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Rosjke Hasseldine Nov 17, 2020

How Marital Conflict Causes Mother-Daughter Conflict

We all know that conflict between a husband and wife affects the entire family, and that children of all ages are deeply impacted when their parents fight. What isn’t widely known is how parental conflict can cause conflict between a mother and daughter.

Understanding this mother-daughter dynamic starts with an appreciation of how the mother-daughter bond mirrors how women are treated by their family, culture, and society. How a mother and daughter of any age relate tells the wider story of the emotional impact of when women are silenced, emotionally neglected, or expected to comply with limiting gender role stereotypes that restrict their choice and power. In brief, conflict between a mother and daughter tells the story of women’s generational experience with sexism and patriarchy, and how patriarchal beliefs harm a mother’s and daughter’s ability to listen to and support each other. When women’s voices are silenced by their family, culture, and wider society, mothers and daughters end up fighting over who gets to be heard.

When a mother is silenced by and unsupported by her husband or partner, she will subconsciously turn to her daughter to meet these human needs. Mothers subconsciously turn to daughters rather than sons because the daughter is female. This is particularly prevalent in families that believe females are the listening, caregiving, supporting gender. However, this dynamic can happen in any family where the mother isn’t heard, supported, or equally valued, and the parental conflict that this causes isn’t openly expressed. Chances are, if the mother isn’t feeling heard or supported, the daughter isn’t either—and neither are the other women in their generational family.

When the mother has learned to prioritize her husband’s rules, thoughts, and needs over her own—even if she sometimes fights against this—it can also cause mother-daughter conflict. The prioritizing of men’s voices and needs is one of the most common reasons a mother and daughter seek therapy. It causes a great deal of anger and conflict as a mother and daughter fight over their shared silencing and the expectation that they must silence themselves and each other to prioritize the men in the family.  

Marital conflict can result in a father being more attentive of his daughter than his wife. While a daughter needs her father’s attention for her emotional development, this can cause both mother and daughter to compete for the coveted attention of the man. The mother may feel jealous of the attention her daughter is receiving from her father, harming the mother-daughter bond even more. This is compounded even further when, as mentioned, the mother is looking to her daughter to provide the emotional support she isn’t receiving from her husband. No one is a winner in this dynamic.

Additionally, when a daughter witnesses her mother being neglected and treated as the inferior gender by a man who professes to love her, she learns to mistrust men. The daughter may feel insecure about her own rights and questions whether she can expect men to listen, support, and treat her as their equal.

Mapping a client’s mother-daughter history (detailed instructions are found in The Mother-Daughter Puzzle) helps a mother and daughter connect the dots between parental conflict and their relationship issues. Mothers and daughters can recognize how the emotional silencing of the women in their family causes them to fight over who gets to be heard. Plus, they can learn how the age-old sexist belief that mothers are responsible for keeping the family together leads the daughter to blame her mother for conflict in her marriage, her husband’s emotional unavailability, or for her parents’ divorce.

Daughters of all ages are primed to want to care for their mother. They hate to see their mother be silenced or dismissed, because it makes them worry about their right to be heard and respected in turn. But without a wider lens that connects the dots between the emotional reality of the mother and daughter and their respective  generational experience with patriarchy and sexism, a daughter can unfairly blame her mother for marital conflict and a mother can feel let down by her daughter. When mothers and daughters understand how to overcome conflict that stems from sexist beliefs and emotional neglect, the mother-daughter bond can become a force for change.

Rosjke Hasseldine is a mother-daughter relationship therapist, speaker, and author of The Silent Female Scream & The Mother-Daughter Puzzle. Rosjke teaches mental health professionals how to become a Certified Mother-Daughter Coach.

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