Healing the Mother–Daughter Connection

When "I'm Sorry" is Just the First Step

Mother holding daughter's hand

Certain apologies are so courageous that the very word apology seems too glib. Letty’s story is one that falls on the heroic end of the apology spectrum.  I believe it was the most stunning apology process I have ever witnessed.

Letty and Kim

I had been Letty’s therapist for some time, when I suggested that she invite her twenty-four-year-old daughter Kim to join us for a session. What was happening was this: Kim had been avoiding her, and something was obviously wrong. But when Letty inquired, Kim snapped, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

When Kim was twelve, her father had entered her bedroom when he thought she was sleeping and molested her. Letty was out of town moving her own mother into an assisted living place, and didn’t know for several months that this had happened. When the facts came out in the open, Letty responded appropriately by getting the whole family into treatment. They were fortunate to see an excellent therapist who was enormously helpful to them.

Letty considered the issue resolved, but trauma is never fully resolved, certainly not as if it had never occurred in the first place. Kim’s dad had recently died of a heart attack, and I suspected his death stirred everything up again, including Kim’s enormous rage.

Kim first refused Letty’s invitation to join us, but a few months later, she agreed to come just once. When I asked Kim how she had been doing since her father’s death, she launched into a terrible attack on Letty. Although I’m trained to be a calm presence in an intense emotional field, my own anxiety rose in response to the raw rage that Kim directed not at her deceased father, but instead toward her mother. On a purely emotional level, it appeared that Kim blamed Letty for her father’s behavior. She located the “betrayal” in the family between mother and daughter, which is not unusual for daughters to do.

I was about to intervene when Letty rose from her chair and pulled it closer to Kim’s. I thought she was going to yell back at her daughter something like, “How dare you say this to me! How can you blame me for what your father did? How could I have known?”

Instead, Letty turned to her daughter in the most fully present way and said: “I’m so sorry, Kim. I’m so sorry I didn’t know. I’m so sorry I didn’t protect you. I’m so sorry that this terrible thing happened in our family. I’m so sorry that you didn’t feel safe enough to tell me the truth.” Then Letty started to cry. Kim put her arms around her mother, and they cried together.

I don’t know how Letty was able to be there for her daughter in such a remarkably open and non-defensive way. Letty didn’t say she was sorry because she believed the abuse had been her fault or because she thought that she had been a bad mother. She had been clear about this during the earlier family therapy that focused on the sexual abuse. But now, in the face of being totally blasted, she moved into a place of pure listening and offered her love.

Letty’s tears did not serve to silence her daughter’s anger or to make her own pain the focus of the conversation. Nor was she inviting Kim to comfort or protect her. Her apology for being part of this wrenching history was heartfelt and deeply healing for her and her daughter.

Letty’s apology was especially healing because it didn’t include any add-ons. She didn’t say, “I’m sorry, but you need to keep in mind I didn’t know it was happening.” Or, “I’m sorry, but your dad was a weak man, and I don’t think he could help himself.” Or, “I’m sorry, but this happened a long time ago, and I wish we could put this behind us and move on.” She didn’t even say, “I’m sorry and I hope you’ll forgive me.”

Of course, Letty hoped Kim would forgive her. But a true apology does not ask the other person to do anything—not even to forgive.

Looking Deeper

Letty deserved a badge of honor for the pure apology that she offered Kim, and when I saw her the following week she understandably wished that it would put closure on the pain of the past. We all might wish that even the most emotionally painful issues could be resolved in one conversation, but it doesn’t work that way.

I learned in a subsequent therapy session that there had been no conversation about the sexual abuse after the family therapy terminated when Kim was thirteen. Letty’s silence over all the years after the therapy ended was her loving way of protecting her daughter. But in Letty’s desire to avoid being intrusive, or making things worse, she unwittingly left her daughter unutterably alone with the worst thing that had ever happened to her. When people suffer, as Kim did, they often suffer twice, first because they have lived through something painful and second because a key person in their lives doesn’t want to hear about it, or doesn’t want to hear all of it.

A few therapy sessions later, Letty told me about a Saturday night movie and dinner date that she had initiated with her daughter a week following the funeral service for Kim’s dad. Letty chose the film they saw together, not knowing that it contained a scene in which a teenage girl was raped by a hired hand. When the two women grabbed a bite to eat afterwards and did their usual “post mortem” of the movie, neither mentioned the sexual violence.

“Did the rape scene in the movie remind you of what happened to Kim in your family?” I inquired.

“Of course it went through my mind,” Letty replied. “And I’m sure Kim thought of it, too. How could she not? She was in a foul mood when we left the theater, and my choice of the movie probably contributed to it.”

“Did you consider saying something about it?” I asked. It was, after all, on both of their minds.

“No,” said Letty. “My plan was to have a fun evening, and it was my mistake to pick this movie to begin with. I wasn’t going to make things worse by bringing up the sexual abuse. It’s Kim’s place to mention it, if she wants to talk about it.”

The rape scene in the movie was an obvious trigger for both of them. Given the prominence of sexual abuse in media, it was undoubtedly one of countless reminders of what happened to Kim. This movie, however, was the first trigger that followed the death of Kim’s dad, and that preceded Kim’s distancing from Letty.

What if Letty had done something different after leaving the movie? Imagine that Letty had turned to Kim and, with the same open-heartedness that she showed in her apology, said something like this:

“Kim, I’m so sorry that I chose this movie for us, because I wanted this to be a fun time for us. I don’t want to make the evening heavy, so I’m hesitant to say anything at all. I just want you to know that as I watched that rape scene I could only think of what your dad did to you, and it was painful to watch. I want you to know that I love you, and you’re not alone with the pain of what happened.”

