When a mother’s love burns too brightly

A man has a lot to gain if he has a strong bond with his mum. But ‘smotherhood’ can have a negative impact on his relationships with women, says Ailin Quinlan.

LOVE-LORN Ben Affleck has turned to mum Christine for support as he struggles to come to terms with the trauma of divorce from wife Jennifer Garner.

But the Hollywood A-lister is not alone in having a loyal mother, Matt Damon has Nancy, Justin Timberlake’s often photographed with Lynn, while the muscle-bound, honey-tongued Matthew McConaughey is regularly seen out and about with his beloved Mary Kathlene.

These guys all have one big thing in common – they have a strong relationship with their mums.

Closer to home we have plenty of high-profile men happy to be seen in public with mum — broadcaster and journalist Brendan Courtney describes his mother Nuala as his “best friend”, while top Irish player Rob Kearney credits his success to his mum Siobhan.

The stereotypical Irish mammy is a formidable, flinty-eyed, aproned female who, however, utterly dotes on her grown-up boy, shouldering the responsibility for every aspect of his life – often to the extreme of ironing his underwear — while proudly complaining that he can do nothing for himself. 

Such mammies will often, ironically, expect their daughters to be fiercely self-sufficient and independent.

However, whether they’re stereotypical ‘mammy’s boys’ or simply modern, mature, well-balanced adult males, these men appear to have an enviable relationship with their mothers.

The single most frequent problem in the mother-son relationship is over-nurturing says senior clinical psychologist Dr Keith Gaynor. If a man’s mother did everything for him as a child then, logically, that’s how he will then expect to be treated for the rest of his life.

“His expectation will be that his wife or partner will do everything for him because to him, love is around ‘doing things for me’.” 

Needless to say, this creates conflict, and he will end up pondering, somewhat sadly, why so few women fit into the old template.

“I’ve seen situations where the mother-son dynamic is not working — if it’s over-dependent or too cold, the son feels unloved, and can find it hard to go into relationships and accept love later on,” Gaynor reports.

“However, if that dynamic is overly nurturing and he’s going around there every day for his lunch, we usually end up seeing the daughter- in-law who’s tearing her hair out.”

The old idea that we marry our mother can come true, he says: “If a man is insecure and anxious he may end up with someone who mirrors the emotional relationship he had with his mother.”

The ideal balance, says Gaynor, is lots of nurturing early on — and lots of independence at the appropriate time.

As a man settles down with his new partner in his 20s or 30s, he and his mother will need to set boundaries acknowledging this new relationship, he explains.

“The relationship with the mother doesn’t end, but it will be different.

“A new relationship will develop. Sometimes boundaries will have to be discussed, even in a healthy relationship where everything works.

“The age of 25-35 is often a period of adaptability as son moves from one relationship to another and mum doesn’t inhabit the same role she is used to.

That’s a big change, he says, and for some parents, the empty nest syndrome is a real issue. However parents will usually navigate such issues successfully.

“It’s back to the same thing of having the conversation and allowing things to be articulated.” And of course, a man’s mother can play a positive role in his new relationship – but it’s a new and different one.

First of all it’s important to have a good relationship wither daughter-in-law. And secondly it’s good to be supportive.

“She can be a fount of wisdom. Mum has been down the road before, she is the granny and the guide.

“She has bought houses, reared children, lost jobs and suffered bereavement or stress,” says Gaynor.

Importantly, a man’s mum will know when to offer support — or not. But above all else, says Gaynor, mum has to understand that the first person her son will now call or listen to is his wife or partner.

“Mum has to adapt to being the second person he calls.”

Close, loving relationships between mothers and sons are rooted in a primal connection which, according to the experts, begins in infancy and has a potentially enormous impact on their lives and loves.

A strong relationship with mum is crucial to the emotional health of every son and daughter, influencing all future relationships.

According to psychologist Fergal Rooney at St John of God’s Hospital in Dublin, the early mother-son connection impacts, he says, not only on a man’s emotional health and ability to communicate later in life, but even more importantly, on his attitude to women and his ability to form healthy adult relationships.

Put it this way, the quality of a man’s early attachment to mum is one of the first things he looks for when a new client presents with relationship or emotional difficulties.

