By Larry Gordon
At least five years ago, the son of a friend of mine was redd a shidduch by a semiprofessional shadchan. My friend related to me that the young lady seemed like a promising prospect, possessing the qualities that his son was seeking in a match.
“It’s an odd thing, though,” he said. “I read the résumé from top to bottom and even flipped it over, but something was missing.” The piece my friend was searching for was the name of the father of this young lady.
He said that after scouring the sheet of paper with all the pertinent shidduch-related information, he had no choice but to conclude that there was just no father. Of course, we all know that this is not biologically possible, so he decided to call the matchmaker to inquire about the missing dad.
After my friend pointed out that the father was absent from the résumé, the shadchan looked it over herself and said that this omission was indeed odd and that she would check into it and get back to him.
About an hour later, he reported to me, the shadchan called to say that there had been a messy divorce about a dozen years before, when the children were very young, and that the kids have no relationship whatsoever with the dad. The shadchan added that he is not listed anywhere because the family considers him nonexistent.
At the time, I considered that an extreme anomaly, something that you hear about very infrequently, if ever. But I bring this up this week because over just a several-week period, at least four different situations involving what has become known as parental alienation have been brought to our attention. The parties who called or wrote urged that some light be shed on this increasingly occurring matter because children and, yes, their parents are suffering horribly.
So I thought I would speak to a few people—you know, some marriage counselors, some rabbanim, and perhaps an attorney or two. But unlike with other stories on which I have worked to collect information so that I can cogently present the facts, the more people I spoke with, the clearer it became that I just could not get a decent grasp on these incendiary marital problems in which the children are at the center of the storm.
One thing that became abundantly obvious—and I believe that we are all aware of this—is that it is excessively cruel to create a situation, no matter how certain you are that you are the injured party, wherein the children involved are the victims of whatever battle may be taking place.
Those who work with these matters on a professional as well as a volunteer basis said that while the situations that we may personally be aware of deal with contentious divorce and custody disputes, parental alienation cases are not limited to divorce circumstances.
“Parental alienation is not a child custody issue,” said a family member who preferred anonymity and is dealing with this precise circumstance. “This is a child protection issue. Parental alienation is a form of psychological child abuse.”
They added: “In divorce, one person rejects another. [They think] ‘How can that person be considered a worthy parent if he or she is no longer viewed by the ex as an acceptable spouse?’ It’s not natural under any circumstances for a child to reject a parent. Children naturally love their parents.”
Parent Alienation Syndrome is a form of spousal and child abuse according to the AMA and can be even more damaging than sexual abuse. Children who have been estranged from a parent are scarred for life, suffering long-term psychological and emotional trauma.
To answer the call of a growing number of cases of all types of parental alienation taking place in our communities, Hadassah Waldman and Guli Weinfeld have launched “Broken Ties,” a support group to which parents and grandparents can turn for emotional support and advice in matters where many previously felt isolated and alone.
Frankly, it is surprising how numerous the cases of estrangement are, with the suffering so widespread. Ms. Waldman says that since she and Ms. Weinfeld created “Broken Ties,” over 400 people have called or visited their website or WhatsApp support groups for assistance and direction.
“Families are being destroyed,” Ms. Waldman says. She adds that she has learned that, statistically, over 20% of all children are estranged from their parents and an even higher number estranged from extended family and other relatives.
Broken Ties is a division of Alienated Grandparents Anonymous, a group that provides support just as its name indicates. Waldman and Weinfeld point out that one of the many interesting and effective strategies they have learned is not to dig in your heels and be unwavering and inflexible in your position, regardless of how strongly you feel about the issues at hand.
Unfortunately, what we have here for many is an uneven playing field. A parent or a grandparent in most situations wants nothing more than to be a part of their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. That sentiment does not always naturally flow in the other direction as it does from parent to child.
The evolution of a non-relationship in these types of circumstances usually comes about, the Broken Ties folks say, as a result of a trauma during childhood that can be conjured up many years later. They draw the line about the matter of molestation or physical abuse and, sadly, those circumstances do exist. Not that emotional or verbal abuse is not traumatic, but they say that the incident that may have occurred years or decades ago can be exacerbated by either rabbinical or psychological counseling or both.
Ms. Waldman explains that some of the common verbiage that emanates from a child often deals with references to toxicity or the need for space between parent and child. Those are the “buzz words,” they say, that are usually part of the prelude to alienation.
Broken Ties has had some success in bringing families back together, but their work is a very preliminary stage. “We very badly need more therapists and social workers to assist us in bridging the divide that exists in families,” Ms. Weinfeld says.
Many of the child estrangement situations that we may be aware of are outgrowths of difficult and contentious custody disputes as a result of divorce. In the frum community, the situation is further intensified by the need to secure a get aside from a civil divorce. We are a community that is mostly committed to living according to dictates of Torah and Jewish law, but something very often goes off the rails when it comes to the intense emotions attached to being with your own children.
One of the accusations often leveled in a custody battle is that one parent is unfit to care for the children. Hadassah Waldman says that when a mother in particular is denied access or visitation to her children her response may be somewhat frantic or even look desperate. (Don’t misunderstand—fathers want to be in their children’s lives as much as mothers do, but it’s not the same.) That type of behavior is, unfortunately, very often exploited by the other side. The often overlooked fact is that children need both parents and there is no way around that.
Keshet Starr is an attorney and executive director of ORA (Organization for the Resolution of Agunot). Sadly, many of us know of women whose husbands divorce them but refuse to give them a halachically mandated get. Sometimes the differences revolve around finances or child support. Commonly, the most contentious matter is child custody.
That being said, Ms. Starr adds that the issue of custody or visitation is not the number-one issue that causes get refusal. Mostly, she says, the issue is finances or the husband’s refusal to come to grips with the reality that the marriage is over.
“Our belief is that get refusal is a form of domestic abuse,” Starr says, and that refusal might just be a continuation of a long history of abuse in the marriage.
As I said up top, these are difficult and complex issues to understand, with varying and diverse circumstances. The author Leo Tolstoy perhaps said it best in his novel Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.