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Healing An Unhealthy Mother-Daughter Relationship, According To An Expert Who's Seen It All

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It seems the impact and importance of a father’s presence in a woman’s life has been widely speculated and discussed. But what about unhealthy mother-daughter relationships? What are some possible implications of a negative bond with the woman who is responsible for giving you life?

“Not to dismiss the father’s role, but there’s no bond like [that of] a mother and a child,” says Chicago-based clinical psychologist Dr. Jamie Wernsman. “Before you can even remember, that is the primary bond you create.” In fact, a 2016 study by the Journal of Neuroscience found that the part of the brain that regulates and processes emotions is most similar between mothers and daughters. And in yet another study by the Journal of Consumer Psychology, “Evidence from the field, laboratory, and community (online panel) showed that parents exhibit systematic biases when forced to choose between spending on sons and daughters. Mothers consistently favored daughters, whereas fathers consistently favored sons.” So, as you can see, science has spoken — your relationship with your mother does matter.

As Dr. Wernsman further explains, “As women we identify with our mothers more than our fathers. We look to our moms to learn how to handle things and who we should be in this world. They are our first role models.” This all-encompassing bond can very well explain why any sort of discourse or imbalance with one’s mother can be so impactful on how one navigates relationships in general — both romantic and otherwise. “[An unhealthy mother-daughter relationship] can lead to a poor relationship with oneself, low self-esteem, and self-criticism, says Dr. Wernsman. “Another consequence can come in the form of maintaining emotional or physical distance from other relationships, lack of trust, and lack of ability to develop attachment to others.”

So how do you repair this primary bond once it’s been broken or damaged and protect yourself from these consequences? Read on for Dr. Wernsman’s tips on how to get back on track with your mom … and yourself.

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Have An Honest Conversation (Or Several)

Dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships can come in many forms. Often it can take form in criticism, where a daughter feels like she’s constantly getting negative feedback from her maternal figure. Sometimes, it can take the form of detachment. “Some women are simply not close to their mothers,” says Wernsman. “This can be due to postpartum depression experienced by the mother that never allowed for a bond with the child. As a result, the daughter grew up feeling little warmth or uncomfortable going to her mother for comfort or support.”

Either way, an important avenue to consider here is professional help and therapy or counseling of some kind. Another key solution (that should be adopted in every relationship) is simple, authentic communication. “If a mother is open to having a conversation, this can be very helpful in terms of healing,” says Dr. Wernsman. “The individual needs to think about what her mother did or did not do and how to communicate this to her.”

Preparing your talking points and recognizing your true feelings prior to a conversation is crucial to keeping the conversation productive and, most importantly, peaceful. “It’s good to understand that your mother is only human and probably did her very best,” says Dr. Wernsman. “But it’s also important for her to acknowledge the hurt you’re feeling.”

Create Healthy Boundaries

So often, unhealthy relationships aren’t necessarily about lack of closeness or attachment, but actually being too close. According to Dr. Wernsman, making your mother the primary person or bond in your life can also lead to issues as an adult. “As we age, we become more independent and develop core attachments with our romantic partners and children — this is a normal development,” she explains. “But keeping your primary focus on maintaining that attachment with your mother can take away from your ability to bond with your partner.”

It’s absolutely possible to remain close with your mother while also putting some healthy distance that will allow you to bond and develop closeness with other pivotal people in your life. This is where boundaries come in, says Dr. Wernsman. And while only you can decide what those boundaries look like for your maternal relationship, some options can include setting up regular “dates” with your mother to stay connected and allow for intentional bonding. You can also designate certain days and times to chat on the phone and catch up on each other’s days and lives. Either way, putting some reasonable limits in place is crucial here.

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Own (And Change) Your Part

Like any relationship conflict, deep-diving into your own behavior and recognizing how and why you react or feel something is so crucial in conflict resolution. And while the dysfunction in your relationship with your mother may not necessarily be your fault, you are wholly responsible and in control of your reactions and behaviors as an adult. “As an adult it’s hard for us to recognize that we are no longer the little kids that were powerless,” says Dr. Wernsman. “We have power and are completely in control of what we do with that power, whether that includes choosing to act in a forgiving manner or constantly berate our mothers and perpetuating the unhealthy dynamic.”

Take a good look at your side of the fence and the root of what causes you to react or respond negatively to your mother. Discussing this with a therapist could be a good start in setting a game plan to shift your own pattern of behavior and, in turn, the negative dynamic between you and your mother.

Accept The Unfixable

“Not every relationship should be repaired,” says Dr. Wernsman. In cases where dysfunction is a result of physical or emotional abuse that can’t or won’t be remedied, cutting ties and putting firm distance there could be the most loving thing you can do for yourself. Decide “if it’s safe and [you] feel good emotionally and physically in the presence of the person,” says Dr. Wernsman. “If so, take the steps necessary to start repairing the relationship. But always clarify for yourself what is needed from the relationship and whether or not your mother is capable of offering that.”