How Close Is Too Close?

So you think you and your grown daughter have finally individuated.  Kudos. While it may mean you can live without constant contact with one another, it may have taken you awhile to get there. But who makes up the rules about how much is too much contact anyway? And when is it best not to get involved in their issues?

In Dr. Beverly Amsel’s GoodTherapy.org article Mothers and Adult Daughters: The Pushes and Pulls of Contact she talks about how the impact of physical separation between mother and daughter depends on degree to which how much each feels the need to be connected or to distance themselves from that connection.

“When adult children desire to individuate and develop autonomy, they may struggle to trust their choices and may fear being unable to withstand mom’s influence,” says Amsel. “Often, to avoid feelings of criticism or incompetence, the daughter will pull away.” 

I have always maintained that daughters define themselves both with as well as apart from their mothers — perhaps unwittingly admiring some of their mom’s traits (of course, some of these traits are only remembered when daughters have children of their own) but also deciding early on which ones they simply can’t embrace nor emulate.  The fact is, daughters aren’t meant to be clones of their moms. That doesn’t, however, stop many mothers from feeling rejected by daughters who turn out radically differently from themselves, as if they were the cause of their daughters going in another direction. Not so fast. Those are the moms who give themselves too much credit. 

Our daughters are products of thousands of years of DNA combinations, dozens of years of environment, and a handful of years of parenting. And there is no one entity that can identify or measure percentages of each. You’ll never know if that “talk” you failed to have with her in 6th grade would ever have redirected her trajectory or made her feel better about herself by age 25.

So when a grown daughter seeks out your advice on some very personal issues,  you have a choice. You can eagerly offer your own wisdom, based on your own life experiences (some of which they’d rather not hear repeatedly) or suggest she see a therapist.  With the first choice, you run several risks: (1) she doesn’t like your answers (2) she does what she wants to do anyway and you end up feeling a bit hurt by it, or (3) she blames you for messing things up further because there is no way you could ever have known all sides to what went on.

I love how Amsel describes the difference: “When you are the same or one, the relationship is symbiotic, with no space between the two. When you are two separate, distinct people, there is a space within which each can attach to the other. That may be the best contact of all.”

If a daughter takes a mother’s suggestion and begins seeing a therapist to help her through her issues, she might be able to sort out her feelings separate from her (often gratefully absent) mom. It’s not about living a life her mother approves of at that point; it’s about paying attention to her own wishes and desires. When mothers and daughters have too much contact or become/remain codependent, it limits both of them, preventing a daughter from forming her own relationship to the world as well as preoccupying a mother, sometimes keeping her in limbo wondering when she will relied upon next.

My own daughter and I have been through it all. There were times when phone calls went dead because I said things she did not want to hear or offered advice not asked for. And there have been times I have helped her through patches I would rather have not been privy to, but she appreciated the sound of my voice nonetheless. Most of the time, however, I am merely a sounding board for her.

What I and other mothers might notice, however, is that grown daughters tend not to call or text during their most well-adjusted times. Those happy, unencumbered calls are the ones we truly want to receive, but it’s during crises we most often stand sentry. These can also be the most dangerous times to offer our true opinions — as if we are the very definition of maturity, good sense and objectivity when often we are unwittingly not. 

As I mentioned earlier, we will never know all sides to anything our children complain about. So while we can opt to be involved, it’s often more prudent to suggest they see a professional third party to whom they can not only speak more freely, but also be asked questions that can help them find their own answers.

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