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The Complex Weave of Mother-Daughter Relationships: Through The Lens of Contextual Family Therapy

By Ann Dillard, LMFT

“We repeat what we don’t repair.”

-Christine Langley Obaugh

A Glimpse of Lisa & Deena:

Lisa, Deena's mother, was born in the United States to Afro-Caribbean immigrant parents with deep-rooted cultural values and convictions. They emphasized to Lisa the critical importance of diligence and academic achievement as the gateway to seizing opportunities. In their eyes, authority figures like teachers would be held in high esteem and followed unquestioningly. Their perspective was colored by their histories of experiencing classism and colorism back in the Caribbean, greatly influencing their approach to life.

However, upon immigrating to America, they were ill-prepared to navigate the nuances of racism and microaggressions in their new homeland. This lack of understanding rendered them somewhat inept in guiding Lisa through the challenges she would inevitably face. Open displays of affection were rare in their household; love was primarily expressed through the ceaseless labor they undertook to fulfill Lisa's basic necessities.

When Deena underwent the devastating experience of date rape, she found it impossible to disclose the details to her parents, particularly because the assailant was a member of their respected church community. Lisa's viewpoints, framed by her cultural upbringing and the dread of bringing reproach to the family name, urged Deena to relocate to the Caribbean to live with relatives. This proposition starkly contrasted with Deena's father's supportive attitude, generating a strain between him and Lisa.

These cultural dissonances added layers of complexity to Deena's already fraught relationship with her mother. Resolute to disrupt this repetitive cycle and cultivate a healthier relational dynamic, Deena turns to self-help literature. She seeks wisdom on maneuvering the intricate web of cultural disparities, gaining a more nuanced comprehension of her own identity, and constructing a more balanced relationship with her mother that respects her individual experiences and inherited values.

In the lens of Contextual Family Therapy (CFT), developed by theorist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, we can gain significant insights into the intricate dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship between Lisa and Deena. CFT is a multidimensional approach that intertwines biological, psychological, and transactional patterns to better understand family relationships, often extending to influence across three generations.

Major tenets of CFT include loyalties, fairness, forgiveness, reconciliation, and intergenerational healing. The framework focuses on acknowledging positive and negative transactions between family members, aiming to right the ledger of past and present relational interactions.

Balance and Fairness

Balance and fairness are at the core of CFT, manifesting differently in different cultural milieus. According to Nagy, we're all born with metaphorical balance sheets and ledgers. When these ledgers are well-balanced, trust thrives in the mother-daughter relationship. In Lisa and Deena's case, Lisa's parents emphasized the importance of hard work, and sacrificing emotional connections for material provisions. Following suit, Lisa, absorbed in her demanding career, inadvertently perpetuates this emotional neglect towards Deena. Aware of this imbalance, Deena makes conscious efforts to spend quality time with her daughter, aiming to adjust the scales and foster emotional closeness, thus balancing her relational ledger.

Constructive Entitlement

Constructive entitlement arises when one receives fair emotional or material returns for what one has given, resulting in a sense of freedom and security. In Deena's story, it's only recently that Lisa has come to appreciate her as a significant financial contributor to the family, thereby somewhat balancing the entitlements in their relationship.

Destructive Entitlement

Contrastingly, destructive entitlement takes root when a family member mistreats another and cannot compensate for it. The mistreated individual may then exercise this entitlement in new relationships, perpetuating the cycle. For Lisa and Deena, Lisa's initial reaction to Deena's traumatic experience was a destructive entitlement inherited from her own parents, proposing to send Deena away, essentially replicating what she'd faced in her past. Deena's father's intervention served as a starting point to recalibrate the imbalance.

Invisible Loyalties

Invisible loyalties are characteristics and behaviors that have been unconsciously transmitted across generations, often manifesting in ways that are detrimental to the relationship. In the case of Lisa and Deena, we see how Lisa, probably influenced by her own upbringing, frequently critiques Deena's approach to parenting. These invisible loyalties can strain their relationship immensely if they go unexamined and unaddressed.

But there's another layer to these invisible loyalties that goes beyond mere emulation of traits or behaviors: the phenomenon of self-sabotage as an act of allegiance. That is, sometimes the daughter, in this case Deena, might subconsciously limit her own progress, success, or happiness to maintain a sense of belongingness with her mother, Lisa.

Why would someone do this? The psychology is intricate but fundamentally rooted in a deep, often unspoken, loyalty to the mother. There can be a buried belief that the daughter maintains an emotional equilibrium in the relationship by not outperforming, outshining, or achieving more than the mother. This unspoken pact can be a way of honoring the mother, but it's a toxic form of homage that usually leads to resentment, missed opportunities, and an unfulfilled life for the daughter.

This self-sabotage isn't always overt. It may manifest in subtle ways — perhaps turning down a job opportunity, neglecting to pursue a romantic relationship, or even downplaying one's own achievements. These acts are usually not done with full awareness but are rather the result of an unexamined loyalty that dictates that the mother must not be outshone.

By acting on these unexamined beliefs, the daughter may think she is maintaining the bond with her mother, but what she is really doing is perpetuating a cycle of dysfunction that will likely be passed on to her own daughter unless deliberately interrupted.

This complex web of invisible loyalties and self-sabotage often leads to the mother unknowingly recreating the same dynamics that she experienced as a recipient or a witness in her own family of origin. While it may be an unconscious attempt to right past wrongs, more often than not, it only serves to deepen existing wounds and create new fractures within the relationship.

Therefore, it is imperative to bring these invisible loyalties to light, dissect them, and understand their origin and impact. Only then can one consciously break free from these harmful patterns, aiming for a relationship that nurtures both parties without the weight of unspoken, destructive allegiances.

Challenges in the mother-daughter relationship often manifest during adolescent years. However, as a young adult, Deena, armed with more life experience and emotional tools, may find the courage to confront and address these issues. Balancing their relational ledgers becomes a joint project aimed at fairness, reconciliation, and healing.

Self-Reflection Activity

  • How has your mother credited your ledger?

  • Identify instances where Constructive Entitlement has appeared in your mother-daughter relationship.

  • Name two instances where Destructive Entitlements have caused conflicts.

  • What Invisible Loyalties need addressing?

  • Suggest one positive step to bring balance and fairness into your mother-daughter relationship.

  • What hope does this CFT framework offer for the future of your mother-daughter relationship?

By employing the CFT framework, Lisa and Deena can navigate the complexities of their relationship, embracing the tenets of fairness, loyalty, and balance in hopes of achieving a more equitable and emotionally fulfilling mother-daughter bond.

We can unpack the often complicated layers of mother-daughter relationships through Contextual Family Therapy. By identifying imbalances and patterns of entitlement and acknowledging the invisible loyalties that govern behavior, we open the door for healing, forgiveness, and a more balanced future. As a therapist who has applied these principles in my clinical practice, I can attest to their transformative power in mending fractured bonds and fostering healthier relationships.

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