Valentine’s Day is fast-approaching and although it’s fair to say that humans think about love (and intimacy and sex) pretty much every day of the year, the heat gets turned up on the 14th of February. (For unloved daughters, by the way, it also percolates on her birthday, Mother’s Day, and often Father’s Day, but that’s another story. It’s probably a good thing that while Sibling Day is actually a holiday along with Donut Day, it’s more observed in the breach than the observance, to hack a bit of Shakespeare.)
It should be said that some unloved daughters do find wonderful and satisfying relationships but many flounder. These generalizations don’t apply to each and every one of us, of course; that said, you may find your own unconscious assumptions echoed in my words.
Infants learn about love second-hand…
Yes, we learn about love by being loved, being paid attention to, and having our emotional and physical needs met; the attuned mother teaches her baby that the world is a safe place and that people are kind and loving and, more important, there for her. Alas, for the child who grows up under the tutelage of an unreliable, emotionally unavailable, or dismissive mother, or one high in control or narcissistic traits, these aren’t the lessons learned. Unreliable mothers—who are distant, available, or smothering by turns—teach their offspring that love and attention aren’t about you but about the person who may or may not bestow them upon you. These children learn not to ask for love because it hurts when they’re denied; they may feel deep emotional confusion since they never know which Mommy will show up, the one who cares or the one who doesn’t. Every child is hardwired to need her mother’s love and approval so the emotionally unavailable mother teaches her child that needing love hurts and she may wall herself off to shield herself. The mother who ignores or dismisses her daughter also imparts the lesson that needs make you weak; her daughter is likely to internalize the vision of herself as unworthy of love and consideration. Combative mothers make it clear that tough people don’t need love or approval and this daughter learns to hide in the shadows, keeping her true self off her mother’s radar. The daughters of controlling mothers or those high in narcissistic traits learn that love is earned by obedience and achievement, and can easily be withdrawn if you break the rules or assert yourself. This vision of love as more like a transaction than not, always involving a quid pro quo, and that if you decide not to play the game, you will not just lose love but end up being scapegoated.
These lessons about love aren’t consciously perceived; they are the working models of relationships that are gleaned from childhood experiences. They become the filter through which the unloved daughter perceives love as an adult unless and until she recognizes how her understanding of love, among other things, has been shaped by her past; for more on that, please see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
8 Things the Unloved Daughter Gets Wrong about Love (and needs to unlearn)
Recovering from childhood involves becoming conscious and aware of all the unconscious behaviors and conclusions you drew about the world of relationships. Chief among them are these:
- That love is about power
The single most powerful people in a child’s world are her mother and her father and, if one or both of them withholds love or makes it clear that love is only rewarded to those who are worthy, the daughter internalizes the idea that love belongs to the domain of the powerful. They may believe that power is gained by intelligence, beauty, charm, or athleticism or any other characteristics the unloving parent deems makes you worthy of love and attention. When they look In the mirror, all they see is what they lack.
- That love is a transaction
Many children growing up in toxic households understandably think of love and attention as something that must be paid for in some way or earned; in order to be loved, you have to demonstrate why you should be loved. Since many mothers high in control or narcissistic traits actively play favorites, the transactional nature of love is demonstrated in very real ways. The unloved daughter often grows up thinking that if she were simply more like her sibling—and, of course, less like herself—she would get her mother’s love. As an adult, seeing love as a transaction often keeps her in relationships with controlling or highly critical partners because she believes that this is how love works. All children normalize their childhood experiences and their sense of what’s “normal” and “acceptable” becomes part of the unconscious emotional baggage they drag into adulthood.
- That love always hurts
This doesn’t need much explaining, does it? Alas, this makes the unloved daughter—especially if she has an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment—quick to normalize emotionally abusive behavior and to accept all manner of behavior that someone who was loved and supported in childhood wouldn’t. This isn’t the same as knowing that rejection or a failed relationship hurts which is simply part of the human condition; for these daughters, emotional pain is an expected and accepted part of love. Needless to say, that is not a good thing.
- That love is always conditional
This understanding dovetails into understanding love as requirng a quid pro quo and is the result of believing that proving you are worthy of love is an ongoing task. Since in this view, love is never freely given but always earned, it’s logical enough that it can be withdrawn for any reason and no reason at all. Many of these daughters find themselves in adult relationships which require them to prove their worthiness again and again and with partners who threaten to leave them if they don’t toe the line. This too is a lesson learned in her family of origin.
- That love requires self-curation
One of the most damaging lessons is that no one will ever love you for who you actually are so getting someone to love you requires changing yourself in some meaningful way. This might be physical (losing weight in order to be worthy or changing how you dress or look) or behavioral (accepting your partner’s rules, doing what he wants all of the time, not voicing opposition or disapproval) or any combination of the two. Not surprisingly, these daughters don’t feel loved for themselves (they aren’t) and feel fraudulent as well—a bad combination.
- That passion is turbulent and unsettling
Drawn from cultural tropes, the unloved daughter is apt to mistake emotional turbulence for passion which, again, can set her up for relationships that include manipulative tactics such as withdrawing attention, giving the silent treatment, and other toxic behaviors. Because she’s not apt to view a loving relationship as one of two caring equals, she assumes that power plays are just a part of romance.
- That losing sight of yourself is part of love
Once again, here the culture myths about being swept off your feet and being made “complete” by someone else feed into her other assumptions about love being about power and the need to please someone. Because she’s quick to placate and please at the first sight of tension, she rarely voices an opinion that runs counter to what her partner wants. Of course, at its best, love permits us to become the best versions of ourselves and not figments of someone else’s imagination.
- That depending on someone is risky and stupid
This is the stance of the daughter who develops an avoidant style of attachment as a result of her childhood experiences. She feels superior to those who are in need of love; while she participates in relationships, she always has her running shoes at the ready. Does this sound like you?
What we learn about love in childhood governs how we go about finding love as adult until we embark on a process of unlearning. Luckily, we’re not doomed to live in the shadow cast by childhood experiences forever.
Photograph by Marcus Cramer. Copyright free. Unsplash.com