Toxic relationships is a topic I have frequently approached because both in my practice and in my daily life I have encountered many unhappy people whose relationships have actually destroyed them.
When you think about toxic relationships, perhaps the first thing that comes to your mind is a couple relationship.
But this time I won’t talk about couple relationships, but about a different kind of love that, as much as it has the potential to help you grow, develop and perfection as a person, as much it has the potential to inhibit, hurt, incapacitate or destroy. I am talking about what we all know to be “parental love” and, in the next few lines, I will discuss about that type of harmful parental love.
There are people who even at 30, 40 or 50 years old they have the emotional age of children who are not even 18 years of age, who don’t trust themselves, who are fearful of taking their lives in their own hands or actually taking some responsibilities. They are fragile people who don’t take risks, don’t want to leave their comfort zone, they often feel alone and without a purpose, they blame others and they often play the helpless victim. This helplessness has been induced by their own parents who preferred to have their children as close as possible, dependent on them and easy to control.
How and why does this happen?
There are people who define themselves strictly as parents. Maybe they really wanted a child, maybe that child gave them a meaning and a purpose in life, maybe they clung to them to survive an unhappy marriage, to compensate for the lack of love and understanding, or maybe they simply put all their failures and fears on their child’s shoulders, seeking for a rescue or to be comforted. As a parenthesis, the child is often a symptom of the family, one that expresses, in one way or another, the personal problems of their parents. An anxious mother will transmit her own fears to her child, she will teach him to fear. An immature or avoidant father who doesn’t take responsibility will teach his child that you don’t necessarily have to “grow up” to become an adult. That you can be a child for a lifetime and who likes you, likes you as you are.
Therefore, if the feeling of being important, your life meaning, your human value, your usefulness depend on this parental role, you’ll certainly do your best to play your role as long as possible. Your own identity is at stake.
There are parents who actually don’t want their child to succeed because this would mean that he managed by himself to accomplish something with his life, he grew up, he shaped an identity and a path different from theirs. It means he no longer needs his mom and dad. And what’s to become of mom and dad if their child’s dependency disappears? What will their purpose be? Also, parents can envy their children’s success because they have managed to do more with their lives than they did. Their success reminds them of their own failure, of their missed opportunities and makes them feel bad with themselves.
There are parents who repeatedly say to their children that they’re fragile, helpless, sensitive, that they wouldn’t be able to manage on their own, that it would be best to stop trying than to make a fool out of themselves, that it would be better if they wouldn’t take any risk. It’s best for them to know their place, because if you don’t try, you can’t fail. In fact, the fear is that they’ll succeed.
Under these circumstances, this child is very unlikely to want to become independent. With time, he even gets to feel incapable, to acquire a learned helplessness. He still lives with his parents at age 30, and they agree that he won’t contribute in any way, even if he has long passed the childhood stage. In many cases, they tolerate and even enable their shortcomings or addictions - “poor him, but what can I do?”, “If I resist, things get ugly”. Yeah, and things get ugly because he knows that his mom or dad will finally give up – “look how much he suffers, I would do anything not to see him like this”. The child manipulates in turn.
But they also want a social life because the time or the holidays spent with their parents are no longer enough. Whether we are talking about the situation when they still live with their parents, whether about the situation when the economic dependence had ended, having a social life or a couple relationship becomes problematic. In their parent’s opinion all of their friends are either people who aren’t good enough for them, therefore unworthy to stay around, or some losers that fill their head with all kind of nonsense and ideas, or some bad and hypocritical people who want to take advantage of them. The more limited their social circle is, the more “the child” spends more time with their parents and the easier it’s to control them. As for a future partner, things get even more complicated because they should dedicate to him/her more time and attention than to a simple friend.
The “child’s” partner is seen as the main enemy. Especially in the relationship mother-son, I don’t think it’s a novelty that jealousy and maternal possessiveness arise. Why is this happening? At a psychological level, unconsciously, for the mother, her boy is the “ideal man”. She can’t see her child other than a perfect child, and, being a boy, he automatically becomes the perfect man. And for a perfect man, no woman is good enough, because no woman is perfect, except for the one who gave birth to him and most likely sacrificed for him. No one can love him more than his mother, no one can know him better than his mother, no one knows better than her what he needs. The rest of the women are more or less some gold-diggers, selfish, materialistic, picky, unwise, insincere.
The mother, feeling threatened and “hurt” by the fact that her “baby” doesn’t pay her enough attention, that she’s no longer first, starts manipulating and emotionally blackmailing him - “After all that I’ve done for you, can’t you at least do this for me?”, “I didn’t think the day would come when my own child turns his back on me,” “What do you mean you don’t have time? But what do you have to do? ... And what do I do now?”, “You don’t know anything. Anyway, parents know better. Listen to me!”
If the “child” doesn’t redefine his relationship with his parents, if he doesn’t set clear limits and boundaries of interaction, if he allows them to continue to victimize, his couple relationship is very likely to fall apart, especially if the partners haven’t formed yet a very close intimate bond. There are so many situations where couples or marriages have come to fall apart because the mother-in-law, the father-in-law, or the parents have meddled in their relationship, and the “children” haven’t been firm enough to stop them from doing so.
Such relationships, which are in fact sick psychological games, are extremely damaging because, on the one hand, they maintain the child's dependency on the parent, and on the other hand, the parent's dependency on the child. The parent gets to incapacitates their child, because they don’t want to let them out of the nest, because they spare them from any responsibility, because they reinforce their weaknesses, because every time they try to take their life in their own hands is pulled back, because they treat them like a helpless victim, like a “fool” who has no idea who they are, what they want, what they feel and what they think.
The child feeds the parent’s emotional dependency because he refuses to take the decision to leave the nest, because he remains in his comfort zone, because he submits to manipulations or parental pressures, because he maintains the game where he is in turn a victim and then an aggressor. If the child refuses to please his parents, he becomes an aggressor, and they become victims. If the parents refuse to please the child, then they’re the aggressors and he’s the victim. Their relationship lacks equilibrium because it’s in fact a power struggle, an attempt where each one tries to take from the other one what they lack. The parent needs to feel important and useful, with the cost of the child’s physical and emotional health. Better to take care of a “sick” child, than no child at all. The child rebels from time to time and makes some crazy scenes because it’s frustrating to want to be free and at the same time to fear freedom.
A baby who wasn’t taught to fly will look down from the nest with fear and regret and will turn resigned to their mother to feed them. Although their mother will feel sorry for them, she’ll think: “At least I’m not alone”.
Overprotecting the children, or the way that parents encourage them not to take responsibility, is actually a profoundly selfish act because they maintain their dependencies by ruining them the chance to have a normal life. Children who aren’t allowed to explore, to take responsibility for their actions and their consequences, to develop socially, emotionally, to discover themselves by forming their own thinking, their own value system are the insecure adults of tomorrow, those who live through and for others, those who obey, those who can’t stand loneliness and those who ultimately fear life.
Dr. Ursula Sandner