When we hear the term "mama's boy," we usually think of an adult who has an unhealthy dependence on his mother. Being an adult, one would expect him to be self-sufficient, independent and capable of making his own decisions without seeking validation and approval from his parents. However, "mama's boy" seems unable to function independently of her. Why does this happen? One of the factors is represented by parent-child enmeshment, starting from a young age.
Parent-child enmeshment is a common phenomenon, especially in collectivist societies. Cultural norms play a role, but their influence is limited. For example, in the U.S. children are encouraged to be independent and it seems to be the norm for them to take their lives into their own hands once they come of age, while in other countries the needs of the family come before individual needs. But ultimately, even if cultural norms play a role, they don't dictate 100% of a family's dynamics.
Repeating transgenerational patterns is another factor. To a large extent, we learn how to function as adults and form relationships based on our childhood experiences. If our parents were enmeshed with their parents, if they were not taught to individuate, to set boundaries and form an identity separate from the family, they will pass this pattern on us. Of course, by being aware and working on yourself, the pattern can be broken.
It is normal to be close to your family while also keeping your own identity. Family cohesion involves support, help, mutual affection, but it also means accepting and respecting the independence and intimacy of each member. However, in enmeshed families, this closeness means getting involved in each other's lives, even if the other person does not want it, invading their personal space, living through them.
Parents view their children as extensions of themselves, meant to fulfill all their needs and be the way they want. Children become emotionally or financially dependent on their parents, even though they have all the resources to manage on their own.
There is no differentiation between family members and roles are not well-defined because boundaries are almost nonexistent. There are expectations, demands and intrusive requests for support and attention. This way of relating is full of assumptions and confusion. Nobody directly expresses their thoughts and feelings but rather implies them, and emotional manipulation and blackmail are frequently used. In these families, parents excessively and inappropriately rely on the emotional support of their child, not allowing them to mature and become independent.
We are familiar with expressions like, "what happens in the family stays in the family" or "don't air your dirty laundry in public" (unfortunately, this is how abuses are hidden, and victims struggle to escape such situations). Phrases like "parents are saints" or "it's not normal to talk back" are also commonly used.
Being loyal to your family (no matter how you feel or what happens) is more important than your individual needs and desires, your wellbeing. Being loyal to your family also means adopting and maintaining their beliefs and values, even if they are dysfunctional and no longer serve you, taking on their burdens, and carrying forward their wounds (for example, a mother who has come to hate men due to her own negative experiences can instill the same feelings and attitudes towards men in her daughter). It means sacrificing your ideals, dreams, career or relationships to stay in the "nest" with your family because they need you, which essentially means they need you to fulfill their emotional needs that they haven't taken responsibility for fulfilling on their own.
When we think of the traumas a child can experience in childhood, we usually think of emotional, physical, sexual abuse, neglect and mistreatment. However, being too close to your parent in a way that lacks personal boundaries and limits, not allowing you to develop autonomy and independence, form your own identity and learn to discover and listen to your needs is also a trauma.
Parent-child enmeshment can manifest in various ways, such as:
- the parent is overprotective, not allowing the child to face various situations and learn how to overcome the inherent difficulties and challenges of life. They may claim to be worried or fearful of something happening to the child, but in reality, they are trying to control them. This incapacitates the child because it doesn't allow them to develop essential life skills and coping strategies, keeping them dependent;
- in some cases, the parent becomes "incapacitated" and the child ends up taking care of them. This is as if the roles were reversed. Whether it's an emotionally immature parent or one dealing with a specific dependency or severe health issue, the child takes on the role of the parent;
- the parent makes differences between their children, for example, they favor one of them, while seeing the other as the black sheep of the family. They vent their frustrations on them, constantly blame them and have a completely different attitude towards the "favorite" child. They even explicitly tell them this, idealize them, repeatedly emphasize how special and important they are to them, and have unrealistic expectations from them;
-another form of enmeshment occurs when the parent seeks emotional intimacy from their child that they lack in their relationship with their life partner. They treat the child as their best friend or a romantic partner, sharing inappropriate intimate details, confiding in them, seeking emotional support or advice.
To exemplify what such a relationship looks like, in today’s article we will discuss mother-son enmeshment.
A healthy mother-son relationship involves having and respecting personal boundaries, mutual respect, communication and cooperation. In contrast, when there is emotional enmeshment, affection is used as a form of control. The message is, "our relationship is so special, and we are so close that if you want to continue receiving my affection, you must do as I say." There are no parent-child boundaries and they are emotionally intertwined, they are entangled. The mother constantly pressures the son to fulfill a certain role desired by her, and he often feels guilty and obligated toward her.
The son struggles to figure out who he truly is, what his identity is outside of his relationship with his mother. He has adopted her values, beliefs, goals, interests, fears, and even the same career path. She is highly involved in his life and may view him as an emotional surrogate, with the expectation that he fulfills certain roles typically characteristic of a life partner - emotional support, validation, advice. Instead of being a parent to him, she is a "friend," burdening him with her needs, expectations and grievances.
The son feels responsible for his mother's wellbeing and believes it's his duty to make her happy, even if it means sacrificing his own wellbeing. This is, in fact, an impossible mission. It is not the child's duty to give up their own life and identity to make their parent happy, and furthermore, that parent can’t be happy by living through others – happiness is a result of one's own inner state. As Erich Fromm said, "The problem of existence can’t be solved except by each person for themselves and not by delegation."
