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1. ANNE'S DILEMMA The Man Who Won't Commit
Sonny and Anne sat on the front porch of his mother's house, talking in whispers. Anne felt almost beyond tears. Sonny sat beside her, confused.
"You'll never find a better woman than me," Anne was saying. "Except your mother, of course," she added, her anger breaking through to sarcasm.
"This isn't about my mother," Sonny said. He tried to explain, for what felt like the hundredth time. "So my mother relies on me. What's wrong with that? I'm her only son. She can't manage on her own. She needs to know I'm there for her."
Anne stood up, barely containing herself. "That's not what it's about! Your mother never lets you alone. She interrupts us day and night; you never say no to her." Anne walked toward the steps, pulling on her coat. "Go ahead, go take care of her! I've just about had it."
Sonny started after Anne, but then he stopped. He didn't know what to do. He knew he loved her, but . . . . "You're being silly," he said. "This isn't her fault."
Just then the front door opened, and Sonny's mother, Ruth, leaned halfway out, clutching a flowered robe around her.
"Sonny," she said, ignoring Anne, "I forgot to tell you . . . . the men to fix the lights are coming tomorrow afternoon."
Sonny stood up and put his arm around his mother. "That's good, Mom," he said. "I'm glad you're getting those bathroom lights fixed. That flickering is driving me crazy."
"So, you'll come maybe for lunch . . . . then, when they show up, you'll tell them what's wrong?"
"I've got to work tomorrow, Mom. The men will know what to do, just show them the lights."
"I hate to be alone with strange men here. It makes me so nervous."
"Okay, Mom. Call me when they come, and I'll talk to them."
Ruth's lip quivered; then she shrugged. "If that's the best you can do . . . . " She shook her head and went back inside.
Anne was halfway down the steps. She turned around. "I love you, Sonny, but I'm thirty-five. I can't wait forever."
Sonny was beginning to feel guilty and angry, and these feelings scared him. "If you let me get away," Anne was saying, "twenty years from now, you'll regret losing the love of your life. And twenty years from now, regret will be all you have. But now . . . .now you can do something about it."
"Anne," Sonny began, "What do you want me to say?"
"Make a decision. Say yes, say no, but don't keep me waiting like this."
Sonny stood, speechless. Something in him wanted to say no, just to get it over with. But, somehow, the word "regret" had struck a chord. Why couldn't he decide? He'd always been this way, and he hated it. It was so hard making decisions.
Anne sensed Sonny's desperation. She saw how stuck he was. She didn't want to leave him, but she just couldn't take this anymore. Something had to give. What could she do?
Anne's Had Enough
Anne first came to see me a few weeks after her confrontation with Sonny on his mother's porch. He was too stuck to look for help, but Anne wanted answers. And she wasn't afraid to see someone about it.
She radiated competence and control, and I wasn't surprised when she told me she had gone to Yale Law School. She wanted to talk to me about her fiancé, she said, sitting down in my big leather chair and crossing her legs without relaxing.
"It's not that I'm whining," she began, "but he won't let us set a date for the wedding. He says he loves me, but I just can't pin him down. He always puts me off."
"What does he say?"
"Well, he's always very busy. It didn't start out like this. When we first met, he called me every day. We had dinner every night. He was smart, funny, and crazy about me. I said to myself: This is the man! He wants children. I want children. Let's get on with it."
"So then . . . . " I suggested.
"And, so, well, nothing. We've settled into a once-a-week thing. We have fun when we're together. He says he loves me. But if I press him about marriage, he just puts me off."
"Is that something he does a lot," I asked, "put you off?"
Anne looked at me, suddenly a little less self-confident. She nodded.
"How does that make you feel?"
Anne recrossed her legs and found a corner of my office to make eye contact with. "I'll tell you, it really made me question myself as a woman." She stopped and sighed. "I tried to find out if I had offended him, done something to make him back off, but he denies it." She paused. "And then there's his mother," she added. "He's very close to his mother."
"Too close?" I asked, when she didn't go on.
"We hardly ever have time together that isn't interrupted. She calls him on his cell phone, and, if he doesn't pick up, she pages him on his pager, which is supposed to be for emergencies. Last week we were having dinner out, and she called. He let her whine for forty-five minutes. Can you believe it? Our date was ruined, just because one of her neighbors left his garbage cans out on the curb too long."
