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How Unloved Daughters Rationalize Verbal Abuse

Insights into why it often takes so long to recognize toxic behavior

Photograph by Ilona Panych. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Ilona Panych. Copyright free. Unsplash

“Children live what they learn” Dorothy Nolte famously wrote, and this observation has enormous resonance for those of us unlucky enough to grow up in families of origin where verbal abuse was standard fare, served up on the daily. Verbal abuse affects us in many ways, all of them damaging, but it’s often our own denial or rationalization that stands in our way in adulthood. Understanding how that works is a key part of claiming a life that is abuse-free.

The little world of childhood

“As a child I remember her going from zero to one hundred with impressive speed. She would tense up and become so furious. The yelling felt like it could shake the walls but the worst of it was how long it went on. The more she yelled, the angrier she became and the nastier and more painful her words would be. It was excruciatingly painful, but worst of all so isolating. I remember just feeling so alone and so misunderstood. I cried myself to sleep maybe half of my life and remember thinking the discomfort I felt (much therapy later, I would come to recognize this discomfort as anxiety and sadness) because I was just made to feel so out of place in my family. I felt like a loser and a misfit. I was so frequently criticized for what felt like any feeling or emotion. It was heartbreaking."

As children, we all assume that what goes on at our house goes on everywhere, and that our parents are no different from the strangers with children we see in the park or at the grocery store. Our first inkling that maybe our house is different comes later in childhood, usually when we’re old enough to go on playdates. I was probably five when it happened to me, playing at Beth’s apartment. We were finger painting in the kitchen when I accidentally knocked over a bowl and paint went flying everywhere. I started to cower, thinking of how to apologize, since I expected a barrage of screaming and recrimination. Instead, Beth’s mom grabbed some paper towel, cleaned it up, murmured something like "Accidents happen. Don’t worry,” and poured out some more paint for us to use. She actually patted me on the back to reassure me. I was literally stunned into silence. I remember thinking that maybe this was how born-in-America moms were, because mine came from Holland.

Of course, it had nothing to do with nationality and what I didn’t know until years later was that there were other girls growing up in families with mothers or fathers who yelled and screamed and constantly criticized, belittled, dismissed, or gaslighted them, or called them names, laughed at them, or scapegoated them. These are all forms of verbal abuse that are articulated, but there are “quiet” ones too, such as stonewalling, ignoring, and giving a child the silent treatment.

It was my first inkling that girls had moms who were nothing like mine. That recognition—and the sense that the way my mother berated me and picked on me wasn’t right or fair—kept growing year by year. That said, all I wanted was for her to love me.

The core conflict and verbal abuse

What I am describing—the push-pull between my recognition that my mother was actively wounding me and my need for her to love and support me—is what I call “the core conflict” in my book Daughter Detox. That conflict can go on for years, even decades, and as long as it’s ongoing—and the daughter’s eyes are still on that elusive prize, her mother’s love and support and a sense of belonging—the chances are good that she’ll rationalize and normalize her treatment, including verbal abuse. Daughters tell me that they spent years explaining away the put-downs and efforts to control by thinking their mothers didn’t know any better or meant well, deep down, which kept the core conflict going. Others made excuses for their mothers by referring to their mothers’ own less-than-perfect childhoods. Many simply doubted their recollections and reverted to self-questioning and doubt. Here’s what Mathilda, age 47, wrote:

“Seeing her was always painful, a trip down memory lane but in a bad way, when she’d attack me in those old familiar ways. Oh, she’d say, that’s so brave of you to wear that! (a way of telling me I looked fat or lousy) or she’d comment that my sister’s new job was wonderful and how it was a pity I’d never been as successful (a jab at my teaching job, which paid pennies compared to my sister’s gig). If I pushed back, she’d tell me that I was too sensitive or just being difficult. And, for years, I just accepted her meanness, thinking that was just the way she was or that she didn’t get how hurtful it was or that maybe I was a disappointment. I was still trying to find a way of pleasing her so that she’d fork over the love I wanted. Dumb, dumb, and dumber.”

Verbal abuse tears you down and deep-sixes your sense of self, so it’s not surprising that, in addition to the core conflict and the cycle of denial, rationalizing, and normalizing, the default position for the unloved daughter tends to be self-blame. Summarized from interviews, here’s what the daughter thinks: “Maybe she’s right and I am too sensitive,” “Maybe I am as awful and worthless as she says,” “How could a mother be wrong about her child?” and many other variations on that self-excoriating theme.

Do realize that self-blame and doubt are default positions because they feed into denial and protect you from seeing a painful truth that pertains to either your childhood or adult relationships. The truth? The person you expect to love and shield you from harm is hurting you instead. It’s not hard to see why the path of denial looks greener than the one that leads you to such a painful admission, even if it keeps you stuck.

Moments of reckoning

Anecdotally at least, very few daughters call their mothers out on their verbal abuse in their twenties or thirties; most women are in their forties or fifties when they finally scream Basta! Many daughters describe the epiphany they had when they saw how their partner’s or husband’s family functioned. Sometimes, it is a close friend, lover, or spouse who finally says the obvious and asks why you allow yourself to be beaten up in this way, and you actually listen.

And, sometimes, it is seeing your mother treat one of your children as she treated you, which serves as the final wake-up call. That happened to Sandra at the age of 43 when she could no longer make excuses or keep the peace:

“When my mother started shaming my 9-year-old for eating ‘too much’ and told her that fat girls never had friends or boyfriends, sirens went off in my head. I called her out on it and she wouldn’t back down. She did this to me and she doesn’t get to do it again. Not on my watch. I haven’t spoken to her since.”

Putting verbal abuse in context

Verbal abuse takes place in the context of a relationship where there is an imbalance of power and the person with the power wants to maintain it by tearing down or subjugating the person who lacks it. Understanding how verbal abuse in your childhood affected you is an important first step in making your adult life abuse-free. When I asked one daughter, 52, who was belittled, marginalized, and gaslighted by her mother what she thought made her continue to rationalize verbal abuse by partners and others as an adult, she responded:

“I think what made me vulnerable is my childhood. I was constantly being denied my reality. When I have experienced verbal abuse as an adult, all the well-formed childhood strategies kick in: I go small and I freeze; I can’t respond. I feel shame and lock down, expressing anything externally, but the biggest reaction is an inability to respond. The thought of standing up for myself or calling out the behavior fills me with fear.”

Working with a gifted therapist is the best route but you can also help yourself by taking an inventory of what you’ve been tolerating or normalizing, and seeing why you do it. Verbal abuse is never okay. The operative word is never.

Thanks to my readers for sharing their stories. This material is drawn from Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and interviews for my forthcoming book.

Copyright © 2017, 2020 by Peg Streep. All rights reserved.

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