“The mother/son relationship comes up regularly because it’s fundamental to someone’s emotional and psychological development.

“Generally mothers are the primary care-giver, so the person to whom an infant attaches is typically the mother.

“Among the things I look for is the quality of that attachment,” explains Rooney, a senior counselling psychologist.

Keith Gaynor sees the relationship as central. 

“The relationship with the mother between the ages of nought and three is everything. It’s very important that children have a secure attachment (to their mother).

“If something interrupts it or gets in the way of it, they become anxious,” he says.

Why has the mother-son dynamic such a powerful influence on a man’s attitude to women?

It’s obvious, say psychologists, because a male’s very first relationship with a woman is with his mum.

Up to age 15 or 20 the mother-son connection remains the primary relationship with a female outside of those with teachers, sisters or friends.

For the man this becomes the initial template of what a woman is, says Gaynor.

“In most families, this is a warm, comforting relationship but it can also be critical or picky. When the relationship is good it provides stability and security,” he explains, adding that it also builds self-esteem.

The quality of that early relationship can determine how a person is able to “manage themselves on an emotional or psychological level in their adult lives,” says Rooney, adding that it’s here that the roots of a person’s ability to form relationships in later life are established:

“There’s very powerful research showing a direct connection between the type of attachment we have to our mother and the person we settle down with.” 

So if mother is highly critical or unkind, a man will bring that expectation of unkindness or difficult connectivity into his adult relationships.

“A positive warm healthy relationship will be brought into his next relationship. If it was a cold, nasty, aggressive or critical relationship, he will bring that with him too,” warns Gaynor.

From mum’s perspective, a healthy attachment must be one of “mothering” as opposed to “smothering,” Rooney observes.

“A secure attachment is the bedrock of good emotional living.

“It allows the young man to progress through life and go through the necessary stages in terms of establishing himself as an individual and separating from parents and becoming more independent.

“When the relationship with mother goes well, it enables this to happen naturally.

“However, a smothering or over-nurturing relationship, or conversely, a distant attachment, can result in a man who is anxious or insecurely attached, who is less able to go out and form independent relationships with other women.

“At an emotional level, inconsistency creates a vulnerability, which we carry throughout our lives. The attached style we have very early in life will be the attachment style in adulthood.”

For a potential partner, the quality of a man’s connection with his mum can be a fairly reliable indicator of how he will behave in this new, adult relationship.

“A good (healthy) relationship with mum is a positive sign,”says Rooney. 

“Because the man will have greater emotional intelligence, a greater sense of security and may be more secure in his understanding of himself and how he fits into the world.”

Mother knows best

For mother-of-four Caitriona, now separated after more than 15 years of marriage, one of the big problems was the guilt her husband seemed to feel towards his mother.

“My mother-in-law was a very anxious person and my husband always felt he had to mind her. Anything she wanted she just had to call and he would go running after her.

“It impacted on every aspect of our lives. She always took priority over kids and me.

“We were both working, and weekend time was important. Yet, time after time, she would call at the weekend, and I’d be left alone at an event or out with the children so that he could run to his mother’s side,” she says, adding that this was never a household crisis but simply her mother-in-law being nervous of a noise in the garden.

“It got to a stage where I felt so angry towards her and him that I couldn’t be around her and I made arrangements excluding him as I knew what would happen each time.

“It often felt like I was the outsider and she was his main family. Eventually the kids stopped expecting him to be around too.”

Helen has been with her partner Jim for 12 years. They have two children. Though Jim is very attached to his mum, she says it’s never been a problem in their relationship.

“His mum lives about a three-hour drive away, so he only gets to visit her about once a month. He always come back laden with home-baked food, which we all enjoy. I have a full-time job, which leaves very little time for cooking.

“I know Jim is happiest when he is at home with his mum, getting spoilt just as he did when he was a boy. Maybe it’s safe place for him to be, away from the pressures of a young family and work.

“Overall I feel I benefit from his strong connection to his mum. He is very supportive and tuned into my needs. And there is never a problem if I want to visit my parents. I see it as a win-win”.

* Names have been changed



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