"You sound angry," I suggested.
"I'm furious," she admitted, and began to cry. "I mean, I'm the woman he loves. I should have a place in his life, not leftovers."
She pulled herself together with the help of a Kleenex and went on.
"So I confronted him," she continued. " 'You can't commit to me because you've never let go of Mom,' I told him. 'But now it's time to set limits with her.' He didn't like that!" She laughed, but her eyes were sad. "He said I didn't understand. Now I feel trapped. If I push, he gets angry. If I try to get too close or too loving, he backs away. It's just that he's so focused on taking care of her. 'She needs someone to talk to,' he tells me, then he lets her talk his ear off.
"But am I crazy, or what? His mother makes me feel like a betrayed wife. I don't want to get in the way of his relationship with his mother, but is this normal? He says I'm making too much of it. It's my problem."
"No, you're not overreacting," I said. "What you're experiencing is what a betrayed wife would experience: rejection, anger, hurt. And, since the 'other woman' is Sonny's mother, feeling that you can't win is natural."
"I don't want to waste my life trying to get Sonny to commit," she said. "I need a reality check. Is he stuck where he's at? Should I move on?"
I couldn't answer that, but I did want to leave her with some clarity about her situation.
"You're feeling frustrated and helpless, with nowhere to go," I said. "What I know as a clinician is that he is trapped. He, too, has nowhere to go. He's up against his Disloyalty Bind (described in the box below), and he can't figure any way out. His solution is to distance himself from you, because distancing himself from his mother produces too much guilt. Then he blames you for not being understanding enough.
"It's a terrible bind," I went on. "Unless he's willing to come for counseling, you have only two options: accommodate or break up. By accommodate, I mean stay connected to him but accept that Mom will always come first. Accommodation will likely make you feel resentful, and you may have to give up your dream of having a family, at least one where you would have a primary role. Sadly, breaking up becomes the reasonable alternative, if he's not willing to take a look at what's going on."
I paused. "When I share with women who come to see me what their men are up against, and therefore what they are up against, they become either relieved or depressed. The main thing I can do is make you aware of the importance of taking care of yourself and help you understand your options."
Anne was quiet for a while, thinking, taking it all in. Finally she gave me a little smile. "Being depressed isn't my style," she said, "so I guess I'll be relieved. What should I do now?"
When a MEM Wants a Wife
When a man is excessively bonded with his mother, what happens when he is looking for a wife? There are several common patterns; Sonny's story is one of the most common. He meets Anne, and initially he idealizes her. He cherishes her. He sweeps her off her feet. In this initial stage of courting, he is projecting onto Anne the very solicitous way he had learned to deal with his mother when he was a little boy. Then he discovers (unconsciously; he doesn't realize what is happening) that this new woman is competition for his mother, and the woman's got to go. Anne was once the object of his adoration. Now she becomes an object for his rejection. Naturally, she is devastated and confused. If she fights back by asking for clarity and commitment, he feels he's being pressured to be disloyal to his mother. Like a planet caught between two suns, the pull of his mother keeps him from getting close to Anne, while the pull of Anne is constant. This is what is so crazy-making for Anne. She knows that Sonny loves her. She can't understand what is keeping him from coming into her orbit.
I sometimes use the movie Psycho to dramatize the Disloyalty Bind. There is a particular sequence of scenes in this movie when Norman first meets Marion. He takes a liking to her, and his mother is already having a problem with it. (Of course, his mother exists only in Norman's mind, but he vocalizes her comments offstage, so that we and Marion can hear.) Marion asks him, "Why do you let her treat you like that?" and immediately his face changes. Now he sees Marion as a threat. The movie dramatizes the mechanism that drives the behavior of a MEM: first comes his innocent, enthusiastic (sexual) interest in the attractive woman, then the interest provokes his Disloyalty Bind with this mother, and finally the object of the interest (the woman) has to be destroyed. The movie shows all this in a graphic and literal way.
