Should You Divorce Your Mother?
Taking a look at a hot button and taboo topic
Posted August 20, 2015
In the court of public opinion, the daughter is always on trial. The societal response to a mother or father who disinherits a child—whether it’s someone famous like Joan Crawford who cut two of her children out of her will, referring only obliquely to “reasons that are well-known to them” or your next-door neighbor—is muted and more or less accepting. “Ah, yes,” culture murmurs, feeling sorry for the parent, summoning thoughts of an incorrigible or impossible child, a black sheep, the one you tried everything you could think of but nothing worked. There’s a collective nod, an acknowledgment that parenting is hard and, well, children can be difficult to deal with.
In contrast, the adult child who cuts her mother out of her life is judged on the spot, labeled as ungrateful, irrational, immature, impetuous, or acting out. The myths of motherhood are largely responsible for this cultural stance, those (false) truisms that tell us that all mothers are loving, that mothering is instinctual, and that maternal love is unconditional. These myths—combined with the Fourth Commandment—make the daughter the responsible party.
As a daughter who wrestled with the question of choosing no contact for two decades of my adult life—cutting off and then going back again and again until I finally bailed at the age of 39—I’ve seen people change their opinion of me in seconds. It might be a doctor or nurse asking me about my mother’s health when she was my age and hearing me answer, “I don’t know. She wasn’t in my life.” Or it could be a new acquaintance hearing that, no, my daughter never met her grandmother, even when she was still alive and living not very far away. Yes, I have a dog in this race and I know the cost. I have been called selfish, narcissistic, and worse—by total strangers.
The truth of the unloving mother is one that even the most well-intentioned don’t want to hear. Recently, a friend of mine from high school with whom I’d spent a semester abroad recalled how I had to leave Europe because my father was hospitalized some 50 years ago. She did not know that even though I was back in the United States for a full week before he died, and sat in the hospital lobby every day, my mother never allowed either me or my father’s sister to see him. He died without saying goodbye to me. He died without my telling him how much I loved him. My friend came from a loving family, is the mother to three adult children, and now a grandparent, and she struggled with my story. “There must have been a reason,” she said slowly, "A good reason she wouldn’t let you see him. Maybe she was protecting you.” “No,” I answered, “She was guarding her turf. She knew how badly I wanted to see him. She did it to hurt me.” My friend had no words.
No one likes hearing about unloving mothers. No one.
Why daughters consider divorce
Despite the cultural mythology, the relationships that end in estrangement are not amped-up versions of mother-daughter stress. Stress (and even friction or real fraction) happen in basically loving mother-daughter dyads, particularly in times of transition. There’s no question that the mother-daughter connection undergoes a period of transition from late adolescence to adulthood—a body of research substantiates what most of us experience—as do the relationships between mother and son, father and daughter, father and son.
Mothers used to an authoritarian or controlling style of parenting will certainly feel the friction the most as their daughters begin to make choices that are not necessarily the mothers’ own; research shows that mothers may experience lowered subjective well-being when daughters outstrip or eclipse their choices and achievements. In loving and relatively healthy relationships, boundaries are re-drawn by both mother and daughter, and acceptance of a child’s choices—even grudgingly offered—gets worked out. I never interview daughters in their twenties or thirties who make it clear that the process is still ongoing; periods of transition in any relationship often have a reactivity, which is unique.
The relationships in which daughters consider divorce are different in kind. The patterns of maternal behavior are usually established when the child is very young, and have little to do with the daughter’s actual behavior, although a child is unlikely to see it that way. (She's much more likely to assume she's at fault and feel as though she is the only unloved child on the planet, actually.) These are relationships in which maternal love is withheld or doled out with conditions, in which criticism reigns and a child feels unloved or not good enough, in which boundaries aren’t observed, and in which a daughter learns that love is unreliable, hurtful, and even dangerous.
The larger problem is that children, all children, are hardwired to love and need their mothers; that need co-exists with the unloved daughter’s growing understanding that in a very basic sense, her mother doesn’t love her, hear, or see her, or recognize her as a person.
Some observations about going “no contact”
I have spoken to many women over the years, both before writing Mean Mothers and after, about maternal divorce. It is, in every sense of the word, a crucial decision. Some women will decide, for many reasons, to continue to try to bully their way through the relationship as best as they can, while others will decide that no contact is their only shot at living a somewhat normal life.
