In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy there is a character called Grima Wormtongue. Wormtongue is an advisor to the king of Rohan who is constantly pumping the king full of verbal toxins, keeping the king weak and looking aged beyond his years. When Wormtongue is finally exposed for the controlling, venomous leech he is, the king is released from a state of zombie-like submission. He is restored to his natural state and stands boldly as the fearless warrior he is meant to be.
While pondering the causes of relationship dysfunction recently, I was struck by the disturbing realization that many men who treat their partners poorly have inappropriate relationships with their mothers. Furthermore, it occurred to me that, in a majority of examples I could think of, these men have mothers who spoil them and take every opportunity to be involved in their lives. Because they have never known anything else, these men regard their mothers’ behavior as normal.
In a country where fathers are largely absent due to passivity, personal choice, or work commitments, mothers are often the primary influence in their sons’ lives. While some mothers lovingly raise their sons and set them free into the world as functional adults, others become permanently entrenched in their sons’ lives, refusing to let go of them when they reach adulthood.
Instead of becoming full-fledged men who are prepared to attract and maintain healthy, committed relationships, men whose mothers never cut the apron strings may exist as perpetual adolescents. They may never fully develop the emotional skills necessary to have productive, adult partnerships. Their mothers’ Grima Wormtongue-like control, however well-intentioned, may set them up for a lifetime of hell and heartache.
In Kenneth Adams and Alexander Morgan’s book When He’s Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment, the authors point out that, “There is a universe of difference between a mother who loves her son dearly and a mother who makes her son the primary focus of her passion and preoccupation in an attempt to compensate for her own emptiness.”
Adams and Morgan note that such “mother-enmeshed men” frequently become involved in sex and/or relationships quickly, have trouble being faithful in relationships, or stay in a relationship for awhile without taking it to the next level. These men often experience sexual dysfunction, direct their anger and dissatisfaction with life at their partner, have a long history of being people pleasers, and have difficulty standing up for themselves.
The problems caused by overly involved mothers can manifest in a variety of ways, but at the root of these problems is a concept Adams and Morgan call The Disloyalty Bind. They say that men who are too close to their mothers unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, make their mother’s interests first and foremost in their lives.
These men are always concerned with pleasing their mothers whether they realize it or not, and so when they have trouble committing or have relationship problems, they push away their partner instead of their mother. Adams and Morgan assert that a man distancing himself from his mother causes him too much anxiety and guilt. Some men would rather destroy a relationship that is good for them than stand up to the omnipresent female power that gave birth to them.
An overly involved and controlling mother will not put up with being backed off or having boundaries put in place, so some men do the right thing to the wrong woman. They project their mommy issues onto their wife or girlfriend, forcing them to distance themselves or even to leave. Wives and girlfriends become surrogate mothers in that they get blamed for all manner of evils, from being control freaks to not wanting what’s best for their man, when they’re not the actual guilty parties at all.
When a mother makes her son a stand-in for his father (which frequently happens to eldest sons), lavishes attention and privileges on her son to keep his favor, or maintains a constant presence in his life without respect for his autonomy, she has, in a way, castrated her son. She has not taught him to have proper boundaries with other people and he may have grown up to find himself attracted to other controlling women. He may have difficulty saying no to sex or no to relationships that are bad for him. He may also be fiercely defensive of his unhealthy relationships and people who harm him.
Having a mother so tightly woven into the fabric of his life may well have kept him from maturing emotionally, especially if a mother always strokes her son’s ego and tells him he’s never wrong. As a result, he may not be able to function in a partnership or solve problems as a team, because doing so requires objective listening and conflict management skills. Such a man may not be willing to admit that he is wrong, because he can always count on mom to tell him that he’s just fine.
Unfortunately this may not just predispose men to bad choices and relationship problems, but also their children after them. A man who is concerned with his mother’s approval and whose lifestyle is a result of that will likely raise children who don’t know how to maintain boundaries themselves. Children are little sponges who learn from their parents’ behavior, and parents who live to please others will probably raise children who do the same. These behaviors can persist for generations.
Unless a mother-enmeshed man seeks help and learns how to have proper boundaries with his mother, he is unlikely to ever have a successful, lasting relationship. The only way that could happen is if he finds a doormat that is willing to go along with what his mother wants. Sadly, I know of situations in which wives placate their domineering mother-in-laws to preserve their relationships with their spouses. That is a miserable way to live, and it completely denies wives the autonomy and intimacy that they are supposed to have with their husbands.
Mother-enmeshed men who are supposedly in committed relationships may seek out soothing, mother-like voices that stroke their egos to supplement what their mothers do. If they don’t feel like they’re getting validation from their partners, they may be quick to turn to female friends or lovers who give them the same assurances that they’re doing nothing wrong. Real relationships are going to have challenges and issues to work through, but mother-enmeshed men may run to those reassuring voices instead of engaging in mutual problem-solving with their partners. They flee from reality.
