Gender and Alienation

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 12.50.47Inspired by Jennifer Harman and Zeynep Biringen’s work in “Parents Acting Badly”, I have thoroughly refurbished my key overview: Off-putting relationships: the essentials of Child Alienation.

The section I’m particularly pleased with is my attempt to climb the Mount Everest topic of gender in high conflict family separation and Alienation (pp 19-21). I decided to share it here more or less as it is in the overview.

Does it make sense to you?! Any comments and suggestions for further improvement would be welcome below. Thanks. For details on the references, see the end section of the overview (pp 23-26).


Gender always matters but it is important to say how. Briefly, the evident facts for Child Alienation are that the pattern happens with all kinds of gender and relationship, not just with children choosing mothers and rejecting fathers. So other explanations than gender are needed. The best account of gender and Alienation is in Harman & Biringen’s book (2016; see also this TED talk ). They show how, even where gender stereotypes fit with patriarchy, they can give real power to women, not just to men.

This discussion assumes a binary view of gender – there are just two options that reflect a binary view of biological sex. It will be interesting to see how the growth of a non-binary view changes the gender debate.

Confusion in the vast debate on gender arises from competing versions of the facts, of what is fixed in gender, of what can or should be changed, and of how far generalisation can impose on individual cases. Neutrality in the debate is almost impossible given that we all speak from some bias or perceived bias of our own gender. All of this boils over in the urgent flames of family conflict where, in any particular case, there is no doubt about gender.

How we learn about gender

For any particular individual in their own family and community, of course our experiences are strongly gendered, shaping our general expectations of ourselves and of others – of ‘all men and fathers’ and of ‘all women and mothers’. When things go wrong, the gendered experience of abuse can be traumatically strong. To suffer – or even just to know individuals who have suffered in your own family or circle – is a powerful confirmation or determinant of one’s own generalised and gendered assumptions. This is especially true if you typically work where only one victimised gender is in your client group.

At present, ‘authoritative’ research can be based on a selection of subjects studied that is as biased as a gendered victim support service … because that’s where the research is done (eg Goldner et al 1990; James et al 2002). The results may bring valuable understanding for the selected group. But the results are not valid when taken as proof of a universal hypothesis about ‘all men and all women and all families’ or as reliable evidence of the universal effects of social structures like patriarchy. The limited results are authoritative in their limited way, but making them universal is not authoritative or scientific – it is more likely to breed and feed stereotypes and prejudice.

Patriarchy gives power to women as well as men

Any distressed victim or determined perpetrator of any gender is going to turn to anything that helps them defend or fight their corner. Harman & Biringen (2016) show how, even though a feminist would want men to play a more equal part in the home and in childcare, the traditional stereotype and power of women as better carers in families can breed reflex resistance to fathers who want to do that too. When it is family separation that triggers a new interest in gender equality or shared parenting, no wonder this adds fuel to the fire. Patriarchy is not the only social power and, within limited contexts, it can empower women. Harman & Biringen (2016) write: “Patriarchy puts fathers at a disadvantage to mothers in the domestic realm due to how it impacts perceptions of their parenting ability.”

Both genders have characteristic strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Local and wider social systems, values and resources aid or hinder any man or woman too. There are different gendered options that the individual, their circumstance and society offer. Women and men will find different options and resources available around them. Each will be acutely aware of the power the other gender has or has access to – especially when conflict or abuse heats things up.

Courts are imperfect for women as well as men

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 22.18.55Bob Geldof (2003) clarifies that his embitterment was only caused by the legal system not by his separation … he was in fact successful in the family court. He ‘coherently rants’ – in contrast to the more familiar emphasis on women’s and children’s rights – about how powerless men are. He says that the archaic and far from gender-neutral legal system closes fathers off from the children they had loved above all. But we know that being closed out is also the experience of many mothers too. The law and the courts may be imperfect – but it cannot be wholly a matter of gender, even if the gender-neutral law doesn’t stop lawyers and judges in their gender-bias in custom and practice.

Of course overall societal and cultural patterns are also gendered in various ways that have changed through history. These patterns are reflected in population statistics. The feminist movement takes the lioness’s share of the credit for much more gender equality in liberal societies now than before and than in other countries. That journey is only part way through.

