Mother-Daughter BFFs: Walking the Fine Line of Enmeshment

Seated, smiling mother holds up cell phone, daughter smiles and leans over to lookWithin the past several decades, a shift has been observed in the relationship patterns of many mothers and daughters. Many seem to have abandoned the traditional hierarchy of parent and child for a relationship of equals, identifying with each other more as “best friends.” BFF (“best friends forever”) mothers embrace their daughters’ lives, sharing them and, at times, walking in their footsteps.

A close, friendly mother-daughter relationship is not in itself a cause for concern. But when the boundaries of the relationship become blurred, this can lead to confusion regarding the distinct responsibilities and obligations, of both parent and child, over what behaviors are acceptable within the context of the relationship. This confusion may, in turn, may lead to behavior unrestricted by limits, on the part of either mother or daughter.

The New Mother-Daughter Relationship

Research has attempted to explain and explore the variables contributing to these mother-daughter best friend relationships. Authors Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer describe in their book, Too Close for Comfort: Questioning the Intimacy of Today’s New Mother-Daughter Relationship, what is referred to as a generation overlap, an intersection of lives that differs from anything seen in previous generations. Mothers and daughters today may shop at the same stores, utilize the same new technology, participate in the same social media apps (and possibly have some of the same friends or followers), and listen to the same music.  

Some believe this generation overlap, and mother-daughter relationships in general, are made easier by a youth-fixated culture. In the article “My Mom Is My BFF,” Paige Williams writes of a stay-young revolution, where women are enticed and encouraged—some might say pressured—to think, act, and look young.  With the widespread availability and broad variety of technology and resources that promise to preserve youth, many mothers may find it fairly simple to recapture their years of young adulthood. And who better to morph with than a daughter, the one who likely most closely resembles their teenage selves?

Having their worlds so closely intertwined has made friendships between mothers and daughters more common than in generations past, something that is not necessarily harmful. After all, who doesn’t want a loving and caring relationship with their mother?

But these friendships may blur the distinctions between parent and child. If mother and daughter are best friends, what happens when the mother tries to parent, to speak out as a mother rather than a friend? Where do the lines get drawn? The danger of opting for the BFF route appears to lie in its potential to minimize, as well as distort, the parent-child relationship. When mothers and daughters are “besties” first and parent and child second, the maternal role—providing direction, support, and the tools needed to become a confident, self-sufficient adult—may be in jeopardy.

Mothers, Daughters, and Dating

Mothers and daughters who enjoy a close bond may share many details about their personal lives, dating details among them.

The dating world has always offered any number of challenges, among them the various rules, cultural norms, and aspects of etiquette often applied to dating individuals, particularly women. Some of these customs differ little from those of generations past, while others may be vastly different or newly established. In many cases, mothers may guide their daughters, using experience to navigate new challenges, as they also struggle with the unspoken rules of dating in a society that may encourage and expect them to balance a semblance of youth with the maternal role.

The current age of reality TV, smartphones, and social media give the term “being connected” a deeper level of meaning, in terms of dating. These technological advances have been shown to impact the development and progression of romantic relationships, but can they also contribute to the development of mother-daughter enmeshment?

Communication patterns between dating young adults today may in some cases differ significantly from those of the previous few decades, and parental involvement in teen and young adult relationships may be both more limited and more casual. Mothers who are friends with their daughters, or who want to be, may try to avoid setting strict rules, whether out of simple trust and support or in order to maintain their daughters’ good favor.

This may lead some mothers to work to become friends with their daughters’ dating partners. Some mothers may even come to act as “surrogate girlfriends,” displaying behavior that is friendly and supportive but may eventually cross the line into impropriety, even as it undermines the significance of their duties as a parent.

Mothers who assume a ‘surrogate girlfriend’ role may:

  • Text their daughter’s significant other with random conversations (that go beyond asking for confirmation of whereabouts, etc.).
  • Connect with their daughter’s partner on social media platforms regularly.
  • Continue communicating with their daughter’s exes after breakups.
  • Devote more attention to their daughter’s dating partner than to their adult relationships (their own partner or friends).

The Effects of an Enmeshed Relationship

When the roles of a mother and daughter become entangled, this is described as an enmeshed relationship. In an enmeshed relationship, a mother provides her daughter love and attention but tends to exploit the relationship, fortifying her own needs by living through her daughter. They both grow to depend on this type of arrangement, despite its dysfunction.