Anne realizes that Sonny is too bound to his mother, because his mother is still active in his life. The fact that Sonny is not free to make time for Anne is clarified by his mother's actual interruptions. More mysterious and difficult to grasp is that sometimes the mother is nowhere to be seen but still has the same influence. Even if a man's mother is deceased, for example, the man's feelings of disloyalty to her might still be operating, preventing him from getting close to other women.
Here is the heart of the mystery: The templates established by childhood relationships are an active overlay on adult relationships. This fact is fundamental to understanding why a man who was enmeshed with his mother in childhood behaves the way he does. The fact that we are all haunted by shadows from the past can be difficult to comprehend. Generally, other people's ghosts are easier to see than our own.
In the specific case of a MEM, the remnants of the guilty bond to his mother can be so powerful that the man is frozen in the past, whether he talks to his mother every day or not for decades. He thinks he wants a loving wife, children, the optimism and labor of family life. But the anxiety he feels when he gets close to achieving this goal shuts him down. He cannot commit. He cannot leave. He is stuck. Or he moves on to the next woman, convinced it is his current girlfriend, and not his own ghosts, that is the problem.
He might imagine that he longs for "the perfect woman," but every time he finds her, she becomes "not perfect." He loses interest, and he wants somebody else he can imagine will be perfect. The pattern is often cyclical: seeking the perfect partner, idealizing the women he finds, dealing with disillusionment, struggling with commitment, seeking a new partner, and so on.
This repetitive pattern is a reflection and consequence of the story of his relationship with his mother. He idealized her and felt the exhilarating wonderment of being so special. He also felt guilty and angry and wanted distance from her. However, she would not permit him to express these feelings, and he learned to bury them. Instead, all these "forgotten" feelings the guilt, the anger, the desire for distance come up from his unconscious, when, as an adult, he gets too close to a woman.
The enmeshed relationship with his mother was not his choice. It was forced on him by the overwhelming circumstance of being a very little boy with a very needy mother. Despite the thrill and pleasure, he also knows at some level that she has smothered his autonomy. All of the anger and disappointment that he contained then is projected onto his partner now, and his attraction to her is tempered by an unconscious avoidance of getting too close. He becomes ambivalent. If nothing changes, he will never experience the full masculine pride of making his own choices, of having his own wife, of fathering his own children.
He Can't Hear Her
Sonny had a beard and an easy smile. There wasn't a trace of the resentment that I often see when a woman "drags" her man in for counseling. I let Anne set the scene, and she covered the same ground for Sonny she had covered with me.
"I love you, Sonny," she finished. "Are you really going to let your mother ruin our happiness?"
"You're not being fair," Sonny protested. "I have to take care of Mom." Turning to me, he said, "Anne is making too much of this."
"What I hear her saying," I replied, "is that she wants you to set aside some time for just the two of you. She wants a special place in your life."
"Right," he agreed, pulling at his beard, then looking to see if he had pulled out anything.
"Don't you love me?" Anne asked, with a suggestion of tremor behind the boldness.
"It isn't that easy," Sonny replied, shrinking back into his chair. "You can't just push me like that. I have to be ready."
The session continued, as I let Sonny and Anne repeat and clarify their points of view. Sonny was so focused on defending his mother's needs that what Anne was saying to him just didn't seem to penetrate. In some very real sense, he couldn't hear her. My clinical assessment was that the best next move would be some individual work with Sonny.
A week later Sonny came back without Anne.
"Tell me how you met Anne," I said, thinking this might be an easy way to get started.
Sonny brightened immediately. "She was so beautiful," he said, "and so self-confident. She just blew me away!"
Sonny had met Anne at a Fourth of July party given by mutual friends. Their attraction was immediate and powerful. They withdrew from the group to talk. They held hands. They laughed. The rest of the party faded into irrelevance.
When Sonny's pager went off at ten p.m., he almost allowed himself to ignore it. He took down Anne's number as he was leaving, sent roses to her law office the next day, and called her that evening.
The next two months were a thrilling romantic carnival ride, the surprise of found love by two people old enough to appreciate it. Now work, even long hours of work, was sanctified by the knowledge that they would be meeting in the evening.