Exploring the whys and wherefores of general patterns is fine, for example, to inform gender debate about inequality, patriarchy, differences between the experiences of men and women etc. But trying to impose a generalisation or ideology pre-emptively onto general or case-specific findings and debate is another. Science and natural justice require that we work hard so that the facts or the individual case can speak for themselves without undue influence on them. You can believe and campaign for gender equality and feminism without holding those ideals hostage to scientific findings of sex difference (Pinker 2005).

The categorical error

General statistics are not some kind of vote for a majority winner. Good practice in actually meeting individual people involved in a particular situation should be informed by, but not decided on, statistical assumptions or generalisation. No generalised assumptions should be imported and imposed willy-nilly on individuals or particular situations. To do that is prejudice and a categorical error of logic. The individual is neither the stereotype nor the statistical pattern. Every particular case may or may not be of the majority pattern. Each individual, victim or perpetrator, has stories to tell and to discover. Perpetrators need to stop or be stopped from causing harm. But everyone also has a past that helps or hinders, and a future they hope for (Crittenden 2008). To approach each person as unique and without prejudice is the principle of equal opportunity, of due process, of expert assessment, and of being innocent until proven guilty.

In domestic abuse and family conflict, you cannot helpfully assume that all men are evil lying perpetrators, nor that all women are honest angelic victims, even if that might appear to be a much simpler way to go. It’s seldom that simple (Farmer & Callan 2012). Perpetrators and victims can be of either gender. Both perpetrators and victims mostly have sad tales of oppression and abuse to take into account and rise out of. And whatever we may wish, men and women perpetrators are (in the UK) at most imprisoned, not evaporated – they remain human beings best helped as members of their families and of communities.

On all sides, avoiding categorical errors is essential for better understanding. The hardest step is for each side to hold their hands up to some truth in the other side’s allegation. So, yes, some times abusive fathers use the cover of ‘Parental Alienation’ to continue their access for abuse. But just because some do it doesn’t mean all of them do it (Harman & Biringen 2016). And some abusive mothers might do it too. From the other side, yes, some men do awful abuse to women and children but that doesn’t mean that all men do it, nor that only men do it.

Stereotypes flourish in family separation

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 14.06.48But we’ve already seen that Child Alienation is a pattern that can happen with any genders of parent or child (egs Box 1; Roche & Allen 2014). It happens with same-sex-parent families too. This is important to note because some detractors – who must have limited reading and experience – wrongly presume that Alienation only happens with one gendered pattern, that is (presumed) loving resident mothers and (presumed) suspect non-resident fathers. Stereotypes and common custody patterns after separation determine that we all tend to think like that.

However, the ways and the experiences of being Alienated will, for example, be different for mothers and fathers. Society gives greater gender stereotype importance to mothers looking after their children. It generally approves of mothers being with their children. But it does frown on ‘unmotherly’ things. Those are therefore the attributes that can be used against them. Mothers who have careers, or can be alleged to have other supposedly un-motherly qualities like mental health problems or personality disorders, are liable to decisions made against them that are based on gender stereotype (Harman & Biringen 2016).

Men more easily fit the common stereotype of fathers being absent from and unworthy of full family lives, less skilled at caring for home, relationships and children. Men’s power is known to cause more physical harm more often when push comes to shove – against women or men (Renn 2012). Even when men are innocent, they are more easily fitted out with the worst gender stereotypes. The ‘nuclear option’ of making a serious but false allegation against a father triggers processes that put the lid on the coffin.

Attachment works better than gender

The important overall conclusion of all this is that, in order to understand Child Alienation in general, we have to turn to other main frameworks than gender. We have to loosen our stereotypes for theory and for individual cases. Gender cannot be the main explanation of what is a diversely gendered pattern like Child Alienation. We’ve seen how useful Attachment theory can be in understanding family relationships, high conflict and separation (Crittenden 2008; Renn 2012). Being open-minded about theories is generally a good idea too (Child 2014b).

Attachment theory helps us get past gender. It reminds us that men and women have all been babies and children once. Whatever shapes our mature functioning and our adult gendered behaviour and roles, we have all faced and still carry the same needs and vulnerabilities in us. And these play out in our adult intimate relationships in couples and as parents.


For the details of the references used here, see the end section of the overview (pp 23-26).

Nick Child, Edinburgh

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

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