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Family Dynamics

Should You Salvage Your Relationship With Mom?

Looking at the hard choices daughters of unloving mothers make.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

The core conflict for the daughter whose mother didn’t love her or meet her emotional needs in childhood and adolescence isn’t resolved by reaching adulthood. It’s an ongoing war between the hardwired need for maternal love and support—as well as a sense of belonging, and the daughter’s growing appreciation of how toxic the connection is and her need for some stress-free normalcy. The battle between those two opposing needs can go on for years.

Because our culture sides with the mother—buying into the mythology that all mothers are loving because nurturing their young is instinctual—and puts the daughter on trial, the struggle has a public face in addition to a private one. For the first 18 years of her life, the daughter has no choice but to deal with her mother. While getting out of her childhood home is freeing in one sense, it’s not an instant solution. Her wounding isn’t salved by independence, and her longing for the stability and comfort she needs and craves continues.

At some point in their adult lives, unloved daughters have to make a choice to salvage some kind of relationship from the wreckage or give up and move on. Neither choice is a spur-of-the-moment decision but is usually preceded by years of going back and forth between the alternatives. I call that “going back to the well” because even though the daughter knows that the well is dry, her impulse is to try just one more time, just in case.

I posed the question about salvaging the relationship to readers on my Facebook page and the responses reflected sadness, loss, and umbrage. It wasn’t surprising: What to do about an unloving mother is a hot-button topic about which people feel very strongly. Having waged this particular battle myself for more than two decades, from my twenties through my thirties, I get how much is at stake. There’s the tantalizing and ever-hopeful possibility of real reconciliation, accompanied by some long-wished-for recognition by the mother that her daughter really is lovable. Yes, cue the violins for the Hollywood ending. Alas, this is almost always a pipe dream.

But many daughters, daunted by the cultural onus of cutting off contact and the emotional losses involved, are motivated to try to keep the relationship intact in some way. Social pressure is a factor, as is the daughter’s fear of making a mistake and denying her children an extended family. Keep in mind that the decision to divorce your mother inevitably leads to estrangement with other members of your family as well.

The Obstacle Course

Trying to salvage the relationship for most is like navigating an obstacle course. Some daughters choose to keep the relationship going even though it involves maintaining the painful status quo. One daughter explained it this way:

“I chose to salvage my relationship with her because I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that my mother tried the best she knew how, but she was crippled by the cycle of violence from her mom and her grandmother. I know some daughters don't have that assurance, though.”

But when questioned, this individual admitted that the going wasn’t smooth: “It depends on the day. There are still unhealthy boundaries but what helps is having better coping mechanisms. I developed a support system completely outside of my family.” When I asked her whether the exchanges were still hurtful, she replied, “It hurts but I also worry about regretting not having anything to do with her before she dies. Fear is a terrible motivator. But I choose to keep her at arm’s length. I pity her.”

But the obstacles, despite a daughter’s best efforts, remain. Among them are:

  • Lack of acknowledgment or plain denial on the mother’s part

Salvaging the relationship has to be a dyadic process, with the mother acceding at least to most, if not all, of the daughter’s requests. Unfortunately that’s not always the case. As one daughter commented:

“I’m in awe of people who can continue to have a relationship with their narcissistic mothers. I, for one, couldn’t do it. I’ve been no contact for almost 10 years even though she lives across the street. (Yes, she followed me here. What kind of madness is that?) But I’m just not strong enough to handle that abuse every day. And my fear is that she’d poison my daughter against me.”

Her mother’s unwillingness to acknowledge her behavior understandably became the linchpin for another daughter in her own middle age:

“At the age of 50, I asked long was I going to beg for my mother's love or for an apology or even for an acknowledgment of what went on...? I gave that up and mourned the loss of my childhood and of the mother I never really had. I felt that at 50, it had become pathetic. Pathetic that I allowed myself to chase after that for half of my life."

  • Refusal to respect boundaries

The struggle to maintain boundaries often is an enormous issue for adult daughters since combative, dismissive, self-involved, controlling, and enmeshed mothers have never observed boundaries and believe that motherhood confers the right to intrude whenever and however. This led one daughter to remark wryly: “All relationships can be salvaged—but at what cost? Some of us aren't willing to pay and pay and pay and pay....”

Setting boundaries inspires some women to go “low contact"—with few in-person get-togethers and limited communication—but that’s often difficult to maintain. One woman wrote:

“My mother is as convinced of her right to intrude on my privacy and to meddle in my affairs as she was when I was 12. Never mind that I’m 45 and the mother of three. She just doesn’t get it. She orchestrates drama all the time and, frankly, it’s intolerable. This isn’t working.”

