Ms. Meyers finally realized she had an emotionally absent mother after her son was diagnosed with autism. Today, she practices acceptance.
Do Her Behaviors Keep You at Arm's Length?
- Does your mother play the martyr, the long-suffering and self-sacrificing victim, in her relationship with you and others?
- Does she re-write your family's history, expunging any of her missteps and, thus, relieving herself of any responsibility for things that went wrong?
- Does she expect you to be the supportive, nurturing one in a role reversal of the typical parent-child relationship?
- Is she a terrible listener, even during the most trying times in your life?
- Does she make insensitive comments about your weight, appearance, and intelligence, seemingly oblivious to their impact?
If nodding your head to any or all of these questions, you probably struggle to get close to your emotionally absent mother but only find frustration. That's because you and she are at cross purposes with you craving an intimate bond and her resisting it. Her behaviors are designed to keep you at arm's length because she's unable to be fully available: open, honest, vulnerable, and loving.
What Is an Emotionally Absent Mother?
During the first three decades of my life, I longed to have a close, loving relationship with my mom and was sad when it never happened. When I was pregnant, I was certain that having my first child would bond us together at long last. Yet, three years after my son's birth, he got diagnosed with autism and my mom reacted with cold detachment. Her indifference during that trying time sent me on a search for answers, and I found them when I came upon the term: emotionally absent mother. Everything finally made sense.
Because of her painful childhood with an alcoholic parent, my mom was damaged and unable to form deep connections with my siblings and me. As a sensitive, introverted child, I desired an intimate relationship with my mom, but she was incapable of it. In her mind, she was doing everything that a good mother should do by taking us to school, washing our clothes, and cooking us dinner. She resented me for wanting more.
5 Behaviors of Your Mother That Keep You at a Distance
1. playing the martyr
2. rewriting your family's history
3. parentifying you
4. not listening
5. making insensitive remarks
1. Playing the Martyr
If your mother plays the martyr, you should give up any hope of having a close, meaningful relationship with her. Your bond will never be healthy and balanced because she needs to feel morally superior: saintly, self-sacrificing, and long-suffering. Her identity is tied up in being the victim and finding fault in everyone else.
Dr. Ursula Sandner, a psychotherapist and life coach, addresses these issues in her blog post, "The martyr complex—what is it and what can be done about it?" She writes, "those who have this complex don't take responsibility for their lives, decisions, and choices, but they seek to blame others, usually friends or family, for their failures, renunciations or unhappiness."
When my son was diagnosed with autism, my mother couldn't take a break from her martyrdom to see my anguish. She was too busy whining and complaining about all that she was doing for her boyfriend and his relatives and how unappreciative they were. She couldn't see how much I was suffering and needed a mom. As the child of an alcoholic, she had taken on the poor, pitiful me persona long ago and was holding on to it tightly. I now accept that she will never surrender the martyr role because it gives her purpose.
2. Rewriting Your Family's History
You may also struggle to connect with your emotionally absent mother if she insists on rewriting your family's history. She elevates herself in the process, becoming more saintly and heroic, while everyone else comes out lacking. Any of her stumbles are eliminated from the retelling as if they never happened.
It's impossible to have a close bond with a mother who isn't honest about your shared past. I stopped bringing up my childhood with my mom because she'd get defensive when my recollections weren't all blue skies and palomino ponies. When mentioning my dad's verbal abuse, I'd only get her tired, old amnesia routine. She preferred to forget that harsh reality than face the fact that she didn't protect my siblings and me.
In "Five Things an Unloving Mother Never Does," Peg Streep writes that emotionally-attuned moms acknowledge their parenting missteps and apologize for them. Emotionally absent moms, though, never say they're sorry because owning their mistakes is too threatening to their fragile self-concept. Instead, they defend their actions or "gaslight" their kids by pretending those things never happened. Either way, they destroy the opportunity for truth and, thus, closeness.
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3. Parentifying You
Some emotionally absent mothers were not parented well and became shut down because of it. As adults, they turn to their own children for the love, nurturing, and compassion that they didn't get as kids. This role reversal is called parentification. When parentified youngsters grow up and realize what was done to them, they often feel deep anger and resentment for the carefree childhood that they missed.
Reared by an alcoholic parent, my mother became emotionally numb because of it. Unable to provide the warmth and love that our family needed, she handed over those duties to my sister and me. We were in charge of comforting our younger siblings when they were scared, listening to them when they were overwhelmed, and encouraging them when they felt defeated.
We were our mother's emotional support system as well, cheering her on for job interviews and consoling her after breakups. Today, with kids of our own to rear and nurture, we're tapped out and no longer want to mother our mom. This feels like a rejection to her so she's drifted further away from us and her grandchildren.
4. Not Listening
Many emotionally absent mothers are poor listeners, too overwhelmed with their own lives to pay attention to a daughter's words and the feelings behind them. After my son was diagnosed with autism, I was beyond distraught. Yet, my mother was unfazed, chattering about her own problems and unable to hear my grief. I'd explain what the doctor had said and, the very next time we'd speak, she'd have zero memory of it. The hard truth was it just didn't matter to her.
Accepting the reality that our moms are self-centered and uninterested in our lives isn't easy. We may have denied it for years (or even decades) until the evidence was piled too high to ignore. When we do, though, our struggle ends and peace begins.
Examining how we were impacted by moms who didn't listen to us also helps us move forward. In Peg Streep's article, "Daughters of Unloving Mothers: 7 Common Wounds," she writes about the tragic legacy of being unheard. Girls often become women who lack self-confidence. They doubt their own abilities and question why anyone would want to date or befriend them. It's hard to be close to a mother who's damaged us so profoundly.
5. Making Insensitive Remarks
Because our emotionally absent mothers remain detached from our inner world, they can unwittingly due great harm to it. They have no notion that their negative words have tremendous power over a daughter's self-image. Unlike emotionally attuned moms who choose their words carefully, emotionally absent moms often say whatever pops into their head with no consideration of its impact. This makes it challenging to be close to them because we're always on the alert, knowing that they may wound us with an insensitive remark.
My childhood was tortured by my mother's fixation with my weight, no matter whether I was too thin or too fat. Today, she can still make me feel like an insecure girl with her thoughtless comments about my appearance. Fortunately, though, I now know that I'm not alone. Dr. Terri Apter, author of Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power, estimates that one in five daughters has a toxic relationship with her mom. More of us than we ever imagined know the heartache of trying to get close to our mothers and failing.
My mom's indifference about my son and his autism diagnosis helped me see that her reaction was not an isolated event but a long-term pattern of behavior. She had acted in the same unfeeling way when I was molested by a relative as a child, when my father (her husband) died, and when I suffered a miscarriage. She was never sad at these times, just agitated by the expectation that she should be.
Today, I practice acceptance and no longer expect to connect with my mother on an emotional level. I've given up that fantasy and now build loving, supportive bonds elsewhere. I've realized what the spiritual teacher, Bryon Katie, said is true: "If you argue against reality, you will suffer."
In this video, therapist Katie Morton discusses how to give up the hope that your mom will change and instead focus on re-mothering yourself.
What do you think?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 McKenna Meyers