‘I would take a bullet for my daughter – but I don’t like her’

Dear Vix,

I feel so sad and hurt, confused and guilty. I would take a bullet for my daughter – but I don’t like her. I have no warmth left in my heart for her at all, which scares me and makes me feel that I’m an unnatural mother. I know I wouldn’t hesitate to do whatever it took if my daughter’s life was in danger, but I’m not sure if that’s love or just maternal instinct. The problem is that love has been kicked out the door by her behaviour over the past three years. When in the grip of a drug addiction, she lied to me, stole from me and battered me with cruel words. I still wanted to hug her better and do whatever it took to support her; especially when she wanted to move back home again to get clean and healthy, which she did for more than two years. I spoiled and subsidised her and bit my tongue a lot, as she doesn’t take criticism well. I was scared of jeopardising her efforts to keep clean. Mostly I was proud of her – never more so than when she felt strong enough to move out again and get on with her life.

My daughter has now been drug-free for some years now, her career is blossoming and for a time my pride and boasting about her knew no bounds. Then she came home for a few days, three years ago, and all of that changed. She did a few selfish, unkind things and I’d had enough of walking on eggshells – I thought she could handle me being truthful. I was wrong. My criticisms unleashed a barrage of accusations: she said I’d always belittled her hard work, implied that she was lazy, withdrew my love when she didn’t do as I expected, was always casting around for things to nitpick about and said I was “interfering” by giving my opinion. She accused me of resenting her leaving home and being independent. Worst of all, she told me I was a liar.

I was convinced she would apologise for what she said, but instead she has since confirmed she meant all of it. I’m not sure the word “sorry” is in her vocabulary. I know she can be kind and generous, but since kicking her addiction, she has become smug, sanctimonious and utterly selfish. I cannot forgive her – I’m too hurt. She has told everyone about our rift and, according to her, all are “on her side” – including family members. I have chosen to maintain my silence and dignity, which she sees as proof that I’m in the wrong. But this is not a battle, just a very sad situation.

I feel very alone, very hurt and also very angry. I am managing to keep up a facade of being kind and pleasant when we meet in family situations (very rarely) and wonder if I must resign myself to this being the only way ahead? I get so tempted to forward her cruel email accusations to all and sundry, to show them what she’s really like, but I know this will only drive her further away. I’m contacting you in the hope that objectivity may help me see a way ahead – and also in the hope that some of your readers may have found themselves in similarly heartbreaking situations. What do I do? Is this relationship so toxic that – as some have told me – I need to get rid of it entirely?

C, Brighton

Dear C,

I feel for you – nothing is harder or more painful than a toxic family relationship. On the one hand, we are often told that “blood is thicker than water”; on the other, sometimes it’s a sad fact that a relationship with a relative can cause us harm. In a general sense, I am of the opinion that if someone hurts you, or acts in an abusive, damaging or dangerous way towards you, then you need to ringfence the amount of contact you have with them – for your own safety and happiness. Just because someone is “family” doesn’t mean they can treat you badly and get away with it.

I also believe that every single person needs to live up to the honour of being considered “family”. They need to act like it. Families can be real, and they can also be chosen – I have close friends who are far more like sisters, and who are there for me like a blood-relative might be. I also know of people who have siblings they’ve become estranged from, or who they have nothing at all in common with. In my view, the real meaning of the word “family” is the way you act with another person; the love and consideration you show someone – it is not just down to your DNA. So, I want you to take some comfort in the fact that some of your closest and most loving, reciprocal relationships can be found in those who wouldn’t be classed as “family” – at least, not on paper.

Now, my general advice to people who are struggling with a difficult person who makes them feel anxious, hurt, worried or bad about themselves, would be the same whether they are related to them or not: don’t be afraid to set a boundary. Sometimes a person isn’t necessarily “a toxic person”, but they can be toxic for us. And it’s perfectly OK in these situations to practise good self-care and to protect yourself from that.

In practice, this might look like: limiting the time you spend together on special occasions such as birthdays or holidays, and having a phrase you rehearse and use if and when an argument starts (either in person or on the phone), such as: “I don’t feel safe discussing this with you right now, I’m going to leave this conversation.” You also don’t, actually, even need to explain your reasoning to anyone – inside or outside of the family. But, and here is a note of caution: you do need to do it for the right reasons.

And here’s where my advice might stray a little for you personally, because the mother-daughter relationship is a very, very difficult bond to break, and I can hear how much it pains you to be in conflict with her. I would want to be sure that you had both had the chance to express your feelings to each other, to see if there might be any chance of resolution, first – before either one of you gives up entirely.

The tricky thing will be for you and your daughter to a) agree to talking it out; and b) to find a neutral space to do it in. The trouble is that there is so much unresolved and unexpressed hurt inside each of you, that any attempt to discuss your feelings is likely to end in a defensive, “you say I did this, but you did that”-type of argument. I would strongly advise booking a family therapy session with someone trained to talk through these grievances with you in a safe and controlled environment.

You may find a technique known as “empathetic listening” helps you: it can be useful to resolve conflict and improve understanding – on both sides. Put simply, it involves each person committing to listening to the other (without interruption) and then repeating back to them what they have heard. Then (and only then), it’s the other person’s turn.

If you do decide to try to repair – or at the very least, investigate – the breakdown in communication between the two of you, be prepared for fireworks (at first). The important thing, I think, is to examine whether you think it’s worth a shot – and whether you can bring yourself to forgive, even if you never fully forget. I suspect that the amount of pain you’re in over this situation indicates the love and depth of feeling you have – and shows me that you do, actually, have a strong desire to try to mend this relationship. And personally, I think it’s worth a try – even if you’re never “best friends”, you might find a way to reach a point of peace. It might even be easier than you think: sometimes, someone just wants to know they’ve been heard.

I believe that no relationship is static: that we get the chance to forge “new” relationships with the same people, over and over again. But only you – and your daughter – can decide if you want that. There’s strength to be found in owning your part and saying sorry. It might even inspire the other person to do the same.

Victoria Richards is The Independent’s advice columnist. She has a degree in psychology and a postgraduate diploma in counselling and psychotherapy. Having problems with work, love, family or friends? Contact


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