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Gender and family conflict

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 13.15.08The sprawling equalism blog-posts on Feminism, patriarchy and family conflict here and here, are rich and compendious. But they have always cried out for some sharpening up.

So how about this blogpost on the alienation experience. That blog is about high conflict patterns in families and other non-family contexts too …

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

I’m particularly pleased with the section on gender in high conflict family separation and Alienation (pp 19-21). It focuses on that specific pattern – read more of that overview if you want to find out more on Alienation itself. Parental or Child Alienation is when one parent turns their child against the other parent without good reason.

This section on gender does not cover all the wider aspects of gender, feminism, patriarchy and equalism. But it does address one of the sharpest corners of that battle field.

Does this make sense to you? Is it a bit sharper than the old sprawling posts here?  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 – that is, that 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 2016-06-03 at 13.13.06Bob 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 2016-06-03 at 13.13.39But 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.

2 comments on “Gender and family conflict

  1. Pingback: Gender and family conflict — equalism – for a fairer world – Parental Alienation

  2. Nick Child
    10 August 2017

    Mostly here on equalism.org.uk we have stayed out of the firing line of big politics, preferring to look at what we know in the frontline of personal discussions and practical services – how to make sure individuals listen and talk in an equalist way with respect for differences.

    This is not to deny that there is a burgeoning wider argument growing ever more interesting and heated based on a dominant view (in some quarters) of social justice as pursuing and removing all social oppression from all kinds of victim groups. There is a kind of competition now for who is the most powerful victim group within this social justice movement – who deserves to be most rescued by the rest of us who care, of course, about social justice.

    If you want a quicker, more complete and amusing way to learn about the argument about gender differences, do watch this excerpt from the Simpsons: https://youtu.be/64PKoAiWhjE

    Certainly equalism is concerned about social justice. But, as we explained on the introductory blog, we don’t see how the removal of oppression is ever going to be successfully managed when the politics of doing it would inevitably entail the election or selection of an anti-oppressive group potentially deciding who to oppress in the cause of removing oppression from the favoured victim groups.

    One thing equalism here does value is our critical thinking and rationality. That is in the older sense of slowly thinking through the logic and evidence. There is a new meaning of ‘critical thinking’ to mean: criticise and attack anyone we think is an oppressor.

    So, here, under a blog about gender equalism, it seemed reasonable to post this link to four scientists with long experience of gender studies who argued that James Damore’s Google memo was at least technically right about the idea that Google’s extremely (white and) male staffing might be based on known gender differences.

    In particular, note Geoffrey Miller’s reasoning … about how the two core assumptions are diametrically opposed: That the human sexes and races have exactly the same minds … and also that: The human sexes and races have such radically different minds … etc.

    The point for us here on equalism.org.uk is that you cannot impose equalism on individuals by some ideological power. More than that, you need to recognise and find out the differences that need to be respected in order for equalism to work. This is best done by your best efforts at careful respectful discussion with an individual not by some group identity assumption that “all of ethnic group X are..” “all those of gender identity Y are …”.

    That is not easy to do. But if you simply impose some generalised ideology – any general ideology – you risk being the oppressor of those who don’t want what you’re imposing. In this case, if you frogmarch more women or more ethnic groups to work in Google because you’ve decided it is a good idea, then you have now become the oppressor of those you frogmarch in for your good cause.

    Nick Child, Edinburgh

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This entry was posted on 3 June 2016 by in Culture, Equalism in general, Gender and tagged , , , .
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