What do you know about the man whose controlling mother offers approval only when he makes Mom #1….the man who lets his mother openly complain about his wife, tells Mom everything, and then takes Mom’s contrary advice at the expense of his wife’s input on all of it—money, career, parenting? How does he wean himself from her approval? And what happens if he doesn’t?
Ever notice the clinging, hand-holding, full-frontal-hugging, endless-kissing, crying-at-partings indicative of…a one-year-old and his mother? Our first passionate relationship is usually with Mom and/or Dad. And if it goes well, it forms the road map to Happily Ever After with our eventual mate.
But before we Go There, please read the following three statements*, and then pick which one reflects you (and then, your partner) the best:
A. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting close to me.
B. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others: I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.
These descriptions indicate your Attachment Style—the basic way you create and sustain a bond with a partner—and they were derived from behaviors originally observed between Mommas and their babies, and later backed up with observations of adult couples parting at airports. “A” refers to adults with secure attachment (56% of the adult population); “B”, avoidant (25%); and “C”, anxious/ambivalent (19%)—mimicking the percentages of security and insecurity among babies with their parents.
Although the past does not *have* to dictate the future, about 70% of infants maintain the same attachment style into their 20’s and beyond—and they learn it from the way their parents treated them as babies.
So, it can be a Very Good Thing to start life as a securely attached Momma’s Boy, or to marry a man who did. Not only are secure adults’ relationships more trusting, happy and lasting than others’, they’re more likely to handle inevitable problems appropriately. In contrast, the insecurely attached may pay so much attention to possible problems that they actually create them—bringing up conflicts destructively, and often refusing to be soothed no matter how their partner responds.
Continuing life as/with Momma’s Man is another matter. The central emotional task of marriage is creating a sense of I’ve-Got-Your-Back, We’re-In-This-Together Solidarity. And women’s inherited mating psychology is geared toward seeing *any* other woman’s high rank in her partner’s heart as a threat to that solidarity and her security. Women value being loved not only for its own sake—placing it ahead of all other criteria for marriage, everywhere in the world—but also because love signifies a partner’s *willingness* to provide and protect. A man who devotes his resources to someone else is, plainly put, useless as a spouse. And it’s well-established that men give their resources to the #1 person in their lives. So, if that’s Momma….
Which means two things: 1. I really hope your question was academic and not personal, because 2. although research usually hedges or gives a range of options, science shows one and only one solution to the Momma’s Boy problem:
The husband *must* side with his wife against his mother—letting everyone know that the wife is #1. Failure in this guarantees a loss of his marital happiness, and potential loss of the marriage itself.
It might be tough to convince your man of this, though, not only because of the training he’s received from Mom, but because men usually don’t see that they are making a choice. Ironically, research shows that most men who do all those things you listed in your letter, Sarah, do not think of themselves as putting Mom first. They just want everyone to get along; they see their role as pleasing both of the women they love, and are dumbfounded when it doesn’t work.
But Trying To Please Two Women Never Works—unless by “works” we mean the guy masochistically enjoys being the object of rage. To quote John Gottman, the master in this arena, “It is absolutely critical for the marriage that the husband be firm about [putting his wife first], even if he feels unfairly put upon and even if his mother cannot accept the new reality….he has to stand with his wife and not in the middle (emphasis added).”
Upshot? Men can’t wean themselves off Mom’s approval. They must Just Do It, making the wife #1. For instance, if your controlling mother-in-law makes a snide comment about you, your husband must man up and say he won’t hear anything negative about his wife. If something’s on his mind, he must tell you first, ask your opinion first, and take your input more to heart than his mom’s. If your mother-in-law offers unsolicited advice about where you should vacation, what he should eat, how to discipline the kids, etc., he must side with you: “That’s an interesting idea, Mom. Sarah and I will discuss all our options.” He should remain respectful to Mom—but he can no longer sit on the fence.
Sarah, it’s rare that science provides one and only one solution, and I wish there were more options. Because in a sense, this puts the power in the hands of your husband. Will he see what it will cost him to keep making his mom the primary woman in his life—and how he will benefit by putting you in your rightful, top place? Hopefully so. May he do the best thing for you and your marriage. It will be the right thing for him, too.
Thomas N. Bradbury and Benjamin R. Karney, for theiroutstanding textbook regarding Intimate Relationships, including attachment theory.
John Gottman, for the definitive longitudinal work on what makes marriages succeed and fail—and what to do about it.
D. C. van den Boom, for experimental research showing how to create secure attachment in children by educating the parents.
Everett Waters and others, for longitudinal research showing thatattachment styles are usually stable from infancy through adulthood.
All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., and LoveScience Media (2010; 2014).