10 Effects of Separating from a Toxic Mother
Some reflections on a hard and pivotal decision.
Posted May 02, 2018
"I hadn’t spoken to her in five years, and then out of nowhere, she called me. In a matter of minutes, despite all the therapy and money invested in getting me healed, I was like a five-year-old, jumping up and down for joy at the age of 42. I developed instant amnesia about how she had treated me and went to see her the following week. It took under 20 minutes for the same old stuff to come out of her mouth, and I was out of there in 40. Now I have to start from scratch. How stupid am I?"
The cultural pressure on a daughter who cuts her mother out of her life is enormous. Society sides with the mother; the cultural script says that she’s the one who gave you life or, in the case of adoption, gave you safe shelter and opened her heart. In the court of public opinion, it’s always the daughter who’s on trial, unless her mother is well-known as an axe-murderer or something equally heinous. Because the culture believes that all mothers love their children and that good mothering is instinctual, the logic is that if there’s any disruption in the relationship, it must be the daughter’s fault. Perhaps even more unfortunately, the cultural pressure is likely to make the daughter doubt herself and wonder — even as she goes no contact to save herself and whatever self-esteem is left — if it might be true.
I should say upfront that I’m not a disinterested party, having divorced my mother 14 years before she died. I didn’t feel any shame: It was a decision I pondered for close to 20 years of adult life and was made more difficult by the fact that she’d been my only surviving parent since I was 15 — but it was clear that the larger world thought I should be ashamed nonetheless. When the subject of my mother came up with a new acquaintance or a total stranger — someone asking me about my Mother’s Day plans or a nurse getting my medical history and inquiring about my mother’s — my matter-of-fact answer always elicited silence or perhaps just a murmured “Oh.” But more important, it was evident that how this person viewed me instantly changed, and not in a good way either.
Estrangement: A secret hiding in plain sight
It may surprise you, given the cultural stance and the shame associated with going no contact, that estrangement isn’t uncommon. Researchers have only recently begun to plumb the subject and note the paucity of studies. A 2015 study by Richard Conti, which focused solely on college and graduate students (and the sample skewed predominantly female), found that while just under 56 percent of them had not experienced estrangement, some 43.5 percent of them had. He also found that 26.6 percent of the sample reported extended estrangements, leading him to surmise that estrangement “is perhaps as common as divorce in certain segments of society.”
Another study, this one from Great Britain, was conducted by Lucy Blake of the University of Cambridge with a sample of 807 who’d experienced familial estrangement; of those, 455 were estranged from their mothers. The most common reasons cited for maternal divorce were emotional abuse (77 percent), mismatched expectations about family roles and relationship (65 percent), clash of personality or values (53 percent), neglect (45 percent), and issues relating to mental health problems (47 percent). More poignantly, in answer to a question about the possibility of reconciliation, most respondents strongly agreed with the statement, “We could never have a functional relationship in the future.” Not surprisingly, what daughters wished for from their mothers will be familiar to anyone with a similar experience: more positive, unconditionally loving, warm, and emotionally close; more accepting and respectful; less critical and judgmental; and greater recognition of hurtful behavior.
What you need to know about divorcing your mother
"When I finally went no contact, no one supported me. Not even my husband, who thought that my duty was to suck it up and continue to deal with her, because she was my mother, or my best friend who also banged the “She’s your only Mom” drum. I spoke to all three of my siblings openly and frankly about what I was doing, and my father. And I didn’t just disappear from my mother’s life; I told her why in person and then put it in a letter. I thought I had done it well and without rancor, not realizing I had started World War III. My mother started a smear campaign, talking to anyone who would listen; she told my two sisters and my brother that they had to choose sides, or she’d never talk to them again. My sisters folded, but my brother didn’t, and she cut him off. My aunts and uncles took her side, and my father accused me of breaking up the entire family. Three years later, she’s still at it, and using social media as well to "get" me. The only benefit? Both my husband and my best friend now understand. She finally took the gloves off in public."
