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The Need for Approval

Excerpted from

Family Estrangements: How They Begin, How to Mend Them, How to Cope with Them


Here is an example of a broken relationship between a mother and daughter that had its origin in the mother's own childhood and her need for approval. They might have avoided the break had the mother paid enough attention to what caused her problems in the first place.

The mother was especially hungry for love and attention. She felt that her own parents didn't love and admire her as much as they did her brother. Even if she misread the situation, her own perception of it had a lasting effect on her personality. She made sure her own daughter was always given the love and approval she had missed, but when the daughter became embarrassed by her mother's extroverted and attention-getting personality, the mother's childhood feelings of rejection were revived.

"And that wasn't all of it," the mother said. "When her father and I argued, she always took his side. I hated that she did that. It was as if she despised me for not being quiet and demure. My voice is on the loud side. I'm too fat and I have a kind of guttural laugh. I know it nukes people turn around. I try to modulate it, but sometimes I forget. I suppose it's been an embarrassment to her in front of her friends. She was rejecting my very presence, and this continued for many years. To make matters worse, this rejection was now coming from the one person I had least expected it to come from, the daughter I had doted on."

At first this mother was hurt, then she was furious, furious enough to trigger an argument about the daughter's scornful behavior. It led to her daughter's decision to break off their relationship. This first rift lasted for several months. They reconnected because the mother begged her daughter to speak to her and sec her. The mother even apologized for whatever it was she had done, though she really couldn't be specific other than to say that she shouldn't have admonished her daughter for being so hurtful. And even though the daughter deserved to be told that her behavior was cruel and unwarranted, the mother was the one making the apology.

When pushed to examine how the ultimate estrangement could have been prevented, the mother was forced to explore these painful past memories. As a child, she had always felt unwanted and unloved. She wanted to do all the things for her daughter that weren't done for her. Her relentless insecurity even pushed her to indulge her daughter with material things.

"And I gave in to her, even when she made demands that I shouldn't have given in to-for example, letting her have some of my expensive jewelry' that I still wanted for myself. Or the times when I would cancel my plans just to run an errand for her. She sensed this vulnerability in me. and exploited it to get what she wanted. I don't mean to say that this freeze between us is all her fault; on the contrary, I believe that by trying so hard to be the good mother, I didn't draw the line when I should have. But I know I don't deserve what she's doing to me."

Before this woman can expect to alter the pattern of conflicted relationships in her life, she needs to not only identify what upsets people who deal with her, but she has to figure out the origins of these troubled interactions. She needs to recognize how the difficulty with her daughter paralleled that of other disagreements she had experienced during her life-all in her pursuit of approval and validation that she could never get from her own parents. Wearing her neediness for the world to see had the effect of driving people away. Coaxed into that place of realization, the mother came to understand that in her desire to be liked and loved, she failed to stand up for herself when she should have.

"I knew my daughter had lost all respect for me. By giving her everything she wanted and apologizing for things I shouldn't have had to apologize for. I ended up appearing weak and spineless. I think the embarrassment she felt for me just grew until she couldn't stand the sight of me."

This kind of unresolved anger, combined with a longing for what might have been, is the kind of mix that keeps therapists in business. If the mother's own efforts to mend this estrangement fail, she should try to persuade her daughter to join her in seeking professional help, and if her daughter won't go with her, the mother should continue alone. The mother's first step in her own healing process should be forgiveness and acceptance of herself. As for the daughter, she must accept responsibility for her cruel behavior toward her mother, and she also had better face the prospect of living with long-term guilt if her mother should die before they're both able to mend their relationship.

Avoiding Guilt

Parents, especially cranky ones, have a scary habit of dying just before we make our peace with them. If you think it's difficult dealing with a cantankerous, demanding, aging parent, wait until you try dealing with his or her absence. Memory can play nasty tricks on us when we remember a deceased parent with whom we had an unresolved conflict Even when we try to be objective in our thinking, we either remember only the good stuff-making us feel like monsters for what we've done-or only the bad stuff, leaving us with a guilt trip that is far worse than the one that the parent could have inflicted on us. It's the kind of guilt that can haunt you for the rest of your life, and another important reason for mending rifts with loved ones.

There we have some classic examples of unreasonable expectations, control issues, approval issues, overreactions and hot buttons that lead to estrangements. In order to find out what we're really fighting about with another person, we have to be sure of which of our own issues is at stake.

Tags: Parenting and Families