“Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.”
These words, written by Maya Angelou, capture the tricky nature of jealousy. It’s a concept most often associated with romantic relationships — but what happens when jealousy is part of other key relationships? How does it impact our ability to make them work in the long run?
With a jealous partner, there’s the option to cut your losses and leave. As painful and drawn out as that solution might be, the option is there. But in other relationships, a solution may not be quite so obvious.
I recently began to notice — through a series of late-night chats and WhatsApp texts with my female friends — that jealousy can crop up in the most unlikely of places, even in a partnership that feels impossible to break. Like that between mothers and daughters.
The mother-daughter bond is powerful and the women I spoke with talked about their mothers as the kindest people in the world. One spoke of her mom’s ability to instinctively know when something is wrong, even though they live hundreds of miles apart.
Another told heartwarming stories of mother-daughter shopping days as a teen — an age when most of her angst-ridden friends wouldn’t be caught dead at the mall with a parent.
But for many of these women, adulthood brought a new dynamic to the relationship.
I spoke to a 35-year-old freelance copywriter named Kay who says she’s seen flashes of jealousy in her own mother in response to her success. “I was published on a well-known women’s website and I was over the moon, but when I told my mom, she totally shot me down and made my achievement feel like nothing. She said that being published on a website wasn’t the same as being in a magazine, and her whole demeanor came across as really catty.”
At first, Kay thought this was because her mother didn’t understand her industry, but over time she says it has become clear that there is some friction when it comes to celebrating achievements, especially related to her career.
“It’s like she’s jealous of what I’ve got, and she doesn’t want to let me enjoy it. I don’t really understand it and it makes me feel very sad,” says Kay.
Psychologist Hayden Finch, PhD, says the bond between mother and daughter is one of the most important — when it wavers, it can cause real emotional distress.
“Daughters often look to their mothers as role models and understandably want their mothers’ support and approval. When their mothers are unable to provide that support and approval, daughters can experience feelings of emptiness or anxiety.”
The optimist in me likes to think that this tension may merely be a result of a generational shift in social norms, with the proportion of working women with college degrees jumping from 11 percent in 1970 to almost 40 percent in 2010.
Additionally, the type of vocations available to female workers has broadened with professional and managerial roles becoming more common. Most notably, in 2011, more than 1 in 3 lawyers was a woman compared to fewer than 1 in 10 in 1974.
It’s certainly plausible that a mother who’s been granted fewer opportunities might feel something similar to jealousy as she watches her daughter succeed in a way that was unthinkable 40 years ago.
Psychotherapist Paula Coles says when we place parenting relationships within these social constraints, it’s not surprising that women may at times be challenged to feel good about themselves, and may have complicated feelings about their lives after having children.
She argues though, that jealousy isn’t always an accurate perception of what’s going on inside. “What can often be interpreted as envy by others can also be a misinterpretation of a mother’s feelings,” says Coles. “Rather than resenting a daughter’s success, she may well be overwhelmed by a profound feeling of concern motivated by intensely loving feelings.”
But for a small percentage of mothers, this feeling runs deep and does not come from a loving place. Broadly speaking, when a mother exhibits jealousy toward one or more of her offspring, she falls within the signifier of being a “narcissistic mother.”
Senior therapist Sally Baker elaborates. “This is when a mother puts her own emotional needs above those of her children. It generally starts when the child is young, and growing up in a household headed by a narcissistic mother can be very damaging to a child’s development.”
I spoke to Claire who told me that jealousy was a common theme in the relationship she had with her mother as a teenager, to the point where she felt emotionally blackmailed into not applying to certain universities because her mother claimed that they were “too prestigious.”
She would also do seemingly minor things like purposely change plans at the last minute, forcing Claire to leave the house with wet hair and old clothes on whilst she emerged dressed-up to impress onlookers.
Claire recalls one particular occasion when her mother rushed her out to a restaurant without a moment’s warning. “She then proceeded to tell the waiter that she had no idea how I could eat so much and that her thighs were much thinner than mine,” she says.
It took Claire years to realize that not only was this kind of behavior abnormal, but she was under no obligation to tolerate it. She has since cut off contact and is getting treatment for complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
She has also experienced mental health problems including obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety — but has come to terms with her mother’s part in all of it. She also acknowledges, however, that her mother was a victim herself.
“She had a miserable childhood and was made to look after her four brothers while her mum pursued various lovers. Her dad was abusive and absent, and her mum told her she was a child of rape. She was made to work in a factory and hand over a lot of her earnings to my grandma, and I think over the years, her thwarted hopes became exaggerated and distorted into a horrible kind of fairy tale.”
Cases such as this are devastating, but thankfully these are significantly rarer than the millions of supportive mothers who have proud and nurturing relationships with their successful daughters.
For those like Kay or Claire who feel weighed down or damaged by maternal jealousy, coping can be difficult and healing can take years.
It’s important to first understand that it isn’t your fault. It can also help to talk things through with a qualified therapist, especially if there are issues that go back to childhood. “Daughters can get stuck in a bind between feeling shame for not meeting their mothers’ expectations and feeling shame for not going after their dreams,” says Finch.
In the end, parent-child relationships can be complicated. And so can jealousy, whether it’s coming from a parent or a partner. Either way, don’t let the jealousy of a loved one hold you back from finding and celebrating your own success. You deserve every bit of it!
Fiona Thomas is an author and freelance writer talking about mental health. Her book “Depression in a Digital Age” traces her life dealing with depression and anxiety and the subsequent depression, and how a digital life helped her find a community to support her recovery. Visit her blog.