Counseling Today, Member Insights

Uncovering the root cause of mother-daughter conflict

By Rosjke Hasseldine January 8, 2020

An experienced counselor recently admitted to me that she felt out of her depth when a mother and adult daughter both came to see her for help with their incessant arguing. She said that she struggled to identify the core reasons for their arguments, and she knew that the communication skills and boundaries she tried to instill in them did not address the core reasons for their relationship difficulties.

Sadly, this counselor is not alone. Colleagues frequently tell me that they feel unprepared when it comes to working with mothers and daughters. They blame the absence of specialized training. This lack of focus on the mother-daughter relationship creates unnecessary anxiety among counselors and psychotherapists, and frustration for female clients. For example, only in 2016 was the Adult Daughter-Mother Relationship Questionnaire developed (for more, see Julie Cwikel’s article in The Family Journal). And in my office, all too often I hear mothers and daughters voice their frustrations about the lack of specialized help.

In this article, I share two insights that will help counselors understand the dynamics between a mother and daughter of any age. These insights come from the mother-daughter attachment model I have developed through my 20-plus years of listening to thousands of mothers and daughters of all ages from different countries and cultures. The model makes the complicated dynamics between mothers and daughters easy to understand, explains why mothers and daughters fight, and teaches how mothers and daughters can build strong, emotionally connected relationships.

I chose to specialize in the mother-daughter relationship back in the 1990s because that relationship is central to women understanding themselves. My relationship with my mother had shaped who I was, and when my daughter was born 30 years ago, I knew I had to change the harmful themes that were being passed down the generations. What began as a personal quest became my professional mission.

Mothers and daughters frequently tell me that they feel ashamed about their relationship difficulties. They feel that they “should” be able to get along because popular wisdom tells them that mothers and daughters are supposed to be close. This societal expectation makes mothers and daughters blame themselves for causing their relationship difficulties. The truth is, if my years of experience providing therapy are any indication, many women currently experience mother-daughter relationship conflict.

Based on the inquiries I receive from mothers and adult daughters from different countries, I believe that a larger, societywide dynamic is contributing to their relationship conflict. Often, I hear “hormones” being blamed as the cause for relationship problems, whether it is the teenage daughter’s or pregnant daughter’s hormones, or the menopausal mother’s hormones. Another common reason mothers and daughters give to explain why they are not getting along is their differing or similar personality traits. I have never found hormones or personality traits to be the core reasons for mother-daughter relationship conflict, however. Rather, I have concluded that society sets mothers and daughters up for conflict.

In the first insight, I show that the mother-daughter relationship is not difficult to understand once we realize that mothers and daughters do not relate in a cultural vacuum. In recognizing that mothers and daughters relate within a sociocultural and multigenerational environment, the dynamics between them become easier to grasp. We see how life events, restrictive gender roles, unrealized career goals, and the expectation that women should sacrifice their needs in their caregiving role all shape how mothers and daughters view themselves and each other and how they communicate. To illustrate this dynamic, I share the story of my work with Sandeep, a young college student from England (name and identifying details have been changed).

In the second insight, I explain how patriarchy’s way of silencing and denying what women need is the root cause of most mother-daughter relationship conflict in different cultures around the world. To illustrate, I share my work with Miriam, a doctor from Sweden who comes from a feminist family (name and identifying details have been changed).

Miriam and Sandeep come from different countries and cultural backgrounds, and their families are on opposite ends of the women’s rights continuum, yet their core relationship problem is the same. Both Miriam and Sandeep come from families in which women have not learned how to ask for what they need.

Insight No. 1: Mothers and daughters relate in a sociocultural environment

As is the case with any couple, mothers and daughters rarely fight over what they say they are arguing over. Sandeep and her mother were no exception to this rule. Sandeep was a young college student who lived at home. Her parents immigrated to England from India before Sandeep was born. Sandeep had three brothers, but she was the family’s only daughter.

Sandeep came to see me because she was feeling depressed about how critical her mother was. She was struggling to juggle her college work with the housework her mother and family expected her to do. She said her mother would accuse her of not being a good enough “housekeeper” and not caring enough for her mother when she was ill, which was often.

Sandeep had consulted a counselor before me who had suggested that her mother might be suffering from a personality disorder. I never got to meet Sandeep’s mother and work with her clinically, so I was unable to validate whether this might be the case. Regardless, even if Sandeep’s mother did have this diagnosis, it did not provide Sandeep with the answers
she needed.

Instead, Sandeep needed to understand the multigenerational sociocultural environment in which she and her mother lived. She also needed to understand what was going on in this environment that apparently caused her mother to be so angry and critical, and what caused Sandeep and her mother to believe that it was Sandeep’s responsibility to do all the housekeeping.

