You can't divorce your mom (well, you can, but do you want to?)...
When things get difficult with your mother-daughter relationship, you have only a few options. You can choose estrangement from your mother if you can live with that. If not, then the only other choice is to stay in the relationship and find ways to either change it or deal with it differently.Even if your mother can't or won't change, you can learn to make some adjustments to your attitude and reactions. That's where the strategies and resources in this section come in.
Adult Daughters and Their Mothers - A Tenuous Bond By Shonnie Brown
For many adult daughters, the mother-daughter bond is a tenuous balance of both positive and negative feelings, connection and autonomy. And for some, the bond is greatly affected by conflicting individual needs. After a particularly tumultuous weekend with my own 92 year-old mother, I began thinking of the many stories I have heard from my clients of their struggles for both love and autonomy with their mothers. These stories fall primarily into three groups: abandoning mothers, narcissistic mothers and symbiotic mothers. Here are some examples:
Diana grew up in an inner-city neighborhood. She never knew her father, and her mother was involved with a series of boyfriends, drugs and alcohol. When Diana was a young child, her mother went to jail and Diana entered the foster care system. She grew up in several different homes, never feeling that she had a home with parents who valued or loved her.
As an adult, Diana takes pride in her professional accomplishments, but feels like a complete failure in relationships. She is extremely needy and undifferentiated in intimate relationships, requiring constant attention and proof of her partner's devotion. In the work that we have done off and on over several years, she has learned that she is clearly looking for what she didn't get as a child, but that another healthy adult will never give her the complete attention that she seeks.
Looking at Diana, it is clear that she never had the healthy early symbiosis (oneness with her mother) that is necessary for optimal separation or differentiation from a parent. A loving, positively reflecting parent is essential for a child to feel valued, to feel safe and trusting. No wonder Diana tests her lovers constantly and is subject to panic and deep depression when she doesn't get the focused attention and admiration she needs to feel buoyed up. She had not one, but two abandoning parents.
Connie and her two young daughters live with Connie's aging, chronically ill mother. When I ask Connie about the stress of this relationship, she sighs with frustration. Recently divorced and excited about the possibilities of a new life, Connie feels "sucked on" by her mother. She tells me that she "never had a self" before, having gone from her parents' home into an unhealthy marriage. She never felt differentiated from her mother or her ex-husband and is just now beginning that process. Her mother's inability to support Connie's differentiation because of her own neediness makes for a tense situation in which Connie feels hostage.
With Connie I see that there has always been an overly enmeshed mother-daughter bond. Connie has come to understand this in therapy and is now working hard to become her own person. However, it can be very painful for both mother and daughter when the adult daughter is coming into her own self and the undifferentiated mother feels threatened by the "loss" of their bond. It also takes a mother's willingness to work on understanding that the differentiation process is a healthy one and doesn't have to mean loss of love.
Paula is a young single woman with an extremely narcissistic mother. She has never felt safe setting appropriate boundaries because Mother can't tolerate boundaries and all hell would break loose, leaving Paula desperately alone. It has taken many months of work for Paula to truly feel the pain of having compromised autonomy. Now her attempts to set even tiny boundaries with her mother feel like pushing against an impenetrable wall of resistance. Breaking an unspoken agreement with a narcissistic parent can feel simply hopeless. For Paula it has often been easier to fill the emptiness with various addictions.
Many undifferentiated adult women have mothers or fathers who are narcissistically toxic. An adult daughter of a narcissistic mother will report feeling empty inside with no sense of self. She often feels treated as if she was her mother's "possession", as if her "job" is to glorify her mother. Narcissistic parents reward children for being like them, but may condemn, judge or criticize a child for his or her true uniqueness.
Paula feels that she is in a "no win" situation. If she makes her own choices, she risks Mother's hurtful criticism and her rage. If she complies, she remains a child, an appendage of her mother. Autonomy is a very slow and painful battle.
Additionally, a mother's response to a daughter's trauma will most certainly affect their bond. Even a securely bonded daughter will feel tremendous abandonment when her mother denies the reality of childhood physical, emotional or sexual abuse. The mother is supposed to be the protector in every instance, but sometimes mothers would literally rather die in denial than acknowledge the possibility that something bad happened to a child for whom they were responsible.
