In cultural mythology—the bedrock of which is that all women are instinctively maternal, and that all mothers are loving—the daughter who goes no contact and cuts her mother out of her life is deemed selfish, immature, and ungrateful.
I know this firsthand, having divorced my mother at the age of 38; I did not see her again before she died, some thirteen years later. I’ve seen people adjust how they view me —among them, doctors who ask about my mother’s medical history and the look on their faces when I say I don’t know—and I have heard from total strangers whenever I write about me and my mother. It’s never complimentary. I’ve been called a narcissist, an ingrate, and much worse.
If you divorce Mom, the culture will put you on trial. Even people who know you and care about you may have trouble understanding why you would do something so out-of-sync, so draconian. They may murmur something such as, “Gee, couldn’t you have just hung in? I mean, how bad was it? You weren’t living with her, after all” or other statements of the same ilk.
Culturally, we are sympathetic when a mother cuts a daughter out of her life because we assume the mother has done her very best and left no stone unturned to salvage the relationship, and we sigh with sympathy. People say, “It’s a pity but some kids just turn out bad, no matter how hard you try.”
No such leeway is ever granted to a child who initiates the break. Why is that? My guess is that people so want to believe in one kind of love that’s immutable—a mother’s love—in a world where love is hard to find and harder to hang on to, that the story of the unloving mother is personally threatening. That’s why they don’t want to hear you out.
And, contrary to cultural scuttlebutt, it’s very rare for a daughter to cut her mother off for no reason or in a sudden huff, unless she’s young and in emotional turmoil, mentally unhealthy, or an addict. This is an adult decision and it’s a huge decision, often contemplated for years, because it involves enormous emotional losses.
So, here’s what everyone needs to understand about divorcing Mom.
1. It’s not a panacea
In fact, it’s only a solution to one specific problem in a tangled mother-daughter relationship: Your inability to set boundaries that your mother will abide by and/or her unwillingness to acknowledge her behaviors. Going no contact gets you off the carousel—and nothing more. Ending your own dance of denial—and putting to rest your efforts to get your mother to love and support you—yield the opportunity to begin the work of healing which may not have been possible for you while you were still in contact. These are definite gains but, in the beginning, it may feel as though they don’t come close to balancing out the losses…Which brings us to point #2.
2.You’re likely to second-guess yourself
It’s hard to overstate the enormity of this decision which, for many women, is an act of self-orphaning. You never divorce just your mother—indeed, as people take sides (which they usually do), you may lose your connection to your father, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and close family friends.
It’s not unusual for the abandoned mother to wage a negative publicity campaign against her daughter which includes lobbying her other children and relatives to take sides and label the daughter as a card-carrying member of the Evil Empire.
It takes enormous belief in yourself—something most unloved daughters don’t usually have in abundance—to stay the course, and it’s not unusual for some to reconcile for a period of time, only to leave again. I call this “going back to the well.” I did it myself for almost twenty years from my 20s on, cutting my mother out and then going back. It happens when your emotional neediness (and your own uncertainties) trump what you know to be intellectually true: that your mother doesn’t love you, and that the well is dry.
Here’s what one woman confided: “This time it’s been a year, and I still wonder whether I’ve done the right thing even though I know it’s the right thing. I get these crazy, unrealistic ideas in my head—that there’s still time, somehow, to make it right—and I find myself reaching for the phone again. It takes so much work to reassure myself that I’m not the crazy one and to make myself realize that hopefulness is not my friend.”
3. You’re likely to feel conflicted, even very conflicted
An infant’s need for her mother’s attention, love, and support is hardwired—an evolutionary precaution since it takes our species so long to develop self-sufficiency—and it doesn’t appear to have an expiration date; adult daughters feel the same sense of loss and longing that they did as children, no matter their chronological age.
That longing—counter-intuitively enough—absolutely co-exists with the decision to go no contact. Additionally, daughters may feel guilty—falling victim to self-criticism and blaming themselves for their failure to “fix” the relationship—or feel ashamed. These feelings are usually heightened by being ostracized by most or all of the members of her family of origin, including her siblings. Needless to say, these conflicted feelings are often triggered by family occasions such as weddings and other celebrations to which you’re not invited, as well as holidays associated with family gatherings.
4. You will need to have compassion for yourself
Most women report no support or minimal support in their decisions, even from spouses or partners, and it’s true that not all therapists advocate going no-contact because, of course, you can only work on a relationship while you’re still in it. (Advocates of Family Systems Therapy will, in fact, be strongly opposed to it since it was a tenet of Murray Bowen’s core thinking.)
Practice self-compassion: remind yourself of why you’ve made this choice and keep in mind that you are doing this as a last resort to get more balanced. Journaling can help you during this period as long as you use “cool” processing—remembering why encounters with your mother made you feel as you did, rather than writing about what you felt. Take long walks or do whatever makes you feel less stressed. Spend time with those you love so that you can counter that internalized self-critical voice with positive observations about yourself. Remember that this moment is a single moment in what will be a process—freeing yourself from negative experiences and moving toward creating a more positive way of life. Seek professional help if you need it as part of your self-compassion; no gold stars are awarded for needless suffering,
5. You will need to actively mourn
There is much to resolve in the days, weeks, and months after you’ve gone no contact, if that’s what you have decided to do. Many daughters feel an initial feeling of relief—“Free at last!”—only to become dismayed at the amount of conflict they feel and emotional turbulence they experience.
This is a complicated divorce and the truth is that the resilience that permits people to navigate the rocky patches in life is often not in great supply among the insecurely attached, especially those who are anxious.
Both you and your intimates may well be confused by why you’re not feeling immediately better—“Why are you still obsessing about this if you’re not talking to her?” or “Isn’t it time you let this go?”—because you and they have underestimated how complicated the process of recovery is. Again, be compassionate and kind to yourself, and work on managing your doubts as well as your feelings. Finally, you will need to focus on mourning both the death of your hopefulness that things could be resolved, and the mother you deserved and never got.
If you decide to divorce your mother, you should be prepared for the complexity of the process. This is not an “I’m-done-and-out-of-here” moment as our cultural mythology depicts it. It took years for the emotional damage to be inflicted; heading for the exit isn’t a fix, only a start.
Photograph by Mike Wilson. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
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