Not all overly involved mothers exhibit obvious mafia don-like behavior or bark orders. Some selfish, controlling mothers disguise their intrusions by being generous, helpful, or sacrificial to excess. Their need to fill their own emptiness or feel important by maintaining a strong presence can be masked by an exuberant “benevolence.” Look deeper, though, and you may find that these same women expect a significant degree of loyalty and amount of attention in return.
These mothers will make it clear that they come before their sons’ wives or girlfriends. Breaks, holidays, and vacations should be spent with them even if that means their sons’ spouses get left behind. They call frequently or expect calls at set times, and they remind their sons’ spouses that their families already have set ways of doing things. They don’t hesitate to trivialize or look down upon their daughter-in-law’s family and their commitments.
Such mothers will seize upon problems in their sons’ relationships and use those issues to drive their sons’ partners away to maintain their control. They will ridicule suggestions that their son seek help for himself or his relationship through counseling or support groups, and continue to reinforce the belief that there’s nothing their son needs to do better. They may present their knowledge and know-how as superior to any means by which their son can better his life. Such mothers can be gasoline on the fire of dysfunction and domestic violence. They can destroy families.
Some of these women are so desperate to keep their position in their sons’ lives that they will lie, cheat, slander, and steal to preserve their “throne” when their sons forge a commitment with a partner. Whether they realize it or not, their actions show that in their world, life is all about them. They do not back off and let other women take their rightful place in their sons’ lives.
This is not love, this is slavery. Women who should be finding their worth, companionship, and self-esteem elsewhere latch onto their sons like vampires, draining their very life from them. They keep their sons from being whole people and living the life that God intends them to have. God has been very specific about what happens to a man when he grows up—“a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). But some mothers never cut the apron strings, and have conditioned their sons to cling to them instead.
Many men realize that they live with a horrifying degree of guilt and anxiety, but don’t know why. They may feel that they’re always going to fail, or they may feel that women are always out to control them. They may embark on a near-perfect relationship and then hack that relationship off like a diseased limb later when the mysterious guilt and anxiety overtakes them. They may hate their wife or girlfriend for things she hasn’t even done, and accuse her of the very things that their mother is actually doing, without realizing that their mother is the root cause.
Some mother-enmeshed men function under an illusion of self-sacrifice. Adams and Morgan have noticed that many mother-enmeshed men work in caretaking or heroic professions in which they are people rescuers or people pleasers. These characteristics may stem from their having to continually rescue or please their mothers. The self-sacrifice they display in their work is reflective of what they have always done for their mother’s sake, forfeit part of themselves to gain the admiration or approval of others.
This self-sacrifice can occur when mother-enmeshed men break off relationships. They may forego having a serious relationship for a number of reasons, including “for their kids’ sake”. They may engage in casual relationships that no one else has to know about. By doing so, they keep their relationships off of their mother or other controlling women’s radar screens, placating them and “keeping the peace” by sacrificing their own desires. While that may appear noble on the surface, no man should live in bondage to his mother or anyone else. If a man has to water down or hide his desire for companionship to avoid the wrath of other women in his life, there is something terribly wrong with that.
Men, if anything I’ve said bothers you or touches a nerve, please see a therapist or talk to a minister before you tell me that I’m wrong. I am extremely concerned about the number of men who put themselves, their mothers, or other women above their partners. No other woman should come before the one who has committed her life to you. She should be number one in your life and never blamed for the wrongs inflicted on you by other women.
If men won’t cut loose from the chains their mothers bind them with for their partner’s sake, then they should do it for their own sake or for their children’s sake. Having an overly involved mother is keeping all of you from becoming the people you were born to be. It prevents you from becoming autonomous adults with the ability to form healthy, joy-filled relationships.
You should be living in freedom, constantly learning and growing. Maintaining inappropriate attachments to your mother will keep you depressed, angry, submissive, anxious, guilt-ridden, and possibly even impotent. You were created for so much more than that.
I find it very distressing to think that millions of men may spend their entire 85-plus years living milquetoast, mediocre lives caused by their hurting or narcissistic mothers’ ideals. Thankfully millions of women have raised emotionally healthy men with a strong sense of individuality, and have remained a powerful source of love and support for those men their whole lives. But how many more have dominated their son’s existence and kept him unnaturally focused on them?
Moms, love your sons, be close to your sons, and be there for your sons, but do not impede their God-given mission to live adventurously, love passionately, and accomplish feats that no one before them or after them can. When they grow up and you refuse to let go, you are stifling their masculinity, their maturity, and their marriages. Please love them enough to let them be who God wants them to be, not who you want them to be. They—and their women and children– deserve no less.
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We are separate people with separate identities, and we must not be conformed into someone else’s wishes that may conflict with what God has designed for us. We must own what is our true self, and develop it with God’s grace and truth. – Henry Cloud
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