Shelly, for instance, tells me that her mother finally admitted on her deathbed that Shelly's childhood sexual abuse was real. And, for Shelly, this admittance held enormous healing power in their relationship. Petra, on the other hand, recalls that her mother died refusing to admit the possibility that Petra suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. This denial only confirmed the deep abandonment and isolation Petra has felt since childhood.
These client examples are, of course, only a few of the many ways that mothers and adult daughters relate. Every individual brings with them into any relationship specific developmental and attachment needs, and every mother-daughter relationship has its unique struggles.
Only a fool (or a politician) thinks that everyone else must always think the way they themselves do.
“Are you calling me a fool?!”
“No, relax. I was just saying…”
You build and convey genuine confidence when you can relax with other people having their own perspectives and not seeing things your way. People who use a lot of personal pronouns (I, me, mine, myself) may be more defensive than most because they are relating more things back to themselves personally. When you can relax confidently with knowing what you like and believe in, then you won't have to justify your ideas all the time. Is defensiveness a form of 'control freakery' in some people?
Tip 2: Are you responding now as you needed to back then?
Most people are not out to get you. Not now. But it might seem as if they are if you’ve lived through periods in which you genuinely were set upon, targeted, or abused. Regularly ask yourself: “Am I responding like this because of the way I was treated in the past?" Then make a point of focusing on all the differences between then and now.
Tip 3: Practice letting water slide off a duck's back...
...Or, since I’m offering aphorisms: “a rolling stone gathers no moss”. Like Tip 1, practice letting others’ words or actions (up to a point, of course) run off you.
Think about times when you were typically overly defensive. Times where, in retrospect, your response seemed above and beyond what was necessary. What got your goat? Close your eyes and relax whilst imagining yourself responding more evenly and in a measured way.
"We were given two ears but only one mouth, because listening is twice as hard as talking."
Stop Feeling Defensive Using A Powerful Principle Called Reflection By Lynn Marie Sager
I often ask my clients to listen to reality television and talk shows featuring troubled relationships. I like them to listen carefully to what people are saying, using a principle called reflection. This principle simply states that what people think, see, and say about others reflects their personal and sometimes limiting belief systems. In other words, what people say about others, says everything about them.
We all have belief systems; habitual patterns of thought and behavior that color our actions and inform our world. Many problems, both personal and communal, can be traced to limiting and/or conflicting belief systems. Clients can only improve their lives after they have become aware of any limiting belief systems and learned to expand them. Unfortunately, most people are so attached to their beliefs that they can't really see past them, let alone question them. While teaching this principle to my clients, I find that nearly all of them immediately see its significance, but few actively use it on themselves and it can be dangerous for them to use it on their relationships until they have done so. Hence, I have come up with a way for them to practice safely, using reality television.
Following my own advice, I recently watched a talk show featuring a family of five. The children and father had "turned in" their mother for perfectionism. They wanted her to "loosen-up" a little and not be so "militant" with the housekeeping. The show played a tape of a typical morning, wherein the son was made to remake his bed twice in order to meet his mom's high standards and each pillow had to be placed and fluffed "just so." When asked about her behavior the mother declared, "I'm just trying to show my kids that there is a right way of doing things...I want them to get used to what it's like in the real world...there is always somebody looking over your shoulder."
Wow, this woman believes that there is only one right way of doing things. This woman always feels that someone is looking over her shoulder. This woman never questions what she perceives to be the real world. No wonder she is driving her family and herself crazy. I'd go crazy too if I lived in a world where there was only one right way of doing things, and somebody was always looking over my shoulder. How do I know all this about a woman that I have never met? I listened to her using the principle of reflection.
How can you use reflection to clarify your life?
The next time you feel upset by what someone says about you, remember that what people say about you is never an accurate reflection of you. What people say about you is really a reflection of them. When people complain about you, they are really saying something about who they are and what they believe. Their words are clues to the struggles that they are having inside. So instead of just hearing the words that others use and instantly feeling defensive, you should try to listen to the messages behind their words. When you understand what others believe and intend, you can act upon their intentions with understanding. In fact, once you truly incorporate this principle into your belief system, you will no longer get defensive because you will know that people are never talking about you; words invariably reflect more about the speaker than the one spoken of.
