While rarely mentioned, one common legacy of an unloving mother is the daughter’s diminished ability or total inability to form close and sustaining friendships. This is a significant loss since friendship plays an important role in many women’s lives: our girlfriends are often the people we turn to in times of joy and trouble, when we need company or support, or we just need someone to truly listen. Unloved daughters often have trouble forging these bonds or maintaining them; the emotional isolation they felt in childhood is often replicated in adulthood when they find themselves with few or no girlfriends, or women they can actually trust.
Why is that? Our mothers are the first females we know in close proximity and we learn, for better or worse, not just what it means to be female but how females connect and relate. As children, we absorb the lessons our mothers model through their behaviors, accepting them as normal—we have nothing to compare them to, after all—and these become the unconscious templates for how we believe women act and relate in the outside world. Even though we’re unaware of them and their influence, we carry these scripts when we go out into the world as children, adolescents, and adults, and make friends with other girls and, later, women.
As the daughter of a jealous and withholding mother, I was cautious and wary as a girl when it came to friendships, especially in adolescence. Looking back, it’s clear that I viewed all girls as potential competitors who, if I let them, would somehow get the upper hand and hurt me. Another women, now in her fifties, confides that “My own neediness and insecurity trip me up with friends. I always end up, somehow, being the pleaser with other women. I give 100% and they give 10% and I end up feeling used.”
The internalized voice of the mother—telling you that you are unlovable, unlikeable, unworthy, inadequate—can become especially shrill when you’re in the company of other women, whether they are neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances or even girlfriends you actually long to be close to.
Gleaned from many conversations, here are four pieces of the maternal legacy that directly affect female friendships.
- Lack of trust
A loving and attuned mother models a world in which people are trustworthy and that extending yourself—leaving yourself open and vulnerable to another person—has great benefits. The unloved daughter learns the opposite and, even worse, because her mother never acknowledges her behaviors, the daughter not only distrusts other people but her own perceptions and feelings. In friendships, she may be dismissive or wary or in need of constant reassurance and proof that her friend is really on her side. Either way, how she acts—even though she may want and need the friendship desperately—effectively sabotages it.
- Unable to heed boundaries
Absent the validation of self a loving mother provides, unloved daughters have difficulty recognizing what constitutes a healthy boundary; they may vacillate between being overly armored and being much too clingy. While this is partly a result of the daughter’s lack of trust, it also reflects her ongoing unfulfilled need for love and validation. “I think I exhausted my friendships when I was in my twenties and thirties,” one daughter, 48, reported. “It took me a long time to recognize that my friends needed space and that, sometimes, my constant demands for their attention were too much. Therapy helped me see that all I was doing was focusing on my needs without understanding the give-and-take friendship requires.”
All unloved daughters have trouble managing negative emotions—they have difficulty self-regulating and are prone to rumination—and, if their mothers have been dismissive, combative, or hypercritical, are always vigilant and self-protective. A friend’s comment or gesture that wouldn’t even appear on a securely-attached daughter’s radar can be totally misunderstood and blown out of proportion by an insecurely-attached one. These can be small things—an unreturned phone call, a late invitation, an offhand remark—that become triggers and flashpoints.
- Feelings of rivalry
Unfortunately, the unloved daughter’s lack of trust, difficulty with boundaries, and over-sensitivity may be compounded by feelings of rivalry, especially if her mother has been jealous of her or if there was another favored daughter with whom she competed unsuccessfully for her mother’s approval and attention. While unloved daughters who are only children tend to idealize the relationship of sisters—think Little Women—the reality is much more complicated. As Deborah Tannen writes in her book You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: “These two views [of sisters]—someone who sets you straight and someone who twists your words so they boomerang back and hurt you—represent the potential best and worst of sister conversations.”
It’s often hard for the unloved daughter to acknowledge her feelings of competition because the culture tends to look away from or minimize rivalry between and among women. Thinking about sisterhood is so much more pleasant, even though the word frenemy has been around since the 1950s when it was coined to describe politics, not rival girlfriends. Susan Barash Shapiro’s book Tripping the Prom Queen paints a more realistic picture of the complexity of female connections.
Alas, the loneliness of childhood may be unwittingly extended into adulthood unless conscious awareness is brought to bear on a daughter’s reactivity
Photo by Léa Dubedout. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Tannen, Deborah. You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversations Throughout Their Lives. New York: Random House, 2009.
Barash, Susan Shapiro. Tripping the Prom Queen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.