Men's mother complex
This article describes a common relationship pattern where men have closed down their 'ability to feel’ due to their early experience of their mothers and fathers. The origin of this pattern is the man as a boy filling his father’s role in an attempt meet his mother’s needs at the cost of his own. Emotionally he was asked for more than he could give. This impacts his ability to connect to his feelings in later life which is a condition affecting many today.
A mother complex
A relationship with his mother, and through his parents’ relationship. If there is conflict or emotional distance in his parents’ relationship, his emotional bond with his father can suffer. The boy can emotionally bond with his mother in a way that shuts down his feeling capacity, affects his masculine identity and sense of separate self.
If the mother is emotionally unsupported by the father she may unwittingly use her son to get her emotional needs met as a substitute for her partner. The disappointment she feels in the father is felt by the son. In response, the son aspires to be perfect little man that won’t let her down like his father did. The son’s heart is open at an early age and it’s natural for him to want to be the apple of his mother’s eye and fill her up with his love. He learns how to please his mother.
He suffers with emotional-detachment from his father and yet part of him enjoys the special relationship with his mother. It comes at a cost. The boy is unaware that he has been setup for an impossible job that he will fail at. It is too much for a little boy to fulfill the emotional needs of his mother. She needs an adult man. The boy is in an emotional bind. He can’t be himself and be what (he imagines) she wants him to be. He unconsciously chooses to fit in with her needs at the cost of his own.
The father is remiss in not providing a healthy parental relationship alongside the mother to allow the son to develop a healthy male identity. The boy cuts off from his male power to fit in. A distant or closed hearted father, an emotionally needy mother combined with the cultural images of masculinity encourages the boy to close his heart and disconnect from his feelings.
In later life, the boy as a grown man may develop the following kind of attitudes:
He doesn’t feel he is enough.
Deep down he feels he wasn’t enough for his mother so as an adult he doesn’t feel he is enough for his partner. He is sensitive to criticism as it challenges his male identity which he needs to protect. He feels he needs to be perfect and it’s hard for him to admit when he makes a mistake in his relationship.
He is fearful of women getting upset.
He can’t bear it when his partner is upset, partly because he feels he is responsible for his partner’s happiness. As a boy he felt he was the cause of his mother’s unhappiness: he believed he was responsible and in control of his mother’s feelings through pleasing her.
He pleases women to avoid conflict.
The man has learnt the strategy of pleasing women at the cost of his own needs. Women pick up straight away when a man is pleasing them to avoid conflict. It feels inauthentic. The woman feels shut out from the man as his true feelings are hidden. She can’t feel his authentic male energy which frustrates her. She feels rejected and abandoned as he hears the message, ‘you are too much’. This is often how she felt as a child.
He feels overwhelmed by her needs.
He feels burdened by having to meet his partner’s needs. He is unable to express his own needs as he unconsciously learnt not to listen to his needs in order to meet his mother’s needs. It may seem like he has very few needs.
He resents his partner's needs.
The man has an unconscious rage and resentment towards meeting his mother’s needs and he sees all women as his mother on some level. He believes he is working hard in the relationship to do the right thing, yet he finds no matter what he does, he slips up. He forgets to tell his partner important things, or finds a way to rubbish his partner or the relationship in someway. If he is asked why he ignored her he probably isn’t in touch with his resentment.
He feels guilty.
The man feels ambivalent about the relationship because of the unresolved feelings he had about loving his mother and feeling she wanted too much from him. He experiences his current relationship with the unresolved feelings he had as a child. It was too much for him.
The man finds it difficult to hold both his “love” and “hate” towards his partner. He has repressed the hate which also represses his loving feelings. He may feel unworthy of his partner’s love and want to leave her in order to protect her from his dark feelings. His life energy is blocked. He represses his feelings and energy or he directs all his energy into work. Men push their feelings down yet keep going in a particular kind of hidden depression.
The healing process
I would like to give some indications of how a couple can work with this dynamic in relationship counselling. The first thing to say is that we take the perspective of looking at issues as belonging to the relationship dynamic rather than the individual. So we look at the both the man and woman’s attitudes, behaviours and relationship patterns and how they fit together.
We look at why a woman has been unconsciously attracted to a man with a closed heart and what she needs to heal from her past family experience. We ask what both partners are attempting to work on in the relationship? We find that working with the relationship dynamic with both partners together is much more effective that individual counselling alone. The purpose of this article is to focus on the man’s relationship dynamic, exploring some of the challenges he faces from his childhood relationship with his mother.
He recognises the current behaviour patterns were learnt in the past.
Attraction between partners in part comes from an unconscious fit of ‘unfinished business’ from each person’s early family. It’s sobering to realise that both partners have recreated their early family situation in the current relationship. Realising this can cause a major shift in perspective as he sees that relationships are an unconscious union that gives him the opportunity to work things through in order to become emotionally whole. Rather than blaming his partner for not being the perfect parent to him, he begins to see how he experiences what is going on now through the eyes and feelings from the past.
The recognition of the connection between how he experiences his relationship now and how he felt in his early family-life makes the unconscious conscious. This stops him being controlled by the past. For many men it can be difficult to even conceive that there is a connection between his partner and his mother. It can just seem like psychobabble. There can be an investment in protecting the image he has of his parents. He needs to balance that his parents did the best they could and their lack of relationship had an impact on him. This needs careful work to the extent that it affects how he relates now with his partner.
He manages his fear
He learns how to manage his fear of being emotionally overwhelmed. He discovers his partner is much more emotionally robust that he imagines. As an adult he doesn’t need to placate her for his survival. He may wish to contribute to her happiness yet he realises that when she is upset it doesn’t mean that he has failed or that he needs to be over responsible. He is not responsible for her happiness.
He receives his partner’s emotional flow
He learns to listen to her emotional flow without taking what she says too personally. He is able to discern what he needs to take responsibility for and what belongs to her past. He discovers how to hear what she is saying on a feeling level rather than get caught in rationality disconnected from feeling.
He is willing to make adjustments to his attitudes and behaviour
He realises that his partner isn’t really wanting to criticise him or undermine him. What she is seeking is for her feelings to be received and acknowledged. She feels what needs attention in the relationship and what he needs to make an adjustment on.
He strengthens his male identity
He learns that his partner can’t make or break him or take away his masculinity. From this realisation he can be present and receive her when she is upset. He doesn’t need to defend his male identity as it’s not under threat. He gets the support of other men to strengthen his male identity and reconnect to his masculinity.
He reconnects to his feelings
He discovers how to express his feelings and needs. He notices when he disconnects from his partner and learns how to manage his emotions intelligently so he can take a time-out without abandoning his partner. He learns how to manage his vulnerability.
He integrates his dark side
What is emotionally repressed controls him. He learns to include his male wildness/dark side constructively in ways that bring life, energy and passion into the relationship. He expresses more range of feeling so there is room for love and for hate. He learns how to reconnect to feelings and open his heart. In effect he chooses to be in the relationship and his actions comes from his core rather than acting in reaction to his mother.
It takes time and effort to work on deeply ingrained and learnt patterns. It’s a process rather than a quick fix. Relationship counselling provides a good starting point as safe place to gain insights and explore the workings in a relationship. It’s a powerful process of recognising patterns learnt from the past, detoxifying resentments and gaining a new perspective on what the relationship is about. The felt experience of attending and working things through during and between sessions leads to the couple feeling more connected to each other and better able to address issues as they arise.
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About Richard Cole
Richard Cole is a Emotionally Focused Therapist based in Brighton/Hove.