How might Kim have responded? Surely anxiety would rise like steam. Kim would likely have said something curt like, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Or, “Forget it. Don’t worry about it.” Nor is late Saturday night the best time to discuss a heavy issue that hasn’t been mentioned since she was twelve years old. It wouldn’t be easy to continue this conversation in even the most optimal of circumstances.

But what about Kim’s long-term response? I imagine as her mother’s words settled in over time, Kim might have felt something akin to a sense of gratitude that her mother had reached out to her in this way.

Continuing the Conversation

When I asked Letty to consider where the conversation might go following her powerful apology to Kim in the therapy session, she gave the predictable response. “I’ll wait to see if Kim brings anything up,” she said, “I want to follow her lead on this.” With the best of intentions we almost always leave it to the hurt party to re-open the conversation about a painful or traumatic past event. But it shouldn’t just be the hurt party’s job. It becomes their job because they are so often left with it.

As we talked more, Letty began to recognize that it was important to say something to Kim that recognized the importance of the previous therapy session that included her. Total silence would be a form of distancing. At the very least, it would be a lost opportunity.

So after Letty left my office she steeled herself, took some deep breaths and made herself call Kim. She thanked Kim for joining her in the therapy session, and added, “I’ve been thinking about how I never asked you any questions over all those years about how you were doing with the sexual abuse, how it was affecting you growing up, and what kind of leftover anxiety or anger you still have. It really hit me during the movie we saw after Dad died, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything at dinner.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Kim said flatly. “I didn’t want to talk about it.

“It matters to me. I want to have a relationship with you where we can talk about what’s important.”

“I don’t see the point.” Kim said.

“I hope we can talk later,” Letty said.

No one wants to be intrusive or dredge up the past when the other person wants to put it to rest. The past, however, was already dredged up. I encouraged Letty to take the initiative to keep the conversation going, using her own good sense of timing and intuition. The challenge was to keep the lines of communication open to allow for conversation as it might arise over time, without getting over focused on the sexual abuse, or trying to do too much too fast.

One Thing Leads to Another

It was a bit of a tightrope walk, but Letty did her best to maintain her balance. She didn’t pressure Kim to talk, but neither did she return to her previous silence. Letty found ways to test the waters. She began by asking Kim a few factual (rather than emotionally-loaded) questions when the opportunity arose, like, “Does your best friend Linda know about the sexual abuse?” “How did Linda respond?” “Is there anyone else that you trusted enough to tell?”

Letty also returned to her own contribution to the painful history, the part she now looked back on with sincere regret. She said, “Kim, since your Dad died, I’ve been thinking about the fact that I never asked you one question about the sexual abuse after we stopped the family therapy. Even when it was on my mind, I didn’t talk to you about it. I didn’t bring it up because I thought if you weren’t bringing it up, I shouldn’t bring it up. That was a mistake. I left you alone with it. I’m so sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize again,” said Kim. “Enough already.”

“Okay I won’t apologize again. I just want you to know that when and if you feel ready to talk, I’m here to listen.”

Because one thing leads to another, a couple of painful conversations took place several months later that left Letty feeling temporarily flattened and misunderstood. Most excruciating for Letty was when Kim confronted her about her marriage.

“So you stayed with Dad after knowing what he did to me,” Kim said angrily one afternoon at lunch. “And you divorced him when I was seventeen because he had an affair? So his affair was a bigger deal to you than his molesting your daughter? Is that fucked up or what?”

Letty felt unable to speak, like the words were knocked out of her mouth. “It was like you never gave the abuse a second thought.” Kim rushed on. “It’s like you and Dad just put it behind you. I couldn’t put it behind me. It happened to me.”

This conversation would never have occurred if Letty had not opened the lines of communication. And who among us wouldn’t prefer to avoid further accusations—which is why we so often don’t take the conversation far enough to evoke the possibility of being slammed. Without the confidence to know that we can handle whatever comes next, and enough self-esteem to avoid collapsing into shame, it’s unlikely that we will deepen the conversation.

Letty hung in even when she was suffering. She talked honestly with her daughter, explaining that her outrage about the affair, and her refusal to go to couples therapy before filing for divorce, was related to the sexual abuse. The affair precipitated the divorce, Letty said, because it re-activated her rage about the harm he did to Kim. She told Kim that she never put the abuse behind her, not for a day. She revealed to Kim that she and Kim’s father never resumed sexual relations, and that thoughts of leaving the marriage were always with her.

Letty told Kim that she didn’t want to make excuses for her choices, and that she couldn’t fully explain or justify her decisions, not even to herself. She could only tell Kim with 100 percent conviction that she would never, not for one second, compare a marital infidelity to the sexual violation that Kim experienced as a child.

“There are no words to tell you how sorry I am that I left you alone with what happened,” Letty said. “I wish I could go back in time and do it differently. Is there any way that I can make it up to you?”

“You can’t make it up to me,” Kim said. Then she softened and added, “ but at least I have my mother back.”


Harriet Lerner

Harriet Lerner is one of the most respected voices on the psychology of women and marriage and family relationships. For three decades, she was a staff psychologist and psychotherapist at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and a faculty member and supervisor in the Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry. Currently in private practice in Lawrence, Kansas, she is the author of numerous scholarly articles and 11 books, including the New York Times best-seller, The Dance of Anger, Women in Therapy, The Dance of Connection, and The Dance of Fear. Lerner has been a guest on Oprah, CNN, NPR and numerous other media. She is also, with her sister, an award-winning children’s book author, and she hosts a blog for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. Lerner’s new book is Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and The Coupled Up.