Unloved Daughters and the Elusive Nature of Friendship

Looking at the collateral damage we rarely talk about

Posted Sep 17, 2020

“Every friendship I've had ends the same way. I give it my all and end up feeling cheated because the other girl or woman just takes advantage of me. I give 150% and she puts in 10%.  I end up feeling used or like a doormat.” (Patti, age 55)

“I have trouble holding on to relationships with women. They often say that I’m just too much of a drama queen or that I demand too much attention. I don’t get it. Aren’t girlfriends supposed to be there for you, no matter what?”  (Gillian, age 37)

Photograph by Katy Anne. Copyright Free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Katy Anne. Copyright Free. Unsplash

If there is a single area of life unloved daughters report having the most difficulty with, it’s certainly initiating and maintaining close and sustaining friendships. This is true even of women who have been able to manage successful marriages or intimate connections, the other aspect of life unloved daughters may struggle with. It’s not going to surprise anyone that women who have close friends tend to be happier and have more support in life, especially when there’s a crisis; there’s a body of robust research that shows that close friendships positively impact our health and well-being. The work of Patricia Linville shows that the more ways we have of defining ourselves—and being a friend is an important one—the more resilient we are when we face down stress or a major life change.

Seeing Mom’s long shadow

The difficulties we may have with friendship are fed by many streams, some of them relatively common and others more personal. There are the unarticulated generalizations about women we’ve drawn from our mothers, the first women we’ve encountered on an intimate basis; if they make us feel unsafe, the chances are good that, unconsciously, we’ll feel self-protective and unsafe around other girls and women. We may make it hard for girls to befriend us because we need to test their loyalty and trustworthiness first; because we approach friendship with our guard up, we may not understand other girls’ openness and misread their gestures and words. Because we are sensitive to even the hint of a slight, we may bring unwelcome volatility to every friendship.

Lessons learned from sisterhood

We may also shy away from friendships with women because of our experiences with our sisters, if we have them; the favoritism displayed to a same-sex sibling or the rivalry orchestrated by a mother may also influence how we see women generally as well as our deepest feelings about friendship. In Deborah Tannen’s book about sisters, aptly titled You Were Always Mom’s Favorite, she notes that conversations between sisters have tension built into them: “The layers of meaning combine profound connection with equally profound competition. Both the competition and connection are complicated by inevitable comparison with someone whose life has been so similar to yours and yet so different—and always in view.”

While a sister can be a close ally, she can also be a source of wounding; as Tannen notes, “These two views—someone who sets you straight or someone who twists your words so that they boomerang back and hurt you—represent the potential best and worst of sister conversations.” It’s not surprising that daughters who grew up in families where sisters were always compared or played off against each other have trust issues when it comes to friendship. After all, if you can’t rely on your sister, will a girlfriend be any better?

Anxiety and the sense of not belonging

Then too, the loneliness of being unloved in our family may make us so desperate for connection that being our friend may be very hard work. Our inability to pay attention to boundaries may make it difficult for someone more secure and independent to sustain a friendship. Similarly, the drama our anxiety tends to create may be off-putting to some and just too much for others to tolerate. Our own eagerness can subvert friendships in more subtle ways as well; we may end up marginalizing our roles, being unwilling to speak up or assert ourselves, because we’ve come to believe that disagreement and rejection are one and the same. The problem is that if we cast ourselves in the role of being a pleaser and peacemaker, it’s inevitable that at some point we will feel used and ignored. It won’t necessarily occur to us that we acted as the casting director for the role we came to hate.

The unloved daughter’s sense of not belonging, her feeling of shame at being unloved, and her need to pretend to be just like everyone else—everyone else being those daughters whose mothers laugh with them and not at them, and who call Mom first when something’s up—may make it impossible for her to join in on the group activities that characterize female friendships in the school years. It’s true enough that some of these cliques are by definition exclusionary, but this daughter brings her own baggage to the party.