When I start working with new clients, I map their mother-daughter history. This is the primary exercise in the mother-daughter attachment model. It is an adaptation of the genogram exercise that family therapists use. The maps focus on the three main women in the multigenerational family, which in Sandeep’s case was Sandeep as the daughter, her mother and her grandmother. I map the experiences the three women have had in their lives, including the gender roles that have defined their lives and limited their choices and power. I also map how the men in the family treat their wives and daughters. Mother-daughter history maps provide an in-depth analysis of the multigenerational sociocultural environment in which the women in the family live and what is happening within that environment to cause mothers and daughters to argue, misunderstand each other, and disconnect emotionally. (Detailed instructions on using this exercise with clients are available in my book The Mother-Daughter Puzzle.)

Sandeep talked about her grandmother’s and mother’s lives and arranged marriages and shared how verbally abusive and controlling her father and grandfather were. She said the males in the family were encouraged to go to college and build their careers, while the females were expected to stay at home to help their mothers. As Sandeep provided these details, her family’s patriarchal structure came into sharp focus. Sandeep represented the first woman in her generational family to finish school and go to college.

Sandeep’s family believed in what I term the “culture of female service,” a global patriarchal belief system that views women as caregivers, not care receivers. Families that subscribe to the culture of female service expect mothers and daughters to be selfless, sacrificial, self-neglecting caregivers. This belief system does not recognize women as people with needs of their own.

Although I never met Sandeep’s mother, it was apparent to me (based on Sandeep’s descriptions) that she had internalized this family belief and did not know any other way of being. This meant that she did not understand Sandeep’s desire to go to college or her fight for her independence. I suspected that Sandeep’s independence felt threatening to her mother. Several reasons explain why Sandeep’s mother was so critical of her daughter and why she behaved in an emotionally manipulative manner — for example, by becoming ill just when Sandeep was busy with an assignment or exam.

First, Sandeep wanted to live a different life than her mother and grandmother had lived, and this likely made Sandeep’s mother feel alone and abandoned. Her only understanding of being female was that of women as caregivers and of “good daughters” stepping into their mothers’ shoes and walking repeats of their mothers’ lives. Sandeep’s mother had done that, her mother had done that, and she expected Sandeep to follow in that role. I suspect Sandeep’s wish for a different life and different relationships felt like a rejection to her mother. It made her feel that her daughter was criticizing the life and values she believed in as a mother.

Second, Sandeep’s mother could have been jealous of her daughter’s freedom and opportunities, even though she probably was unaware that her criticism and anger were rooted in jealousy. Sandeep’s freedom and opportunities might have been an uncomfortable mirror for Sandeep’s mother, reminding her of the freedom she never had and the dreams she had to relinquish.

Third, the mother’s attempts to keep Sandeep from graduating and leaving home could have been linked to her own fight for emotional survival. Sandeep reported to me that she was the only person who gave her mother love and care, so the thought of Sandeep leaving home must have been terrifying to her mother.

For mothers and daughters to build a strong, emotionally connected relationship, it is optimal for both parties to engage in couples therapy. However, if one person is not able, or willing, to participate, healing is still possible. In Sandeep’s case, her mother did not want to participate in therapy. This did not prevent Sandeep from working on understanding and improving her relationship with her mother, however. When one person changes their behavior, the relationship changes to incorporate the new behavior. Of course, Sandeep and I had little control over how her mother would respond to the changes Sandeep needed in their relationship.

My work with Sandeep involved teaching her how to listen to her own voice. Sandeep had become an expert on responding to what her mother needed and being a “dutiful daughter,” but she had little idea about what she wanted for herself, beyond finishing her degree. Sandeep did not know how to ask herself what she thought, felt, or needed emotionally because that conversation was not spoken in her family. My role as a mother-daughter therapist was to help Sandeep uncover the sexism she had inherited from her mother and grandmother that had silenced her voice. I helped her understand the gender inequality her family and culture normalized, and I taught her how to claim her own ideas of who she wanted to be and what she needed in her relationship with her mother — and in all her relationships.

I also helped Sandeep navigate the pushback she got from her mother and father when she stopped complying with their demands to be the family’s unpaid housekeeper. I helped her to understand her mother’s and father’s perspectives so that she had empathy for them and encouraged her to recognize that their anger and criticism weren’t as personal as they felt, originating instead from their cultural beliefs. Alongside Sandeep’s increased understanding of her family’s sociocultural environment, I helped her increase her entitlement to speak her mind, reject unreasonable demands, and carve out her own life path.

