The message I got via Facebook last week was a familiar variation on a theme: “I’m the daughter of an unloving mother in my thirties and I keep dating and choosing men who treat me exactly as my mother does. It starts out great but eventually, I feel as lousy about myself as I did when I lived under her roof. Can this be fixed? How can I stop? I want to be happy but I don’t seem to know how.”
Our childhood experiences—what we learned about love and connection—form the internal and unconscious templates for our adult behaviors, especially in the realm of relationship. A child who has an attuned and loving mother grows up believing that she is worthy of attention, will be heard and responded to by others, and has the right to expect to be treated well. She’s attracted to potential partners who confirm those beliefs and should she find herself attracted to someone who actually doesn’t, she’s quick to head for the hills. None of this is true for the unloved daughter.
The problem with these templates is that they’re unconscious and, unless and until we bring them into conscious awareness, we are likely to self-sabotage without knowing it. Alas, we are drawn to what’s familiar—yes, do you see the same root as the word family? —or what I call a comfort zone, even though it actually offers no comfort at all but is a replication of the emotional circumstances of our childhood. The insecurely attached daughter is prone to misreading her own emotions in relationships—interpreting a roller-coast type of connection with an avoidant person as highly passionate, for example, or not recognizing emotional manipulation when she experiences it.
That was certainly true of me in my twenties when the men I was attracted to were typically very self-involved and emotionally detached—a variation on the Mom theme I didn’t recognize at the time. Even though I was miserable in these relationships, I overstayed in each and every one of them, wrongly believing that it was just a matter of time that the guy in question would open his heart to me.
Sometimes, it’s easier to see the pattern when it’s set out in black and white so herewith five signs that, yes, you may be dating or married to your mother after all.
- He discounts or marginalizes your feelings.
One of the most consistent mantras of the unloving and verbally disparaging or abusive parent is “You’re too sensitive” and it’s one of the easiest to believe and internalize. Emerging into adulthood, many daughters simply take this as a “truth” about themselves and when their partner or love interest uses the same or similar words, they often acquiesce. These words—or ones like them that suggest you’re exaggerating or a drama queen or thin-skinned—should be a wake-up call that you’ve found yourself back in your childhood room in a very real sense.
- He withdraws when you make a demand.
This most toxic pattern of connection is so widely recognized by psychologists that it actually has its own acronym: DM/W. Demand/withdraw is often a pattern between daughter and mother, especially when the child gets old enough or has the courage to confront her mother. In this pattern—and I am drawing from memory here—the daughter asks the mother why she’s treating her this way, and the mother withdraws and denies that’s it happening, says nothing at all, or says “I will not talk about this” and leaves the room. This is a relatively rare pattern among the securely attached because they understand that give-and-take is part of the process of connection, but it is common among the insecurely attached. The pattern not only cuts off discussion—assuming that the demand is a legitimate one which addresses a need one person has—but has escalation built into it since the person making the demand will likely become more frustrated and the louder she gets, the more her partner will withdraw. (By the way, although men sometimes take on the demanding role, studies show it’s more likely that a woman will be in this position.) Each party feels aggrieved in this scenario. If every discussion you have with your man devolves into an argument with the DM/W pattern in place, you need to looking for an exit.
- He manipulates your insecurities.
Another legacy of an unloving mother is deep-rooted insecurity about one or more aspects of the self which can co-exist with real-world success and achievement, and is easily triggered. “I’m really self-conscious about my weight,” Maggie confided, “And in my last marriage, whenever I complained about anything, my husband would fight back by hassling me about how much I ate or how I looked fat or how other women looked so much better than I did. It took therapy for me to see the pattern. He wanted me to be docile and, when I wasn’t, he attacked me.” Jill describes herself as extremely shy and, in her last relationship, her lover used it against her: “We fought constantly about how social we needed to be and every time I just wanted to stay home and chill, he made me out to be the biggest loser neurotic he’d ever met. He made me feel ashamed of needing quiet time, and made it clear he didn’t think it was ‘normal.’ I bought into it for much longer than I should have until I finally had an Aha! moment and walked.”
- He projects his feelings onto you.
Does this scenario sound familiar? You are supposedly “discussing” why he’s so against getting a new stove when the oven hasn’t worked in months and you can see that he’s folded his arms tight against his chest and that he’s working his jaw muscles and you ask him why he’s angry. Instead, he turns toward you and accuses you of being angry, not just now but all the time, and he keeps on going until it turns into a full-blown tirade about how angry and dissatisfied you seem all the time, and he’s sick and tired of “the same old tattoo.” Narcissists project their feelings in this way—in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin calls it “playing emotional hot potato”—but so do other people who simply do not want to or won’t acknowledge and take responsibility for their feelings. This is, in part, a defensive strategy to deflect blame and fault from one party to another, and it’s both toxic and manipulative.
- He needs to be in control—always.
Unloved daughters typically lack a sense of belonging that comes naturally to someone who was raised by a parent or parents who made her feel safe and good about herself. Unfortunately, these daughters are often drawn to men who appear to offer a safe haven—they may seem very sure of themselves, are often successful and driven, are outspoken in their opinions and belief—because they mistake control for strength and resolve. Because feeling powerless may be familiar—and echo childhood—a daughter may be slow to recognize that she’s being robbed of her own voice and manipulated into making choices she really doesn’t want to make. In a marriage, it may play out in a literal way where the husband simply ignores all of her thoughts and desires, and does it his way every time. This may be accompanied by brinksmanship—threatening to end the relationship or leave—if she doesn’t shut up and go along. Recognizing bullying in all of its incarnations may be hard but an important step for the unloved daughter to take.
We’re not doomed to replicate our childhood relationships in adulthood but we will unwittingly if we don’t pay attention to the patterns of connection in our lives.
Photograph by Caleb Ekeroth. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism. New York: HarperOne, 2015.