Why does a coercive controller do it? A very secure Attachment

Responding to the conversation on cults and parental abduction and alienation, a UK parent has summarised her own story of being Alienated from her daughter. Starting the Alienation long before separating from her, her husband kept his daughter close. She was ‘his blood’.

What makes this guest blog story so unusual is how much of her ex-husband’s tragic early life is known that completes the picture. Often past painful trauma is buried deeply away from everyone. Usually we only see a disturbed person/ality; all we can do is pin nasty personality disorder labels on them.

Here we get a full – sympathetic even – emotional understanding of the Alienating parent, of one kind of various Attachment traumas that can shape up a parent to control and Alienate a child. (Names and details have been changed).

We can see clearly why this coercive controller does it: He gets a very secure Attachment in a relationship that takes his daughter in and cuts her off.  But of course this is a disturbed and disturbing solution to the controller’s problems. And it is positively harmful to his entrapped if happy looking child.

Alienation can take a life-time

“I have just watched the video you linked to and I have hung on to every word. You have managed to put into words what I have instinctively felt for over 20 years.

“The following question was asked in the video: What’s in it for the controller? (8.10) The reply (8.41) was: “What’s in it for the controller is an attachment that is very secure” followed by (8.46) : “The controller has had some kind of trauma in their background that makes them fearful of losing an attachment and so they go to great lengths to keep someone close”.

Beauty’s devotion brings the Beast back to life and love

“My husband, Peter, alienated my daughter, Sarah, within our intact marriage of over 40 years. Shortly after we lost our first child, aged five, he told me “If you ever leave me I will fight you for custody and I will win!” He was referring to our toddler daughter, Sarah.

I stayed with him and we had many happy times but he was becoming more and more a controller and a bully. By the time Sarah was in her mid teens he had been made redundant, had a crisis of status and decided he didn’t much like me any more. He told me he preferred Sarah. Peter said she was more grounded and I was emotional. It was at that point that my beautiful daughter changed towards me. Sarah had to protect her dad and give him back the status he’d lost. She became his best friend, protector and wingman.

“I stayed within the family because of that old threat: I knew for certain that if I ever left him I would never see my daughter again – she would always choose him over me. Your question and answer struck me because I had already suspected the reason why my husband took my daughter from me.

Young Peter’s many terrors and losses

“Peter’s father had died shortly after we were married, when Peter was in his early 20s. It was at that point that Peter first told me about his mother’s problems and how, as a young teenager, he had come home from school on quite a few occasions and found her with her head in the gas oven, on the floor after taking pills and in the closed garage with the car engine running. He told me that his mother was ill and had often admitted herself to the local mental hospital and undergone electric shock treatment. He was very protective of his mother. Some months after the death of Peter’s father, his mother tried once more to take her own life and a few months afterwards told Peter that she had married again. He was livid – forever after, he called her new husband a ‘money grabbing charlaton’.

Blind Oedipus and his daughter, Antigone

“A few months after her secret wedding she went on holiday to Spain with her friends and jumped to her death from their hotel balcony many floors up. Four days later Peter’s sister went missing and was finally found hanged in woodland. There were no suicide notes or messages. My husband never spoke about what he felt or showed his feelings. He arranged a joint funeral for his mother and sister. But his new step father was not included and his mother was buried alongside her dead husband. The name on her headstone was that of his father; his step father was erased and never spoken of again. Many years later, one of Peter’s mother’s friends told me that his mother had always said “If anything happens to me, look after little P.”. There was no mention of his sister who was only three years older. It was Peter whom his mother was always needing or needed to look after.

“I am absolutely certain that as a child, Peter must have been very deeply affected and disturbed by his mother’s attempts to kill herself, especially since he was the one who always found her when he got home from school. He must have dreaded going home. I cannot begin to imagine the full horror and panic of facing and having to deal with such a deeply frightening situation. Maybe it was the beginning of his absolute need for full control when he became an adult. I questioned him in later years but he always categorically denied that it had ever affected him … but he felt the loss of his whole family deeply.”

