One of the areas of life most affected by the experience of being unloved in childhood is that of relationship. This makes perfect sense, of course, because if attachment theory is to believed—and it should be, since the findings are incredibly robust—our earliest interactions with our primary caretaker, most usually our mothers, shape not only our ability to regulate our emotions and our sense of ourselves but how we understand the nature of relationships. We are all hardwired to need love but we learn what love is second-hand.
A daughter whose mother is reliably attuned to her, shows her love and affection, and is emotionally responsive learns that world of relationship is safe, that love is reliable, and that depending on other people helps you navigate life; these mental models of relationship, studies show, are consistent through the lifespan. She’s likely to be drawn to those who are open to love, are emotionally available, and need and want intimacy.
The unloved daughter learns other lessons about the world of relationship, ones that won’t stand her in good stead when she enters adolescence and adulthood and begins to seek out partnerships of her own. If her mother is emotionally unavailable or unreliable in her responses, the daughter may learn to armor herself, cutting herself off from her emotions because it’s easier than suffering the pain of love denied; her style of attachment may be dismissive-avoidant. The dismissive-avoidant has a high opinion of herself and a low one of others; she prides herself on being self-reliant and prefers more superficial relationships that don’t involve real intimacy. The daughter of a highly combative or controlling mother may develop what’s called a fearful-avoidant style of attachment; this daughter wants a close relationship but is terribly afraid of being hurt or rejected and, as a result, brings a reactivity and sensitivity to the table that causes her to retreat. Finally, daughters of mothers high in narcissistic traits or those who are dismissive or hypercritical may develop what’s called an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment. These daughters want a close relationship but are very emotionally reactive and always on the lookout for signs of rejection. They are thin-skinned, easily slighted (or reading in to see slights where there are none), and have trouble managing their emotions. Their ex-lovers are likely to deem them high maintenance.
The larger problem
These daughters are absolutely clueless about what real love looks like, or what healthy interactions between two people feel like; they don’t understand what constitutes balance in a dyadic connection. As I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, if the unloved daughter is going to have satisfying relationships in which she can thrive, she will not only have to unlearn the lessons about love she learned in childhood but bring them into conscious awareness. All of these assumptions function automatically, motivating behaviors unconsciously. As research shows, we are all drawn to the familiar—even if it’s toxic—when we look for connections.
The process of unlearning
You must identify what you learned before you can unlearn it so following is a list of some of the unarticulated thoughts about love unloved daughters bring into their relationships.
- That love is a transaction or a reward
The unloved daughter never learns that she is worthy of love by definition. Instead, she learns that love must be earned by performing or acting in certain ways. In some households, she learns that she’s undeserving of love and attention unless she plays by rules or achieves certain goals. The take-away? Love costs and is never given freely.
- That love is conditional
This is closely connected to love as a transaction since she also learns that love can be taken away or withheld if certain conditions aren’t met. Alas, this belief can lead a daughter to choose partners who behave in this familiar way and who use love as either a carrot or a stick.
- That love hurts
Because the daughter feels the pain of rejection as well as the hurt of being unloved, she believes that love exacts an emotional price. That unconscious belief segues into the cultural tropes about love being all subsuming and may lead to her to be attracted to those who demonstrate caring and hurtful behavior by turns. The take-away? Normalizing hurt as part of love leaves you vulnerable to believing those who hurt you actually love you.
- That love makes you a target
The chances are good that if she had a controlling, combative, or narcissistic mother whose love she craved, she also absorbed the lesson that needing love makes you weak, vulnerable, and a target. This is what underlies all three styles of insecure attachment: Being sure that the people from whom you seek love will surely disappoint you in the end.
- That love is a game with a winner
The daughter’s quest for her mother’s love—by pleasing her, meeting certain conditions, denying her own feelings and thoughts—makes her think that love is bound up with game-playing, and that, in turn, makes her vulnerable to the blandishments of someone high in narcissistic traits. It is, alas, easy for the unloved daughter to mistake the rollercoaster ride of ups and downs for passion and the narcissist’s love bombing for the real thing.
The good news? What was learned can be unlearned but you have to see it first.
Photograph by Caroline Hernandez. Copyright free. Unsplash.com