Mothers & Daughters During Divorce: A Unique Relationship Put to the Test

The mother-daughter relationship is unique. There’s a special bond forged through a lifetime of advice, companionship, strength and sympathy. As daughters grow up and become mothers themselves, they develop a depth of understanding that they might not have had as rebellious teens. It’s often a woman’s strongest relationship outside her marriage. And it can also be rife with problems with mothers being controlling or unavailable, too enmeshed in your life, or self-involved. It can be a complicated relationship that doesn’t get any less complicated with divorce.

This week I sat down with renowned professor, author and expert Dr. Deborah Tannen. She is the University Professor and Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of many books and articles about how the language of everyday conversation affects relationships, best known for You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which was on the New York Times best seller list for nearly four years. This month we’ll be taking a deep dive into Dr. Tannen’s work and what makes it so incisive and unique.

Mothers Share the Trauma

In our culture, Dr. Tannen points out, mothers are “held responsible for whatever their children do.” That’s as true for the mom of a tween who goes out with too much makeup to the mother of the 40-something going through divorce. Somehow, women are held responsible all the way up the line. So they get the external criticism. But then they also internalize it and feel guilt themselves. They may feel like they’ve failed as mothers. Dr. Tannen interviewed women who attested to the fact that they were less bothered about being criticized for their work than they were for their parenting. With mothers, it’s personal and it goes to the very core of their identity.

And Then Daughters Take the Trauma Back

The bigger problem is when a mother’s guilt triggers a cycle of guilt, pain and anxiety that the mother and daughter share—and feed. The daughter feels the natural pain of divorce, then the mother takes on that pain, the daughter witnesses her mother’s pain and wants to take that on. It’s a treadmill that is seemingly impossible to jump off.

The Solution

The best way to end this cycle of guilt and pain is to have meta-communication about it. That means you take a step back from the painful dynamic and comment on the conversation. Dr. Tannen advises, “talk in a way that says, ‘I think you’re a great mother. What’s happening is something out of anybody’s control.’” This can create some space—between you and your actions, between parenting and blame.

The mother-daughter relationship can be intense and highly sympathetic. This can have its pitfalls when you’re going through something as serious as a divorce. But some smart adjustments and clear communication can turn it into the source of support everyone truly wants it to be.

If you’re considering divorce but would like to try an approach that might mean a brighter future, call my team to schedule a confidential consultation.