Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Breaking the Fantasy Bond with Our Mothers

The value of differentiating from the negative traits of our mothers.

The other day, I was reminded of reading Nancy Friday’s book, My Mother/My Self many years ago; so I took Friday’s book down from a shelf in my office and opened it, quite by chance, to page 388, where I found this heavily underlined quote:

“As we get older and the tie to mother is weakened by physical or psychological separation, introjections gather momentum. When we move into an apartment of our own, when we find a job, take a lover, get married and have a child of our own—in all these important rites of passage away from her, as we take one step forward, we take another one back, and find ourselves doing things her way. Becoming like her overcomes our separation anxiety.”

Friday’s implication is that as we mature, we tend to become more like our mother, yet this represents taking a step backward in our own personal development. The truth is that becoming like one’s mother is a mixed blessing. Adopting our mother’s ways of doing things would be beneficial for our development if we were raised by the “ideal” or even a “good enough” mother. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many—or most—women. As Hendrika Freud emphasized, “Generally speaking, the bond between mothers and daughters facilitates passing on emotional health as well as pathology to the next generation.”

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It’s these two opposing ways of identifying with our mothers that cause us distress. We easily identify with and imitate our mother’s positive qualities and point of view about life, but the problem is that we also imitate many of her negative traits and irrational views, even those that we may criticize in her—and we’re mostly unaware of this process.

Nancy Friday’s and Hendrika Freud’s ideas strongly resonate with me for many reasons, both personal and professional. For one thing, my father, Robert Firestone, has written extensively about the ambivalence inherent in every mother-daughter relationship. His descriptive accounts of the dynamics operating in the mother-daughter bond were published in Compassionate Child-Rearing (1990) and are explained in a chapter in our forthcoming book, co-authored by Joyce Catlett, The Self Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation.

What are some of the less-than-beneficial aspects of the mother-daughter bond?  First, women tend to imitate their mother’s negative point of view about life and her maladaptive ways of coping with pain and anxiety. For example, if their mother acted victimized and helpless, they often have tendencies to relate to life as passive victims. If their mother saw men as weak, indifferent, or degrading of them as women, the daughters internalize these views and take them on as their own. As a result, many women fail to distinguish between the internalized negative maternal point of view and their own views.

Psychiatrist/Obstetrician Joseph Rheingold was also struck by the power of the mother/daughter conflict in the 2500 women that he interviewed in a 12-year clinical research program. Their personal narratives led Rheingold to conclude:

 A woman may bring any number of assets to marriage – compassion, wisdom, intelligence, skills, an imaginative spirit, delight-giving femininity, good humor, friendliness, pride in a job well done— but if she does not bring emancipation from her mother, the assets may wither or may be overbalanced by the liability of the fear of being a woman.”

Feelings of fear and guilt in relation to her mother can cause a woman to turn her back on her own personal goals, to retreat from her sexuality, or to withdraw from being close to her partner. Women who pull back in these ways feel bound to their mothers, not by a genuine sense of closeness, but by an imagined connection or fantasy bond that was a substitute for the warmth and attunement that was missing in the early attachment with their mothers.

As women struggle to become their own person, to develop their own identity, to feel confident in their personal and professional goals, and to keep passion and love alive in their relationship, they often experience a kind of anticipatory fear that their independence and sexuality will threaten the illusory connection with their mother. While most women don’t consciously think, “By doing this or that, I might threaten my connection to my mother,” this subconscious threat can arouse intense feelings of separation anxiety left over from their childhood—the kind of anxiety that Nancy Friday described in her book.

Women’s unconscious reactions to these powerful feelings of fear and anxiety often take the form of a decline in their sexual desire or a diminished interest in sex. It can also injure their self-confidence and ability in relation to their personal goals and successes. This unwelcome trend could be a sign that they are becoming more like their mother, especially if their mother gradually gave up her identity as a sexual woman after she had children.

 A friend of mine told me about an evening that she spent recently with her boyfriend where she felt more loving and passionate than usual. She said that she also felt very happy when he told her how much he loved her. It dawned on her that their relationship had become very meaningful. Later in the week, however, she began to have doubts about how he really felt. “He really isn’t that interested in you. Look at him. Doesn’t he seem a little cool and distant?” She noticed that she was becoming increasingly critical and irritated in her interactions with him. Suddenly, she recalled her mother’s complaints and harsh criticisms of her father. The realization that she was internally reciting her mother’s attitudes toward her father had the effect of dispelling her suspicious attitudes and doubts. Feeling genuinely loved and acknowledged by her boyfriend had triggered anxiety and she unconsciously slipped into her mother’s way of thinking and her general distrust of men. It was fortunate that my friend caught on to the way she was using her mother’s attitude to hurt her relationship and was able to differentiate from this internalized point of view.

There is a way to challenge this fantasy bond with our mothers. I have known many women who challenged the harmful attitudes and maladaptive views that they took on as their own at an early age during painful interactions with their mothers. As they came to understand the division within themselves between their desire for independence and sexual fulfillment and the debilitating psychological tie to their mothers, they were able to break this fantasy bond by changing negative traits in themselves that were imitative of their mothers. Differentiating from the destructive aspects of maternal influence enabled them to experience more satisfaction in their relationships and to manifest a stronger personal identity.

For more from Dr. Lisa Firestone visit PsychAlive.org

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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