The son has difficulty establishing boundaries with others in his life due to the undefined boundaries between him and his mother. He may seek to please others , struggle to say "no," experience challenges in forming intimate relationships, seek validation from his partner because he can’t validate himself.
So, romantic relationships, couple relationships become quite challenging. At the beginning, you may feel uncomfortable getting close to someone. It's as if you don't know what to do or how to be. You might be afraid of getting close to seomeone because, in a way, you expect that relationship to be emotionally draining, much like your relationship with your mother. You repeat what you've learned, and if your relationship with your parents is dysfunctional, it can be difficult for you to create healthy relationships with other people.
Because of the emotional exclusivity and control your mother exerts over you, you may feel unsettled and anxious about opening yourself to someone else. Moreover, you may feel that by getting close to someone, at some level, you are betraying your mother, and the fear of abandonment, rejection, or losing maternal affection is so strong that you might even refuse to get to know new people for fear of disrupting the dynamic of your relationship with your mother.
When you're manipulated to believe that the relationship with your mother could end if you don't comply with her desires and demands, when you feel that you can't cope without your mother, without her support, guidance, approvals and validations, you end up repressing your own emotions and needs "for her sake." The constant fear of losing your attachment figure begins to shape your personality, erode your self-confidence, make it difficult for you to express yourself, to be assertive, and leave you confused about your own identity and future plans.
This fear of rejection and abandonment carries over into your relationships, so you can become very attached and cling desperately to the women in your life. You are needy, you are extremely "clingy," you even idealize them, trying to please them at all costs, anything to avoid upsetting them and facing rejection. You suffer greatly if a breakup occurs, and you continue to cling to that story.
Another way in which emotional enmeshment with your mother influences your romantic relationships is as follows: your girlfriend or wife becomes the biggest threat to your mother because she is in competition with her for the place she holds in your life. Once you are in a significant relationship with a woman, your entire existence can no longer revolve around your mother, and she wants you to prioritize her needs and desires above anyone and anything else. As a result, you end up sacrificing not only your own needs and desires but also those of your partner.
Your mother interferes between you, she makes decisions on your behalf, she tries to dictate how you should live and what to do. She criticizes your partner, she looks for faults in her, she finds various reasons why you don't match, she shows up at your door uninvited, she believes she deserves everything because she's a mother and not just any mother, but a devoted and loving one (actually, dependent on her own son). She tries to keep you dependent on her so she can continue to depend on you. She sustains this dependence through financial support, by continuing to do things for you that you can easily do yourself. She expects you to tell her everything about your life, she wants to know what you're doing and where you are, she calls you very often, even several times a day, and gets upset if you don't answer her.
Your partner may feel insecure, confused, alienated, or even invisible, and she may feel like she didn't marry you but rather you and your mother. In such situations, it's very likely that you choose to avoid conflicts, not take a stand and essentially do nothing to address the situation. You fear confronting your mother and setting boundaries. You try to appease both, even choosing to lie to both – telling your mother she's right, and then telling your partner the same, asking for more understanding and patience - "you know how she is, what can I do?"
Over time, even though it's hard to admit, you begin to accumulate resentment towards your mother. You feel like you're not allowed to express your anger and frustration, that you can't confront her, and you end up feeling helpless, as if there’s nothing you can do. Your dissatisfaction and all these negative emotions end up directed towards your partner. You may even feel suffocated or accuse her of nagging you or trying to control you (even though it's not the case), when in fact, you feel this way in your relationship with your mother.
In an enmeshed relationship, the mother won't release her son from her devouring grasp, won't allow him to spread his wings and fly, and will continue to interfere in his decisions and daily life.
If you have such a relationship, you may feel like you have no control over your life, or you may feel like you're not living your own life. You can feel trapped, and anxiety or depression, as well as eating disorders or various addictions can be part of your life a long time. You lack self-confidence, you seek external approvals and validations, you find it difficult to make decisions, you tend to isolate yourself, you don't think about what's best for you or what you want, but rather seek to please or take care of others, feeling responsible for their happiness. You fear confrontation and conflict (in childhood, if you disagreed with your mother/parents, you suffered emotionally or physically, so you believe that if you confront other people, the outcome will be the same – you'll suffer as you did then).
You feel guilty or ashamed if you want less contact with your mother (for example, not spending your vacation with her/with your parents) or if you make a choice that is good for you but not to her liking (such as taking a professional opportunity and moving to another city or country). You are the most important person in her life, and her life revolves around you, and you feel this as pressure, as a huge responsibility. Moreover, she doesn't encourage you to pursue your own dreams but seeks to impose the path you should follow in life. She expects you to conform to family norms and traditions, to be extremely loyal, and different ideas and beliefs are not accepted. The relationship is actually based and sustained on manipulation and emotional blackmail, on feelings of guilt and shame.
Your relationship with your father may not be a close one. You may even have negative feelings towards him. For a mother to be the center of her son's attention and for the bond to become tighter, a "closed," impenetrable space where no one can enter needs to be created. Consciously or unconsciously, your mother may have tried to distance you from your father. Perhaps she criticized him, spoke ill of him, or complained about him to you; maybe she portrayed him negatively (he's the bad one, and she's the good one) or didn't allow him to get too close to you, and so on.
Having an enmeshed relationship with your mother or father can be extremely exhausting and debilitating at the same time, but things can change, no matter how impossible it may seem to you now. In the next article, we will address this aspect and discuss what you can do to redefine your relationship with your parent. See you soon!
Dr. Ursula Sandner