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IDEAL RELATIONSHIPS

MAMA'S BOYS & DADDY'S GIRLS

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"In our first meeting Joseph helped me to see the true causes of my problems, the causes that dwelled within me - my relationship to myself. He soon initiated me into the path of self-love, which has drastically altered all the important relationships of my life in such a positive way that I could have never imagined."

- Robert Lee Camp

"Mother" Love

She said, "I don't know how to be in a relationship with a man without becoming his 'mother'." When I was a teenager I read somewhere that there are times when partners switch off being the adult in the relationship. The idea is that there are times when one partner is in a weakened position and needs to be like a child with the partner remaining the strong one, even like a parent. When the weaker partner feels strong again he or she can relinquish the child-like role and both partners choose to relate as equal adults again. This can occur when one partner is overwhelmed, anxious, and in need of processing anger. It can happen when one partner is vulnerable, tearful, and in need of a good long cry. If both partners go to these needy places communication breaks down and life can even become dangerous if one partner is not willing to remain in control of his or her emotions and reactions. A problem arises when one partner is consistently the child and the other is consistently the parent. For our purposes we will look exclusively at the polarity of husband as child - wife as mother.

There are a variety of ways a woman can be like a mother to her man. Serving him more than he serves her, being his own personal waitress, or his unpaid assistant are ways of mothering a man. Usually accommodating his needs before her own, which tends to look like the woman choosing to be inconvenienced on a regular basis so that he does not have to be inconvenienced, is a way of treating a man like a child. Making phone calls on the husband's behalf, so that he never has to make his own appointments, treats him as a child. Taking care of his emotional needs before he asks for help on a regular basis means being his mother. It is important to note that these behaviors happen on a regular basis. Any of these can occur infrequently as acts of love. Because of gender bias some of them may be exclusively the territory of the woman's service of love to her man. Although, in a healthy marriage that has a gender bias he also serves her in ways that are his exclusive territory as a man for expressing his love for her. It is when acts of service become routine ways of relating in an unbalanced relationship, with one giving far more service and the receiver taking the service for granted, that there is a problem of a child/parent polarity in a relationship.

Some other ways of becoming a man's 'mother' include excusing his faults as if he does not know any better, having an attitude of "tolerating" him, taking greater responsibility for the children and household running smoothly, and allowing him temper tantrums and rudeness that he does not tolerate off of anyone. If a man has his woman be his "fetch and carry" person around the house, if he always calls her to come to him instead of meeting her halfway or just getting up and finding her, if she feels like his slave in any way (including being his 'sexual slave'), if she can only rest after he is satisfied, then she is meeting his needs before her own. Meeting a man's needs before her own means a woman has taken on the role of 'mother' with her husband. This is something good mothers do for infants, toddlers, pre-school children, and very young school age children. Unless he is physically, emotionally, or mentally impaired, no woman has any business routinely and predictably meeting a man's needs before he asks and before her own when that man is above the age of ten (Dr. Patricia Allen and Sandra Harmon, Staying Married.and Loving It! New York: William Morrow and Co., 1997, xi).

In spite of the fact that the men who choose the child role seem to insist on this polarity, the tendency is for the polarity to not work on behalf of the relationship. Ultimately, no healthy man desires to make love to his mother. Resentment builds up in both members of the couple. She becomes resentful because this role of mother has no real power in it. It is predominantly demeaning. Most women who play this out would identify with the term "servant" over and above the term "mother." Servants do not have sexual relationships with those they serve without a sense of threat that accompanies the imbalance of power in the relationship. He becomes resentful because the role of child is demeaning. Neither of them knows how to extricate themselves from these roles and their behavior only cements them in these roles. When a man's temper tantrum always gets him what he believes he desires, why should he look for deeper desires or a healthier way of relating? By predominantly serving him a wife feels a continuous undertow of the potential threat of violence, neglect, or rejection if she fails to serve him to his satisfaction. She has no energy left over to contemplate deeper desires or a healthier way of relating.

What is a woman to do who finds herself in this position of being like a mother to her man? To answer that question negatively, the answer is to not try to change him. To attempt to teach a husband to not be the child in the relationship is more of the same. Trying to teach him puts the wife squarely in the role of 'mother.' For the woman the answer lies in a form of self-discipline. It means practicing making the choice to not do the things she feels compelled to do. For instance, she can stop herself when she feels ready to meet a need he has not yet voiced. She can just not meet that need and wait. Perhaps he will ask her to meet the need. Perhaps we won't and it will go unmet. He is an adult male. He can handle it. There are so many subtle ways to treat a man like a child that he is not aware of. This is the safest place to start because it may not even get his attention, but the woman will get her own attention as she sits in the discomfort of doing nothing where she once would have jumped in and rescued him. As she sits in that discomfort she learns a new way of being; that is, being a woman to her man instead of a mother-substitute.

A concrete example of this would be a situation where a husband routinely calls his wife to him when he wants or needs something, whether that is a drink, information, a phone number, or just to chat about something he is reading about or watching on television. If the wife is in the habit of dropping whatever she is doing and walking to him to attend to him, the next time it happens she can stop herself in her tracks and not go. This isn't to suggest she be rude and ignore him. He has hollered for her, she can holler back, "I can't come right now, honey, can you come to me?" If he says, "No, it'll wait," then let it wait! The next time their paths cross she doesn't need to ask him what he wanted. If it is important enough, he will remember.

Another way a woman can put her attention on herself in order to change her mothering tendency is to periodically, arbitrarily ask for assistance. Instead of dragging out a chair or ladder to reach something up high, if his arms are long enough, she should once in awhile ask him to reach something for her. It may sound "corny," but ask him to open the next jar that has a tight lid. With any activity or project that will strain her body much more than his, she should seriously consider slowing down long enough to ask for his assistance.

These things look simple in writing, but the truth is, for the woman who loves her man like she's his mother, releasing the mother role and bringing balance into the relationship feels as foreign as breathing under water. A woman's body as well as her mind can yell, "No!" to this kind of advice. That's just because being his mom feels normal and not because being his mom is best! With time a more balanced relationship is what will feel normal, right, and best.

One final example is this: when she wants to take over some task he is involved in and do it for him, she needs to stop herself, turn her head, leave the room, sit on her hands, do whatever it takes to refrain from taking over. All these examples have to do with the woman exercising self-discipline, turning that mothering attention to herself, to her own best advantage! Most of us seem to have heard, "You can't change anyone else. You can only change yourself." Well, it's true. Making these kinds of choices will subtly, gently, and profoundly assist in bringing a healthier balance to a relationship that has heretofore been caught up in a mother/son polarity.

If a woman's husband cannot tolerate these changes and becomes abusive or violent, she needs to seek outside help immediately. For couples where the man shifts and adjusts to her changes, the more a woman focuses on making changes and adjustments in her own attitudes and behavior without an agenda to teach him "how to be a man," the more successful her own work on herself will be for her as an individual and for the relationship.

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