Love Her or Hate Her -- She's Still Your Mom

ByABC News

Jan. 27, 2006 — -- It can be the best of relationships and the worst of relationships -- often at the same time. The bond between a mother and daughter is one of the strongest, but it's also among the most complicated.

Best-selling author and relationship guru Deborah Tannen spent five years listening to conversations between mothers and daughters to sort through some of the friction and confusion for her latest book, "You're Wearing That?"

"Mothers and daughters talk more, talk about more personal topics. That means they may be closer, but they also risk offending each other much more," Tannen told "20/20's" JuJu Chang.

Even Tannen, who's had a terrifically successful career, has been offended by her mother.After she appeared on "Oprah," Tannen said her mom made a comment that stung. Tannen recalled her mom's jab: "You're wearing that same suit? You wore that suit on the other show."

That critical comment gave Tannen a great title for her new book on mothers and daughters: "You're Wearing That?"

A woman's appearance is a minefield, Tannen said, calling it the No. 1 flash point in the relationship. Weight, hair and clothes are the "big three" points of criticism -- and sensitivity -- when it comes to appearance, Tannen said.

Why is it that a mother feels free to comment on a daughter's appearance?

Tannen said it had to do with how women were often judged on their appearance. "I think women are judged by how they look, and mothers are judged by how their daughters look," she said.

We asked Tannen to watch some video of mothers and daughters who allowed "20/20" to tape some of their interactions, and to point out the communication that works and doesn't work.

First up were Ande, 25, and her mom, Annetta, who live in Atlanta and are planning Ande's wedding together.

Ande and Annetta work together. And like many mothers, Annetta, still sees her daughter as a little girl.

Ande and Annetta's interactions illustrate flash point No. 2 in mother-daughter relationships: control.

It's an issue that Gabrielle, a 46-year-old professional, said she could relate to. Gabrielle's mother, Mary -- a Holocaust survivor -- is a loving but strong-willed woman. But Gabrielle says she can still make her feel like a 12-year-old.

After years of painful personal struggles -- and lots of therapy -- Gabrielle said she finally understood her mother. The two are now very close, but when Gabrielle was Ande's age, her mother's controlling nature made her rebel.

Gabrielle went through a thrill-seeking phase -- partying, sky diving, and bungee jumping. Gabrielle said her mom didn't like it and tried to make her feel guilty with comments like "I was sick because you went bungee jumping."

Tannen said this type of conflict was common. "The daughter sees it as simply 'She wants to control me, I've got to get free.'" Tannen said daughters needed to understand where those comments came from. "If you can just realize that part of the reason she's acting that way is because she does genuinely feel that she has failed as a mother if something doesn't go well for you," she said.

And that brought us to flash point No. 3: good old-fashioned motherly advice.

"Anytime you offer advice or a suggestion for improvement, there's an implied criticism," Tannen said.

"20/20" cameras caught Annetta criticizing Ande's driving.

"It's caring and criticism. The mothers tend to see only the caring; the daughters tend to see only the criticizing," Tannen said.

But Ande said her mom's criticism went beyond driving critiques. "If I eat something, it's like 'What are you eating that for?'" she said.

Annetta said she only focused on her daughter's eating before the wedding, but Ande told her mom otherwise. "You're always like that," she said.

Annetta said what most mothers say, according to Tannen. They're trying to teach their daughters what they've learned themselves.

Annetta agrees. "You know, I have weight problems, and I don't want you to get where I am," she said.

When it comes to Gabrielle's weekly tanning, her mother, Mary, doesn't mince her words.

"I cannot stand to look at her. She does not realize how much she damages her skin. And it is irreversible," she said.

Of course, she's concerned about Gabrielle's health, but Tannen said it might be best for her to keep her feelings to herself in this case. "I would suggest that the mother try really hard to bite her tongue," she said.

Tannen said if a mother can't learn to bite her tongue, a daughter needs to learn to use humor. And Gabrielle seems quite adept at that.

When her mother tells her it's not safe for her to walk her dog at night, Gabrielle replies, jokingly: "I should've been dead a hundred times already!"

The final flash point Tannen discussed was secrecy. Daughters will keep secrets from their moms if they sense disapproval.

It's a classic ploy for daughters, but Tannen notes there's a particular irony to a daughter's decision to keep something from her mother. "She's the one you most want to tell, but she's the one you're most scared to tell because her reaction will carry so much weight," she said.

Withholding information is a daughter's way to gain back power, Tannen explained. Gabrielle didn't tell her mother she had plastic surgery, and it was difficult for Mary when she found out. "She didn't trust me as a mother," Mary said.

Ande kept secrets from her mom, too. While "20/20" followed her story, we discovered a bombshell. The young woman whose mother doesn't believe in premarital sex had walked down the aisle four-months pregnant. "20/20" was there when she finally told her mother, Annetta.

Annetta was too pained to let "20/20" broadcast her reaction. But ultimately she agreed to allow the cameras to hear her daughter's ultimatum.

"You know you have to either be, you know, in, in my life in a positive way or, or not ... It wasn't the best decision, it wasn't the right way, but -- you know, this is how -- you know, now you have to make a choice," Ande said.

"I'll support her, but I am very disappointed," Annetta said.

Tannen said mothers may feel slighted when their daughters keep something important from them. "It's easy for them to feel, my daughter isn't telling me because I don't matter. And I think it's very helpful to realize that often, the daughter doesn't tell them because they matter so much," she said.

Tannen said there's no magic formula to the perfect mother-daughter bond, but there are ways to make it work: Bite your tongue, use humor, see it from the other person's point of view and use praise -- it's also a form of power. There's plenty of hope for a better relationship, and plenty of reason to try.

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