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Breaking the Fantasy Bond with Our Mothers

breaking the fantasy bond with our mothers, psychalive, mothers day 2012, mother daughter conflict,

The other day, I was reminded of reading Nancy Friday’s book, My Mother/My Self many years ago; so I took Friday’s book down from a shelf in my office and opened it, quite by chance, to page 388, where I found this heavily underlined quote:

“As we get older and the tie to mother is weakened by physical or psychological separation, introjections gather momentum. When we move into an apartment of our own, when we find a job, take a lover, get married and have a child of our own – in all these important rites of passage away from her, as we take one step forward, we take another one back, and find ourselves doing things her way. Becoming like her overcomes our separation anxiety.”

Friday’s implication is that as we mature, we tend to become more like our mother, yet this represents taking a step backward in our own personal development. The truth is that becoming like one’s mother is a mixed blessing. Adopting our mother’s ways of doing things would be beneficial for our development if we were raised by the “ideal” or even a “good enough” mother. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many — or most — women. As Hendrika Freud emphasized, “Generally speaking, the bond between mothers and daughters facilitates passing on emotional health as well as pathology to the next generation.”

It’s these two opposing ways of identifying with our mothers that cause us distress. We easily identify with and imitate our mother’s positive qualities and point of view about life, but the problem is that we also imitate many of her negative traits and irrational views, even those that we may criticize in her – and we’re mostly unaware of this process.

Nancy Friday’s and Hendrika Freud’s ideas strongly resonate with me for many reasons, both personal and professional. For one thing, my father, Robert Firestone, has written extensively about the ambivalence inherent in every mother-daughter relationship. His descriptive accounts of the dynamics operating in the mother-daughter bond were published in Compassionate Child-Rearing (1990) and are explained in a chapter in our forthcoming book, co-authored by Joyce Catlett, The Self Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation.

What are some of the less-than-beneficial aspects of the mother-daughter bond? First, women tend to imitate their mother’s negative point of view about life and her maladaptive ways of coping with pain and anxiety. For example, if their mother acted victimized and helpless, they often have tendencies to relate to life as passive victims. If their mother saw men as weak, indifferent, or degrading of them as women, the daughters internalize these views and take them on as their own. As a result, many women fail to distinguish between the internalized negative maternal point of view and their own views.

Psychiatrist/Obstetrician Joseph Rheingold was also struck by the power of the mother/daughter conflict in the 2500 women that he interviewed in a 12-year clinical research program. Their personal narratives led Rheingold to conclude:

A woman may bring any number of assets to marriage – compassion, wisdom, intelligence, skills, an imaginative spirit, delight-giving femininity, good humor, friendliness, pride in a job well done – but if she does not bring emancipation from her mother, the assets may wither or may be overbalanced by the liability of the fear of being a woman.”

Feelings of fear and guilt in relation to her mother can cause a woman to turn her back on her own personal goals, to retreat from her sexuality, or to withdraw from being close to her partner. Women who pull back in these ways feel bound to their mothers, not by a genuine sense of closeness, but by an imagined connection or fantasy bond that was a substitute for the warmth and attunement that was missing in the early attachment with their mothers.

As women struggle to become their own person, to develop their own identity, to feel confident in their personal and professional goals, and to keep passion and love alive in their relationship, they often experience a kind of anticipatory fear that their independence and sexuality will threaten the illusory connection with their mother. While most women don’t consciously think, “By doing this or that, I might threaten my connection to my mother,” this subconscious threat can arouse intense feelings of separation anxiety left over from their childhood – the kind of anxiety that Nancy Friday described in her book.

Women’s unconscious reactions to these powerful feelings of fear and anxiety often take the form of a decline in their sexual desire or a diminished interest in sex. It can also injure their self-confidence and ability in relation to their personal goals and successes. This unwelcome trend could be a sign that they are becoming more like their mother, especially if their mother gradually gave up her identity as a sexual woman after she had children.

