Relationships

Unloved Daughters and the Question of Intimacy

How close is too close? What's safe and what's threatening?

Posted Oct 21, 2020

 Taisiia Stupak/Unsplash
Source: Taisiia Stupak/Unsplash

One of the greatest challenges facing the unloved daughter, having grown up without a healthy model of what sustaining relationships look like, is making her intimate adult relationships work. At the same time, many of these daughters are starved for love and validation, which can be a recipe for disaster, especially during the early years of adulthood and sometimes decades longer. If she’s used to close others verbally abusing her or marginalizing her, she’s much more likely to normalize or excuse these behaviors in potential partners; her own emotional neediness is, alas, a very poor compass for the journey she’s on. Then, too, her own mental models of what relationships look like are a reflection of her attachment style.

We all gravitate toward what we know in close relationships, and if you’ve grown up with loving and attuned parents, this is a fine kind of homecoming. But many of us have normalized abusive or uncaring behaviors in our childhood as part of our coping, and alas, we march into our adult lives with those same lousy assumptions in tow, which, not surprisingly, do not stand us in good stead. Often, the unloved daughter’s first recognition of her childhood wounds comes in therapy, and the chances are good that she backs into that recognition because she’s sought help for a failed relationship or a series of them. Many unloved daughters end up marrying people who treat them as their mothers or fathers did, alas.

Mental models and the question of intimacy

Of the three types of insecure attachment styles, the anxious-preoccupied is the most dramatic; while this daughter needs an intimate relationship to feel validated, she needs so much reassurance and is so quick to react to anything that seems even vaguely threatening that being with her can be emotionally exhausting. It is the style that researchers note is most likely to be a self-fulfilling prophesy; being this afraid of being abandoned can end up with a partner doing exactly that to escape the drama.

The other two types of insecure attachment—dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant—make the road to romance and intimacy bumpy in different ways. Those with a dismissive style really don’t want dyadic intimacy; they need to stay independent and in control. (Yes, this is the attachment style most closely associated with those high in narcissistic traits.) The fearful-avoidant actually does want intimacy but she is deeply insecure and terrifically afraid of emotional pain so she always has her running shoes at the ready.

Once we begin to understand in fullness what we learned about love in childhood and how it’s affected us, we begin to gain a certain amount of control over how we connect to others in intimate relationships. We can see that how we chose the partners we did, how we acted and reacted as we did, and what we thought we wanted at the time were part of a bigger picture and context. It’s in the area of relationship—both romantic and platonic, with lovers and friends—that we can really see the effect of our early experiences on our behaviors.

The problem with fairy tales and rescuers

The culture we live in aids and abets the mistakes women are likely to make, promoting an idea of romantic love that somehow sweeps you off your feet and rescues you from whatever ails you. Unfortunately, the unloved daughter—and I say this with certainty since I was one—has been on the lookout for a rescuer for as long as she can remember, and that’s one of the reasons that stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty have such incredible staying power. They not only address our vivid sense of injustice at having been denied love early but also deliver justice in the form of a loving prince (and it doesn’t hurt that he brings along a kingdom and a pretty crown for the princess’s head). But—the allure of fairy tales aside—this view of romantic love doesn’t serve us in our quest to heal and reclaim ourselves because we are the only people who can rescue us by tackling and understanding what happened to us.

Key questions to ask yourself

Being honest with yourself is so important at this juncture, separate either from fairy tales or societal judgment. Yes, our culture still considers it normative to be in a long-term and stable relationship. Despite the fact that many people never marry at all or divorce and stay single, marriage remains the cultural gold standard of commitment, especially given the fight for it to be extended beyond traditional heterosexual couples; this doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, of course.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much intimacy and sharing do I want and need?
  • How does sex connect to what I feel for someone?
  • Am I equally comfortable revealing my strengths and my flaws and being known truly?
  • What is my vision of an ideal partnership?
  • Who would be the ideal partner?
  • For whom would I be the ideal partner?
  • How do I feel when I am alone?
  • Do I believe that ending up alone or single is a sign of being unlovable?
  • Do I equate being on my own with being lonely?
  • How much cultural pressure do I feel to be part of a couple?

The more consciously aware you become of these unconscious and internalized assumptions about relationships, the better equipped you’ll be to change your thinking. Working with a gifted therapist is the surest way to change behaviors but self-help can also be of use as you actively work to recover from childhood.

This post is adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood.

Copyright © 2019, 2020 by Peg Streep.