Navigating close relationships is a common problem for daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood. Intimacy—whether in friendship or a romantic connection—requires both a sense of self and your own needs, on the one hand, and a respect for the other person’s boundaries and independence, on the other. Whether a mother has been combative, controlling,dismissive, high in narcissistic traits, or enmeshed, boundaries remain a significant problem for many. It’s what I always refer to as The Goldilocks Problem; as in the fairy tale, the unloved daughter has trouble finding the sweet spot, the place between “too hot” and “too cold” called “just right.”
All of my friendships tend to fall into the same pattern. I end up feeling used by other women but I honestly think that it’s probably more about me than it is about them. I want so badly to be liked that I end up doing all sorts of stuff for others that I really don’t want to do and then I end up feeling resentful. Of course, most of the time, they haven’t asked me to go the extra mile but I’ve put myself there because I want them to like me.
Many daughters emerge from childhood with an impaired sense of belonging—if you’re not embraced and supported by your family of origin, it’s challenging to believe that love and acceptance are out there for you—which complicates all their relationships. Some of them will armor themselves against possible rejection by declaring that they need no one; they have an avoidant attachment style which is either based in a fear of rejection or a dismissal of the benefits of intimate ties. Others display an anxious attachment style—wanting more than anything to be closely connected but ever vigilant for signs of betrayal or rejection, both in friendship and romantic relationships. They are volatile—quick to self-defend, quicker to attack—when they feel threatened.
I was picked on throughout my childhood by both my mother and my two sisters. They called me “runt’—this was supposedly a joke since I was the pup in the litter no one wanted but, trust me, it wasn’t a joke. People tell me all the time that I take offense too easily but it’s hard for me. It honestly is. I take everything personally.
Some daughters become inveterate pleasers, hoping that the strategies that failed to get their mothers’ love and attention during childhood will work for them in adulthood. Once again, the problem isn’t doing nice things for other people—that’s actually a good thing among friends—but a lack of emotional awareness of both boundaries and motivation.
I get lost in my relationships with both men and women. I get so focused on them—what they need and want—that I forget that I have needs and it’s just a matter of time until I get angry and feel used and forgotten. My last lover said that being with me was like stepping out on ground that looked like a beach but was really quicksand. He said I was exhausting and the sad truth is that he’s not the first to say that to me.
To start connecting in healthier ways, you need to see your own behaviors clearly first. Here are some first steps to help you hit your stride.
1.Recognize your triggers and patterns
Echoes of the past can jumpstart reactivity in the present so it’s important for you to really hone in on the behaviors you learned in childhood. Ask yourself whether you often find yourself in relationships that feel familiar; are you choosing people to be with who treat you as your mother did? Or are you reading into situations that might be handled differently? Give yourself a time-out when a discussion begins to devolve into a fight and ask yourself: “Am I responding to this moment or to the past?”
2.Remind yourself of boundaries
This applies to both your boundaries and the other person’s. Work harder at recognizing that intimacy and closeness aren’t synonymous with either being subsumed by someone or being obsessed with someone. Each person has to be whole unto him or herself for intimacy to take place and if you are choosing partners who invade your space, you’re with the wrong people. And if you’re not able to see loving but healthy independence as anything but a threat, you need to seek help and support from a counselor.
3. Adopt a new mantra: It’s okay to say “No”
Again, being engulfed isn’t a good model for a relationship and neither is being fearful that if you displease someone, he or she will simply leave. If you’re with someone who requires you to forget about you and to accede to his or her wishes all of the time, you’re with someone who’s turned on by control, not your company. You have to be able to hold on to and articulate your own needs.
4.Discussions should be safe
If you were raised in a family that fought constantly or missed no opportunity to belittle you, you are probably more comfortable silencing yourself than speaking out. But talking things out is central to any relationship. The reality is that most of us reveal who we are in times of conflict and stress and if your partner isn’t able to talk to you or you’re not able to talk to him or her without launching a personal attack, you’re in the wrong place with the wrong person. If your tendency is always to go on the offensive, you should seek help as well.
5.Recognize toxic patterns
You may be wrongly more accepting of certain toxic behaviors because they’re familiar so it’s important for you to remind yourself that they are never part of caring relationships. If they’re operating in your life, you need to pay heed. Personal attacks on your character and personality when something goes wrong—sentences that begin “You always…”—are highly destructive and don’t have a role in a healthy connection. Making someone do something out of guilt or fearfulness— “You would do this for me if you really loved me” or “If you don’t go along with me, I’m not sure I can continue on”—is highly manipulative. What marital expert John Gottman calls kitchensinking or a string of your flaws and shortcomings that’s lobbed at you if there’s a disagreement is a very bad thing indeed. And if you’re doing the lobbing, it’s no better. Finally, stonewalling or refusing to talk things through is never acceptable. If there’s a single deal-breaker, stonewalling qualifies.
It takes presence of mind to recognize your own actions and reactions in relationship and the harder you work at seeing more clearly, the easier it will become.
Photograph by Andrew Welch. Copyright free. Unsplash.com