Monday, September 21, 2015

Mother-Daughter Toxic Patterns

An OCD psychologist I like writes for Psychology Today, and recently I noticed a link on that site to an article about mothers and daughters, entitled 8 Types of Toxic Patterns in Mother-Daughter Relationships. The writer of the article is not a therapist and doesn't diagnose anything, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which would explain some of the behaviors she details. She also wrote a book entitled Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt, for which she interviewed many daughters with toxic mothers.

She chose not to interview daughters whose mothers had been diagnosed with any personality disorder, or whose mothers were addicts. These were seemingly normal families with mothers who for whatever reason, were unable or unwilling to love their daughters.

Ms. Streep highlights eight patterns indicative of toxic mothers (not mutually exclusive...toxic mothers exhibit more than one of them, typically):

- dismissive
- controlling
- unavailable
- enmeshed
- combative
- unreliable
- self-involved
- role-reversed

Keep in mind that she refers to ongoing patterns, not atypical instances of these behaviors. She finds that about 50% of us get lucky in terms of who our mothers are, and the other 50% are unlucky to some extent.

I found the comment's section particularly enlightening. What kept coming up was the phenomena of a mother playing favorites, and treating cruelly one of her daughters, while being a decent mother to her other children. Does this favoritism ring true for any of you?

I read such articles to gauge my own healing, and to keep mindful of my own mothering practices. When one grows up in a dysfunctional family, there is often a fear of repeating the sins of one's parents. But there's a crucial difference between a good-enough mother (which most of us are) and a toxic mother.

It's self-awareness.

~ Toxic mothers refuse to acknowledge their part in any dysfunction, and categorically blame others for any problems that arise.

~ They will systematically turn others against anyone who tries to confront them on unacceptable behavior, while being loving to those who play the denial game.

~ They care intensely about public image, and when they are loving, it's often to make themselves look good, rather than from genuine feeling. They have an idea in their head of what a mother should be and do, and they dupe themselves into believing they are that mother. Whoever disagrees verbally or otherwise, is considered ungrateful and troubled.

~ They may try to maintain a relationship with a child they despise, but only because to not do so would be considered unloving and unforgiving, and they don't want to portray that image. If a child walks away from them, they blame the child, and they make sure everyone knows how hurt and shocked they are.

~ Toxic mothers control children with guilt.

Many of the women in the comment's section indicated they have no contact, or limited contact, with their mothers. Most of the women were in their thirties or forties before realizing they had a toxic mother. Many of them indicated some of the dislike on the part of the mothers was because they (the daughter) "succeeded" in life while the mother did not, and there was jealously and hatred partially because of that.

It will be two years in February since I decided to break contact with my mother, and I continue to strongly believe it was the right decision for me and my immediate family. I continue to heal. However, breaking contact has not been without high cost. My mother is one of ten children, with seven siblings still living. All of my aunts and uncles stopped contacting me at Christmas and otherwise, and one of them lives within ten miles of me.

Some of them are aware of problems with my mother's behavior, including the local aunt (not my father's sister, who also lives nearby), but they would never try to cross her by contacting me.

My sister maintains contact with me via email, though we don't discuss our mother. My half-brother (different father) neither contacts me nor returns my emails. He blames me that our family is no longer "intact", and thinks that however my mother treats me, I should just accept it and realize that not everyone is perfect. He thinks I'm unforgiving, and doesn't understand the whole toxic parent thing because my mother treats he and my sister reasonably well, and always has. They play the alcoholic-parent denial game well, and they're rewarded for it.

I asked to live with my father when I was twelve, and my mother both didn't allow it, and didn't forgive me for asking. The fact that our home was an alcoholic one was not something she could bring herself to acknowledge, and she still can't. She wasn't a falling-down, or every-day drunk, and she didn't physically abuse us, so to her there was no problem.

We all did a pretty good job of denying the problem, because it didn't match the above criteria. According to recent statistics, a full 30% of Americans are problem drinkers. I'm willing to bet that because most cases aren't extreme, there's a lot of denial and damage in progress.

People have a hard time validating an unloved daughter's experiences when she is the only one of the children, seemingly, to have mother issues. A mother who plays favorites goes against our idea of what a mother should be, and we have a hard time believing it can be a common experience. But it is common, and truly damaging and tragic, and takes a long time to recover from, especially if you've been trained to blame yourself, through guilt-training, for the mother-daughter issues.

