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Monday, May 10, 2010

Ambivalence and Codependence in the Mother-Daughter Relationship

The topic of conflict and ambivalence in the mother-daughter relationship is the subject of this article. One article in a blog cannot do justice to this topic but, hopefully, it can serve as a starting point for many similar articles and it will be thought provoking (see my articles: Healing Mother-Daughter Relationships and Letting Go of Resentments in Mother-Daughter Relationships).

Ambivalence and Codependence in Mother-Daughter Relationships

The complexity of the mother-daughter relationship is derived, in part, from the fact that mothers and daughters share a biological and often certain psychological factors. 

As such, mothers often see themselves in their infant daughters, at times, projecting their own unfulfilled hopes and dreams on their infant daughters. 

In turn, daughters learn to identify with their mothers. A certain amount of maternal idealizing is a normal part of a daughter's development. 

However, when the identification or idealization interferes with a daughter's psychological development, this often interferes with the normal separation and individuation process that is necessary for the daughter to mature into her own person.

Clinical Vignette:
The following vignette which, as always, represents a composite of numerous cases illustrates how ambivalence and codependence between a mother and daughter as well as an over identification by the daughter for the mother kept the daughter stuck and unable to develop into her own person without feeling like she was betraying her mother.

When Donna began therapy, she was in her early 30s. She was already quite successful in her career. As she saw it at the time, her presenting problem was that she had a long history of problems in her romantic relationships with men. 

Her relationships always began well. However, as soon as the relationship became serious, Donna became extremely ambivalent about it and found some way to sabotage it. When she began therapy, she was in a one-year relationship with a man that she loved very much and who also loved her. She saw the potential for a good marriage with this man, but she was very frightened to make that commitment with him, and she could not understand why.

Donna's family history included her parents' divorce when she was five years old. Prior to that, she remembered a lot of arguing between her parents, who were not well suited for each other. After the divorce, the father remarried within a couple of years. However, Donna's mother sank into a depression and she began to drink heavily.

As an only child, Donna remembered feeling responsible for her mother's happiness. Her mother poured out her sorrows to Donna, and Donna did her best to try to make her mother happy by listening to her, trying to entertain her with funny stories from school, being an "A" student, and trying never to bother her mother with her own concerns. 

As a result, at a young age, Donna and her mother switched roles, and Donna became a parentified child. She learned to anticipate her mother's needs before her mother even expressed them. She even cleaned up her mother's mess when her mother got drunk and threw up around the house. For this, Donna's mother rewarded her by telling her what a wonderful daughter she was, and this made Donna feel good.

Donna's relationship with her mother continued in this way until Donna became a teenager, and she began to express a need to spend more time with her friends. Donna's mother never actually stopped Donna from going out with her friends, but when Donna got home, she often found her mother in an irritable, sullen state.

She never told Donna directly that she was unhappy that Donna was beginning to achieve a certain amount of independence that is a normal part of adolescence but, indirectly, she complained about how lonely she felt when Donna was out and how hard her life was as a single mother. 

This made Donna feel very guilty for leaving her mother alone and for going out and having a good time with her friends. At those times, Donna worked extra hard to get back into her mother's good graces. After a while, Donna's mother was appeased and, once again, she rewarded Donna by telling her that she was the best daughter that a mother could have.

At times, Donna turned down her friends' invitations to go out because she didn't want to leave her mother alone and unhappy. She also feared that her mother would drink more when Donna was out, which was often the case. At least if she was there, Donna thought, she could monitor her mother's alcohol intake and help her mother to go to bed when she was too drunk.

After her parents' divorce, Donna had virtually no contact with her father. She feared that her mother would be upset if she maintained a relationship with her father, so she ignored his phone calls and, after a while, he stopped calling.

During that time, dating boys was out of the question in Donna's mind. Her mother was very bitter about her own divorce and she would often tell Donna how awful men were. Donna was interested in a couple of boys at school, who also expressed an interest in her, but Donna felt that it would be a betrayal to her mother if she began dating boys. So, rather than dating, she stayed home with her mother and catered to her needs.

When it came time for Donna to apply for college, one of Donna's teachers, who had an intuitive sense of what was going on in Donna's home, encouraged Donna to go away to college. A part of Donna longed to be away and attend a college with an active campus life. However, a stronger part of Donna didn't want to leave her mother alone. So, she opted to go to a local college, even though other colleges offered her better opportunities and a chance for a full scholarship.