And whenever you are frustrated with someone else, remember that any frustration you feel is usually a reflection of something lost inside of you, something that wants to be made whole. Make yourself whole, and the frustration goes away. Follow this rule, and you will actually begin to see life's frustrations as divine gifts designed to help you understand yourself. In other words, listen to what you say about others. What you say about others says everything about you...
Lynn Marie Sager has toured over two-dozen countries and worked on three continents. Author of A River Worth Riding: Fourteen Rules for Navigating Life, Lynn currently lives in California; where she fills her time with private coaching, public speaking, and teaching for the LACCD and Pierce College. She runs the Navigating Life website, where she offers free assistance to readers who wish to incorporate the rules of worthwhile living into their lives. To read more about how you can use these rules to improve your life, visit Lynn's website at http://www.navigatinglife.org
Everyone has one: An inner critic. Your thoughts. That little voice in your head that is very opinionated, telling you how to act, what to do and what not to do, judging your appearance, scolding your short-comings. That inner voice holds incredible power over us. Unfortunately, that voice is often extremely self-critical and demeaning. What thoughts run through your head? “I look terrible. I am so fat.” “I never do anything right.” “I’ll never find happiness. I will always be stuck in this situation.” Think about it: How many times have you criticized yourself or thought negatively about your life in the last 24 hours?
Women are prone to such self-criticism. This inner voice is the source of stress, negative self-esteem, unhappiness and worry in our lives. There’s an entire psychological discipline dedicated to helping people overcome negative thoughts. It’s called Cognitive Therapy and it aims to help people recognize patterns of negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts.
Where do these negative thoughts come from? Mostly, they’re the collective, cruel voices of our past — parents, siblings, spouses, high school bullies – that we’ve internalized.
You might not even realize what you’re thinking or saying since your thoughts and perceptions come so naturally. To change it, you must become aware of what that voice is saying. It helps to write down your negative thoughts and your re-vamped, positive responses. If you take time to tally the comments you make to yourself, “you’ll discover that the vast majority are negative. Keep a “thought log.” Three times a day, take a few minutes to write down what you’ve been thinking – all of it… your thoughts about what your spouse did or didn’t do that morning… what your mother said to you… how you felt about your child’s behavior. Don’t edit — write down the exact words. Keep your thought log for two weeks. This will also help you learn the true nature of your “thought chatter” and better understand your personality by uncovering the patterns.
Once you’ve identified your thought patterns, its time to start talking back to them. As you notice yourself saying something negative in your mind, you can stop your thought mid-stream by saying to yourself “Stop” then replace that thought with something more positive.
I am a busy stay-at-home mom to two young children.
My mother seems to think that I have nothing to do because she calls me many times throughout the day to tell me unimportant things and basically narrate her day.
It is not uncommon for her to call my home phone, and when I don't answer, she'll call my cellphone - and then my house phone again. She will usually wait about five minutes and then repeat the process.
Sometimes I just can't pick up the phone, and then when the calls become stalker-ish, I don't pick up out of spite.
Amy, I know I am blessed to have a mother in my life, but I don't want a "smother," I want a mother!
I know she means well, but calling me eight times in a row to tell me something completely inconsequential is a little crazy! How do I tell her to quit calling me so often without hurting her feelings?
Most people think their mom was difficult, but some mothers put their children
in a bind that actually warps their development.
Who has a difficult mother? I pose the question to a group of teenage girls, who raise their hands high. Grown women, too, nod knowingly, while adding, "I hope I don't turn out to be like her." Teenage boys and men are, of course, less absorbed with wondering how to be different from Mom. Nonetheless, their highly charged love and empathy with her can make them uneasy about regulating closeness and distance.
In a sense, difficult mothers are the norm. Our need for a mother's attention, appreciation, and understanding is great; our expectations are high. We tend to be critical of responses that are not precisely what we hope for. Her shortcomings—the endless reminders to be careful; her compulsive checking-up whether you have your keys as you head out the door, when you forgot them only once, two years ago; her inability to read an instruction manual—irritate and embarrass us, because we retain our idealization of the powerful nurturer of infancy.