Here are 3 anecdotal observations about people who try to divorce their mother:
1. No one sees the cut-off as a real solution.
Maternal divorce is a last-ditch effort to salvage some normalcy in a daughter’s life. It is usually preceded by years of effort to try fix things, either on her own or with a therapist’s help. Because a daughter never divorces just her mother—she inevitably will lose other family members, including siblings, aunts, uncles, and even her father, as people take sides—it is emotionally highly fraught and very painful. Ironically, maternal divorce is usually difficult for these daughters precisely because the decision has to draw on self-love and esteem which are usually in short supply. Sometimes, after going no-contact, a daughter will try again, a phenomenon I call “going back to the well.” Alas, unless the mother is willing to go into therapy to thrash it out, it rarely works. Maternal divorce is filled with anguish for the daughter.
2. The need and longing for a loving mother never disappear.
It’s not unusual for adult daughters to experience a sense of mourning, even though they initiated the break, or to continue to mourn long after their mother has died. In my own experience, this is mourning for the mother you know you deserved but didn’t get. The need and longing often spark false hope for the relationship—maybe there’s something she can do to change things around this time—which often contributes to a cycle of going no-contact and then trying again. I was stuck in this pattern for two decades and it only dawned on me when I was writing my book (20 years after my maternal divorce) that never once did my mother initiate a reconciliation.
3. The therapeutic stance toward parental divorce may be insufficient.
My own therapist wasn’t in favor of my cutting my mother out of my life, arguing that you can’t ever hope to fix a relationship that you’re not in. That’s both logical and true. In my case, having tried for 20 years to “fix things”—with a mother who categorically denied that anything was wrong except with me—I didn’t heed her advice.
Perhaps the most vociferous critic of parental estrangement was Murray Bowen, founder of Family Systems Therapy, who made the emotional cut-off one of his eight central tenets. Murray believed that by “running away from” unresolved emotional attachments, the person was more likely to incorporate an exaggerated version of the problems in his parental family into his marriage and that, additionally, his or her children were more likely to cut them off. This sounds simplistic to me.
In contrast, in 2009, Richard A. Friedman M.D., writing in The New York Times, famously reversed his own thinking after many years, writing a piece entitled, “When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate.” Understandably, it garnered a great deal of attention from daughters, sons, and practitioners.
I asked fellow blogger and therapist Diane Barth, who has also published peer-reviewed articles on this subject, for her opinion. She offered this sage advice, given the difficulties many daughters have with dealing with the internalized maternal voice:
“There are unquestionably situations in which a mother is so toxic that the only way to deal with her is to not have contact with her, but I feel that psychotherapists have often erroneously encouraged clients to separate from their parents in situations where the could be some valuable growth from working—to whatever extent might be possible—on developing some kind of a manageable, tolerable relationship. This is because, in my opinion, one of the tasks of healthy development, whether or not one chooses to eliminate or limit contact with a mother in the real world, is to deal with the mother inside of ourselves. This means that we have to learn not to treat ourselves as we were treated by our mothers, and also not to choose partners who are like our mothers. (Often, despite our best intentions, we repeat that pattern.)”
Her point is well-taken—note that she includes the possibility of limiting contact in the real world but continuing the exploration nonetheless.
In closing, she notes:
“But it also means that we have to introduce ourselves and even make friends with the parts of ourselves that are actually like our mother, so that we don’t treat ourselves and other people that way! This can be really painful, but it is sometimes easier to do while in some kind of limited contact (although sometimes, of course, it’s better without that ongoing contact). In my experience, this work eventually and gradually can lead to discovering some good parts of oneself that are like some (maybe hidden) good parts of a parent. This can lead to a more comfortable relationship with the mix of good and bad qualities in ourselves and in other people.”
Have an open mind
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to whether maternal divorce is the right choice for an individual. While in broad strokes, it’s possible to talk about unloving mothers as a group, each situation is unique. What I would urge is that we not collectively rush to judgment and put daughters (or sons) on trial. Just listen, if you would. And, please, display some empathy. That’s exactly what these individuals' mothers lacked.
Read Diane Barth’s blog.
Visit me on Facebook.
Read Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurthttp://www.amazon.com/Mean-Mothers-Overcoming-Legacy-Hurt/dp/0061651362
Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. London, Boulder, New York:Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004.
Friedman, Richard A.: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/health/20mind.html
Copyright © 2015 Peg Streep