Susan Forward and Donna Frazier Glynn, authors of Mothers who Can’t Love: A Healing Guide for Daughters, explained this relationship as one where mothers depend on their daughters to fulfill all their needs for companionship, entertainment and a meaningful sense of identity. They call these mothers “mothers without borders,” as they tend to lack the ability to establish healthy boundaries.

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Enmeshed relationships can have profound effects on daughters as they journey into adulthood. As Forward and Glynn explain, a daughter may not know “where she stops and her mom begins.” This may lead to developmental setbacks in the attempts of daughters to become independent, develop a sense of identity, and express themselves individually.

Enmeshed relationships can have profound effects on daughters as they journey into adulthood. As Forward and Glynn explain, a daughter may not know “where she stops and her mom begins.” This may lead to developmental setbacks in the attempts of daughters to become independent, develop a sense of identity, and express themselves individually. A daughter may also feel uncomfortable and sometimes resentful of her mother’s over-involvement in her dating life, but because the intrusion is often packaged as motherly love, they may give in to the familiar pattern of behavior.

Mothers who have unfulfilled needs, lack a romantic partner, and/or are affected be low self-esteem may look outside themselves to fill what feels empty inside. They may, thus, be more susceptible to the creation of these entangled relationships, especially with regard to the development of a “surrogate girlfriend” role, as connecting with a daughter’s partner may serve as somewhat of a replacement for what they feel is missing or lost.

I encourage daughters and mothers to consider the following:

Daughters, you may form hundreds of friendships and share your stories and life events with countless people. However, you will only have one mother. Enjoy the closeness that comes with this bond and the many ways you can be a part of each other’s worlds. Recognize that a large step for your growth into adulthood is developing the ability to think and respond as an individual. Part of this is having experiences of your own, separate from your mother. You will know your mother-daughter relationship is healthy when you feel safe venturing away from the nest.

Mothers, when you honor and value your role as a mother and demonstrate responsibility, respect, and healthy boundaries, you send the message to your daughter that you are willing to do this tough job because she is worth it. As you model for her not only the role of a mother, but that of a responsible adult, you are at the same time fortifying her self-esteem—and your own.

Gordon and Shaffer interviewed a mother who described it best: “We share best-friend moments, but she is not my best friend, that would rob her of what we really cherish – which is that I am and remain her mother.”

References:

  1. Forward, S., & Frazier, D. (2013). Mothers who can’t love: A healing guide for daughters. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  2. Gordon, L. P., & Shaffer, S. M. (2009). Too close for comfort: Questioning the intimacy of today’s new mother-daughter relationship. New York, NY: Berkley Books.
  3. Lieberman, D. J., Ph.D. (2010). Setting boundaries with difficult people. Lakewood, NJ: Viter Press.
  4. Williams, P. (2012, April 22). My mom is my BFF. New York. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/news/features/mother-daughter-best-friends-2012-4

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nancy Warkentin Houdek, LPC, NCC, therapist in Farmington Hills, Michigan

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Hazel

    Hazel

    November 9th, 2016 at 9:00 AM

    I love my daughter beyond measure and I think that one day as she gets a little older I probably will see her as a best friend. But right now first and foremost she is my daughter and I am her mom and with that goes a responsibility that I am not willing to let go of yet. She may balk at some of the rules, but you know, kids have plenty of friends traditionally. What they need more than ever are parents who enforce the rules and help them become decent human beings.
    That’s just my opinion anyway.

  • becca

    becca

    November 9th, 2016 at 11:33 AM

    My mom and I have very much gotten closer as I have gotten older and I am fine with the fact that she was the disciplinarian when I was growing up.
    If she had not set the rules and standards for the house then us kids never were.
    No matter how much we might not like it at the time in the end you will appreciate it.

  • SB

    SB

    November 9th, 2016 at 1:44 PM

    Mother and daughter enmeshed relationships are particularly prevalent among single mothers. Single mothers with low self esteem, without partners, living vicariously through their daughters’ relationships, are especially prone to this issue – particularly when it comes to lack of boundaries and inappropriate social media contact.

  • Dorene

    Dorene

    November 11th, 2016 at 11:19 AM

    This just never turns out too well. I guess for adult moms and children then it is fine. You do have an automatic friend. But when they are young and impressionable then how are you ever supposed to be their friend and the rule setter all at the same time ? I just think that being a parent has to come first, we all have friends and can become friends to each other later on.

  • zelda

    zelda

    November 16th, 2016 at 3:14 PM

    Say what you would like but my mom always has been and always will be my best friend. Who else is ever going to love me and support me the way that she does and I would do the exact same things for her. I kind of feel like this is why I was given to her, so that we would be life long friends.

