Not long ago, I got a message from a reader which lamented what she saw as a real loss in her life: the absence of close female friendships. She wrote saying that no matter how she tried, inevitably the friendship or acquaintanceship would fall apart, and she’d feel absolutely terrible. Then she asked a question many other unloved daughters have asked: “Does this come back to my mother, do you think? I mean, if the first woman you’re close to isn’t untrustworthy, are you ever really going to get down your guard?” It’s a good question.
I’ll admit readily that I personally had lots of trouble forging close bonds with women, especially when I was young. It wasn’t simply that I saw girls, even friends, as potential rivals and competitors, something I’d learned from my mother, but that I was afraid of making myself vulnerable to being hurt by a friend. Yes, that goes back to the issue of trust. But, that said, I have been betrayed by women I thought were friends. Many years ago, a supposedly close friend of long-standing slept with the man I loved and told me I was too possessive. More recently, another broadcast something I had specifically asked her to keep confidential.
It’s true enough that people make mistakes and life requires apologies and amends. But, for the unloved daughter, these incidents carry more weight than they otherwise might. As Lydia commented: “I always wonder why someone is being friendly. Does she want something from me? What’s in it for her? It’s the motive thing that gets in my way. I just don’t believe anyone would hang with me because I’m fun or interesting.”
Understanding the shadow Mom casts on friendship
According to attachment theory, beginning in infancy, our primary caretakers—most usually other mothers—teach us how the world of relationship works; that model affects our understanding of all human connections, including those with family members, friends, romantic partners, and even the more superficial ones of acquaintance. With a loving mother who models attuned and caring behavior, a child learns that world of connection is safe and enriching, that closeness makes you feel good and safe. The unloving and unattuned mother—whether she’s unavailable or maddeningly intrusive or controlling, dismissive or hypercritical—teaches us that closeness has a price and can cause pain. An envious or competitive mother can make us armored against the possibility that all women—even our peers—are just like her.
But it’s not just what Mom models; it’s also how she orchestrates the relationships within the household.
Siblings and other rivalries
If we have them, our siblings are usually the first other peers we come into close and sustained contact with. As Deborah Tannen notes in her book You Were Always Mom’s Favorite, a sister can be someone who “sets you straight”—helping you navigate the shoals of life—or “someone who twists your words so that they boomerang back and hurt you.” That is especially true in a household dominated by a controlling or combative mother or one high in narcissistic traits. These mothers aren’t just more likely to play favorites but make siblings compete each other for her praise, kudos, and the breadcrumbs of her affection.
Culturally, we idealize the sister bond—think Little Women and Little House on the Prairie—and we use the word sisterhood to denote the close bonds between and among women who are unrelated by blood. But the unloved daughter may actually have her worries about female friendship confirmed by her own experiences with her sister or sisters.
5 things that get in the unloved daughter’s way
It’s not simply her past experiences that make it hard for the unloved daughter to forge close and lasting bonds with other women; it’s also her unexamined unconscious behavior. No, I’m not victim-blaming here but without seeing the learned behaviors that are working in the present, it will be hard for a daughter to trouble-shoot and adopt new, more productive ways of approaching female friendships.
- Her rejection sensitivity
Having been rejected in childhood, the adult daughter may be on high alert for any sign that she’s being slighted or that someone is about to betray or reject her. Often, this causes her—and, mind you, this is happening outside of consciousness—to overreact or read into situations that actually don’t warrant analysis. It’s no wonder that friends sometimes call her a diva. Unloved daughters need to become aware of their sensitivity and ask themselves: “Am I reacting to the present or the past in the moment?”
- Defaulting to being a pleaser (and not speaking her mind)
Unloved daughters often complain of the inequality built into certain friendships—that they give 100 percent and get little back—and while that sometimes may be accurate, sometimes it isn’t. Daughters who have been dismissed or marginalized in their families of origin often become inveterate pleasers and have difficulty articulating their own needs and wants and that too can carry over into adulthood friendships, much to their detriment. Pay attention to whether you’re doing the work of an equal partner in the friendship or whether you’re consigning yourself to being a foil or a follower. Of course, if the friend you’re without doesn’t want a partner but just a sidekick who always says “yes,” that’s another matter.
- Her confusion about boundaries
Children raised by loving and attuned mothers understand the need for boundaries, and don’t confuse them with walls. They see them as part of the relational world in which each person is both whole unto her or himself and yet connected. Unloved daughters, especially those with mothers who are intrusive (controlling, combative or enmeshed) or those who see their children as nothing but extensions of themselves (controlling or narcissistic), don’t understand how healthy boundaries work. They may be so armored, on the one hand, that they think boundaries are meant to keep people at bay, and they push friends off when they feel intruded upon. They may be so needy and rejection-sensitive that they think that a friend’s needing time or space to herself is a rebuff. Again, becoming conscious of your issues with boundaries is key.
- Her neediness
Emotional neediness, combined with rejection sensitivity, may make it hard for the unloved daughter to sustain friendships. She may want to fill the hole left in her heart by childhood so badly that she is clueless and insensitive to the other person’s needs and wants; she may seem utterly self-involved to her friend, even though her motive is close connection. Alas, she’s more like the proverbial bull (cow?) in the china shop than not.
- Her ambivalence about intimacy and sharing confidences
Shame and worry generally stop a daughter from confiding in others about her childhood experiences, in part because the cultural belief in the mother myths—that all mothers are loving and that mothering is instinctual—is so strong. Alas, it’s not unlikely that, if she does confide, her confidante may not take her altogether seriously. Additionally, she may still worry that her mother was right not to love her—that she has deep seated-character flaws that make her unlikeable or unlovable—and she worries that her friend may see them too. Alas, since the deepest female friendships are often founded on the sharing of confidences and experiences, she may unwittingly shut herself off from the possibility of forming these close bonds. Again, becoming conscious and aware of what you bring to the party goes a long way to changing how you connect.
Friendships can help us thrive and navigate the worst of times with caring company. If you want closer connections, they are within reach if you bring conscious understanding to the fore. The ideas in this post are drawn from my forthcoming book: Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Photograph by Stocksnap. Copyright free. Pixabay.com
Tannen, Deborah. You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives. New York: Random House, 2009.