This story, told to me by a woman who is 38, isn’t unusual. It’s rare, anecdotally at least, to go no contact with your mother and be able to retain relationships with other family members; it often boils down to self-orphaning, which makes the process that much more painful.
Despite the cultural mythology of daughters cutting their mothers off on a whim or in a huff, I’ve never met anyone who actually went no contact without spending years considering it. This anecdotal observation is backed up by research by Kylie Agllias, an Australian social worker and the author of Family Estrangement, as well as a study by Kristina Scharp, which posited a continuum of estrangement. In my research, most daughters have backed into going no contact after trying to set boundaries or going “low” contact first. With mothers who are high in narcissistic traits, combative, or controlling, these efforts are usually to no avail.
In one of Agllias’ smaller studies (with 26 participants), she cited three core contributions to estrangement: abuse, poor parenting, and betrayal.
10 things you should be prepared for if you go no contact
The following are observations drawn from my own experiences and those of other women I’ve interviewed during the last 14 years, specifically for my latest book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. I’m not a psychologist; these points are either derived from research or from first-person reports. Not every one will happen to any given individual since there are many variations on the theme. But one thing is clear: Despite the cultural mythology, the daughter never walks away scot-free.
1. You’ll realize no contact isn’t a “solution.”
Going no contact gives an unloved daughter breathing room and freedom from manipulation and continued emotional abuse; it alone does not promote healing from a toxic childhood. Healing can best be accomplished by working with a gifted therapist, along with efforts at self-help. Recovery is a long road for most.
2. You may actually feel worse for a time.
Daughters expect to feel relieved, but are often surprised that along with that sigh, there may be feelings of fear, regret, isolation, and terrific loss. According to my research, this is neither unexpected nor unusual, because mistrusting her own perceptions and being prone to self-criticism and doubt are common legacies bequeathed to a daughter of an unloving mother. As to the feeling of loss, one daughter poignantly told me, “It’s the death of hope, you see. That’s what makes going no contact so painful. The death of the hope that you’ll be like everyone else and that she’ll finally love you.”
3. You have to work on healing.
Again, therapy is the best solution. By healing, I mean not just recovering from abusive or hurtful maternal treatment, but also coming to terms with how you adapted to that treatment. The unloved daughter’s unconscious behaviors, forged in childhood and adolescence, are often the real source of her inability to thrive and live her best life.
4. You need to expect and anticipate fallout.
Again, this is about realizing that no contact is a last-ditch effort to save yourself from continued pain and not a solution unto itself. While some mothers will simply accept the cut-off, as my own mother did, most will not. I will never know, of course, why my mother said nothing and only maligned me when asked, but I suspect she was relieved to have me out of her life; I reminded her of her failures, I think. But the preponderance of mothers will retaliate in an effort to defend themselves against criticism and shift the blame very publicly onto their daughters’ shoulders in a highly aggressive way, recruiting family members and anyone who will listen to their side of the story.
It’s important to remember that mothers too are hobbled by the myths of motherhood, stunned into silence as much as or more so than their daughters. A mother cannot admit that she doesn’t love or like her own child; think of the shame involved in that admission. What kind of a woman feels that? She can’t own her own treatment of her daughter for the same reason; it has to be justified or denied. Hence the vehemence of her response.
5. You will probably feel isolated and misunderstood.
A smear campaign is awful, of course, but you may also feel a general lack of support from friends and close others; estrangement just isn’t something most people are comfortable with. I suspect this has to do with need to believe in one kind of love that’s inviolable in a world where love often seems ephemeral — and most people identify it as maternal love. Even the most well-meaning of people will tell you “to get it over it,” “put the past behind you,” and “make peace.”
6. You may struggle with guilt and shame.
The question I’m usually asked by daughters who are thinking about total estrangement is: “What if I’m wrong? What if I’m too sensitive like she says, or exaggerating? Could her taunts possibly be jokes I don’t get?” Alternatively, a daughter may worry about filial duty and what she owes her mother: “Aren’t I obligated to take what she gives out, because she took care of me? Granted, she wasn’t very good at it, but aren’t I supposed to honor her like the Bible says?” Some of the guilt and shame come from cultural pressure, but the daughter’s deep sense of insecurity and fear of making a mistake fuel both as well. She may feel guilty, even if she has spent years trying to manage the relationship before choosing to go no contact.