But psychologically speaking, a difficult mother is a great deal more than a person with whom we have difficulties from time to time. A truly difficult mother is one who presents her child with a profound dilemma: "Either develop complex and constricting coping mechanisms to maintain a relationship with me, at great cost to your own outlook, imagination, and values, or suffer ridicule, disapproval, or rejection."
A difficult mother presents challenges that a difficult father or other relative does not. That's because, starting in the earliest days of life, a child's relationship with her or his mother is the foundation of a sense of self. Through maternal attachment, we begin to learn who we are and what we feel and to acquire the ability to interact with others. The process continues with a mother's ongoing ability to acknowledge her developing child as a person with independent thoughts and feelings.
A difficult mother, however, uses a son's or daughter's continuing need for responsiveness to control or manipulate the child. The repeated threat of ridicule, disapproval, or rejection is experienced as a choice between life and death. Children of difficult mothers, like others who experience difficulties growing up, can show great resilience. But such a child will face extra tasks in establishing a comfortable sense of self-worth and in trusting others.
Difficult mothers should be distinguished from abusive mothers, whose children exhibit abnormalities in brain development that can impair the ability to regulate emotions, engage in social interaction, and organize memories. Difficult mothers are capable of engaging with a child—but they set fixed conditions on their love and approval and appreciation.
My own research on mothers and teenagers, and on midlife development, shows that many children of difficult mothers become generally high-functioning adults. Difficult mothers may be good-enough mothers, able to support normal development within a wide range. Yet in all stages of life, children of difficult mothers struggle with self-doubt, on the one hand, and close relationships, on the other, or project dissatisfaction and doubt onto people who love them.
The difficult mother imposes her dilemma harshly—with unpredictable and ferocious anger, punitive inflexibility, rigid expectations, and expressions of neediness that take priority over a child's needs. Envy may compound the mix. Sure, many mothers show anger, inflexibility, neediness, and elements of envy from time to time. But it's the routine use of such behaviors that distinguishes difficult mothers and sets up a coercive relationship.
A child does not have the option to say to a mother, I don't care whether you think I'm bad, or, I am not frightened by the prospect of your leaving me. A primitive panic at rejection lasts long after the infant's physical helplessness comes to an end. Children are therefore likely to work hard to adopt special strategies to protect themselves from a mother's rejection. The particular strategies a difficult mother imposes on a child are ruled by fear, anxiety, and confusion. And each mother's particular brand of difficult shapes the strategies that a child develops.
Unpredictable and Ferocious Anger
"Everyone shouts," Lois protests when 17-year-old Margot reveals to me that she has to "take a deep breath before I face Mom." Margot's eyes are bright with alarm at her own courage. "She complains I never eat breakfast. Well, I can't because I come downstairs and she's there and that puts a knot in my stomach. I can't feel hungry till I'm two blocks from the house."
"So I have a short fuse," Lois cedes. "Since when does shouting kill you? Besides, if she respected my wishes, I wouldn't shout. She makes life difficult for herself, but she knows I love her ."
Difficult mothers may love their children, but inability to control the inevitable frustrations of day-to-day life or long-term disappointments can create a disorganized volatility and obliviousness to a child's experience that overpower the love a child can take in. Margot, at 17, is hollow-eyed and anxious, her nails bitten to the quick. Her social and academic interests are limited; she craves a simple world, safe from her mother's tantrums.
I hope you can help me. My mother and I have a generally warm and close relationship and I consider her one of my best friends. Like many mothers and daughters, we occasionally fight.
Ever since I was a child, even small fights have ended the same way: She tells me I am a miserable, nasty person and says I will end up alone. Although this has been a pattern for years, it still pains me deeply, and I lapse into a funk for days after one of these arguments. I don't know if those are her true feelings or just ammunition, but either way, I just can't tune out her words. I have tried every approach to get her to drop the speech, but she won't listen.