  • Continued verbal aggression, abuse, manipulation, and game-playing

Without acknowledgment and work, mothers tend to keep acting as they always have, despite the daughters’ efforts to develop new scripts. Ellie reported, with sadness and resignation:

"I have tried a 'low contact' relationship with my mother for over a year. She continued to be manipulative, toxic and would do things to try and drive a wedge between my husband and me. I felt re-traumatized every time I had to deal with her either in person or through texting. I made the decision in May to go officially 'No contact' with her. I immediately felt a weight lifted off of my shoulders. I know without a shadow of a doubt that this is the best decision for my life. I am now working with a wonderful counselor and working on healing myself.”

Deciding that Divorce or No Contact Is the Only Answer

Some readers, not surprisingly, took umbrage at my posing the question about salvaging the relationship. One challenged me:

“There’s nothing to salvage with a person who has manipulated, lied, and turned family against you. Narcissists don’t love, have empathy or care about anyone, so why even ask the question?”

There's terrific anguish in choosing between saving yourself and the losses that accompany divorce, as this daughter confided:

“My therapist believes I should cut my mom out of my life. And I think that would be easier, if it didn't mean possibly having to cut my dad out, too. I spoke with my dad about how I think I may have to stop talking with my mom but don't want to lose him, and he said he didn't know what to tell me but that we would figure something out, eventually; he said for now, just to not talk with her for a bit. I also feel like the worst person in the world for even considering cutting my mom out, especially as she is just getting older and may someday really need my help, but I know you have to take care of yourself and sometimes that means letting go of people you wish you didn't have to let go of...So, no, I don't think my relationship with my mom can be salvaged, even though I wish it could be. Since I've never really been able to hear myself speak or even think when around her and even when not around her because she never really granted me the opportunity to have a voice of my own, I especially don't feel that continuing a relationship with her is a good idea. She just, and I hate to admit it but it's true, has too much power over me as all mothers seem to have over their children. But despite not feeling like I should have a relationship with her anymore, I don't know how to cut ties with her, especially with my dad in the picture.“

Others have gone no contact after going back to the well and trying various strategies over the years to no avail. I certainly did. One woman explained why she thought she was heading toward the final cut-off:

“I have chosen recently to go ‘low contact’ with my mother. This has been very good for my family and continued healing. However, given that I am no longer a source of narcissistic supply for her, my mother has ratcheted up the drama and is constantly testing boundaries. I am actually thinking at this point that it may be best to go ‘no contact.' This is a difficult decision, but I have come to the acceptance that she is not going to change and my family and I are better off without her. I think that any relationship can be saved and that anyone who does the difficult work can change, but I think that would be unlikely now given her age and how entrenched her behaviors are.”

For those who haven’t personally experienced this particular struggle and to whom the idea of “self-orphaning” sounds drastic, you’re not wrong: It is the last resort. That’s made clear by Lydia’s comment:

“When a parent lies, sabotages, manipulates, and treats her own child with hate there is no way a ‘relationship’ can be salvaged! I went no contact to save myself. Why would I go back like I did one hundred times, hoping things would improve just to get hurt worse, to question my self-worth, and to believe, once again, that there was something wrong with me.”

Divorcing your mother isn’t a solution in the traditional sense because it involves an admission of powerlessness, as Ceci noted:

“I can't fix what she's broken. I would like a distant relationship with her, and for my kids, but it's not safe, and our age of connectivity means the distance I'd be okay with isn't possible anyway. And she still smears me to others, and claims our rift is a result of my brokenness, not her continued abusive behavior. As I said, I can't fix what she's broken.”

Maternal divorce also doesn’t answer the larger problem of being unloved. In truth, going no contact is the first step in a long process which, in the best of all possible worlds, includes mourning the mother love you didn’t get and so richly deserved. And, hopefully, the growth of your own self-compassion. And the stilling of the voice within—internalized from years of criticism and verbal aggression—and replacing it with a tape that says, “You’re fine.”

Photo by Kace Rodriguez. Copyright free.
Source: Photo by Kace Rodriguez. Copyright free.

These moments of choice, no matter how we choose, are fraught and painful. I went no contact, as I’ve written before, when I discovered I was pregnant with a girl. The thought of her hearing my mother berate me or, worse, the possibility that my mother might be cruel to her turned the tide. What I couldn’t do for myself, I did for my daughter. The only thing I regret is that she was my mother to begin with. I deserved better.

At our most optimistic, we like to believe that all close bonds can somehow be repaired or salvaged so that we’re not left with nothing. This is especially true when it comes to a relationship—that of mother and child—which our culture places on a pedestal, separate from all other connections. The pity is that, much of the time, it can’t be.

Copyright Peg Streep 2016.