Too much closeness can get in the way of a healthy mother-daughter relationship. Here’s how to create the space you both need to grow stronger and happier together.
My daughter Emily says I have an eerie ability to know when she’s having a bad day simply by hearing her voice when she answers the phone:
She says, “Hello?”
I respond, “What’s wrong?”
With a single word, I just know.
Or at least I think I do.
Like a lot of mothers and daughters, Emily and I often think we know what the other one is feeling. And how she feels about those feelings.
This kind of “knowing” makes us feel like we’re two peas in a pod.
But there’s an underside to thinking we know each other so well.
Too much closeness can get in the way of a healthy mother-daughter relationship.
Over time, the space inside that pea pod gets cramped and uncomfortable. It becomes harder and harder to make room for healthy growth and the inevitable changes life brings.
Missteps and misunderstandings happen when daughters begin asserting themselves as adults while mothers still see them as little girls.
Or when mothers begin grappling with aging and a changing world while daughters see them as someone who should have life all figured out.
Is it any wonder that mothers and daughters find themselves feeling frustrated when big life changes come crowding in?
When that frustration boils over into the universal cry, “I just don’t understand what she’s thinking!” you’ve landed on the truth. You don’t know. But that’s not a bad thing.
We grow closer by honoring the boundaries that set us apart.
In Atlas of the Heart, author Brene Brown says, “We can’t connect with someone unless we’re clear about where we end and they begin. If there’s no autonomy between people, then there’s no compassion or empathy, just enmeshment.”
Boundaries are a prerequisite for healthy mother-daughter relationships. They help us avoid the pitfalls and disappointments of thinking we’re in perfect step with one another. They communicate respect for each other as individuals and illuminate our separate paths.
Boundaries give us clarity about how we can support one another – even when our paths take different turns.
Respecting differences creates a stronger bond.
Respecting our differences helps us remember that we’re both responsible for our own choices. We don’t have to agree to extend mutual respect and appreciation for one another.
We build respect by letting go of our assumptions and showing genuine interest and concern without being intrusive. By asking questions and listening to understand. Not jumping to conclusions or offering solutions based on old information. But by sharing our opinions only when asked and with a dose of humility, knowing that we won’t always agree.
Aim for empathy instead of complete agreement.
Empathy is the ability to sense another person’s emotions – something many moms and daughters believe they do well. But added to that is the ability to imagine and relate to what the other might be thinking or feeling – not simply assuming you know.
Empathy is “feeling with” someone, not feeling for them or at them or trying to fix things (truly a challenge for some mothers and daughters.)
Here’s a short video to illustrate:
Empathy slows us down from jumping to conclusions and allows us to authentically connect. Not through assumptions or old beliefs about our mother or daughter. But by stepping into her shoes and trying to see from her perspective.
Empathy allows us to come alongside one another with compassion and understanding while acknowledging our differences and the space between us.
What to expect while learning to let go.
Letting go and making space in your mother-daughter relationship isn’t always easy. There’s a very real possibility that more misunderstandings and hurt feelings will pop up as you work toward relating to one another as separate adults.
Because as we grow and experience the world differently, we start making decisions we don’t always agree on. This can feel like rejection to a mom – especially when her most closely held beliefs and ideals are questioned. And like criticism to a daughter – when she’s trying on new ideas of her own.
Practicing patience and filling your conversations with loving, respectful language helps bridge this gap.
Stay curious and try not to take it personally when your mother or daughter changes her mind or opinion about something you previously agreed on.
Remember that while you may disagree on a matter today, that doesn’t mean you won’t ever agree again.
Embrace one another for who you are and who you’re both becoming.
Moms and daughters who accept and embrace their differences create emotionally healthy space to see one another more clearly.
By letting go of past versions of themselves, mothers and daughters begin to relate as adults in the reality of now – not as who they thought or hoped the other to be.
Freed from thinking they can read each other’s minds, moms and daughters can learn to talk about realistic expectations and ask honestly for what they need.
From this place of truth and vulnerability, authentic closeness grows making your mother-daughter relationship better and stronger.
Signs that you’re creating a strong and lasting mother-daughter bond.
Healthy mothers and daughters accept and respect one another as individuals who may hold wildly different opinions and ideas.
They have honest open-ended conversations that include respectful disagreements that aren’t always resolved.
They see each other as equal adults who both contribute to the relationship.
In a word, they become friends. Two distinct and unique women with a rich shared history who accept one another as they are, enjoy each other’s company and cheer each other on.
Find more joy by giving each other room to grow.
While it might be tempting to think there’s a mother-daughter duo out there somewhere who are perfectly in sync. There’s not. Every mom and daughter on the planet experiences tension and conflict as we claim the space we need to grow into the women we’ve been created to be.
Some are more equipped and ready for the journey than others. If you feel like you’re struggling in your relationship alone, consider working with a family therapist or relationship coach to help you move toward a healthier mother-daughter bond.
Mothers and daughters give each other a gift when we make more room for both to grow. It takes time, patience and grace, but accepting our differences and creating more space between us ultimately draws us closer together.