The dynamics of being a girlfriend

None of this is meant to idealize female friendship or to pretend that it can’t be problematic at times for every woman, regardless of her childhood experiences; books such as Rachel Simmons’ Odd Girl Out and Susan Shapiro Barash’s Tripping the Prom Queen, and the oceans of ink spilled on the subject of the “frenemy,” make it clear that rivalry is alive and well wherever women congregate. Yes, mean girls do exist and thrive, as do adult versions of them.

Rivalry and closeness, especially among single younger women, can absolutely coexist, as one study by April Bleske-Rechek and Melissa Lighthall discovered. The authors hypothesized that attractive women would tend to choose physically attractive girlfriends in order to appeal to men, on the one hand, while being aware, on the other, of the potential competition from a good-looking pal. Potential rivalry could therefore be present, as well as the pluses of advice-giving and support. The participants in the study were, in fact, already friends; as to attractiveness, the researchers had the pair self-report on comparative good looks (theirs and their friends) and then additionally had another group rank the photographs of each girl two years later. The authors found that, yes, attractive birds of a feather tend to flock together, that the less attractive friend was likely to feel more competition, but that even with the recognition of potential rivalry, neither member of the pair thought their closeness or the trueness of their friendship was affected by the rivalry.

Competition among girlfriends isn’t limited to dating or mating, of course, or to the young. Most of us compare and contrast our own lives and achievements with those of the people we know, and that’s not necessarily always a bad thing either. Seeing how beautifully organized your friend Leslie’s house is may spur you on to finally declutter. You may be inspired by the artful arrangement of ordinary objects in another friend’s apartment or how another friend has gotten herself into great physical shape.

I fear that cultural tropes and even research sometimes paint women’s friendships with too broad a brush. While it’s true that exchanges of confidences and intimate self-disclosure describe some of the closest female friendships—and the most idealized—it’s not the only model. So if you’re discouraged because you cannot in a million years imagine the cozy tête-á-tête of a symbolic pajama party, don’t despair. Women’s friendships can embrace many different levels of intimacy, some of them relatively shallow and unrevealing and others profound and deep. The research tends to focus on the latter, but that doesn’t mean that other possibilities aren’t out there.

5 steps to help forge friendships

If you feel that the area of friendship is one that you need to work on, you’re not alone. If you long for friendship, that can be a goal that is part of your journey of healing. There’s no question that a true friend can be an enormous boon in both good times and bad.

Explore your thinking and what you associate with friendship. Spend some time pondering what you expect from friends, what you think an ideal friendship would look like, and what strengths and deficits you bring to the table as a friend.

Review your history of connecting and disconnecting. See if you can discern a pattern in how you connect to other women and how they connect to you. Have you consistently had problems managing boundaries or, alternatively, being open to others? What might you be able to change in your behavior that would ease the way?

Understand friendships in broad ways. Think about the kinds of friends you’ve been drawn to and become consciously aware of your expectations. Was the connection based on mutual interests? Or a shared experience?  Have you over-stayed in relationships that no longer work or do you flee at the first sign of trouble?

Be open to different levels of friendship. Just because you don’t have that “sister from another mother” doesn’t mean you’re an outlier or deficient. Not everyone will have that ideal confidante, but there are many ways we can enjoy the company of other women.

Recognize your issues. Yes, knowing and identifying the baggage you are carrying—whether those are issues of trust, worry about being rejected, a need for instant affiliation, or a host of other things—will help you put that burden down. Boundaries are key to friendships and just as you need your own space respected, you’ll have to respect hers.

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

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Tannen, Deborah. You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! New York: Random House, 2009.

Simmons, Rachel. Odd Girl Out. New York: Harcourt, 2002.

Barash, Susan Shapiro. Tripping the Prom Queen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Bleske-Rechek, A., & Lighthall, M. (2010). Attractiveness and rivalry in women’s friendships with women. Human Nature, 21, 82-97