Loyalty binds when extreme and repetitive may result in “parental alienation” which is a destructive bind caused by the pathological use of coercion, power and control over a child’ emotional world and their relationships. This post is about the kinds of loyalty binds that are experienced in more typical divorce and stepfamily conflict.
Loyalty binds are painful for kids! A loyalty bind is when a child believes that they need to choose sides, or maintain loyalty to one parent over or against another (including against a stepparent) – a dynamic all-too-common in divorces and stepfamily, particularly when parents are in high-conflict… and children are not protected from adult matters.
Disparaging and other Unskillful Parenting: Sometimes loyalty binds are the result of a parent’s unskillful, direct involvement of the child in adult upset / conflict: “Your Mom has caused this – she’s the one who’s had the affair – she’s unfit to be a mother.” This sets up an impossible situation for a child – forced to choose between their parents, to agree and remain in favor with the accusing parent, or disagree and be seen as part of the enemy. Children don’t generally know how to be Switzerland in these circumstances – and an unskillful parent will often force a child to choose sides. Sometimes children betray themselves and respond to each parent with whatever that parent needs to hear… what we call, “preaching to the choir.” Like a prisoner pleasing their captors.
Kids as Judge and Jury: Sometimes children create their own loyalty bind by inserting themselves as judge and jury into adult conflict: “I’m not exactly sure what happened – something must have. My parents decided to divorce. And I think it’s because (fill in the blank). I hate him/her.” Teens are particularly ready to exercise their budding moral compass – they can be harsh and absolute in their rulings over right and wrong – who’s to blame. For some (particularly teens) this can be a coping mechanism to avoid the grief and disappointment they’re feeling over their changing family. These young people may need help from a counselor to work through their hurt and grief rather than to act-out with toughness, withdrawal from relationship, or open rejection of a parent.
When a Parent’s Emotional Needs Disrupt a Child’s Relationships: And sometimes, a child simply aligns with a parent who has been hurt by the other adult – the other parent. In this case, a child’s empathy or sense of responsibility pulls them into an alliance with the parent who is struggling … and pushes them away from the parent or adult they perceive to be the cause of the distress: “I’m just worried about my Dad. He’s crying a lot. My Mom’s doing OK. My Dad needs me. Mom doesn’t.”
Most commonly it’s a combination of factors which include the child’s interpretation of the emotional journey of their family during and after divorce. All of the earlier upsets often reemerge with the introduction of a new romantic partner by one parent – and the loyalty bind is likely to be reactivated or tightened depending on the maturity and skill of all adults involved.
Our goal is to ease children out of loyalty binds so that they do not inadvertently stay “stuck in the middle,” to feel torn apart by the people they love and care about, to experience confusing and complicated emotions over adult relationships.
For kids, this is one of the most devastating results of a difficult divorce… losing the freedom to love all their important adults “out loud” in every corner of their two-home family life.
Kids Caught in Loyalty Binds are left to Sort Out Complicated Emotions Later as Adults: What is often missed, is that children caught in the middle of conflict – children put in a loyalty bind – often feel angry and used once they reach adulthood. The target of those difficult, unresolved emotions switches from the parent pushed away now targeting the aggrieved parent who insisted on an alliance – the one who silently or overtly celebrated the child’s or teen’s rejection of their other parent (or stepparent). For the kiddo who has served as judge and jury, they are likely to feel guilty later for being allowed to reject a parent due to their own immaturity – an outgrowth of their inability understand or see the bigger picture until years later – years lost to power-struggling, judgment and ugly conflict.
Parents make mistakes, say things they shouldn’t say, share information with kids they shouldn’t share. And if a child gets caught in the middle, stuck in a loyalty bind, the adults have a responsibility to clean up the mess. Hopefully they assist their young person to resume relationships and to grow up without fear, guilt, grief – without being trapped in unresolved emotions.