Is this how mothers and daughters normally fight? Am I right in asking her to stop? She refuses to discuss it or try group therapy, and she is not suffering from any psychological or mental disorders.
The primary focus of this website is on the adult daughter's perspective of the mother-daughter relationship, but there is certainly a lot of overlap...every mother is/was a daughter and many daughters are also mothers. We have found that a helpful strategy in trying to heal the mother-daughter relationship is to try to see things from the other's perspective and to try to understand their feelings, motivations and viewpoint. That's why mothers often find the articles, videos and resources on this site to be helpful too. Here's, now, an opportunity for the adult daughters to gain a little perspective as well. Below is a Question posed by an 82 year old mother about the problems she is having with her adult daughter and a professional Answer. What do you think? Send us your comments at the end of the Q&A and we will publish these at a later date.
Problems With My Grown Daughter
I have a grown daughter problem that is tearing me apart and I don't know what to do! She blames me for everything that has gone wrong in her life, especially in the last few years!
Her father died in 2004 and since then it has become even more of a downhill struggle - for blame! I confess I was part of the problem when she was growing up, as her father and I had difficulties in the marriage, which have all surfaced in recent years. I was in the real estate business and gone much of the time when she was growing up but not all was the pits as we enjoyed a lot of fun times as a family.
The straw that broke the camel's back was this past December - I had asked her to go to NYC with me for her Christmas present and two days prior to leaving she emailed me saying, "I don't believe I would enjoy NY and have decided not to go." Travel tickets, show tickets, hotel were all booked. Her reason: I owed her an apology when a phone call prior to departure got out of hand and I hung up.
I am 82 years old now, and this kind of stress I don't need - but she is still my daughter and I can't let it go!
What do I do?
Betty, 82-year-old woman
Betty, my dear,
Of course you are hurting. So is your daughter. If you are 82, she has to be over 50. You both have a lot of wisdom and life experience, and are probably wonderful sources of help and advice for other people. Chances are, like with most of us, it's only with people you love that you have such conflicts.
This is why, when I feel tension with a person who is close to me, I imagine that someone else is in my situation, and asks me what to do. Things usually look clearer when I remove my personal involvement. So, if your cousin Bev had this problem with her daughter, how would you advise her to handle it?
From what you wrote, your daughter has the mindset that, if something goes wrong for her, it must be mother's fault. You have identified the reason for this fixed reaction: your over-commitment to your work when she was a child. She probably doesn't know this. We all have such core beliefs that develop in childhood and are useful at that time to make sense of the child's world, but later can distort reality. If you lived in my area, I'd invite the two of you to see me together for one or two sessions, and we could sort this out. Maybe you can find a psychologist who uses cognitive therapy or interpersonal therapy and have those couple of sessions.
Another thing many of my clients find very helpful is to write a letter. To do it right, compose two letters. You don't send the first one, which puts all your hurts and resentments into writing. Then, the second one is a loving, forgiving letter in which you apologize from the heart for all the past hurts you have caused her, and extend your unconditional love to her, regardless of what hurts she has done to you. And note: the words "heart" and "hear" only differ in one letter.
You can ask her a question that often keeps me free from resentment. Suppose tomorrow I am told that I've only got a few months to live. that can happen to any of us. Would I spend those last precious days in hate and resentment, or would I make peace and go with love? Life is too short to hurt those we love, and who care for us. And isn't this the message of all the great religions?
What if, regardless of what you do, she continues to reject you?
Betty, we are only responsible for ourselves. You make choices, she makes choices. If she makes what I would consider to be the wrong choice, that is her right. If I was on the receiving end of such a hurtful situation, I would grieve for a while - how could it be otherwise? However, I would console myself with the fact that I had done my best. If it didn't work, that was not my doing, not my choice. Once I got over the initial pain, I'd mentally send her my blessing, and get on with my life.
This question was answered by Dr. Bob Rich. Dr. Rich has 31 years experience as a psychologist and is registered with the Australian Psychological Society. He practices in Australia.
