book reviews, divorce, psychology

Repost: A review of Divorce Poison

Here’s another useful book for people going through a divorce and having to co-parent with a difficult person. I originally reviewed this book for in 2006. It appears here as it did on Epinions, in 2006.

I have never been unfortunate enough to have suffered through a divorce, either as a child or an adult. My husband, Bill, on the other hand, is a survivor of two divorces, his own and his parents’. He was also a stepson to two men, both of whom eventually split from his mother. My husband has LOTS of experience with divorce and yet he was taken completely by surprise by his ex wife’s vindictiveness when it came to their children. In the six years since his divorce, my husband has felt helpless, watching as his kids suddenly refused to have anything to do with him. The one exception is his 18 year old former stepson, who recently reconnected with my husband just before he moved out of his mother’s house. Last week, my husband even got letters from his kids asking him to allow their stepfather to adopt them. In the midst of all this drama, I decided to read Dr. Richard A. Warshak’s 2001 book Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent-Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex, a book that was suggested to me on a message board I frequent. Frankly, I am very surprised that I’m the first one to write an Epinions review of this highly acclaimed book.

Dr. Warshak is a clinical, research, and consulting psychologist. He works out of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and is reportedly an internationally respected authority on divorce. Divorce Poison is aimed at non custodial parents who suddenly find themselves pariahs when it comes to their children. As I posted in an essay last week, my husband’s children are all victims of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). PAS is a term coined by Dr. Richard A. Gardner of Columbia University’s Department of Child Psychiatry, College of Physicians and Surgeons. It refers to regular attempts by a custodial parent to destroy the non custodial parent’s relationships with their children. Custodial parents who engage in parental alienation use a number of very effective tactics to make it impossible for their child to enjoy a normal relationship with their non custodial parent. This is most definitely what has happened to Bill and his children. After reading Warshak’s book, I am thoroughly convinced.

There are some legal and mental health professionals who don’t believe that PAS exists. They don’t believe that children can be brainwashed by their parents. Instead, they believe that non custodial parents use the PAS label as a ploy to be hurtful to the custodial parent. This explanation bothers me because it assumes that the custodial parent, usually the mother, is always the better, more equipped parent. For the record, I do believe that PAS is real because I have seen tangible evidence of it from my husband’s children and their mother, especially after reading Divorce Poison. The hair on my arms literally stood on end as I read Washak’s excerpts of letters PAS victims had written to their non custodial parents. They read almost exactly like the letters my husband got last week from his daughters! The letters all said, in essence, that the kids no longer had any use for the non custodial parent and no longer had any memories of their lives with them. It was as if my husband’s daughters had plagiarized Divorce Poison.

In Divorce Poison, Warshak gives his readers advice on what to do when an ex spouse starts badmouthing them to their children. He gives his readers insight on how to spot early warning signs of PAS and how to combat it. Many non custodial parents are confused and hurt when their children are suddenly rude and hateful toward them for no apparent reason. Sometimes these parents counterreject their kids. Warshak warns against giving into the temptation to get angry with the children. Chances are, they didn’t come up with their negative attitudes by themselves. Warshak puts his ideas of how to combat PAS in boxes labeled “Take Action”. The ideas are easy to find and read for quick and easy reference.

Warshak writes that many mental health professionals will tell clients who are dealing with PAS that they should never say anything bad about the custodial parent. Warshak believes that this is bad advice. It’s not that he wants non custodial parents to badmouth the custodial parents. Rather, he thinks it’s better to encourage the children to use their own developing senses of logic and reason to form their own opinions.

Ironically, many parents who engage in PAS claim that they are allowing their kids to make up their own minds about non custodial parents. My husband’s ex wife wrote that she only has her daughters’ happiness and well being in mind as she discourages them from reconnecting with my husband. She emphasizes it’s all their decision to reject him and she’s respecting their wishes for their sake. Never mind the fact that my husband gets letters written by his girls that don’t look or read like they were written by adolescents. Forget the fact that my husband once had a very loving and close relationship with his daughters and now they apparently hate him. I wish very much that my husband had read Dr. Warshak’s book right after his divorce. Maybe it could have spared the whole family some significant pain.

Warshak writes very well. He uses an empathetic but no nonsense tone throughout Divorce Poison. At times, I found this book very hard to read, not because of the way it was written, but because Warshak’s descriptions of divorce poison and how it’s affected my husband and his family were deadly accurate. It’s uncanny how my husband’s ex wife has employed the very same tactics that Warshak describes in order to get my husband’s daughters to reject their father. I also appreciate the fact that Warshak never assumes that parents who engage in PAS are all mothers. Indeed, Warshak presents a number of examples in which the PAS targeted non custodial parent was the mother. While it’s true that mothers are often awarded custody when couples with children get divorced, fathers can be just as guilty of engaging in PAS. Warshak also doesn’t paint the PAS targeted parent as completely innocent. Many non custodial parents unwittingly make avoidable mistakes that lead to their alienation.

Warshak is a strong advocate of PAS targeted parents seeking legal action against the custodial parents. He believes that the best antidote against PAS is that the children need to spend more time with the targeted parent, even if it means the targeted parent has to go to court. I was glad to see, however, that Warshak understands that a change in custody is not always feasible for logistical or financial reasons. My husband and I often used to talk about seeking custody of his kids. Now that his two younger children are adolescents, we don’t believe that seeking custody would be worthwhile. We have a number of good reasons for feeling the way we do. I’m happy to report that Warshak doesn’t condemn PAS targeted parents who choose not to go to court. In fact, although Warshak doesn’t want his readers to give up on their kids, he does realize that sometimes it’s better to let go. At the end of Divorce Poison, Warshak includes a chapter on how to let go of the children and reasons why a PAS targeted parent might consider letting go.

At this point, I don’t know what’s going to happen with my husband and his kids. He’s going to write them letters letting them know that he will not consent to letting them be adopted by their stepfather. He’s going to tell them that regardless of how they feel about him, he still loves them very much and always will. I hope with all my heart that the girls actually read the letters, but if they don’t, no one can say that my husband never tried. In our case, I’m not sure if Divorce Poison will help my husband get closer to his daughters. I will say that as his wife and the legal stepmother to his children, reading Divorce Poison definitely made me feel like we weren’t alone in our problem. If you see yourself in this review, or if you are a parent who is contemplating a divorce, I urge you to take a look at Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent-Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex.

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