Recruiting a child to repair the parent

“Whatever the truth, I am sure it left him emotionally scarred and it was behind his desperate need to have the way he felt about himself constantly boosted – a role that our daughter took on from the age of fifteen. She made him feel good about himself in a way I had once done but obviously ceased to do. But beyond all that, Sarah was ‘his blood’ (his words) and that fact took on a huge psychological significance above and beyond everything as she grew into a bubbly, exciting, popular teenager and adult with a passion for his hobbies. Peter was always deeply scarred by the fact that he had lost all his family in such tragic circumstances, and our daughter was all that he had left, the only one who was HIS blood. In the end, he simply couldn’t share her with me – I was not his his blood. When I told him I was leaving he said “Good, I won’t have to share her with you anymore”. She belonged to him, as he had belonged to his mother (who had told me the first time I met her “Blood is thicker than water”).

“If I had to analyze Peter I would say that he had such a terrible, traumatic childhood which he absolutely had no chance of ever being able to control. So, as he grew up from that sad little boy who had the grave responsibility for saving his mother foisted on him far too young, he turned into a man who had to control the world around him. And the one person he could control was me. I feel desperately sorry for that little boy and have great sympathy for him, but I do not feel sorry for the man he became. Our daughter on the other hand did feel sorry for him, and she took over the role he made for her as his protector and wingman.

“I am pretty sure that his mother’s suicide attempts were the reason that Peter buried his emotions deep. He just couldn’t cope with anything bordering on emotional … which was why, after the first few months following our first child’s death at the age of five, he never spoke of, nor acknowledged her ever again. Neither did he ever go with me to the place where we had scattered her ashes, and even years later, when we went to the nearby cafe and walked back alongside the grass and flower beds where her ashes were scattered, he never once allowed his eyes to look in that direction. He most likely cared very deeply but to all intents and purposes his lack of acknowledgement was as though she never existed and it hurt me deeply because I never ever knew whether, on the anniversary of her death or on her birthday, he remembered or not. That lack of acknowledgement really hurt.

Alienation brings death to life

“I gather that Peter and Sarah, now in her late 30s, visit Europe following his sporting interests. Sarah’s husband of a few years does not go with them. I have no doubt that he loves her dearly and she him. But he has treated her like a surrogate. It makes me so sad. I loved watching him compete and was always there even before we had children. Sadly, seven years before I left them, I stopped going because the exclusion was unbearable. I was never going to be enough for him. I was not ‘his blood’ and I mourn the loss of what could have been.”

Taken in and cut off from the rest of the world

People who work with controlling Alienating Parents say that these kinds of stories of Attachment insecurity and trauma so often help explain how driven the adult is to do anything to avoid the pain of any further loss of their living close attachments. The terror of further loss is unbearable. The impulse to create a very safe Attachment is visceral; it over-rides any other consideration.

Unfortunately, while securing themselves a safe Attachment to bury their fears, the controlling or Alienating parent kills off the healthier love in the highly conditional relationship with them as well as with the other parent.

In this account, Peter is described as controlling his wife while Sarah as willingly devoted to him. But the dynamics of coercive control are to take you in, not just to cut you off. Is Sarah taken in by her father or a willing partner for him? Even if she is willing, is this kind of loving ethical or healthy for a teenage girl or her father? If this relationship served sexual needs rather than just emotional ones, we would certainly know what to think of it.

These are very tricky issues to tease apart: What is good influence, and what is harmful influence? What is mindfully intentional and done on purpose, and what is unconsciously driven unintended consequences? What is a conditional coerced controlling recruited relationship, and what is a voluntary genuinely loving liberating Attachment?  (Steve Hassan’s ‘Influence Continuum‘ helps separate what is healthy from what is unhealthy.)

