Why Are Mother-Daughter Relationships So Complex?
Mother-daughter relationships are known for being fraught with complications
Therapist Holli Rubin, who offers specialist mother-daughter 'couples' therapy, explores why this is
Oh you can still remember those words and that feeling.... it’s a girl!!! A girl, how lucky! How exciting, how special, how important, how hopeful! We will be so close! Best friends! Tell each other things, secrets, share hopes, dreams, fears in a way that only mother and daughter could really do....
But we don’t think of the other side of this relationship .... how complicated, challenging and sometimes downright impossible it can be.
Mother-daughter relationships are complex – eliciting a special set of emotions reserved only for the mother-daughter couple. Even the healthiest of relationships can be at times fraught with real challenges.
So, what goes into making a ‘healthy’ mother-daughter relationship when your daughter grows up?
A ‘healthy’ mother-daughter relationship is one that allows for closeness and togetherness – but simultaneously – for independence and space. It’s caring and loving and fun and silly. This changes at every age and stage from childhood to adulthood. A mother daughter relationship is whatever you choose to make it!
A good place to start is by establishing boundaries for the relationship.
What does that mean?
Making sure both mother and daughter feel safe, comfortable and satisfied within the relationship.
Guilt is a useless emotion
Guilt is an emotion that often exists in close and complicated familial relationships. It is a difficult and strong emotion that, when understood better, appears to serve very little purpose. It can sometimes be used to convince people to do or feel or act in ways they themselves do not want to and it is not a healthy tool in any relationship, no matter what the dynamic may be.
When it comes to mothers and daughters, guilt can manifest itself when one, or both, are overly critical of the other.
When one feels hurt, they may need to bring up past events that are known to make the other feel upset and guilty. This is done to express unresolved hurt – perhaps in an unconscious way – perhaps more directly. Either way, it is not a good or healthy tactic and will only strain the current relationship.
Mothers and daughters can become trapped in this type of relationship struggle. The most effective way to get past the hurt is to be able to talk about it from both sides – with an aim to forgive each other and move on from the past – in order to establish a healthier relationship.
Once forgiven, you must move on and try not to bring back old issues from your conversations. Be open to having difficult conversations with an aim towards forgiveness.
In healthy mother-daughter relationships, both parties need to take the other for who they are, and not engage with trying to change them.
The most common form of this is when the mother would like her daughter to be more like her. This may be in personality, values, choices, opinions. The mother may try to make the daughter feel guilty for being different and may consistently try to change her. This can lead the daughter to feel that they are often disappointing their mother and often trying to please without success. This can lead to arguments, resentment and overall an unhealthy relationship.
Being in the company of someone that’s trying to change you isn’t fun!
The key to this is acceptance. The mother needs to accept the perceived differences or faults and focus on the daughter’s positive attributes and not those that are perceived as negative.
Be open to conflict
There will always be conflict in the world and conflict in relationships. That is normal. Conflict isn’t something that can be ignored. If conflict is ignored, then there will always be tension and unresolved issues.
The first step is to identify the conflict and the reasons for it. Take some time out to do this.
Once you’ve identified the conflict, you need to talk about it.
It is best for both to engage in a conversation around this conflict – regardless of how difficult it might be to begin. Trying to do so in a positive and respectful way will help keep both sides engaged and not exacerbate the situation further:
- Allow both sides to present their side of the argument without interruption. It’s important that each person has their say and that the other party listens.
- Try not to bring up unrelated negative events. Try to think of positive experiences that you would like to build on rather than focusing on the negative.
- Try to end on a positive and agree on ways that you can move forward. Tell each other how much you love each other and what you like about each other.
You may need to accept that this may take time but keep revisiting regularly and don’t avoid having the conversation again if it’s needed.
You may have to agree to disagree. This can be acceptable so long as it’s not constantly used as a guilt tool and both parties genuinely accept the differences.
Spending time together
Some mothers and daughters enjoy spending a lot of time together, some don’t. One may want more time and one may want less. The party wanting more may make the other feel guilty for not wanting to spend a lot of time together.
The ideal situation is that time together should be happy, positive and uplifting. If spending less time together achieves that, then overall the relationship will be healthier. Just because you’re related doesn’t mean that you need to spend all your time together.
The key is to be mindful of your behaviour towards each other and notice how time together impacts on your mood.
Don’t feel guilty about reducing the amount of time together if it makes the relationship work better.
Allow each other to make mistakes
It can be hard for a mother to stand back and let the daughter make, what they perceive as, mistakes. Only when you’re a mother can you really understand how hard it is.
In childhood it is important to guide, lead and mentor your daughter as they have no foundations to work on. They need to be guided and protected. But part of becoming a grown up is needing to learn to navigate life’s challenges independently. The mother must step back to allow her daughter to develop her independence and most importantly, allow her to make her own mistakes. As humans, we only learn from mistakes that we make.
Learning to strike a balance between offering helpful guidance, and intervening at every struggle, is the challenge. But getting that balance to establish the perfect recipe for a happy and healthy mother daughter relationship is the goal!
Holli Rubin is a verified welldoing.org therapist in SW London