A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: Why are mother-daughter relationships so complex?

You can call yourself lucky if you have a great relationship with your mum. Photo / iStock
You can call yourself lucky if you have a great relationship with your mum. Photo / iStock

The mother-daughter relationship is especially complex: being mothered well, as with much of the roll of the dice in life, is a bit of a lottery. Some of us get lucky and some of us don't. The myths and taboos about "dissing", or naming difficulties with our mothers, only serve to isolate those women who have not been the beneficiaries of an easy relationship.

It would be extremely negligent not to acknowledge the social and cultural constraints on mothering over generations. But this does not lessen the existence of negative impact, for daughters, of a destructive, cold or critical relationship with a mother. The consequences of difficult parenting, by either gender parent, to either gender of child, is not argued in terms of rank - just that there is something particular about mother-daughter relationships.

In my practice I see adult daughters who are feeling empty, and full of self-conflict when that maternal relationship was painful. Maybe it's the case that poor mother-daughter relationships are discussed less - and are perceived as more "dysfunctional", because of a cultural belief that women should be more nurturing, empathetic and social than boys and men.

And that in some way those culturally enshrined qualities should prevent any serious conflict between mothers and their daughters. Yet studies suggest nearly three out of 10 women have been estranged from their mothers at some point in their lives.

Low self-esteem, dating and relationship problems are top of the list of what often brings women to seek help. If there is a difficult maternal relationship in the history, then feelings of profound worthlessness and depression accompany the struggle.

In a word, it hurts a lot and takes a long time to work through an early difficulty in attachment. Often the existence of an unresolved relationship with her mother isn't perceived by the adult daughter as a primary problem.

It's only as we talk more comprehensively about her earlier life, that an early experience sometimes emerge as a significant factor.

When we look at the dramatic impact of attachment styles on the emerging personality, it is obvious how psychological wounds can occur.

If a mother is attuned and loving, her baby is securely attached. Feeling seen and heard is the bedrock of self-esteem, and indeed, the whole the sense of self.

The daughter of an emotionally distant or withholding mother, will learn quite different lessons - an insecure attachment will be either ambivalent, (confusion about "good" or "bad" Mummy); or avoidant: wanting the love so desperately, but are equally afraid of seeking it. A pattern is often set and will play out in adult life.

Like anything, it's all so explicable once we can see it. But the adult life struggles can be so devastatingly destructive, and because they are insidious they can be hard to define.

They range from lack of confidence and trust, through to over-sensitivity and self blame. And the replication of the insecure attachment, a powerful tutor in the unreliability and danger of love, plays havoc with wellbeing.

We know that part of growing up is finding your own identity - and in infancy and childhood that first glimpse of the self is in the mirror of the mother's face.

Deep self-criticism often comes about as a result of a child's internalisation of the harsh and abusive criticisms of a parent. And daughters who did not feel love and verbally aggressive or emotionally absent mothers, struggle terribly with self-criticism, and finding a way to regulate negative emotions.

Are mothers more critical of their daughters than their sons? Yes, says a 2,500-strong survey by UK parenting website, Netmums. More than half the mothers interviewed said that they had formed a stronger bond with their sons.

Mothers were more likely to describe little girls as "stroppy" and "serious", and sons as "cheeky" and "loving".

As Susie Orbach, author and psychotherapist, (currently appearing at The Writers Festival in Auckland), said in a 2010 Guardian interview: "Mothers unconsciously allow more latitude and open encouragement to sons, and with daughters, they treat them as they would treat themselves. As though they're teaching them to still their pain or their own distress - it's the way women have been brought up".

This corrosive self-criticism is the mental habit of attributing bad outcomes or situations (failing a test, a relationship unravelling, not getting a job) to generalised fixed characteristics about the self - rather than to a series of cause and effects.

It can also result in finding a partner, who will display the same attachment characteristics as the earlier relationship, creating the same pattern of self-blame and insecurity.

So what can be done about it? Dr Kristen Neff, associate professor at the University of Texas, and pioneering researcher into the link between self compassion and self esteem, advocates learning to use empathy towards the self, that was not demonstrated to you as a child. It's a big departure from a behavioural norm in these instances.

The subsequent struggle to heal and cope is huge. Consciousness is the first step in resolving the pain, and dimming the harsh sounds of self-attribution of inadequacy.

Then, and only then, can the point of origin be properly understood. A difficult mother, typically, is a wounded child, arriving at motherhood under layers of maternal pain.

Says Orbach, "We are still today only a couple of generations from when mothers had to put their own needs second".

First, however, the hurt child has to salve her own pain, belatedly, as an adult. Then she can better understand her mother - and therefore herself.

We still have a way to go in our conscious understanding of the transmissions of these legacies.

Debate on this article is now closed.

• Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

Read more by Jill Goldson

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 23 Oct 2016 00:51:33 Processing Time: 699ms