The crash seemed to come out of nowhere. He began to notice that Anne was a little too opinionated. He decided he didn't like her brown suits or her burgundy nail polish. He wished she wouldn't look so disappointed when his mother called. And she wanted to get engaged. She was pretty pushy about it.
He felt a kind of panic. He didn't want to say no to getting engaged, because he didn't want to displease her, but he just wasn't sure he wanted to commit. Even so, he didn't want to break up. He was caught in ambivalence.
"Tell me about your mother," I said, glad for the opportunity to explore the topic.
"She depends on me," Sonny said. "She always has."
"Even when you were little?" I asked.
"Yes," he agreed. "Even then."
His Mother's Only Friend
The growing emotional distance between Sonny's parents was marked by divorce when he was eight years old. His parents were amiable and acted like it was no big deal, but when his father was gone, Sonny felt the weight of his mother's lack of partnership in many ways.
His life with Mom didn't seem out of bounds at the time. Like most mothers, she insisted that he do his homework and help her with chores. He wasn't naturally inclined to study or gifted at academics, but his application was rewarded with achievement. He participated in some student activities, but he rarely hung out with classmates after school. There was nothing extreme in his life that would indicate to people a troubled childhood. But trouble was growing unnoticed.
He was his mother's only friend. Even before the divorce, she would talk to him about her issues with his father. She seemed to be unaware of what is appropriate to share with a little boy. At six years old he didn't understand what she was saying, but he did understand that she was having trouble, his father was part of the problem, and somehow he, Sonny, was supposed to help. He knew that she liked him to keep her company. She didn't have friends or interests. She had a boring job. She complained to him about her boss and her good-for-nothing brother, his Uncle James. And especially, she complained about his father.
He came to understand that his main job was to feed his mother's spirits. It was difficult for him to justify going out, even on weekends. In the eleventh grade, he dated a girl once, taking her for a burger and a movie, only to come home to find his mother sitting in front of a turned-off TV, not having eaten, asking sadly if he had had a good time. He still dated a little, because it was expected by his peers, but it was a joyless business. He used homework and chores as an excuse to avoid it.
He went to college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, so he could commute from home, and he stayed at Michigan for dental school. He got his own apartment when he began his dental practice, but many nights he still stayed in his old room in his mother's house.
A Place in His Heart
When a mother's emotional needs are satisfied only by her son, she will not be able to tolerate his natural separations. She will greet his efforts to venture outward with various forms of discouragement and disapproval. In some cases, this discouragement is blatant, but with Sonny it was more subtle. To a little boy, a lack of enthusiasm from his mother can be a strong message. Part of a mother's role is to encourage and tolerate healthy separation against the natural tendency of the child to cling. Further, she needs to see the value of the father in bonding with his son, because it is his father who will help him eventually to move out into the world. However, an enmeshed mother is not able to do this. Whatever she is thinking consciously, she unconsciously wants her little boy to stay home and take care of her.
A good childhood includes a natural, long process of weaning, where the son becomes more and more connected to others and less and less connected to his mother. A mother who allows her son to overattune to her needs at the cost of his own is setting up a lifetime of difficulties for him. A conscientious mother and an involved father may worry about how to guide this weaning process, realizing that good closeness at five may be bad closeness at ten. However, the boy will generally set his own pace of separation, if he is responding to his own needs and not his mother's.
The father is important here. He is the "bridge" for the son out of the early mother-son bond into manhood. In Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men, Steve Biddulph points out that the natural process of development for boys makes the mother primary in the boy's first five years, then the father between the ages of five and twelve, and then male mentors in adolescence. Inevitably, when I see mother-son enmeshment, there is a distant or absent father. One common story goes like this: The father wants to escape from his wife and uses his son as a placating sacrifice: Take him and let me go. That this scenario is usually unconscious doesn't make it any less real. Or any less destructive.
The father and mother must form a bond with each other that keeps the son at an age-appropriate distance from his mother and leads over time to a young man with a yearning in his heart, knowing at least in his intuition that he must go out into the world to satisfy it. He will naturally find this quest exciting and joyful, even if challenging.
This was not the case for Sonny. He was "stuck" with his mother. He was going through the motions with Anne, but the joy was not there. In the depths of his heart, Sonny was unhappy and wanted freedom. But it was easier for him to let things stay unchanged. Guilt trumps desire. The price of freedom disappointing his mother was too much for him.