The Goal: When a child is caught in a loyalty bind, they often decide that they have “one good parent” and “one bad parent.” Truth is: they have parents who both have strengths and weaknesses. The goal is to support the child directly and specifically to repair the damage created by adult conflict or divorce/family disappointments that continue to burden the child and disrupt relationships.
Loyalty Bind Talks (LBT) are directed at easing a child’s pain after their family has gone through something unsettling and difficult. A LBT does not discount the child’s feelings, or their attempts to make sense out of something that was painful or scary, but rather empowers them to be able to move through the loss, pain, misunderstanding, and return to a positive, working relationship with all their important adults. Along with both parents providing a child permission to get free from the loyalty bind, the child may also need an opportunity to rebuild trust in a relationship where a parent unskillfully damaged the relationship.
In order for LBT’s to have meaning, the adults must be ready to:
- Own that they caused the emotional messiness for the child.
- Admit they regret the harm that they did to the child’s relationship with others and provide a full-throated apology – acknowledging impact, “You must have been scared to see your Mom for fear that I’d be mad. I’m sorry – I know you love her as you should!” “I know I’ve been giving you the silent treatment when you bring up your stepdad – I’m sorry. That’s unkind and unnecessary.”
- Assure them that going forward, the child does not need to worry about causing discomfort or harming anyone by seeing, living with and for loving the adults in their family openly and honestly.
- Speak without hesitation and with respect about the other adults in their child’s family (no undertow of resentment or contempt) – recognize and honor that these are adults the child deserves to love without anyone else’s judgment. “Tell me more about how your mom would do your hair – I want to get it right.”
LBT – An Example of the Long Version:
“You know, when Dad told me he wanted a divorce, it was no secret that I didn’t want it – I wasn’t ready. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing for dad. If two people aren’t able to love each other the way they need to be loved as spouses, then eventually the relationship ends.
Adults may come to the conclusion that the marriage is over – no longer acceptable – at different times and for different reasons. That’s what’s painful. And that’s what happened for Dad and I. The marriage was over for him and I wasn’t on the same page. And I fought hard and blamed him for causing the changes in our family. That wasn’t fair. He wanted to end our marriage – not end his relationship with you. I know how much he loves you – even when you’re not happy with each other.
He’s your dad… your one-and-only-forever Dad. I want you to have a relationship with both of us where you speak your mind, wrestle through disagreements, and know that your feelings are important. Simply “opting out” of the hard stuff with one of us is not a solution. It just means you got caught up in our mess.
We’ll work together to resolve the pain, the fear, the worries … but we won’t give up. If we need help from a counselor, we’ll get help. We love you very much; I’m sorry you got stuck in our mess. We sure made mistakes. I’m sorry.”
LBT – Examples of the Shorter Version: These are like public service announcements. Gentle reminders that may need to be repeated in similar forms for children to actually believe you mean what you day.
- “Sweetheart, I’m sorry my mad at Mom/Dad spilled out all over you. We’re figuring the adult stuff out – you don’t need to worry, or take care of either of us. We’ve got this. You get to be our kiddo – now and always!”
- “Max, you’re an amazing person. Your protection and love has been so noticed. Here’s the deal. I’m back in my saddle. I can do this – you can go with Mom/Dad … I’m fine. We’re all getting through this. Go – you’re good!”
- “I hope you can come to care about your stepmom, but I don’t expect you to love her the way you love Mommy. Your stepmom doesn’t expect that either.”
- “Sometimes parents make a mess of everything for kids. We’re so sorry. We’re going to do better. The fighting is going to stop. We have a coach helping us. We love you.”
Children rarely have language to describe their loyalty binds. Adults can help by staying alert to the possibility of distancing and rejecting a parent (stepparent) may be a child’s attempt to manage these painful binds.
To Learn More: On loyalty binds in stepfamily, consider reading or listening to, “The Stepfamily Handbook.” For co-parents struggling getting their conflict and emotional upset resolved, please take a look at “The Co-Parenting Handbook” in particular regarding the process of “uncoupling” – separating spouse mind from parent mind. These are things you do for your kids!!