While all families and relationships have various dynamics, there are times when a relationship between a mother and her son can become toxic — having a far-reaching impact on his development, his marriage to his spouse, between his parents, or with his mother’s spouse. Fortunately, there are ways to heal these relationships and establish healthy boundaries.
There are a variety of dynamics that may exist between a mother and her son, however, when there is a lack of boundaries and unhealthy patterns, the relationship can become toxic.
A toxic relationship between a mother and her son can harm not only the marriage of the mother, but also the relationship between the son and his spouse, or the ability to find a spouse.
Even though a toxic mother-son bond can cause damage to the lives of those involved, healing is possible through setting boundaries and working with a marriage and family therapist.
We’ve all heard the term “mama’s boy” before, and while that may sound cute and innocent, it can have a detrimental impact on both his parent's marriage and his own. When a mother is overbearing or overprotective it can cause a man to face hurdles as an adult due to learned behavioral patterns of being dependent upon his mother. This can cause a “failure to launch” situation in which a man still lives with his mother as an adult, facing struggles in forming autonomy and a healthy sense of self-identity.
Consequences of an unhealthy “mama's boy” relationship
When the dynamic between a mother and her son becomes unhealthy, it can cause him to depend on his mother for things he should no longer be depending on her as an adult. This could interfere with his marriage if he turns to his mother for advice and decision-making in life, rather than his wife. Many times, these decisions impact the lives of his wife, and this can cause marital conflict as the wife feels like she is not his top priority, and even as if she must compete with her mother-in-law. A son’s mother may also view any other woman in his life as a threat who can take him away from her.
The overprotective mother
In addition to “mama's boy” relationship dynamics, another unhealthy relationship pattern between a mother and her son occurs when she is overprotective of him. She may find it difficult to allow her son to grow up and leave the nest.
This can hold him back in terms of healthy psychological development and create difficulties in his transition into adulthood. These psychological struggles and issues in establishing independence from his mother in a healthy way can spill over into his other relationships, including his romantic partnerships. There are a variety of issues that can arise in a marriage when an overprotective mother is involved, and it can lead to pushing out his romantic partner and becoming over-involved in his relationship with his spouse.
In cases where a mother doesn’t feel like she is getting the emotional support she needs from her spouse, she may lean on her son for the kind of support she is seeking from her marriage. This can lead to an unhealthy, enmeshed relationship between a mother and her son. When a relationship becomes enmeshed, there is a thin line between what is appropriate and what is considered unethical and/or abusive.
It can also create a greater divide between a mother and her spouse because rather than working to strengthen their bond and emotional support, she is substituting it with an unhealthy relationship with her son. This only creates more discord in family dynamics. It can even prevent her son from finding a partner of his own because he feels guilty about leaving his mother or placing anyone else before her.
Difficulties in setting healthy boundaries
When a toxic relationship exists between a mother and son, it may be difficult for both parties involved to set healthy boundaries. A mother may try to hold onto her son as opposed to letting him leave home and start a life of his own, and a son may find it difficult to detach from her. When he does find a romantic partner or get married, this can cause marital discord. One of the best ways to heal a toxic mother-son relationship is by establishing and upholding healthy boundaries.
Other causes of toxic mother-son relationships
There are a variety of circumstances that can fuel unhealthy boundaries between a mother and her son. We’ve already covered a few. In addition to the circumstances mentioned above, the following factors can fuel toxic mother-son relationships:
- Mental health disorders.
- Personality disorders.
- When either the mother or son is disabled and requires care.
- When there has been a death or absence of a father figure in their lives.
- Fear of having an empty nest.
- Various forms of abuse.
- Substance use disorders.
How to heal a toxic mother-son relationship
Regardless of the circumstances fueling a toxic relationship between a mother and her son, there are ways to heal the toxicity and establish a healthier relationship moving forward. Working with a marriage and family therapist is one of the first steps. A family therapist can help a mother and her son explore the dynamics between them that aren’t working in their best interests and offer them support and coping skills to detach from each other in healthy ways, as well as coping skills for any of the symptoms that are fueling the toxicity.
Why healing is so important
It’s important to work toward establishing a healthy mother-son relationship because it can determine how a man thinks of himself and women as he develops into an adult. There is also a direct impact on the relationship he will have with his future spouse, as we often seek partners who remind us of our parents, subconsciously, to rectify issues from the past.
The sooner this relationship is healed, the better the chances of it not having long-lasting detrimental impacts on a son as he grows into a man. Other ways a man’s relationship with his mother impacts his life and marriage as an adult include:
- How he handles stress.
- Conflict resolution.
- The way he treats his spouse and other people.
- His decision-making skills.
- How a household or family is managed.
- The type of parent he is to his children.
- His ability to become vulnerable and intimate with another person.
A man needs to have a mother figure in his life for healthy psychological development. When the relationship between the two becomes toxic, it can undermine his development and prevent him from living the autonomous adult life he deserves. Setting healthy boundaries and working with a marriage and family therapist can help to heal these types of relationships and equip each person involved with the tools and coping skills they need to live healthier happier lives.
- Journal of family communication. Discourse of survival: Building families free of unhealthy relationships.
- Psychology Today. Mothers and Sons: How Close is Too Close?
- Perspectives in psychiatric care. Intervention techniques and unhealthy family patterns.
- The New York Academy of Sciences. Male adolescent rites of passage: Positive visions of multiple developmental pathways.