Please post your comment:
Oh Betty, I am so sorry!! I have a sister that is about your age, she still blames our deceased mother for everything that has gone wrong in her life. My mother divorced her & my brother's father way back in 1940. Our brother passsed away earlier this year & she didn't even acknowledge his death. I have three sisters from my mother & father's marraige. The four of us have become closer, over the years since our parents are both gone, our mother in 1994 & daddy in 1998. At various times we have reached out to her, but she wants nothing to do with us. I always tell people, some day your mother will be gone, and the pain is terrible!!
She doesn't "have to be over 50" but it doesn't matter because this is not about age. One thing that comes to mind is that if you have a strained relationship with an adult child then a trip to New York City is a risky choice for a gift, too many possibilities for problems. Not saying its your fault just saying if things are that messed up don't set yourself up...unless you're really into major disappointment. If your daughter has big time issues, one might have seen this one coming. Next time play it safe and get her a gift certificate to Target or something safer.
To never hurt those you love is really an issue of the heart. If one does this knowingly or unknowingly, always to ask for forgiveness is the best course of action. You are a richer and better soul to make amends with that person you are at odds with. I say to carry resentment around is like carrying extra pounds of weight around and in order to funtion correctly we must drop the unneeded pounds.
The Grandmother Thing By Janet from Michigan
Okay. I admit it. I feel guilty. I suppose that happens as soon as you become a mother. But I feel guilty because my mother is unhappy about not having a close relationship with my kids, her grandkids.
I believe it has to do with expectations—unrealized expectations. Maybe even unrealistic expectations. My mother imagines having a warm, loving relationship with her grandchildren. A relationship where she can lovingly impart wisdom to them and have them lovingly thank her for it. She wants to mentor them, teach them, share with them her life’s experiences. And I think that is really great. As someone who did not have any kind of relationship with her grandparents, partly because of distance, partly because of language barriers, and partly because of quirky family squabbles, I would love for my children to have close connections to their grandparents.
I have tried over the years to foster a meaningful relationship between my kids and my mom. I have often felt caught in between when my mother would ask me for advice on how to be closer to the grandkids. When I would explain to mom that sometimes it’s not what you say, but the tone you use, my words fell on deaf ears. She just didn’t understand that things she said to them might come across as critical instead of helpful. How many times did she tell my son that he was going to end up overweight? Or lecture my daughter about her slacking off in school?
To be sure, there were fun times and memorable experiences. My mother and father took the kids to New York City every Thanksgiving holiday and those outings were very special. But the kids were relatively young and unfortunately they have forgotten many of those trips. I appreciated the gesture my parents made, but I don’t know how much it rubbed off on my children.
In the end, despite everyone’s best efforts, you just can’t make a relationship happen. And so often families are scattered all over the country and all over the world. When you see your grandparents once or twice a year it’s hard to develop a closeness. But there is the telephone, e-mail and even snail mail you say? Yes, in theory. But the kids have to be willing to reciprocate. My mother has written letters and e-mails. She has sent clippings and books. She has sent generous checks for special occasions. And, I’m sorry to say, my kids have not written back. And when they have written thank-you notes it was because I nagged them until they couldn’t stand it anymore. I know how important this grandmother thing is to my mother, but I feel like I haven’t been able to make much of a difference.
The worst part is when my mother gets really frustrated and she starts to take it out on me. “You tell them grandma lectures,” she says, “so they don’t listen to me.” She tells me that they see her through my eyes and that I have turned them against her. So unfair and so not true.
The fact that she has only two grandchildren probably complicates things. If she had eight, or ten, or twelve, all eyes wouldn’t be on my kids. She might find another grandchild who would respond to her overtures and would meet her need for a special grandmotherly connection.
At this point things are unresolved and frustrating, both for my mother and me. She may not recognize it, but I have tried to engage my kids. And I would love nothing more than to be able to give my mother the gift of the grandmother experience that she dreams of. But I don’t have the ability to do that. I don’t believe anyone does. So what can I say to my mother? I can’t make it all better. “Please don’t criticize me for standing in the way or shutting you out.”
I feel for my mother, I really do. And perhaps when I become a grandmother I will feel her pain firsthand. I hope not. But I don’t think we can control these things. At some point we just have to accept things the way they are and make the most of what we do have. Not the relationship we would have wanted, but great grandkids nonetheless.
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