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DIVORCE POISON: Favorite Excerpts

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Submitted by Dr. Richard Warshak:

I am sometimes asked what my favorite passage is from Divorce Poison.

The one I think of first is the following, from the section on Creating Bridges, in Chapter Seven: Poison Control. You will see that this passage inspired my website’s banner: Building Family Bridges.

Several years ago a judge appointed me to try to help an eleven-year-old alienated girl and her mother reconnect. They had not seen each other for four years, and Amanda had been programmed to believe that her mother was a violent and disturbed woman. In an early session with the mother I learned that she was an avid collector of antique lace. She even knew how to make lace. Now, my wife loves lace and has her own collection. Despite years of being around the stuff, though, I have a hard time distinguishing one pattern from the other. To tell the truth, I was never very much interested. It would have been better for me if the woman collected old jazz records. But it was lace.

I knew that the mother and her daughter would be very anxious during their first session together. My job was to make the experience tolerable for both. At the same time, I wanted to begin the project of correcting Amanda’s distorted perception of her mother. I asked the mother to bring in some of her lace pieces and her lace-making equipment. We were going to have show-and-tell.

During the joint session I asked the mother many questions about lace. I gave her an opportunity to show her knowledge and her competence. She herself did not seem to appreciate the range of talent that went into her creations, and the qualities of personality that it took to persevere from start to finish. Amanda sat stone-faced and mute.

The mother offered to demonstrate how to make bobbin lace. This seemed to stir Amanda’s interest. I drew Amanda into the conversation by asking about her own hobbies and interests. When she answered that she likes to draw, I knew her angry veil was lifting. Her mother asked about Amanda’s artwork. Amanda gave brief, terse answers.

I asked the mother if I could hold a delicate antique baby bonnet. I cradled it in my hands and then asked if Amanda could hold it. The mother said, “Of course,” and, without giving Amanda a chance to refuse, I passed it to her. She acted uninterested, but she held the bonnet. A fragile tie between mother and child.

I wove in questions that gently alluded to the unique bond between them. “Did you make any lace when you were getting ready to give birth to Amanda?” The mother answered and then added casually, “You know, Amanda, that used to be your bonnet. I’m saving it for your children, my grandchildren.” The underlying message was that Amanda’s relationship with her mother had significance beyond the present.

I turned to Amanda. “Can you believe your head was ever that small?” The bonnet provided an easy segue to questions about their early relationship. “What did you do to prepare for Amanda’s birth?” “What was she like as a baby?” “What was her first day in Kindergarten like?” “What were her favorite things to do when she was six years old?”

Again, I drew Amanda into the conversation. “Is your memory good enough to recall any of the things Mom is talking about?” “Do your remember Mom taking you to Kindergarten?” Throughout the session I used the term “Mom.” I wanted Amanda to hear it enough that it would become natural to a girl who currently referred to her mother only by her first name or as “that woman.”

As the session drew to a close, the mother said that next time she could bring some lace she made when Amanda was a baby. I asked Amanda if she would like to see it and she said, without much enthusiasm, “Sure.” For a girl who didn’t want to see her mother, this was progress.

The session went better than expected. It would have been valuable even if Amanda did and said nothing. It had to make an impression that her mother was the learned authority teaching the doctor, and that the doctor treated her mother with obvious great respect and dignity. Her mother could not be as worthless as she had been programmed to believe.

The lesson was not about lace. It was about a mother’s value. And about her place in her child’s life. The session was a bridge. A bridge made of fragile lace strong enough to support an estranged mother and daughter as they took their first steps back toward one another.

— excerpt from Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing © 2001, 2010 Richard A. Warshak, Ph.D.

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