Can a Mom Be too Close to Her Daughter?
We all want connection with our daughters, but when we become overly close, it can hinder their transition to adulthood.
by Cheri Fuller
There are lots of positive things about being good friends with your daughter. I’ve talked to moms who say their adult daughter is their very closest, best friend. They shop together and tell each other everything. We all want connection with our daughters. But when Mom sees her daughter as her main confidante or they become overly close, it can hinder a healthy transition to adulthood. That was the case for Julie.
Julie and her mother had always been close. Yet from high school on, her biggest struggle was that her mom was so involved in her life it was suffocating. She appreciated and loved her mom, but during the college years she wanted a little distance to grow. But her mom kept needing to be needed. She was dependent on her daughter’s dependency, which fostered insecurity in Julie. This sweet, caring mother had done everything for her daughter when she lived at home and then kept doing everything even through her daughter’s twenties (her taxes, reconciling her checkbook, and doing her laundry, all of which Julie was capable of doing herself). “You’re so busy; come home this weekend and I’ll get it all done.” Her mom did all this with the best of intentions, and she expected a lot from her daughter in return.
Julie’s dad had been emotionally absent early on, so as a child Julie was expected to be her mom’s listener. Hers was the shoulder her mother cried on when she was upset. Being mom’s main emotional support felt spiritual and noble, especially when she had to sacrifice some of her own fun times with friends, but it was actually detrimental to the process of Julie’s learning to grow up and live her own life.
When she started pulling away in small steps during college, like spending the weekend on campus for an activity with friends, her mom asked guilt-producing questions like, “Why aren’t you coming home more?” or “Are your friends more fun than I am?”
Being a compliant people pleaser, Julie got sucked into an enmeshed relationship with her mother. She gave up a lot of her own perfectly normal desires and interests in order to go home when her mom needed companionship or to call her more often than she had time for.
Julie’s mom didn’t realize she was manipulating situations and thereby preventing her daughter from being a stable, healthy adult. Mom’s hyper-involvement eventually not only hurt Julie’s ability to feel good about herself and live her own life, it also hurt their relationship.
Consequently, while her greatest wish was for her daughter to get married, Julie’s mother didn’t realize her overinvolvement was a big part of the reason her daughter wasn’t developing a relationship with a guy. When Julie didn’t marry through her twenties and early thirties, her mom asked from time to time, out of real concern, “Don’t you want to get married?” This is never a good question for us to ask.
Mom and daughter operated in this kind of dysfunctional connection for a decade before Julie realized the growing venom and resentment she felt toward her mom. She’d started avoiding her, and when they were together, Julie was either curt or silent. Then Julie sought counseling to find a way to detach with love, forgive, and live her own life while still honoring her mother.
At first her mother resisted the change in their relationship. She cried, balked, and felt sorry for herself. But as Julie stood her ground and learned how to separate and draw some healthy boundaries, her mother finally got the message: She needed to have her own life, not try to live through her daughter. She got involved in a Bible study and community projects, participating in life on her own for a change. Through those groups she made some new friends.
As Julie and her mom created some space from each other, their mother-daughter relationship became more open, and what her mother had longed for happened: Julie drew close and began to enjoy her mom more than ever—quite a contrast to spending time with her because she felt obligated to. That’s what happens when we allow our daughters to grow into the adults they’re supposed to be. Then they are free to return on their own timetable.
Just as Julie and her mom experienced from establishing boundaries, our relationships with our own daughters will actually be much healthier and the time we do spend together more enjoyable if we do the same.
Breaking unhealthy ties
In her book The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, Leslie Vernick points out the following signs of a too close, emotionally destructive relationship: one person is regularly overprotective, overbearing—or both—toward the other; one person is overdependent upon the other to affirm her personal value and worth and meet all her needs; one person exhibits chronic indifference, neglect, or both toward the thoughts, feelings, or well-being of the other.
If you sense your daughter and you have been a bit too close for comfort or you’re dissatisfied with her distance, maybe it’s time to reconnect with yourself. Take some time to get to know yourself better and identify your hopes and dreams, your “bucket list” of things you want to do while you’re still on this side of the grass. Get comfortable with just being with yourself, journaling your thoughts and feelings, and being fine with solitude.
And make time to cultivate your own friendships. That’s one of the best things we moms can do for our daughters, especially during the college and twenty-something years when our daughter’s developmental task is to separate from us. We can share thoughts and appropriate feelings, of course, but it’s not a daughter’s job to be the repository of intimate details of your life. It’s vital to avoid confiding to her toxic feelings about her father (or another family member) that will negatively affect her relationship with that person. It’s not her job to be your therapist. That’s too heavy a burden to bear.
When you shape her into that role, it brings turmoil during a formative stage of her life and can mess up her own sense of identity and sexuality. She’s still your daughter, and you are not her little girl. If you don’t switch the roles, the relationship will be healthier—and isn’t that what you want? Your daughter will be freer to live her life and develop her own identity, friendships, and interests. And as you are available without hovering and detached without cutting her off, she’ll have the emotional energy she needs for learning and tackling the normal challenges of her adult years.
The key is balance
As mothers, when we find our own best friends (in addition to close communication with our husbands, if they are in the picture), it doesn’t diminish our relationship with our daughter. It enhances our bond with her. We need women we can confide in and trust because developing connections with other women is part of taking care of ourselves. In the process, we not only have an opportunity to be deeply honest with someone who is better equipped to support us, but we get to have fun too.
It comes down to a balance—not a disconnected, I’m-too-busy-for-you stance or a too-close-for-comfort, enmeshed relationship with our daughter. Let her know you’re there for her when she needs someone to talk to, and then listen well when she takes you up on the offer. Invite her to meet you at a coffee shop, and don’t take it personally if she’s not able to fit that into her schedule. Be her greatest encourager in all the steps along the way as she becomes a full-fledged adult. And while you’re at it, enjoy the freedom to have a life of your own.
Excerpted from Mother-Daughter Duet by Cheri Fuller and Ali Plum Copyright © 2010 by Cheri Fuller and Ali Plum. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Cheri Fuller is an award-winning author whose books have sold more than one million copies. She speaks at a wide range of women's conferences and is a frequent guest on national radio and television programs.