What to do about your dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship

Dynamic mother-daughter duo, Yara and Keri Shahidi

The relationship between Yara and Keri Shahidi is loving and extremely close. It’s the type of mother-daughter relationship many women crave and deserve but never know. So what do you do when your relationship with your mother isn’t just bad or annoying, it’s toxic?

Peg Streep, author of the book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life wrote in Psychology Today about the different approaches women coping with difficult mothers are taking–from trying to salvage the relationship to divorcing a mother who is incapable of change.

In the article, Streep wrote:

The core conflict for the daughter whose mother didn’t love her or meet her emotional needs in childhood and adolescence isn’t resolved by reaching adulthood. It’s an ongoing war between the hardwired need for maternal love and support—as well as a sense of belonging, and the daughter’s growing appreciation of how toxic the connection is and her need for some stress-free normalcy.

The choice between trying to salvage the relationship or divorcing a toxic mother is always a difficult decision for unloved adult daughters to make. After reading the article, I wanted to look at the questions it raised:

  • When do you try and salvage some kind of relationship,
  • When do you let go and move on, and
  • What is the emotionally healthy way to do whatever you decide to?

When do you stay?

If your mother has made some changes and you see growth, it’s worth the effort to try and salvage your relationship. If her criticisms don’t extend to how you parent or extend to your spouse / significant other, and if grandchildren are involved, it’s usually worthwhile to salvage and to work on creating a healthier relationship.

And very important, if the mother is willing to work on the relationship with you.

When do you leave?

This is not a decision someone else can make for you but it’s absolutely within your right and healthy for you to divorce a narcissist, anyone who belittles and hurt you, not just in the past, but is still doing it.

When she was alive, I had to limit contact with my own mother and recently, to divorce a sister. Both times it meant estrangement from most of the maternal side of the family, but these were the best decisions for me.

Because I didn’t grow up with that sister or my mother and luckily have a fairly healthy family on my dad’s side, the ostracization that happened, as a result, didn’t affect me as it might someone who spent their entire life knowing or living with their mother and sister.

Still, it was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made and it took me years to make it. The inner conflict you go through is too-too real. Before you make the decision to let go, you must mourn the mother love you didn’t get and give up on the dream of reconciliation. There were many instances of me “going back to the well,” as Streep puts it. Once I let go of the dream though, it was as if I was reborn. And after divorcing my sister, a narcissist who reflected the worst traits in my mother, it was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

The knowledge that you’ll never go back to the well liberates you and the changes you might experience could be worth it. For me, those changes have been profound. The ache I had experienced anew because I kept going back for more, could now heal for good. I also found new confidence and certainty in my life. A lot of changes occurred.

Choosing emotional health

As you get to understand the importance of emotional health and understand how toxicity can harm our well-being and affect young children looking on, you weigh your decision and make the best choice for not just you, but for everyone involved.

Ceci, one of Streep’s followers shared how she came to her decision to divorce her mother:

“I can’t fix what she’s broken. I would like a distant relationship with her for my kids, but it’s not safe, and our age of connectivity means the distance I’d be okay with isn’t possible anyway. And she still smears me to others and claims our rift is a result of my brokenness, not her continued abusive behavior. As I said, I can’t fix what she’s broken.”

Before you reach such a difficult decision, it’s natural to worry about what others will think. Most cultures buy into the myth that all mothers are loving and so, cutting off ties can feel like a huge mistake. You risk being ostracised by the tribe (the rest of your family) and if you don’t have strong bonds with others, it may feel like even an abusive relationship is better than none at all.

How to proceed healthily

Whichever decision you make, the process will be a challenging one. Start with a conversation, then let your actions afterward be guided by your values–what you want for your life, and if kids and others you’re responsible for are involved, what example you want to set for them. Try to do it with grace and with self-compassion; as well as compassion for the people you’re walking away from.

Have the difficult conversation

If you’ve ever thought about cutting ties with your mother or have made the decision to, have a sit-down first.

  • Do it privately and away from other family members.
  • Try not to let it turn into an argument, even if goaded;
  • Aim for calm and thoughtful.
  • Prepare for it by getting emotional support from your spouse and others, and a glass of wine if you need it.
  • If you can, have a third-party, a professional, in the room.
  • Speak from the heart. If tears happen, let them.

First, set up the rules of conversation. Let her know you’re going to speak and that you’d like her to listen without interruptions or questions. State that you hope she will really hear you.

A sample script

(for a relationship you hope to salvage and make better)

Your behavior (in a couple words state what she does without attacking her as a person) often makes me think of cutting ties with you. I haven’t because that would deprive you of spending time with your grandchildren and them with you. I’m concerned that if there isn’t a radical change in our relationship, they may grow up thinking our parent-child dynamics is normal. I know now it isn’t normal and I don’t want the children regularly exposed to an unloving relationship. Take a minute, a week or however long you need to think about how you’re going to change. Let me know by your change or by staying away, that you understand and respect my need to have a healthy mother-daughter relationship or limit my contact with you.

If you are, say that you’re willing to have couple’s counseling.

Give her about 2 minutes to respond, but don’t entertain rationalizations. Hopefully, she asks you what this new relationship might look like or say she will try. Be prepared to tell her what you reasonably expect in this new relationship. State what you want to stop immediately, for example, calling you names… ever. anywhere. If she insists there’s no problem or say that you’re exaggerating or take any position other than a willingness to work on the relationship, I encourage you to end the conversation and get up and walk away.

Say…

I was hoping you would, but I see that you don’t get it. 

And leave the room.

Never say things like, “What did I expect” or play the victim. It is hard for some parents to change, especially hard if she is a narcissist. Narcissists are kings and queens of denial and you cannot underestimate the damage they can do to your self-esteem.

Here’s a sample conversation script when it’s over:

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and you can’t imagine how much I’ve struggled with my decision, but I won’t be able to have you in my life anymore. It’s painful but I realize you won’t change so I’m doing the best–and only thing–left for me to do. Goodbye, mother.

If you’ll see her at family events and such, say that to make it clear the only contacts you will have with her.

Follow through

You must be willing to follow through before you have these difficult conversations as it could make matters worse if you talk big but there’s no consequence.

Hopefully, you see a change in the relationship. Some mothers, however, can’t change and you should know what your next steps will be if she is one of them. Will you…

  • Have limited contact?
  • If so, how will it look (no phones ever for example)?

Consider these steps if you decide to divorce

  • Share the news with the rest of the family.
  • Only see your mother when you have the emotional capacity for her.
  • Arrange to her visit her grandkids in a different space– away from you– as divorced parents usually do.
  • Try not to have family events in your home–a sibling’s home might be better.

With boundaries and follow through like these, some mothers may change after it sinks in that you’re dead serious, and if you show from your own growth, that you no longer fall for her baits.

  • Be open to mother’s growth. If after years you see a noticeable change in her, be open to changing the terms of your relationship. Growth almost never happens overnight, so if after a couple months she claims to have changed, don’t simply let her back into your life without proof she has.

Get emotional support

While you’re working out the relationship, you’ll need to manage your emotions well. You’ll need support so you don’t fall back into old communication patterns. If a visit is planned and you feel your emotional capacity changing, cancel.

Make allies in siblings and childhood friends to whom you can vent or who will act as your buffer during potentially stressful visits like holidays.

Be the change

After your difficult conversation, you too must change. Not only will you not tolerate abusive language, insults, and undercuts, you will not do it to her.

Always show your mother the love and respect you know every human being deserves. If she’s sick, you show up.

What you’re limiting is the toxic dynamics and by placing boundaries, retraining her (hopefully) how to treat you.

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