I speak often of the delicate dance between mothers and daughters, especially as adults, and even wrote about helping our daughters maneuver their adult relationships—since, although our roles continue to change with them, we are often the first person they turn to to “vent.”
So how can moms show support to their daughters while choosing not to directly get involved in their personal lives?
It’s a delicate subject, since you know your daughter wants you to like—no, love—the person she has fallen for. But in her times of conflict she may turn to you to for a second opinion as to whether she is correct in her assumptions about her relationship or to side with her when she feels she is being misunderstood. Keep in mind that the reasons she chooses the partners, husbands or boyfriends she does may or may not have anything to do with her childhood or upbringing, so don’t assume you have any reason or right to take ownership of it. Listening and attending are not the same as advising, and as difficult as it might be for moms to stay in the background when they know their daughters need them, it’s something I believe we must learn to do. It’s not, however all we can do.
There are exceptions, of course. If your daughter finds herself in a relationship of abuse, it is only natural to help her wherever and whenever you can. But if she is complaining about how she and her partner or boyfriend get along, whatever opinions/assumptions you offer have the potential to (1) come back to haunt you if she rejects them or they prove to be untrue (2) keep her from figuring things out on her own and learning from them, and (3) preoccupy yourself with an adult life no longer in your purview.
What you can talk to her about (and these are things even better taught during the later teen years, before she even begins to experience them), however, is herself, and what is fair for her to expect from a loving partner. Even if you were no stellar role model for relationships, there are some healthy ideals moms can offer their daughters so that their girls are armed with the tools to make their own observations and decisions. A disclaimer here: I see these as general truths. I don't possess a Ph.D. in psychology, so these are based only on my own observations and personal experiences.
(1) Respect is a two-way street. Offer it while expecting it in return. Good relationships are forged more on how a couple handles the bad times than the good ones. It’s not just about making love, but about fighting fairly. Anything that degrades into name-calling, fits of rage, or the refusal to re-group and discuss things rationally means that respect is being diminished and needs to be re-addressed. This is something that must be practiced and therapists can be of enormous help if both individuals want to take steps to do something about it. Even if both are not on board at first, it is common for one to begin seeing a therapist privately and eventually bring the other along.
(2) Neither person in a relationship should — or should be expected to — change who they are. It's important to relay to her that while a partner may begin to lovingly do a few things differently to please her, demanding it of him can backfire. By the same token, falling deeply, madly in love may find your daughter getting “lost” in a relationship — failing to realize that the person she was when it all began was the person her significant other was originally attracted to. Going from feeling valued as an independent woman to merely playing a role for someone else is a conscious choice, but women trying to achieve the perfect "snapshot" of a relationship may not even realize how much of themselves they have given up. If your daughter decides to change aspects of herself (her habits or attitudes), it should be because she recognizes where her flaws exist and wants to do something about them to become a better person, and not for the sake of playing a role or “saving” a relationship.
(3) The true purpose and joy of a relationship should be to be a loving witness of and partner to the other’s existence. It’s “wishing each other well” as the years pass, because we’ve chosen to take this journey together. My long-married, wise mother used to say that when we marry, we marry a stranger. Some people may see this as a cold statement, but I knew what she meant. Explain to your daughter how her partner grew up in a different family, had a separate life before he entered the picture, and will always see things through a different lens than she does, even if he grew up similarly in other ways or they are members of the same ethnic group. Make clear to her that staying together means spending a lifetime getting to know one another while navigating the waters that lay ahead, which may include parenting children, helping one another through illness, or losing loved ones. Thinking she can know what another person is thinking is an exercise in futility that can often leave behind a trail of regret.
(4) She deserves happiness, and that includes pleasure —both with others and with herself. I think many moms hesitate to speak to their daughters about this very important aspect of their lives. Her body is hers to enjoy and not merely a prize to be won by another person. Exploring pleasure together is a lovely and life-affirming part of any relationship, but even when what she sees in the mirror is not pleasing to her, her body has no clue that she fallen out of love with it. Depriving herself of pleasure, whether consciously or unconsciously, means she has given up on one of the most satisfying parts of her life -- one that should never be used as a weapon in a relationship.
(5) What she sees is pretty much what she gets. Any unexpectedly wonderful attributes your daughter finds in her partner beyond that are a bonus and a blessing. When your daughter hears her boyfriend speaking rudely to his mother or degrading women he meets, sees on TV, or in movies, she shouldn’t expect this to be an exception to the rule or a function of immaturity. It’s part of the fabric of who he is, coloring his perceptions of the world as well as how relationships work. Women are great at rationalizing away their partners’ “rough edges”, but she should never think those edges will not affect her. Left unaddressed, the things that truly irritate her now about the other person usually become amplified over the years, not diminished.
(6) If affection, a spirit of generosity and a sense of selflessness are missing in a relationship, it’s not a good one to begin with. It’s not about the challenge of verbal banter or the game of pursuit. Those are both short-lived flirtations. This is real life. Few people can be taught loving values in adulthood, since they tend to be ingrained in us as we grow — inspired either by parents or circumstances that encouraged us to develop them, or both. Your daughter may even find that — for one reason or another — these important traits are missing in either her partner or even in herself within a relationship. In that case, it’s a disservice to another person to continue inflicting pain on them.
If you have a close bond with your daughter and she turns to you to vent about her relationships, it’s wise not to assume you’ve heard both sides of it. The most any of us, as mothers of grown daughters, can do is to offer them hope that the two of them can work things out — whether that leads to higher planes of knowledge about the other or to a life-changing decision to move on. We can’t control, nor should we want to control our daughter’s lives by injecting ourselves into them. But we can steer them in a direction of self-love, since no one stays in a bad relationship without an implied permission on their part.