As Christians, it's hard for us to justify breaking contact with someone. It does seem unforgiving. It does seem to go against what scripture teaches. Indeed, it's a long road to healing for Christians who are caught in the trap of a toxic person, whether parent, friend, or sibling. If you find yourself there, look at it not so much in light of a particular scripture, but from the Bible as a whole.

Does allowing someone to sin against you over and over without remorse further your Christian walk, or allow you to freely and heartily work for, and live for, Christ? Does it allow you the energy and desire to extend common grace and kindnesses to others? Does it allow you to keep up with your devotional life?

Or does it sap all your energy and make you feel depressed, sad, anxious, and guilty? Does it make it difficult to concentrate on anything but the hurt and disappointment?

Only you know the answers to these questions, but what has helped me is to finally come to terms with this: My mother doesn't love me and it's not my fault. And, I don't have to justify how I've handled this to anyone but God. Not everyone will understand and that's okay with me.

Another revelation that led to significant healing is this: It isn't fruitful for me to worry about who loves me or likes me, and I certainly can't try to change their minds either way. God loves me and that is enough. He loves me fully, perfectly. His love is what heals, uplifts, and strengthens.

Love is necessary for every human, but seeking it is not fruitful. Giving it is. We give it because He first loved us.

What do I owe my mother? I have answered that question this way: I owe her my prayers, my forgiveness, my well wishes, my love. I don't owe her my presence or my correspondence, because in doing that I remain inside her toxic web.

I wish you all the best as you try to answers these tough questions in your own life. If you would like prayers, I would love to pray for you.


Anonymous said...

I think one of the biggest myths about alcoholism is that alcoholics are falling over drunks. Mostly, they're not. Most are 'functioning alcoholics' (from my experience of my grandfather and people I met at Celebrate Recovery). 'Functional alcoholism' is a very real and destructive illness, although some people seem to think that as long as someone *is* functioning then there's not a problem (which is, when you think about it, completely nuts).

Like you, I've been trying to figure out where I stand with my own mother. I don't think she's as actively destructive as yours... but then - I know she *can* be. She's not alcoholic but the other narcissistic behaviour is there. I sometimes wonder about what happened in my childhood. How much could she have known (about the abuse of me by her son) if she had wanted to? Impossible question perhaps.

My husband once described my mother's presence as 'toxic' (and he's a nice, patient man - he wouldn't say such a thing without good reason). When things are going her way, she's ok - indeed she can be very sweet and charming - but she is also very manipulative, especially when things aren't going according to her 'plan'. Of course she would be utterly shocked if I ever said anything like this to her - and my father, who has lived for 40-odd years in denial, would also be hugely offended and hurt. Plus, I do love my dad.

My mother's love for me, I have learned, is always in the context of herself. She seems incapable of loving either my sister or I for ourselves. Yet my sister still places our mother on a pedestal - or rather, she swings between being rather rude and short-tempered to being adoring and over-the-top. I don't blame my sister for this, although I do hope if and when she has children she doesn't pass on the destructive behaviour. Prayer is sometimes the only thing we are left with - although perhaps God allows us seemingly unresolvable situations to teach us about the importance and power of prayer? I've come to the conclusion that we'll stay in a relationship with my mother, but at a distance. I'm glad they live 300 miles away. I still love her, despite everything, but I'm not a fool any more. If I think her behaviour is harmful we will withdraw, at least for a period of time. I've done that before and she has backed off. I don't even know if she does it all consciously or not. I really don't.

I will continue to pray for you, dear Christine. You are a beloved child of God, daughter of the Most High. I thank Him that you have seen His truth through all the lies and deception. You are doing the right thing - and you are acting in Christ-like love, despite what those still 'under the spell' might say.
Much love

Christine said...

Your comments are right on about functional alcoholics, Sandy. Thank you for your insight.

And I noticed in the comments section of that article that some of the daughters can remember back to particularly loving times with their mother, even if only very briefly, and it is those times that bind them to the mother and make them reluctant to stop dealing with the emotional abuse from her. Toxic people know just how to be loving enough to put that doubt in our heads, making us think we're imagining it all. But because they are too self-involved (narcissistic) to love truly, they can't sustain any loving attitudes. I think that's why it takes women until late 20's, and 30's and 40's to understand the dynamics and begin to step back and heal.

I wish you the best with your mother. It sounds like you are making the right decision as well. Have a wonderful day, Sandy.