The relationship between a mother and son is a complex one. While a son is growing up and learning independence, a mother’s loving support and nurturing is essential. However, there are circumstances in which the mother-son relationship becomes distorted and when this happens it can leave destruction in its path. An unhealthy mother-son relationship can cripple both parties and affect all their other relationships.
When a son has always relied on his mother to make all his decisions for him, it is difficult for him to break out of this pattern. An adult son should not need his mother’s input before making decisions. If his mother is still his number one priority, even when he has a partner, this is a sign that the relationship may not be healthy. He may constantly feel guilty when he does not contact his mother and yet feel resentful because of her expectations. Resentment easily turns to guilt and the vicious cycle starts again.
Kate Stone Lombardi, author of The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes them Stronger, believes that a close bond between a mother and son is vitally important. She believes that forcing sons to separate prematurely from their mothers can be damaging. She believes that mothers help their sons to communicate better, and recognize and express their feelings. They tend not to buy into hyper-masculine stereotypes and grow up to be less hostile and aggressive. There is a line, however, between being close and being too close. Some mothers and sons go over that line.
Why is it that mothers have such a hard time letting go of their sons? The bond is a strong one and when a boy is growing up, it is good for his mother to be there for him and provide a secure base from which he can explore and develop. A mother is fiercely protective of her children and so she should be. It’s when she becomes overprotective that it becomes unhealthy for the child.
In a book called ‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas, we meet Rosie, mother of five-year-old Hugo. Hugo is still being breastfed and when he’s not at his mother’s breast, he is misbehaving without being reprimanded. Rosie has taken her mothering to an extreme that is unhealthy for the child and for her.
A substitute for a spouse
In certain situations, a mother may substitute a relationship with her husband for one with her son. Perhaps her husband has left her or he may have passed away. He may be abusing her or not giving her the type of emotional support she needs. It’s not impossible under such circumstances for a mother to turn to her son. Ashley McIlwain, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist says “Parents, your child is NOT a substitute for a spouse who’s not measuring up. While it’s wonderful for you to raise your child to be an amazing husband or wife, it shouldn’t be for you. They are not meant to be manipulated into your own personal feel-good piggy bank where you make withdrawals whenever you’re feeling poorly yourself.”
Ross Rosenberg, author of the book The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us, talks about enmeshed parent-child relationships. This is where parents and children rely on one another to fulfill emotional needs. Ross says that they look to one another “to make them feel good, whole or healthy, but they do it in a way that sacrifices psychological health … their self-concept is defined by the other person.” Their individuality is lost in the process of getting their needs met.
Sometimes this goes so far that it becomes a sexual relationship. Dr Adams, a clinical psychologist who has had over 25 years of practical experience in this area, has written a book called Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners that offers tools for identifying and healing from covert incestuous relationships. He explains how ‘feeling close’ with a parent is not always the source of comfort the phrase suggests, especially when that child is cheated out of a childhood by being a parent’s surrogate partner. Some of the questions asked in a Q&A section in the book are:
• How can this be incestuous when there is no physical sexual contact?
• Why is sexual addiction so common with covert incest survivors?
• Why is it so hard for covert incest survivors to commit to romantic relationships?
• If my partner is a covert incest survivor, how can I help?
A challenge to a marriage
A son with an unhealthy attachment to his mother struggles to detach and set boundaries, even when he is married. His mother can come between him and his wife who may feel that she constantly has to compete with her. In ‘The Slap’ Hector, the main character, is turning 40 and he still has difficulty standing up to his controlling mother. His wife, Aisha, has to bear the consequences. His mother presents him with a birthday present of tickets to Greece for the whole family, including her and her husband. On the surface, this would appear to be a wonderful gift. However, it is actually an example of a mother’s interference. Aisha is not happy because she and Hector have planned to go away together to Bali for their anniversary and she has been looking forward to it. She insists that his mother knew exactly what she was doing in giving this gift. Making plans that include a son, without discussing it with him first, is a no-no. A son should never be put in a position where he has to choose between his wife and his mother.
For women who feel they are in an emotional tug-of-war for their husband’s heart, another book by Dr Kenneth Adams called When He’s Married to Mom is helpful. This book offers guidelines to help women create fulfilling relationships with mother-enmeshed men. He also offers tools to help these mother-enmeshed men as well as strategies to help parents avoid enmeshing their children.
Acknowledging the problem
Acknowledging the problem is often the first step towards healing. Fortunately, it has become more acceptable today for men to acknowledge relationship issues and deal with them by talking to a therapist. If they are not ready to talk to a therapist, there are other ways to go about getting some help such as joining a forum or asking questions. Eventually, this may pave the way to more formal therapy. A relationship consists of two people and it may be difficult to heal an unhealthy relationship if one or other is not prepared to work at it.
Unhealthy relationships occur when boundaries are violated. If both parties are aware of the problem, they can begin addressing the problem and start setting some boundaries. Its easier to take small steps at first.
Perhaps a son has just gone off to college and his mother expects him to call him every day. Instead of reacting and telling her to back off, he could say “Mom, I know you love me and I also want to talk to you but I think we should talk twice a week. Then, I can really focus when you call and tell you about everything that happened in the week.”
If a son is always calling his mother to help make decisions for him, perhaps she could say something like “I appreciate the fact that you respect my advice but I have every confidence in you. I know that you will make the right decision about …”
A final word
We all make mistakes when bringing up our children. Many of us may find that we tend to be overprotective. However, If we love them enough, it’s never too late to make some on course corrections. In “The Slap” Hector turns 40 before he is ready to confront his mother’s urge to control him. As mothers, we find it hard to let go of our sons but the reality is that they should not be our source of emotional fulfillment. We have to let them go and allow them to establish their own meaningful relationships.