Many men I know, both socially and in therapy, are in some way enduring the result of a problematic relationship with their mother. This manifests in adult relationships with women, and I see a lot of this in couples therapy. Although a man may function highly in many areas of his life (financially, socially, intellectually, etc.) emotionally and relationally he may be shut down, cut off, angry without awareness, rageful, or depressed. He may mistrust women (unless they are friends and therefore do not pose a threat to his wounding), subtly objectify them, or feel inadequate in their presence. Many men I see are not fully committed to their intimate relationships, yet the one relationship they feel is a constant in their lives is their relationship to their mother.
When a mother within the family system fails to take active steps with her partner to address their problematic relationship, and instead goes through the motions with her partner either hoping for change or accepting a baseline of unhappiness, she commonly and unconsciously turns to her child for her needs. Bereft of the closeness she desires with her partner, she begins to turn to her son for companionship, connection, confidence, support, and friendship. Boundaries blur. The son learns that the best, and perhaps only, way to connect to his mother or to achieve emotional closeness is to attune to her needs. But a child cannot possibly anticipate or provide what his mother is calling for, and comes to believe that he has failed in some way, that he is not enough. Later in life, the son may feel irritated by her narcissistic presence or phone calls, yet not know why. He feels guilty for avoiding her, and maintains a complex allegiance to her.
This allegiance involves showing up for her, trying to give her what she needs, while hiding his adult self from her. On some level he may know he cannot and does not want to give to her any more, but cannot say so. What he sensed long ago remains, on a real or perceived level, true: to create a boundary would be to risk loss of connection. The son learns that he must be one thing in the world (a man), and another with his mother (her child). He runs a cover, a dual existence which robs him of vitality, creativity, and the energy he needs for his adult relationships. He has never been able to give his mother what she truly needs, so he feels deeply inadequate. Confused from a childhood he began as caretaker to someone whose needs he could not meet, he feels at a loss when it comes to taking care of or pleasing the women he has actually chosen.
Over time a man may reach a dead end: he wants connection with a woman, but to show up as man with his own needs is to risk losing it all. The need to hide, to give minimally and then to escape, to seek freedom and avoid suffocation; so often this behavior manifests in a man’s intimate relationships. He will project his mother’s expectations onto his partner. He will project his fear of engulfment onto his partner. He will project his feelings of inadequacy onto his partner. He will feel that closeness comes at too large a cost, and therefore takes refuge in work, friendships with men, distractions, addictions, and relationships with women who are drawn to men who cannot give them what they need.
How does one create space enough to alter this pattern? Men grow up thinking they should feel a certain way towards their mother. Perhaps he believes she has sacrificed herself for him, and therefore he owes her, as if he asked her to bring him into the world. A man needs to question this, and to become conscious of his actual feelings towards her. Is his relationship to her clouding his intimate relationships? Is mother-son energy leaking into his relationships with women? Can he say “no” to his mother and feel solid about it?
An intimate relationship can be one of the best ways to test what is real, and what is perceived. Talk to your partner about your feelings towards your mother. Check out what you think your partner needs, and what she actually calls for from you. Awareness, openness to challenge, the courage to risk loss by honoring oneself and leading an authentic life–this is a start. Every day presents us with an opportunity to choose what we want and what we need. Every relationship we are in represents a choice.