Sarah may have been, probably still is, convinced that she is responsible for her own choices. But she has lost her authentic identity beneath the devoted loyalty. She is married, but still significantly cut off from the rest of the world and the more complete life she could have had. This is unconsciously intended coercive control of Sarah as much as of her mother. Maybe if Sarah has children of her own, she will suddenly recognise that something wrong happened to her and change. But:

The deadly pattern has every chance of being repeated in each generation too. This short Brazilian video aptly calls this: A Morte Inventada. An invented death. Instead of working through the pain of life, it buries it. Parental Alienation is an invented death to the lives and relationships of all those involved: the children, the Alienated parent … and the Alienator too.


Further reading

Many thanks to this mother for sharing her story. One day the full version might be published! She adds these useful footnotes for us:

“I have taken the liberty of sending you my long story in a separate email should you ever want to read it – my sister, who knew it all anyway, said she read it from start to finish in one go and it took her a full five hours. I’ll quite understand if you don’t read it. I’m sure you have heard similar before, if you haven’t then I’m as unique as I thought I was!!!

I began re writing my account of my life with Peter following an article I read by Linda Gottlieb. The article can be found on her End Parental Alienation website:  The Sacrifice of the Alienated Parent.  I took on board her opening paragraph in the sense that leaving this after my death may be the only avenue left open to me (I may be in my 60s, but I sincerely hope I last a while yet – I have to, my dog is only four and I quite like being around!)

Screenshot 2019-06-14 at 17.49.12

Er – Women can also be angry & controlling

“Anyway, after reading her article, I tried hard to write from a point of understanding rather than bitterness. I don’t know if I succeeded. It’s a harrowing tale for me anyway. But the truth is, I have tried hard to UNDERSTAND and I do have sympathy. My daughter hurt me deeply but I cannot bring myself to blame her.

After I left I read a book by Lundy Bancroft: ‘Why does he do that, inside the minds of angry and controlling men’ and my light bulb finally went on. [NC notes: Women as well as men can be needy, angry and controlling.]  How I wish Lundy Bancroft could have had my husband in front of him!  Then I found an article which made so much sense to me. It’s called: You’re not your daughter’s handsome prince by Hugo Schwyzer (2011).

I really wish I was a psychologist (my training in education really didn’t equip me beyond childhood) because I would give anything to have got inside my husband’s head. As it was, he pushed all my buttons, I reacted, defended myself, argued with him, and it was enough to prove to my daughter that I was what her father made me out to be. As he told me: “She grew up and saw you for what you are”.

The illustrations above (Oedipus, Beauty and the Beast) and the extra reading remind us that Sigmund Freud was onto something with his exploration of our inner mind, our love and emotions, and our Oedipus and Elektra complex. When he came across real incest he ducked controversy by classing it as fantasy. Parental Alienation also entails real and harmful boundary-crossing relationships that are abusive and coerced rather than merely wished for.

Again, many thanks to our anonymous guest blogger for this rich, sympathetic, account (with further resources added) of such a sad tragedy of Parental Alienation. May something good come of it through sharing it.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

About Nick Child

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


  1. Caron Koss

    Please thank this woman for writing her painful story … it is quite similar to mine. What gave me the chills was she also used the word ‘surrogate’ as I have.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Leslie Ann Kriese

    This is a brilliant article – spot on for so many of us affected by alienation. Thank you for sharing it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. ‘Why does a coercive controller do it?’ Answer to obtain a secure attachment in an effort to repair the insecure attachment of his childhood. Thank you Nick Child and thanks to the mother wrote this. This mother worked hard to understand her ex-husband’s need to exert undue influence on their daughter. The result was that he bound their daughter to him but unwarrantedly estranged his daughter from the mother. He so needed to repair his own insecure attachment that he destroyed the mother-daughter relationship. This is an unusual story in that the reader can, indeed, feel appreciation and empathy for a parent who seriously harms the other parent and his child in the service of attempting to repair the damage of his childhood.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As expressed in the Brazilian video: A Morte Inventada, the result is killing a parent who is still alive – and the child having “a living dead parent.”

    Liked by 1 person

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