Sadly, Sandeep’s parents did not react well to her behaving differently from what they expected of a “dutiful daughter.” After Sandeep left home, her family’s anger and accusations that she had dishonored the family became alarming, leading her to obtain a restraining order against her parents and siblings. Through her therapy, Sandeep learned the degree to which her family members did not tolerate women challenging their long-held beliefs about what women could and could not do and could and could not wear. I had to help Sandeep stay safe and grieve the loss of her family even as she gained her own voice and life.

Insight No. 2: Mothers and daughters fight over their denied needs

My clients have taught me that the denial of what women need, especially when it comes to women’s emotional needs, ripples below most mother-daughter relationship conflict. As I write in The Mother-Daughter Puzzle, when a family does not speak the language that inquires after what women feel and need, mothers and daughters are set up for conflict. It creates an either-or dynamic in which the mother and daughter fight over who gets to be heard and emotionally supported in their relationship because they do not know how to create a normal in which both are heard and supported.

In every mother-daughter history map I draw, I see how the silencing of women’s needs harms women’s emotional well-being, limits their ability to advocate for themselves in their relationships and workplaces, and perpetuates gender inequality. I see how this dynamic makes women invisible, and how being invisible makes women hungry for attention. The inability to openly and honestly ask about what they need creates emotionally manipulative behavior between mothers and daughters and sets daughters up to have to mind read their mothers’ unspoken and unacknowledged needs.

Miriam, a client from Sweden, contacted me for help with her adolescent daughter. Miriam and her mother had benefited from the women’s movement fight for women’s rights. Miriam and her mother were doctors, and Miriam’s husband and father were extremely supportive of their careers. But just like Sandeep and her mother, Miriam and her mother had internalized and normalized the culture of female service, and Miriam’s daughter was angry about her mother’s selflessness.

Miriam’s daughter felt that she had to mind read what her mother really felt and wanted, and she was tired of it. She desired an emotionally honest relationship with her mom. She wanted to feel free to say what she felt and needed and for her mother to speak her mind and stop the guessing games. Miriam’s daughter did not want to feel responsible for meeting her mother’s unvoiced and unacknowledged needs.

The silencing of women’s needs is an intergenerational dynamic that gets passed on from mother to daughter because the mother is not able to teach her daughter how to voice her needs openly and honestly. When the daughter is expected, often unconsciously, to listen for and meet her mother’s unvoiced and unacknowledged needs, the daughter is learning to become an expert on understanding what her mother needs, not on what she needs herself. This means that the daughter will grow up to be as emotionally mute as her mother, thus setting up her future daughter to try to learn to interpret and meet her unvoiced needs.

Women’s generational experience of being emotionally silenced and emotionally neglected is a common theme between mothers and daughters. Happily, I am seeing a huge shift from adult daughters in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are waking up to this patriarchal theme and wanting change. These daughters recognize that they have learned — from their mothers and from society in general — to be far too tolerant of being silent and practicing self-neglect. More daughters are asking their mothers to join them in therapy so that together they can change these inherited behavioral patterns. Mothers and daughters are teaming up and pioneering a new normal in their families — a normal where women are speaking up and demanding to be heard. And they are passing on this new normal to the next generation of sons and daughters.

Mothers and daughters have always led the call for women’s rights. When we understand that mother-daughter attachment disruption or conflict tells the story of how sexist beliefs and gender role stereotypes harm women’s voices and rights, the mother-daughter relationship becomes an unstoppable force for change at the worldwide and family levels.

Sadly, Sandeep’s mother was not able to join Sandeep in her fight to challenge her family’s sexist cultural beliefs. I inferred that too much neglect made Sandeep’s mother emotionally unable to think her way out of her powerlessness. Miriam, having had a far more supportive and empowering upbringing, was able to join her daughter to find a new normal for women within their family. This mother and daughter team coached each other as they decontaminated themselves from their internalized sexism and self-silencing habits.

The mother-daughter relationship has tremendous power to change women’s lives around the world. When mothers and daughters band together, they create an impenetrable wall of resistance against family members who are threatened by women claiming their rights. I have had the honor of working with many pioneering mothers and daughters who dared to dream of a reality in which mothers and daughters are no longer starving for attention and fighting for crumbs of affection. These brave mothers and daughters recognize the harm that patriarchy, sexism, and gender inequality inflict on women, and they have decided that enough is enough. In essence, they are saying, “With us, it must end.”

 

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Rosjke Hasseldine is a mother-daughter relationship therapist, author of The Silent Female Scream and The Mother-Daughter Puzzle, and founder of Mother-Daughter Coaching International LLC (motherdaughtercoach.com), a training organization. She blogs for the American Counseling Association and has presented her mother-daughter attachment model at professional conferences, on Canadian television, and at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Contact her at rosjkehasseldine@gmail.com or through her website at rosjke.com.

 

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