his visitation rights with their six-year-old son. He then asked if I would be willing to conduct an assessment of the father’s suitability as a parent and then submit it to him in writing.
“I want your honest opinion,” the lawyer instructed. “If you feel he is not a suitable father, I want you to say so.”
I accepted the assignment and told the lawyer to have the father call me to schedule an appointment. I met with the father once alone and once together with his son. I also met with the boy alone for one session. As part of my assessment, I reached out to the ex-wife in order to hear her point of view. She declined my invitation, saying only that her lawyer had advised her not to meet with me.
Shortly after I began conducting my assessment, I received a phone call from my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Yaakov Salomon. He was uncharacteristically irate.
“You won’t believe what just happened,” he began, almost breathlessly. “I just got off the phone with an anonymous caller who told me you’re in the process of conducting a custody evaluation. And since he knew we are close, he wanted me to try to influence the way you will write your report. I told him he did not know you very well. ‘First of all,’ I said, ‘Dr. Wikler would never write anything other than what he believes, regardless of who was asking him to do so. And, secondly, if you think I would even consider trying to influence him, you don’t know me at all.’ And with that, I hung up the phone.”
A few days later, I received a call from a rav with whom I had somewhat of a connection. He asked to meet with me.
When I came, he asked, “You are working with the ____ family and conducting some kind of evaluation?”
I replied that by law I am prohibited from confirming or denying that I am working with someone without their explicit permission to do so.
He went on, “That’s okay, you don’t have to reveal anything. But I don’t really know anything about the case, nor do I want to know anything about it. I just wanted to tell you that the father of the ex-wife is a former landsman of mine. And he came to see me last week. He knows somehow that I know you. And he told me that you’re working on his daughter’s case, so he wanted me to sort of... put in a good word for him, which I agreed to do. And so I am. That’s all.”
With that, he thanked me for coming, and I left.
Later the same week, I was about to start learning with one of my chavrusas, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Twerski, but my head was not into it. Before we opened our Gemaras, I told him that there was something I had to get off my chest. I told him that I was in the process of conducting a child custody evaluation. And on two separate occasions, one of the sides attempted to influence the outcome of my report by contacting someone with whom I had a relationship.
“It wasn’t twice,” Rabbi Twerski said in all earnestness.
“What are you talking about?”
“It was three times — someone called me, as well, knowing that we learn together. I told the anonymous caller that not only would I not try to influence you in any way, but I would also not even tell you about the phone call. But since you mentioned this to me now, I thought you should know the full picture.”
I completed my assessment of the father, finding him to be a more than adequate parent. Then I sent my four-page report to the lawyer. A few weeks later, the lawyer called to inform me that the other side had withdrawn their suit. And he shared his belief that my report, which he had submitted to the court and to the lawyer for the other side, had a lot to do with the withdrawal of the lawsuit.
The paradox of parental alienation is that it often backfires, in that when they grow up, the children reunite with the alienated parent and have less to do with the perpetrator. One final example will illustrate that outcome.
“Mendel” and “Shayna” divorced after almost twenty-five years of marriage. The beis din awarded custody of the couple’s three boys to Mendel and their four girls to Shayna, giving each parent weekly visitation rights with the children living in the other’s custody. Dutifully and religiously, Shayna sent her daughters to visit their father every week. Her sons, however, never seemed able to make the trip to her home. Some weeks they were “not feeling well.” Other times, Mendel claimed they were unwilling to see their mother. Five months passed from their parents’ separation and the boys had still not seen their mother.
Shayna finally put her foot down and insisted that the boys come for a visit. The boys, aged nine, ten, and twelve, came into Shayna’s home and terrorized her and their sisters. They overturned furniture, taunted and teased the girls, and made disrespectful comments to their mother. When the visit was over, Shayna told her sons that if this was the way they conduct themselves, they should not return.
Shayna then consulted her rav, who referred her to me for guidance. “I’d like to call my sons and tell them what their father is really like and how he is poisoning their minds,” she vented, seeking my endorsement of her plan.
“No one could blame you for wanting to do that,” I said. “But I would not recommend it. Children need a relationship with both parents. And your sons are living with their father. If you bad-mouth him to them, you’ll just be making their lives harder, not easier. The best thing you can do is to be patient and wait until your sons become more independent. Then you’ll have a better chance to reconcile with them.”
Fast-forward six years. The oldest boy tearfully called his mother from a pay phone in his yeshivah dormitory to apologize for his behavior. Sobbing over the phone, he begged her for forgiveness, which she readily granted. Then he asked if he could come to her for Shabbos, which she eagerly agreed to. Over Shabbos, he reconciled with his mother and revealed what she had suspected all along, that his father had put him and his brothers up to acting the way they had the last time they came to her home.
One by one that story repeated itself with the other two boys. And when the oldest became a chassan, he asked his mother and her new husband to lead him to the chuppah.
Looking back, Shayna was grateful she had asked before she acted.
Dr. Meir Wikler is a psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice, with offices in Brooklyn and Lakewood.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 919)
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