In my practice as well as in my daily life, I often hear stories about “controlling spouses” who “make” their husbands or wives avoid their own parents. (Disclaimer: I’m not talking about severely abusive spouses who isolate their partners – that is usually a different family dynamic from what I am about to describe).
What I usually find in those cases I am talking about is that the offending spouse is actually volunteering to appear to be the villain in an ongoing family soap opera. They do so in order to protect their spouses. If they take the rap, their in-laws do not have to be angry at their grown children, who appear to be just innocent victims. The "adult children" in these cases usually cannot be honest with their parents about their real feelings, so that the real reasons for the cut-off might be brought out into the open and resolved.
In other words, these spouses make it look as if they were villainous meanies who are poisoning the mind of the innocent husband or wife against his or her family members. That way, the parents in said family blame any and all problems solely on the nasty spouse.
These family of origin members usually just ignore the obvious fact that their darling son or daughter is going along with the spouse's supposed "program." Perhaps, they may think, their children are just weak-minded souls who are easily led by the nose.
This is an example of how what Freud called "defense mechanisms," which he thought of as existing solely within an individual's mind may, in fact, be used as interpersonal strategies. In this case, the defense mechanism in question is displacement. You know, how you come home and kick the dog when you are really mad at your boss? In this case, the spouses are allowing their in-laws to displace any anger that exists in the in-laws' family of origin onto them. This way, the person who is actually angry at his or her parents gets off scott free and appears utterly blameless for any emotional cut off that exists.
Yet another example of how one family member can volunteer to take the heat for a spouse involves some divorced parents of young children. The new spouse of someone with children from a previous marriage seems to poison the relationships between the spouse and those kids. I like to call the role this villain plays "The Wicked Stepmother," although step fathers can certainly play it as well.
For various reason, many of which I will not get into here, one parent abandons these children, runs off to marry someone else, has more children, and then lavishes all their money and attention on the new family. In the process, they completely ignore their children from their first marriage. This seems to happen more often with men than with women, although women are certainly known to abandon their children in this same manner.
Men, at least until recently, were often screwed in divorce proceedings in regards to child custody arrangements. Usually, the ex-wife would get prime custody of the kids, and the ex-husband would just get the right to pay child support. In other words, the ex-husband got the bills for the cost of raising the children, while getting little say in how they were raised.
To add insult to injury, if there was any remaining tension within the couple because of their divorce, which there often was, the husband had to go through the disagreeable ex-wife to even get to see his kids. Some ex-wives went out of their way to make that as difficult and/or unpleasant an experience as humanly possible.
Having more access to the kids than their dad, these ex-wives might also attempt to alienate the children from him by constantly saying terrible things about him (parental alienation syndrome). I have seen cases in which an ex-spouse does not even give the kids letters and birthday cards that their Dad had written to them - or even acknowledge their existence - and won't let the kids see their dads while lying and telling them that it is Dad who does not want to see them.
Now, before anyone gets their panties in a bunch, let me be quick to add that it is also a frequent occurrence that a divorced mom really does want the dad to be involved in the kids' lives, and he for whatever reason still avoids them. He may say he is coming to pick them up and then not show up, making them feel disappointed or even shattered. And of course controlling Dads can also alienate their kids from their mothers.
Anyway, for many of those dads who seem to want to avoid the kids from their "first" family, their new wife volunteers to be the villainess, just as she might have done with dad's estranged parents. She makes it look like Dad's avoidance of the children is entirely her doing. This way, the abandoned kids get to feel better about their dads by blaming his absences on his mean and nasty new wife.
In a way, she is actually trying to protect the abandoned children from the pain of being seemingly rejected by their own fathers!
A possible example of this appeared a couple of years ago in a letter to a newspaper advice column by Carolyn Hax. I of course do not know what is true in this particular family, but I would like to suggest a possibility for what might be going one. The letter said:
“Three years ago, during my senior year of high school, my parents divorced. My dad has quite a bit of money and I was worried that he might get involved with gold diggers. I go to college out of state, so I haven't had many opportunities to get to know Joan. But the other day, my brother told me Joan had, unasked, told my dad: "I just want to go on record that I don't think you should pay for your daughter's law school. I don't approve.
Unfortunately, this isn't her first comment like that. … More important, I think it's horrible that she would position herself to cause a rift between my father and me over issues that are none of her business. I don't care how my dad chooses to spend his money, but I'm furious that she is nice to my face while making these comments behind my back.
...I'm going home for a visit soon, and I think I should give my dad a heads-up. What should I say? He doesn't know I know about the law school comment, and I don't want to drop my little brother in the grease.”
Carolyn Hax wisely advised the writer not to pre-judge the matter before confirming what she heard.
Using this family as a hypothetical case, perhaps it is Dad who is feeling overburdened financially. Maybe he had also started to put the writer's brother through school and feels too guilty to say no to her, or he feels obligated to put her through law school but, despite appearances to the contrary, cannot afford it.
Hearing her husband's complaints about this in private, and to shield the father, the stepmother makes it sound as though she is the one who objects. She says this in front of the writer's brother, knowing it will get back to her. This way, the writer gets angry with her and not with the father, and if he does decide not to pay, it appears as if he is not to blame but that he is totally under her gold digging thumb.
In these cases which I know follow this pattern, the "wicked" stepmother is often accused of keeping dad away from said kids because, as in this example, she wants all of his money to go to her children, either from their marriage or those kids from her former marriage or marriages. The poor guy doesn't have a chance against such a monstrously powerful little witch, does he? So he is forced to go along with her wicked plot against his better judgment.
It may be hard to believe anyone would sacrifice themselves like this for a spouse, but I find it happens with surprising frequency. I e-mailed Ms. Hax about this, and she replied that she did not find it difficult to believe at all, because she had once done it herself!