  • Carl C.

    Carl C.

    November 27th, 2016 at 4:05 AM

    Zelda, first and foremost she is your mother and not your best friend and always will be. As the article states if your parent is your best friend as you are developing as a child the boundaries can and do become very blurred and this can and does lead to confusion, complications and disappointment.
    I think the comment re single mothers is very accurate

  • seeker

    seeker

    January 24th, 2017 at 10:45 PM

    You werent given to your mother to be her friend. You are your own person. Sounds like enmeshment.

  • Harriet

    Harriet

    April 5th, 2017 at 5:35 PM

    Seeker – Sounds to me like you enjoy using fancy words to try and shame people about perfectly natural feelings. If you were really a phsychotherapist you wouldn’t pronounce a diagnosis over the internet based on one paragraph of information.

  • Harriet

    Harriet

    April 5th, 2017 at 5:34 PM

    I think you’re right to honor and love your mother. I wish I could have my mother back, she died many years ago of an illness. Family is the most important part of life.

  • Harriet

    Harriet

    April 5th, 2017 at 5:30 PM

    “developmental setbacks in the attempts of daughters to become independent, develop a sense of identity, and express themselves individually.” Excuse me but this is hooey. As a first generation immigrant who has lived with three to four generations under one roof for most of her life, and then moved in alone with her husband, I think you need to rethink this. Doesn’t psychology say we are “herd” animals? Don’t we say “herd mentality” whenever we criticize some dumb fashion fad? Anyway, Americans have lost the skill to live communally. Those who miss that kind of communal living join communes, or like me, live with a constant feeling of loneliness. People don’t agree with each other. But the difference between my family and a typical American one is that you guys only see each other a few times a year (Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, right?), so of course your experience is that you fight with each other. You never get to the tolerance phase. People who all live together have to communicate what they don’t like, and then mitigate the effects of what they don’t like, so that they can continue to live with the same people. It’s that tolerance that you’re missing, and I daresay it leads you to even worse effects than “emeshment” does, effects like racism and snobbery. I’m actually glad that at least in the Millenials generation, you have your kids staying with you. But this practice of shoving your elders into nursing homes because they’re not nice to you, that’s just silly. Elderly people are suffering chronic pain and the malaise of old age. Your kids will be like that too someday. It’s best to learn what life is like rather than lie to your kids and have them in emotional shock when they get older. Until we learn to live with each other, and until we stop classifying concern as emeshment, and extolling the virtues of coldhearted individuality, we will not have a healthy society.

  • Tina P.

    Tina P.

    May 12th, 2017 at 5:56 PM

    Harriet, you’ve made some good points, food for thought.

  • Jacquelyn

    Jacquelyn

    September 14th, 2017 at 11:14 AM

    “Daughters, you may form hundreds of friendships and share your stories and life events with countless people. However, you will only have one mother. Enjoy the closeness that comes with this bond and the many ways you can be a part of each other’s worlds. ”

    I’m guessing you were not, in fact, raised by an enmeshed, narcissistic mother.

  • Carla

    Carla

    January 11th, 2018 at 5:11 AM

    Jacquelyn – Was thinking the same thing. I am no contact with my Mum so I can start having my own life and feelings and thoughts – I’m 35! The bond in a true enmeshment relationship seems normal at the time but it really impacts your life. The writer of this article should not be starting to “enjoy the closeness that comes with this bond..” as clearly they do not understand how devastating that would be – If I followed that rule I would have no life of my own and she would raise my children as her own with her rules. Horrid article.

  • Gabriella

    Gabriella

    May 22nd, 2018 at 4:30 AM

    I fully agree with Carla. This article describes some kind of an idealized relationship of mother and daughter and the sad thing is that it even refers to a writer, Susan Forward, whose revolutionary book was in fact Toxic Parents, not the one that is mentioned here. The issue with which we are suffering is not that I am or ever wanted to be friends with my mother and not that she ever wanted to be friends with me. The issue is a devastating and painful one which is basically realizing after half of your life is already gone that you live someone else’s life, not your own. That you basically had no single moment of your life which was not lived with anxiety, guilt, frustration, depression, the reasons of which you could not identify. That you have behind you relationships that could have worked, dreams that could have been accomplished, had you not been a surrogate spouse for your mother, because of her unhappy marriage and because of an inability (unfortunately, because of her own upbringing) to have her own needs met in healthy ways, with other adults. And we had no choice in that. So this article is nothing but bullshit and tries to make the whole issue much less significant and important than it actually is.

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