7. Your losses may be complex.
Of course, going no contact formalizes the sense of not belonging to her family of origin she’s always felt, and may awaken powerful and complicated emotions; sometimes, daughters find themselves unprepared for how intense their feelings are and how distraught they feel. Some will find the isolation daunting and reinstate contact with their mothers in order to salvage connections to their fathers, siblings, and other family members. For some daughters, the feelings of loss are a part of a transition as they reflect on how calm and undistracted their lives have become; for others, loss lingers along with guilt, leaving them uncertain. As one daughter wrote me, “What if she changed her mind about me, and I missed it because I stayed estranged. I know it’s unlikely, but is her having an AHA moment impossible?” That’s the daughter’s need for maternal love and support kicking up.
A study titled “Missing Family” by Kylie Agllias of 40 respondents shows that belief in estrangement as the only path to healing and growth, and a feeling of relief absolutely co-existed with feelings of significant loss and sometimes vulnerability.
8. You need to mourn your losses.
Yes, it’s counterintuitive if the daughter has chosen to estrange herself, but she needs to grieve nonetheless; again, this step is the death of hope, an acknowledgement that her mother’s love and a sense of normalcy lie beyond her reach. It’s important that you actively mourn not just what you needed and missed — reliable caring, respect, love, support, and understanding — but the mother you deserved. Part of healing is really seeing and understanding that you were always deserving of love.
9. You may double-back and reinstate contact.
This happens so often that I have a phrase for it: Going back to the well. Even though you know intellectually that the well is dry — and probably always has been — and you’ve divorced your mother for good reason, you’re just not ready emotionally to accept it. It might be second-guessing yourself, self-criticism, fear of feeling regret later in life, or any other unarticulated and largely unconscious reason that causes you to pick up the phone, email, or text. Hope dies hard. The British study conducted by Dr. Lucy Blake found that cycling in and out of estrangement is common, in fact.
This is something I know a lot about since I did it for almost 20 years — breaking off, going back — in my 20s and 30s. I finally went no contact when I was almost 39 and only had the courage to maintain it, because I was pregnant with my only child and determined that my mother’s poison would never be permitted near her. That said, it was only after I wrote Mean Mothers — at almost 60 — that I realized that my mother never initiated or tried to reconcile with me when I left. She was apparently fine with it.
10. You may waver in a crisis.
I hear frequently from daughters who have re-initiated contact — much to their emotional and psychological detriment — when their mothers or perhaps their fathers have become ill and infirm; sometimes, they are only children, but, often, no one else will step up to the plate. They act out for various reasons, including compassion, guilt, filial obligation, or even a need to feel good about themselves. I would like to be able to report that I’ve heard about great rapprochements, epiphanies, and tenderness, but alas, they are few and far between. Not many Hollywood endings, but stories of sober and true pain.
The doors to the cupboard where family secrets are kept are finally being opened, which is the good news. The problem remains guiding unloved daughters safely to the light.
Facebook image: J Walters/Shutterstock
Copyright © 2018 Peg Streep
Conti, Richard P. “Family Estrangements: Establishing a Prevalence Rate,” Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science (2015), vol.3(2), 28-35.
Blake, Lucy. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone. http://standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf
Scharp, Kristina M. “You’re Not Welcome Here: A Grounded Theory of Family Distancing,” Communication Research (2017), 1-29.
Agilias, Kylie. “Disconnection and Decision-making: Adult Children Explain Their Reasons for Estranging from Parents, Australian Social Work (2015) 69:1, 92-104.
Agllias, Kylie. “Missing Family: The Adult Child’s Experience of Parental Estrangement,” Journal of Social Work Practice (2018(, vol. 31(1), 59-72.