Unseparation Anxiety

Child estrangement or parental alienation after divorce (image of father and daughter at a physical distance from each other)

“Separation anxiety” is a term familiar enough that laypersons and professionals understand it. The idea of experiencing anxiety about separating from somebody, something, or a living situation is easy enough to comprehend and relate to. Separation anxiety can give rise to excessive distress about anticipating or being away from home or loved ones.

In family law, separation is an operative subject that affects many aspects of the process. The opposite of separation anxiety, or an intense anxiety arising from reunion, may not have as much prevalence in the more collective understanding.

In the case C.B. v. E.G. 2023 ONSC 1571, a father wanted an order for ‘reunification therapy’ in order to ‘… repair his fractured relationship with his 17-year-old daughter.’ The father also claimed that the mental, physical, academic, and social well-being of his daughter (“D”) had deteriorated during her ongoing separation from him.

This case presents a circumstance where a court is asked to make a finding that a young person’s best interest is served by professional guidance toward repairing a family relationship that has been severed. To a layperson, this may seem bizarre; somebody being “therapized” into reunion where they may experience excessive distress about anticipating or being with the family member.

The suggestion of coercion is hard to ignore. Reunion or reunification with a family member in other contexts is widely perceived as a happy event. However, if the reunion is not wanted by one of the participants, can the court-ordered reunification process “iron out” the tumultuous aspects of such a reunion?

In any event, the court has the discretion to make therapeutic orders in the best interests of children.

In C.B. v. E.G., the father implying that D’s quality of life had deteriorated after she left his care smacks of his possible desire to control. His suggestion that “reunification therapy” is the solution to a problematic relationship posits him as a person not willing to take responsibility for his own part in the problem. It’s as if he is saying “I know what’s best for her, I know what’s wrong, we just need a professional to show her that her life was better with me in it.” The wishes and desires of D are absent in his reasoning.

D provided a statement to the court indicating that when she was in the father’s care, his parenting style was coercive and controlling, which led to some of the mental health issues that she currently struggled with. She also said that the father’s court applications cause her an elevated level of stress and anxiety.

Estrangement or Alienation

There are circumstances where a court will order reunification therapy. The court looks for signs of “estrangement”, which is where the child reasonably refuses contact with a parent because of that parent’s behaviour.

The court also looks for signs of “alienation”, where there is no behaviour on the part of the rejected parent causing the child’s rejection.

Further, the court asks if the rejection has arisen due to the other parent intentionally and actively poisoning the child against the other parent.

Alienation is considered “pernicious and unpardonable” and in such cases a court may intervene to prevent the alienating behaviour from continuing and to try to repair the damage it has caused. (See for example the case N.R.G. v. G.R.G. 2015 BCSC 1062).

In alienation cases, the court expressly or impliedly considers social science literature, which emphasizes the advantages lost to a child who is deprived of the positive involvement of one of their loving parents.

In the C.B. v. E.G. case, the mother denied any interference with D’s relationship with the father. The mother said that the father’s portrayal of D as excelling in his care, and declining since she was in the mother’s care, was an unfair generalization. The mother confirmed that D is receiving comprehensive health care and though the mother was not involved in D’s decision, she preferred that D’s wishes regarding her relationship with her father be respected.

Ultimately the court concluded that it was not in D’s best interests to order her to attend reunification therapy.

Justice Bales commented as follows: “In the face of D’s strongly articulated objection to this therapy, it is this court’s view that the court is being asked to make orders that will not be complied with by the child and therefore cannot reasonably be obeyed by the Respondent mother. In my view, the court should not be drawn into making orders that cannot reasonably be expected to be implemented.”

Other important takeaways:

  1. Orders for reunification therapy should be made sparingly;
  2. There must be compelling evidence that the therapy will be beneficial;
  3. Is the child likely to voluntarily engage in counselling therapy?

Though the father’s application was dismissed, Justice Bales’ comments in the judgment were kindly toward the father: “the court has the utmost sympathy for the sense of loss that the father is experiencing as a result of this fractured relationship”, and “this court remains hopeful that D will accept that the father’s motion was brought from a place of good intention.”

Most tellingly, the court ordered that each party pays their own costs of the application despite the father losing.

However, from a layperson’s perspective, the father’s insistence on pursuing an order compelling D to attend reunification therapy as the answer to a broken relationship, especially after receiving D’s own clear evidence, is inconsiderate at best. His approach also has the darker hallmarks of gaslighting behaviour: “You say you don’t like me but you’re wrong. You need to see a doctor and then you’ll realize that your life is better with me in it.”


Sinnathamby, Thijiba. Recent Case: Family Reunification Therapy, June 6, 2023.

C.B. v. E.G., 2023 ONSC 1571 (CanLII), <https://canlii.ca/t/jw3cb>, retrieved on 2023-07-07

R.G. v. G.R.G., 2015 BCSC 1062 (CanLII), https://canlii.ca/t/gjmnn, retrieved on 2023-10-09