A friend of mine told me about an evening that she spent recently with her boyfriend where she felt more loving and passionate than usual. She said that she also felt very happy when he told her how much he loved her. It dawned on her that their relationship had become very meaningful. Later in the week, however, she began to have doubts about how he really felt. “He really isn’t that interested in you. Look at him. Doesn’t he seem a little cool and distant?” She noticed that she was becoming increasingly critical and irritated in her interactions with him. Suddenly, she recalled her mother’s complaints and harsh criticisms of her father. The realization that she was internally reciting her mother’s attitudes toward her father had the effect of dispelling her suspicious attitudes and doubts. Feeling genuinely loved and acknowledged by her boyfriend had triggered anxiety and she unconsciously slipped into her mother’s way of thinking and her general distrust of men. It was fortunate that my friend caught on to the way she was using her mother’s attitude to hurt her relationship and was able to differentiate from this internalized point of view.

There is a way to challenge this fantasy bond with our mothers. I have known many women who challenged the harmful attitudes and maladaptive views that they took on as their own at an early age during painful interactions with their mothers. As they came to understand the division within themselves between their desire for independence and sexual fulfillment and the debilitating psychological tie to their mothers, they were able to break this fantasy bond by changing negative traits in themselves that were imitative of their mothers. Differentiating from the destructive aspects of maternal influence enabled them to experience more satisfaction in their relationships and to manifest a stronger personal identity.

 

7 comments

  1. wow.. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your articles.. I feel like I’m learning so much and can identify so deeply with the issues you bring up..
    Thank you !

  2. Dr. Lisa,
    I read your Breaking the Fantasy Bond…and I agree on many points about how this unravels w/mother/daughter relationships.
    I do have plenty of my mother’s attitudes about men.
    However, there is a devil’s advocate in me. The experienced little devil says,”Perhaps there is no real definition of what a healthy and optimal life for a woman is; it too often is defined by what men find useful to their needs, not our happiness.” I think you cannot *make* yourself sexual again, but you can be guilt-tripped into thinking something is inadequate about you. Sexual interest does wane for very many women and I cannot believe it is anything but normal.

    • This is a very good point. I would love to find some literature advocating a more inclusive view that embraces an acceptance that life is okay, even good, without the focus on sex. I know men who are burdened by the expectation that they “should want sex” in the same way all their lives. It just isn’t the same for everyone and there are many ways to have a fulfilling life.

  3. I really appreciate all you are doing and saying, here. However, having read the book, “The Fantasy Bond,” and knowing you quote direct from it, I believe you should properly attribute the author whose study and work you discuss and quote verbatim in the otherwise fine article. You should also mention his book. How ahead of his time he was! His understanding and the way he described the fantasy bond are so helpful to me and to others — and continue in your own wonderful work. Thank you.

  4. Having been a college professor, I did a little research on the source you quote, Joseph Rheingold. It is really a shock this his work is out of print. I hope you and your organization find a way to re-publish his seminal and prescient works, including:
    The mother, anxiety, and death;: The catastrophic death complex by Joseph C Rheingold (1967)
    and
    The Fear of Being a Woman: A Theory of Maternal Destructiveness by Joseph C. Rheingold (1964)
    I hope you will let me know. Surely, you will be able to introduce his work anew to the world just as R.D. Laing was so keen on sharing and supporting your family’s original work and now yours.

  5. Is this an equivalent book for men who have fantasy bonds with their mothers? My husband’s mother was extremely critical of her children (her daughter spent years in therapy trying to resolve issues) and completely neglected any parental responsibility that wasn’t “fun” for her and now my husband mentally rewrites history to make his mother out to be a saint who sacrificed everything because of her intense love for her children. He spends an extraordinary amount of mental energy each day planning what he can do to get her approval. If there is a male version, how can I get my husband to read it / get help / deal with reality? From reading various sites, it seems many grown men are obsessed with gaining their mother’s approval.

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