Do you have unhealthy mother-son relationships?

mother-son relationship

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.

Mama’s Boy

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 society has certain misconceptions about mother-son relationships that go back to Freud’s Oedipus complex theory. The idea that sons have an unconscious desire to sleep with their mothers has had the effect of making a close bond between them seem somehow wrong. Her belief is that mothers help their sons to communicate better, and recognize and express their feelings. This equips them better for their future relationships.

There is a line, however, between being close and being too close. Some mothers and sons go over that line.

Overprotective mother

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.

Silently SeducedSometimes 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, a 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.

Establishing boundaries

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. When it comes to our sons, it appears that close is good but too close is bad. Many of us may find that we tend to be overprotective. But, If we love them enough, it’s never too late to make some on course corrections. As mothers, our sons should never be the source of our emotional fulfillment. But we should have a close enough bond to help  them develop the emotional intelligence they will need to establish their own meaningful relationships.


  1. ches

    I think quite often mother-son relationships can go awry if there is not a father figure around. So many mothers now are bringing up their children on their own and this must have a huge impact, especially on the sons who really benefit from a male role model.
    I realize you’re talking more about the adult son’s relationship with perhaps a controlling mother but I do think a lot of problems stem from childhood.
    I haven’t read the book ‘the slap’ but I will certainly take a look at it.
    Are you in the US, if so, the TV series will ultimately come our way, we’re in the UK. If and when it does, I shall make a point of watching it. Thanks for the post. Ches

    1. Erica (Post author)

      Thanks for your comment Ches. You are so right – it is when the father figure is distant or weak that the problem arises. A strong male role model will usually prevent the mother son relationships from going awry – With all the divorces today, many sons are growing up largely taken care of by their mothers.

  2. Paula

    AHHH, This is so strange that I have just come across your article today. At the weekend myself and my husband had a very long conversation about both our mothers. His mother drives me crazy coz I am never good enough for her although she would never say it – I just KNOW. On the other hand my own mother treats my only brother as if he were a God and her daughters always come second – what is all that about?? Mothers and their sons!!

    1. Erica (Post author)

      Thanks for your comment Paula. I know right – mothers and their sons!! My brother was the only son too and although my mother loves her daughters to distraction, my brother has a very unique place in her heart! I myself have only one son, and I have to fight a tendency to want to know his every move.

  3. karim

    Hello Erica
    very nice story , it’s true but sad
    this is always the case with so many mothers , and sometime we do not understand the reason behind until we , ourselves , become mothers and fathers
    But this struggle will be always there in life as long as our great beloved mothers exist

    1. Erica (Post author)

      Thanks for your comment Karim. Like you say, that struggle continues as long as mother and son relationships exist. That mother-son relationship is such a special one and it’s sad if it is distorted in any way.

  4. jschicanha

    in most cases more especially during puberty time most of the young kid more especially use to find it more hard to cope with their mother and their relationship with their mother use to depreciate and in most cases causes fights and many things

    thank for the informative post ever



  5. Teresa Martinez

    I have heard of emotional incest. I think this actually makes the mother resent the son’s wife and cause a lot of problems. Sometimes the mom is a narcissist that wants to be taken care of by the son. I lived this way for 33 yrs, hellish days. Although with Jesus’ wisdom and supernatural help, we have loved and stayed together, nevertheless she has not changed. I would advise all woman to run and not stop. The girlfriend before me did just that. She was smart.

  6. Demetrius

    I am the son of a single mother and am currently 19 years old and from the age of 15 the relationship between my mom and I has gone from bad to worse. She’s so stuck in her ways and doesn’t feel that she has to make a change because she’s the parent

    1. Erica (Post author)

      I am so sorry you are going through this. It’s hard, especially for single mothers, to start letting go and accept that the relationship has to change.

  7. Lula

    My husband and his mother are in an emotionally incestious relationship. She has ruined all of his relationships. All of them. She’s not cruel to me but she was very cruel to the women before me. Her and I are friendly – we get along ok. But they are so highly dysfunctional together. It’s like being his wife does not matter when mama is around. When he’s away from her he’s a great husband and father. They run a business together so it’s not like he can just walk away all the sudden. I feel trapped, I just hate it. I never thought in my entire life I’d be competing for attention from a man I love.,..with his mother. I just know that it’s only a matter of time before she turns on me like she did the women before me.

    1. Erica (Post author)

      Thanks for your comment. I can imagine how difficult it must be if they are running a business together – that’s enough to create a problem right there!

  8. Natilyn Stegemann

    I am experiencing this problem right now. my husband always put his mother first than me as his wife. it is very hard situation and sad. my husband doesn’t admit that he is putting his mother first. I need help. I am so unhappy.

    1. Erica (Post author)

      Keep strong and believe in your own self-worth. Nobody can take that away from you.

    2. angela laws

      Hello Natilyn..Just noticed the date on your comment did you resolve the issue with your mother in law.
      I am going through the same thing as you it is unbelievably hard to cope with.
      I would love to correspond.

  9. Turtle

    Knowing the right thing to do, when your son gets married then tells his parents that he doesn’t want to hear from them anymore, because he needs space , we have him 3 years and he still refuses to come and see us

    1. Turtle

      We’ve have tried our very best to love our son thru the hurt he has experienced, first he and 2 other family members owed a home together he wanted to sell, one wanted to keep it, one wanted another family member to move in, being loving and supportive parents, our son has told us for the last 3 years, that he needs space and we have given him space . When we have gone to see him at work he is wonderful to us, and our relationship seems healthy and strong, he has been too our home twice in 3 years and does not like
      to come over because he says he is sick and that he has anxiety , our
      heart is broken for him and we want to help him. He came over To yesterday and bright back a gift that his parents had given him, to our house, told us he felt betrayed and hurt and has felt this way for 3 years, mom told him that he needed to stop holding a grudge, stop being rude and stop feeling sorry for himself , and that bringing the gift back was rude and hurtful and that he needed to forgive. He got mad at left. Before he walked out his mom asked him if she could have a hug, he stopped and said yes and showed no emotions, it was so hurtful .


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