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Bar News - March 13, 2009

A Mother’s Pain...and the ‘Trained Bully’


Robert A. Shaines

Through many years of practicing family law, certain patterns of behavior in families have become evident to me. While the family law practitioner is not ordinarily trained in family therapy or psychology, these behaviors seem to repeat themselves in divorcing and divorced families often enough to become discernable patterns in the family dynamic.

In what I have come to refer to as the "Mother’s Pain" syndrome, there has emerged an ongoing source of emotional harm, leading to chronic depression in the mother – and sometimes serious mental illness. I see this syndrome in a large group within our society, namely divorced mothers of adolescent boys. Although this pattern is probably not exclusive to mothers of boys, in my experience it most often exists in the mother-son relationship.

The usual pattern, as I have observed it, is a consequence of a bitter struggle between husband and wife, when the mother has obtained the primary custodial care of her boys and the father has to pay child support, provide medical insurance and has less custodial time with his son or sons awarded to him. In most instances, the father has been a rather controlling person with a highly egocentric personality and usually has a dismissive attitude towards lawyers, the law and the court system.

In order to "make things right" with his boys, Dad embarks on a program designed to encourage the boys to have a deep disrespect for Mom. This is particularly true when Mom engages in a new adult relationship either post-divorce or after a prolonged period of separation from the father. In such a case, she is often described as a "slut" or "whore" and the new friend or partner is no good—or worse, he is said to be an interloper in the family and not worthy of respect, since any affection which Mom shows to this male is characterized as disrespect to the child or children. On the other hand, Dad’s new relationships are treated as wholesome and the women fun to be with.

What Happens

The result of this game is that the boys decide that they want to spend more time with Dad than with Mom, since Dad may be able to provide cars, motorcycles, boats and sports activities, accompanied by other financial incentives. The result is that the mother goes to court to enforce her parental rights. Since the law gives adolescents the right to choose which parent with whom they wish to spend time, there is ordinarily a court-directed change in primary custody and in the residence of the boys and with it comes a reversal in the payment of child support, with Mom now paying support to Dad.

Of course, the orders all seem to award the mother with liberal weekends and weekday visits with her boys, which never seem to materialize. The enforcement of such visitations is more a fiction than a fact, as the courts usually leave it to the boys’ schedules as to when they will spend time with the mother, if at all.

As the estrangement between mother and son(s) grows deeper, the more depressed the mother becomes. At first the mother’s typical effort is to try to secure therapy visits with mother and child both attending. After one or two such visits, the primary custodial parent, namely, the father, encourages the son not to attend and is normally quite diffident about therapists and family therapy and he may even state that he regards therapy as nonsense and a waste of time and money.

The father usually wastes little time in imparting his opinions to the boys. At this point the bond that has existed between the mother and her male child seems to the mother to be irreparably broken.

Mothers, who have carried children since inception and birth and cared for their needs until adolescence, cannot accept the total wrenching away of that bond and grow increasingly ill both physically and mentally when they find themselves incapable of restoring it. They first turn to their attorneys, who like most lawyers, try to make things right or at least take some action to obtain relief for their abused clients.

It is frustrating to me to have to tell a client that there is little that can or that will be done by the court to deal with this situation. Turning to the family court does not ordinarily remedy such a situation, as the court is powerless to find the child in contempt for not visiting his mother. In addition, the court may not have the time or the resources to delve in depth into what has caused the situation and in many instances the court takes the position that the controlling factor is what the child wants—and the court puts the matter to rest.

In the Most Severe Cases

In the most severe case that I have observed, the mother became so depressed that institutional care was required, which did not cure the situation, and that mother has endured a permanent breakdown and emotional illness. In the usual situation, a mother comes to me with a history of lack of sleep, an inability to stop crying, a feeling of helplessness and in some cases a breakup of any new relationship in which she has engaged.

Once the father has gained this degree of control over his family and prior spouse, there seems to be no turning back and appeals to the former husband and father to submit to family counseling to attempt to reunite mother and child are rebuffed. The father is now exacting punishment on his ex-wife; the situation feeds his need to be in control of the family dynamic, and he wants it to continue.

What about the effect of this dynamic on the boys? They are led to believe that women cannot be trusted. What they learn from the experience is that the proper way to treat a woman is with scorn and derision, because that is what they have learned from their father. They have been carefully taught that not only has their mother mistreated their father, but that she has become disloyal to her sons. They gain approval from their father by learning that lack of respect for their mother endears them to their father. They have now come to believe that any other way of treating their mother would not be in their best interest.

Thus the situation perpetuates itself. We know from long experience that the average woman, having gone through a contested divorce where custody was an issue, is ordinarily economically unable to afford hiring the needed experts to assess the situation. Nor can she pay to bring an expert into the courtroom to try to show the insidious pattern of behavior on the part of the ex-spouse which has brought about the situation. The father, in my experience, is usually in a better financial position to hire and pay the expense of a reliable expert to counter such allegations and in many instances points to the mother’s frail mental condition as justification for both the divorce, as well as the primary custodial placement change.

How do we as a profession remedy this ever-increasing syndrome? Or is the system through lack of will or financial resources willing to ignore what I believe is a generational perpetuation of bad behavior on the part of the male child—who now, through the example of his father, has become a trained bully....

Robert A. Shaines is a partner at Shaines & McEachern, P.A. in Portsmouth. Contact him at or at 603-436-3110.

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