By the time Donna was a sophomore in college, she began to feel depressed and lonely. She didn't know why she was feeling this way, so she went to the student counseling center. With the help of her college counselor, Donna began to see that she was missing out on many of the social activities that other students were enjoying and that she also wanted to attend.

So, gradually, Donna became more social and, soon afterwards, she started dating, much to her mother's chagrin. By that point, Donna realized that she needed to have a social life of her own, but she continued to feel guilty and that, in some way, she was betraying her mother by spending less time with her and more time with her friends.

By the time she graduated, Donna was offered an excellent job opportunity in NYC that she knew she could not afford to pass up. With much ambivalence and guilt about leaving her mother, she moved to NYC to begin her new career. However, she called her mother several times a day to "check in" on her and to listen to her mother's problems. She also visited her mother frequently on weekends.

When Donna entered into her first serious relationship, she was wary of telling her mother. She feared that since her mother had such a low opinion of men, her mother would disapprove of her being in a relationship

When Donna finally summoned the courage to tell her mother, her mother acted as if she had not even heard her. She never expressed any curiosity about this man or even asked Donna how the relationship was going. This made Donna feel very sad and guilty--as if she was doing something wrong by having a life of her own and being in a relationship, as if she wasn't entitled to her own happiness.

Shortly after that, Donna began finding faults with her boyfriend and they started arguing. Within a few months, they were broken up. When Donna told her mother about the breakup, her mother responded by telling her to come home and spend time with her. Her mother seemed to have no recognition that Donna was heart broken.

This same pattern continued in most of Donna's relationships. She felt pulled between the man that she loved and a "loyalty" that she felt for her mother. By the time that Donna came to see me, she was miserable. She was also aware that she was ruining an otherwise wonderful relationship with a man that she really loved. But she didn't know how to stop engaging in this behavior.

We began by doing inner child work to help Donna understand and appreciate the root of her problems. Over time, she learned to have more compassion for herself when she was a child and as an adult. She also started to see how her own inner emotional conflict caused her to feel that she had to choose between her boyfriend and her mother.

With a lot of work in therapy, Donna started feeling more entitled to have a happy life and not to sacrifice her life for her mother. She also learned to see that her codependent relationship with her mother was not helping her mother or her. 

So, gradually, over time, she changed her behavior towards her mother. Rather than calling her mother several times a day, she called her once a week. Rather than spending hours on the phone listening to her mother's problems and trying to "fix" them, Donna encouraged her mother to get help.

Donna's mother did not respond well to this new change in Donna. After a few weeks of this, Donna's mother refused to talk to Donna and told her that she would talk to her when Donna "came to her senses again." 

This was a serious emotional challenge for Donna, and part of her wanted to revert back to her old behavior to "rescue" her mother. But, deep down, Donna realized that she needed to stick to what she knew was best for her and her relationship with her boyfriend. 

She also realized now that her mother would never get help for her alcoholism as long as Donna provided her with an emotional crutch. So, even though it was very difficult for her, Donna refrained from reverting back to her former dysfunctional way of relating to her mother.

After several months, Donna's relationship with her boyfriend improved substantially. Even though she missed her mother, Donna realized that she felt happier than she had ever felt and she finally felt entitled to her happiness. She also reconciled her relationship with her father.

About a year later, she received a call from her mother. Her mother told Donna that she had just completed a 28-day rehab and she wanted to reconcile her relationship with Donna. And, for the first time, she told Donna that she wanted to meet her boyfriend. This was the beginning of Donna and her mother having a healthy relationship together without much of the guilt, codependence, and ambivalence from the past.

Healthy Mother-Daughter Relationships
Even though this article focuses on ambivalence and codependence in mother-daughter relationships, I want to also say that there are many mothers and daughters who have healthy relationships. 

Healthy Mother-Daughter Relationships

Even mother-daughter relationships that begin with the sort of enmeshment, codependence and ambivalence that were involved with Donna's relationship with her mother often improve when one or, preferably both, people get psychological help.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you are part of an emotionally unhealthy mother-daughter dynamic and you want to establish a healthier relationship, you could benefit from attending psychotherapy with a licensed mental health professional who has expertise in this area.

About Me
I am a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and EMDR therapist in New York City.

I work with individuals and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see Mother-Daughter Relationships Over the Course of a Life Time