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How to Build Female Friendships When You Grew Up With a Detached Mom

As the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, I'm always looking for ways to heal, become healthier, and develop deeper connections.

Some daughters of emotionally absent mothers fear that other women will deny their feelings just as their moms did.

Some daughters of emotionally absent mothers fear that other women will deny their feelings just as their moms did.

Being Wary of Female Friendships

  • Did you grow up with an emotionally absent mother and, as a result, struggle to build friendships with other women?
  • Do you find it difficult to open up and be vulnerable, fearing that your feelings will be minimized or even ridiculed like they were during childhood?
  • Are you now feeling lonely and want to reach out and make new friends but don’t know how to go about it?

Growing up in a home with an emotionally absent mother can leave a woman wary of female friendships. She may play it safe by developing superficial relationships with other women—transactional interactions such as carpooling each other’s kids to school or taking turns pet-sitting one another’s animals. She may chit-chat with them about the weather or current events but nothing deeper than that. Difficult emotions never get explored, truths never get shared, struggles never get revealed, and vulnerabilities never get exposed.

If the daughter of an emotionally absent mother is motivated to change, though, she can build meaningful friendships and a robust support system. She just needs to be brave and confident, accept that she’ll get hurt along the way, but know that’s the price to pay when searching for companions of consequence.

Exposing the Roots of the Wariness

Twenty-five years after her first menstrual cycle, Emily still feels shame surrounding it. Even after all these years, she can see her mother’s horrified face as she entered the fourth grade classroom after getting a call from the school secretary to bring a change of clothes for her daughter. For days, weeks, and even years to come, Emily would hear her mother recount that event to family and friends, complaining about how humiliating it was for her. As a result, Emily was all alone, not understanding what had happened to her body that day and feeling guilty for embarrassing her mother.

Like women with similar stories, Emily didn’t have the words to characterize her mom’s uncaring behavior on that day and countless other days. It wasn’t until decades later, struggling in her adult life and looking for answers to understand why, that she became acquainted with a three word designation that explained so much: emotionally absent mother.

This label was used to describe a mom like she had who couldn’t connect with her daughter’s inner world and often ignored, mocked, or rebuked her feelings. In reading Jasmin Lee Cori’s book, The Emotionally Absent Mother, Emily discovered a whole sisterhood of women who had experienced the same remote mothering that she had. Like her, they were suffering in adulthood as a consequence of it.

Changing Course

It’s not surprising that a woman who was raised by an emotionally absent mother would grow up to become wary of female friendships. After all, her mom had repudiated her feelings time and time again when she was a child. As a result, she learned at a young age that her emotions were unacceptable, should remain bottled up inside of her, and not be shared with others.

As an adult, the mere thought of opening up to other women can be a source of trepidation. She might rightfully wonder: What if they belittle my emotions just like my mother did? What if they weaponize my feelings and use them against me? She might decide that the risk is too great and avoid making real connections in favor of keeping it safe, albeit superficial.

Yet, the world can be a sad and lonely place without meaningful friendships. Numerous studies prove they make us happier as well as healthier, both physically and psychologically. With that in mind, here are three ways that daughters of emotionally absent mothers can overcome their apprehension and build female friendships.

3 Ways for Daughters of Detached Moms to Build Friendships

1. Do the picking

2. Choose women with emotional intelligence

3. Be vulnerable

1. Do The Picking

It’s not uncommon for daughters of emotionally absent mothers to have grown up in a situation where the parent-child roles were reversed. They were the mature ones who listened to and advised their mothers while their moms were the immature ones who needed to be center stage along with all their drama. As adults, these daughters are at risk of being drawn into the same lopsided relationships that are familiar to them from childhood. This is a critical mistake, though, that will leave them feeling drained and despondent.

Therefore, it’s important that these adult daughters deliberately choose their friends instead of their friends choosing them. Otherwise, needy women will latch on to them, desiring a one-sided relationship in which they can discuss their problems but not reciprocate. Daughters of emotionally absent mothers shouldn’t be in a dynamic where they’re a therapist, not a friend. They should look for pals who are leading healthy lives and doing inspiring things. Good places to find such folks are fitness classes, hiking clubs, animal rescues, biking groups, civic organizations, adult education classes, charities, and political campaigns.

2. Choose Women With Emotional Intelligence

It’s human nature to gravitate toward the familiar and enter relationships that replicate our childhoods. In that process, we often look at the present to repair the wounds of our past. A woman who grew up with an alcoholic father, for example, may marry a man with a drinking problem in the hope of making it all better this time. Similarly, a woman who grew up with an emotionally absent mother may choose female friends who are cold and distant, hoping that she can magically transform them into being loving and supportive. She didn’t have the power to do that as a child with her mother, but she may unconsciously wish to do it now.

Yet, if she knows how futile this is, she can wisely put her energies elsewhere. Instead of trying to change a potential pal, she can search for friends who are already good-to-go. Because of her history with a detached mother, she should look for a woman who possesses a high degree of emotional intelligence (EI).

A woman with EI is in touch with her inner world as well as the feelings of those around her. As such, she’s sensitive to others and responsive to their needs. This makes her a rare and precious friend. For the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, a pal with EI provides the warm, caring, and reciprocal relationship that she’s been yearning for her entire life.

This video explains what emotional intelligence is and why it's so important.

3. Be Vulnerable

Some daughters of emotionally absent mothers have spent years building up a tough shell, impenetrable to pain. Being vulnerable goes against everything they’ve done to protect themselves from the suffering that they experienced as kids when their moms ignored, belittled, or admonished their feelings. Ironically, though, vulnerability is the very attribute that they need in order to form meaningful female friendships. Without it, they’ll continue to be alone.

Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor and speaker, has written an entire book on its significance entitled The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage. She says that too many people view vulnerability as a weakness, an opening to their hearts that others can enter and exploit. Brown argues that, while vulnerability exposes us to getting hurt, it’s also necessary to lead a full and happy life. She writes, “In our culture, we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame and uncertainty. Yet, we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.”

Being vulnerable lets daughters of emotionally absent mothers finally be seen. As children, their mothers denied a momentous part of their identity—their emotions—and, therefore, they were never viewed as whole people. As adults, they can now be celebrated as complete and complex beings with all kinds of feelings that no longer get suppressed. They can be their authentic selves, knowing some people will love and accept them for it, others won’t, and that this is totally normal and to be expected.

What do you think?

© 2018 McKenna Meyers