“It’s been two years since I decided I had to cut ties with my mother. It was painful and awful especially since my dad felt that if I wasn’t going to talk to her, I couldn’t talk to him. I thought I was doing fine until, out of the blue, my mother called me. I melted and went over last weekend, only to face a storm of anger and criticisms. I left, broken, and back to square one. Now what do I do?”
To be honest, had there been an Internet around when I was in my twenties and thirties, I would have sent one just like it because I, too, was in a repetitive pattern of going no contact and, then, reinstating communications.
In fact, this happens so often that I even have a term for it: “Going back to the well.” Intellectually, the daughter knows that the well is dry but her hopefulness that the relationship can be fixed or changed in some meaningful manner trumps her intellectual understanding.
In a study of estrangement conducted in the United Kingdom, with more than 800 participants, Dr. Lucy Blake found that cycling in and out of estrangement is, in fact, very common. In my case, I finally broke with my mother irrevocably at the age of thirty-eight after a nearly two-decade pattern of leaving and going back to the well; ironically, it was only after I wrote my first book on the subject, Mean Mothers, that I realized every reconciliation was my doing. Not one was initiated by my mother.
Why going no contact doesn’t heal you
Because the unloved daughter is focused on her mother’s lack of love for her and her hurtful mistreatment (marginalizing, being hypercritical, bullying, dismissing, scapegoating, and the like), she often feels that simply getting out of the line of fire will help her heal. That’s actually not true; absenting yourself from the source of pain gives you room to breathe and think, and allows you to stop reacting emotionally, but it doesn’t heal you. Why is that? Because of what I call the core conflict in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming your Life. Going no contact does nothing to resolve the core conflict, alas.
Understanding the core conflict
As I explain in my book Daughter Detox, it can take a daughter decades into her adult life to recognize both her wounds and who has wounded her.
I realize this sounds hugely counterintuitive—after all, if you’re hurting, how can you not know who’s hurting you? But it’s absolutely true.
Keep in mind that it’s not just anyone who’s hurting you, but your mother, the very person who is supposed to love, support, and protect you. Cultural myths about mothers encourage daughters to make excuses for their mothers’ behaviors and, of course, to shoulder the blame for their mothers’ mistreatment. After all, if all mothers love their children and mine doesn’t appear to love me, it must be my fault, right? Additionally, all children normalize what goes on at their house and assume that it goes on everywhere else. It may take years until the daughter realizes that, actually, what went on at her house isn’t what happens elsewhere.
But recognition of her wounds and who wounded her is only one side of the core conflict; on the other is a mighty opponent which is the daughter’s continuing need for her mother’s love and her hopefulness that someday, somehow, she can get it. There does not seem to be an expiration for this hardwired need, so it makes a mighty adversary, a bear to be wrestled to the ground with effort and patience. It’s this part of the core conflict that explains why women go back to the well, despite all they know intellectually, and why they spend years trying to get their mothers’ love and attention. To no avail.
Going no contact tips its hat at the recognition side of the core conflict; it does nothing to change the continuing need for a mother’s love. The following was a message I got via Facebook. Keep in mind that this woman is more typical than not.
“I have gone no contact by simply disappearing for months on end and have tried writing letters which explain my position twice. Neither tactic works; my mother simply lets me go. My therapist tells me I’m stuck and I know she’s right but, somehow, I just can’t move on. I’m 45, married, and have two kids of my own but figuring this out is somehow beyond me. Do you have any advice?”
Steps to begin to end the core conflict
This is only a partial list and presenting steps in this form belies the process involved in each one; resolving the core conflict takes real work, preferably accomplished with a talented therapist, and a great deal of patience. It takes time to unlearn what was learned in childhood, for one thing; for another, resolving the core conflict requires that you love and honor yourself first and foremost, and have compassion for yourself, and come to a point of acceptance that your mother’s love, as you’ve defined it, cannot be gotten.
- Stop asking why
The best way of keeping the core conflict going is to continue asking the question “Why doesn’t my mother love me?”
I recognize that it’s the question every unloved child wants answered but, if you keep asking it, you will stay on the merry-go-round pretty much forever. (Readers of Daughter Detox will be familiar with this and other questions I believe you must give up in order to heal.) Know that 1) just asking the question raises the hope that you can find the answer and somehow fix things and 2) there is no answer. Your mother doesn’t love you for many reasons or none at all. It doesn’t matter in the end because healing is about you and why she doesn’t love you is about her, not you or who you are.
- Recognize the conflict
Begin to look at it objectively, especially your need for your mother’s love and attention. See it as a stranger might, and ask yourself whether you believe that there are strategies you could adopt and changes you could make to yourself that would possibly change things. Think about the exchanges and interactions you’ve had with your mother objectively; what conclusions do you draw about your ability to change the tenor of the relationship?
- Work on letting go
Letting go requires that you disengage cognitively and emotionally first and that you begin to set goals for living a healthier and independent life that reflects who you are. Letting go of the behaviors that have kept you in the core conflict involves recognizing them first: Your habit of rationalizing or excusing your mother’s behavior (“She doesn’t mean to hurt me. She’s just a blurter”); your default position of blaming yourself (“if I hadn’t challenged her, she wouldn’t have been so mean.”); your keeping the peace at all costs to your own detriment (“There’s no point in telling her she hurt me. She won’t apologize anyway.”), and every other behavior that keeps you stuck, including being overly optimistic when your talk with her is civil instead of warfare. Working on your own ability to manage your emotions is key to the solution, too.
These steps are just the beginning of what you’ll need to do to quell the core conflict. Give it time and recognize that unlearning is a process.
If you’ve gone no contact, take advantage of the quiet and the absence of open warfare to begin healing. Don’t kid yourself that simply cutting your mother out of your life solves things; it doesn’t. For more, please see my book Daughter Detox.
Photograph by Kristopher Roller. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.
Blake, Lucy. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone. http://standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf