There’s an enormous disconnect between what psychology knows about the kind of adult love that sustains the self and builds intimacy and what our culture identifies as romantic love.
Many women, it seems, hang on to what our culture preaches in the hopes that they’ll catch the brass ring, although research shows that children who grow up with a secure style of attachment — whose emotional needs were met in childhood, who felt loved and supported and grew to have confidence in their thoughts and feelings — are more likely to dodge the someday-my-prince-will-sweep-me-off-my-feet vision our culture encourages and find a relationship that is both durable and nurturing. I have written this with women in mind, but much of it applies to men as well.
But those who are most at risk for mistaking manipulation and control for strength and love are those daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood. Attachment theory deems these individuals insecurely attached, further breaking down insecure attachment into three distinct style patterns: anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.
Attachment theory doesn’t just address relational patterns; it also reflects an individual’s ability to manage and self-regulate negative emotions, an important point when it comes to assessing the ability not just to love another person, but also to thrive in a relationship, weathering the inevitable disagreements, fallouts, and ups-and-downs.
Humans are hardwired to need love, but learn about it secondhand.
Infants who are fed, hydrated, and sheltered, but who are deprived of face-to-face interaction and touch fail to thrive and can, in fact, die. That gives you a pretty clear sense of how important attention and attunement — or, simply, love and caring — are to our species. Our mammalian relative, the monkey, is less likely to die deprived in this way, although her brain and neural systems are forever altered. As the authors of the brilliant book A General Theory of Love write (and I quote this whenever I can, because it shouldn’t be paraphrased): “The lack of an unattuned mother is a non-event for a reptile and a shattering injury to the complex and fragile limbic brain of a mammal.”
Humans don’t just need love to thrive in infancy, but also need it to develop optimally. Those whose emotional needs aren’t met in infancy, childhood, and adolescence — who are deprived of love — develop coping mechanisms which, in the long term, prove to be maladaptive and get in the way of both their ability to sustain relationships and their general well-being. Attachment theory describes working or mental models of relationships which are unconsciously drawn from an individual’s experiences. They derive not just from the daughter’s own personal experiences dealing with her primary caretaker and others in the family, but are drawn from her observations about how relationships in her family of origin work. These observations include the behaviors modeled by her parents in an intact marriage and between her parent and a significant other or new spouse in the case of divorce or remarriage.
We learn about love by the love we are shown and by love’s absence or presence in our family of origin.
Insecure attachment styles and models of relationships
Please keep in mind that the coping mechanisms the unloved daughter develops, as well as the mental models of how relationships work that she draws from experience, operate largely unconsciously. That is, of course, part of the problem because, unseen, they influence and shape the unloved daughter’s behaviors. At moments, she may have a glimpse of them — realizing that she pushes away or behaves defensively when she feels threatened, or recognizing that depending on anyone makes her uncomfortable — but by and large, they operate unseen.
Imagine, if you will, a sieve or a filter through which all of your experiences are poured; that’s how these mental models affect behavior.
If your working models of relationships are generally those of a securely attached person, you believe in true connection and intimacy, and you want both. This doesn’t necessarily make you a Pollyanna about love — you know that sometimes mistakes get made, and things don’t work out — but you trust your own perceptions and believe that other people can be trusted as well. You have a positive view of yourself and are able to comfort yourself when you’re stressed or down.
The insecurely attached daughter sees things quite differently. If her mother has been unreliable — sometimes emotionally present, but sometimes not — she grows up wary of both needing love and those individuals who could provide it. Her attachment style is called anxious-preoccupied, because she worries constantly about whether she’s loved, whether the relationship is genuine, and whether her lover will stay true or betray her. She is on constant watch for signs that things might not be what they seem, and that makes it more likely that she’ll both read into and react to words and actions more strongly than she needs to. She’s high in rejection sensitivity, which makes being with her hard, as does her temper when she feels slighted or in danger.
The two avoidant types differ in how they view themselves and others and what motivates them, and their filters are distinct from that of the daughter whose style is anxious-preoccupied. The avoidant daughter has learned, first and foremost, to protect herself from the pain of love and attention either offered up inconsistently in childhood or consistently withheld. This unloved daughter has learned that needing love hurts, and she acts accordingly, donning one suit of emotional armor or another. The fearful-avoidant actually wants connection — she has a high opinion of others and a low one of herself — but she’s simply too afraid of what might happen. She distances herself, is self-protective, and quick to flee. The dismissive-avoidant, on the other hand, is fiercely independent and doesn’t see herself as needing close connection; she’s proud of being an island unto herself. She actually has a high opinion of herself — she sees herself as strong, resilient, and above needing other people or their support — and a low opinion of others.
Early and later interactions with her mother not only form the mental models of what relationships are like — whether they are safe or fraught, reliable or unreliable, worthy of trust or requiring self-protection — but they also shape her ability to self-regulate and manage negative emotions. While secure children learn healthy coping mechanisms when they’re sad, afraid, or lonely, daughters who develop without maternal attunement and responsiveness have trouble self-regulating. When they experience painful emotions, they either wall themselves off from feeling or flood.
The truth is that positive emotions don’t require processing, and how happy we are is less a function of the number of happy-making moments we experience than how we manage those that stress us out or make us miserable.
What unloved daughters learn about love
The takeaway lessons gleaned from a difficult childhood about what love is and isn’t are influential and tend to operate unconsciously. I asked my readers on Facebook to weigh in from their adult perspective and added some observations of my own. Please note that these lessons overlap in places and cross-pollinate to influence the daughter’s behaviors in complex ways.
1. That love is a transaction.
Daughters of narcissistic, controlling, and combative mothers learn that love is earned; you are not loved because of who you are, but for what you do. And when you displease your mother by disappointing or underperforming, love will be withdrawn. Reaching adulthood, these daughters tend to be clueless about the dyadic nature of healthy relationships and what constitutes emotional give-and-take. They often wrongly see mistreatment or even abusive behavior as the necessary price you pay for being loved.
2. That love is conditional.
This is allied with the view that love involves a quid pro quo, but when visited on a child, can create lasting emotional confusion. As one daughter wrote: “My mother used withdrawal of love and attention as a way of punishing me and making me toe the line. If I did I what she said, she loved me. If I didn’t, I was bad, unworthy, unlovable. Frankly, I grew up thinking of love as a kind of weapon mothers had. I still revert to that at times.”
Other daughters report that they, too, grew up feeling that love was a tool for manipulation. Adele told this story to demonstrate how she had to unlearn that particular lesson: “I was rewarded by my mother for being the daughter she wanted, and not the person I was. When my boyfriend, now my husband, gave me a beautiful ring for my birthday years ago, I was immediately suspicious. His gesture didn’t make me happy. I thought there had to be strings attached somehow. I couldn’t believe that love included simply making the person you love happy.”
3. That emotions (and true feelings) need to be hidden.
Mothers (and fathers, for that matter) who use shame as a way of controlling their children teach them that showing emotion (crying, for example) makes you vulnerable to scorn. Combative and controlling mothers often tell their children that showing your feelings is a sign of weakness, and that they need to toughen up. All that does is underscore the need for the insecure child to push off from her feelings and hide them the best that she can, adding to the deficits she already has in being able to use emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to use emotions to inform thoughts, and thought to inform feelings.
This detachment may lead her to pretend in relationships, either professing emotions she doesn’t feel or denying ones she does. That, in turn, may make her feel fraudulent and afraid of being somehow “found out” and discarded. It’s a horrible treadmill to be stuck on.
4. That love needs to be sought and searched for.
The unloved daughter lacks a sense of belonging in her family of origin, and if she doesn’t belong there, where will she ever belong? That lesson learned makes her feel that not only is love not given freely, but it’s a rare commodity that you must be lucky enough to find. Of course, the unloved daughter also doesn’t understand that to feel worthy of love, you must first love yourself. This is what one daughter wrote: “I saw my mother’s love as conditional, depending on whether I said or did the right things. But I always fell short, and the way she treated me made me feel unworthy of love. As an adult, I never looked inward for love; instead, I searched for it in others. Sadly, I chose someone similar to my mother for a husband who, too, made me feel unworthy.”
5. That love makes you vulnerable and weak.
The pain that the unloved daughter feels when love is doled out in the tiniest of portions, not given at all, or withdrawn as punishment makes her believe that while being unloved may make you lonely or unhappy, it doesn’t put you at risk. Many daughters simply wall themselves off, deciding that love is too risky unless you want to be someone else’s emotional dinner. The most avoidantly attached certainly feel this way, and ironically, they may become predators and controllers themselves, especially if they’re high in narcissistic traits and love control. So, one daughter may simply build herself a high castle to hide in, while another heads off looking for people who’ll make her feel good about herself.
6. That love hurts.
Of course, securely attached people suffer both heartbreak and rejection, too; There’s no magic shield that protects you from the human condition. Research has confirmed that the neural conduits for physical and emotional pain are shared so, for all of us, a broken heart is more reality than metaphor. But the securely attached weather the hurt better and can summon up experiences that speak to the positive power of love, which the unloved daughter cannot. That daughter has already internalized that love hurts, as does needing it, and each rejection or disappointment is just another piece of proof.
What we learned about love in childhood can be unlearned, but it takes time. Recognizing that we were starved for affection is an important first step.
The ideas in this post are drawn from the research done for my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. Thanks to my readers for their help.
Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.
Eisenberger, Naomi. “The Pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain” (2012) Nature Reviews Neuroscience (May 2012), 13 (6), 421-434.
Kross, Ethan, Marc G. Berman et al. “Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain” (2011) PNAS, vol, 108, no.5, 6270-6275.