In the HBO TV series The Sopranos, the head gangster, Tony Soprano, is destructively enmeshed with his mother. She is a controlling, dominating force in his life. When he encounters her, he feels guilty and inadequate, belittled and diminished. Then he becomes frustrated and enraged. Frequently he is shown expressing the way he feels in violent acts, but with other people, not his mother. Although the conflict between Tony and his mother is exaggerated, it illustrates how a MEM will sometimes express his feelings of guilt and inadequacy through explosive anger at other people.
Anne Meets Dad and Mom
It was the third month of their relationship, and Anne was pleased when Sonny invited her to a family barbecue. Meeting the family seemed like progress.
Almost the first person they recognized after they arrived was Sonny's father.
"Hi, Dad," Sonny said. "This is Anne."
She smiled, looking radiant. His father returned the smile and took her in.
"The pleasure is all mine, honey," he said. He offered his hand, and she accepted it. He turned to Sonny without letting go of Anne. "I'm glad you're here, Sonny. Your mother's on the warpath again. Why don't you go over and take care of her, the way you do? I'll introduce Anne around for you."
Sonny, alone now, went to find his mother. She was sitting by herself, looking cross. She brightened when he came up.
"Hi, Mom," he said. "How's it going?"
"Let me tell you what your idiot uncle has done this time," she began. Sonny sighed and sat down.
Half an hour later, he managed to slip away. He joined Anne, who was talking passionately to a circle that had gathered around her. He enjoyed her arm coming around his waist, but he was worried. I've got to get this over with, he thought.
"Anne," he interrupted when he could. "I'd like you to meet Mom." She let him lead her away.
His mother was sitting in the same spot where he had left her. "This is Anne," he said. "You remember, the girl I've been dating."
His mother took her time, as if slow to recognize them together. "Hello, Anne," she said.
"Sonny has told me how close you two are," Anne said. "I think that's wonderful."
"Sonny knows how to take care of his mother," the elderly woman replied. She said no more.
Sonny shrank inside. He felt ashamed. He wanted to get away.
"We've got to go," he said, then turned and made Anne say good-bye over her shoulder.
They drove home in silence. He dropped her off and refused to come in. Later he wouldn't acknowledge to her that anything had happened. But he was more distant. He made excuses. He saw her less often.
Sonny Opens His Eyes
Often a MEM can't see that he can continue to have a relationship with his mother while beginning to develop an independent relationship with himself and then a relationship with someone else. He holds in his mind a rigid either/or viewpoint: "I either have to be with my mother, or I have to reject her. And I can't reject her, because I have too much guilt and I am terrified of feeling disloyal. I can't even think about it. You don't understand how bad it feels."
This is the core dilemma for a MEM. The inappropriate loyalty and devotion are intense. There's guilt and fear of retaliation connected to any attempt to separate. It becomes easier to stay put and live an ambivalent and compromised life.
I wanted to help Sonny get some perspective on his relationship with Anne. Could I help him see the bind that she was in, the fact that if she pressured him, he pulled away, but if she didn't pressure him, nothing would happen?
"Anne is overreacting," Sonny said to me. "I just haven't made up my mind. There are lots of wonderful women out there. How do I know Anne is the one?"
"What qualities does Anne lack, then?" I asked. "I don't know."
"She's told you she won't wait forever," I persisted. "Do you understand why?"
"I guess so," he conceded. "Her biological clock is ticking. She wants children."
"Are you afraid of losing her?"
"I'm not sure."
"She thinks your relationship with your mother is a problem."
"Mom's not real enthusiastic about Anne," Sonny conceded.
"What Anne is really concerned about is your mother's control of your time. She can page you night and day, and you never say no to her."
"Well, what else can I do?" he said, sounding miserable.
"You can set boundaries with her," I said. "You can limit the circumstances when she is allowed to page you, for example."
He just looked at me and pulled at his beard.
Sonny was stuck, torn between his own wishes and his mother's pull. I couldn't tell him what to think. He needed to discover for himself that his dilemma wasn't about Anne but his own ambivalence. I was persistent in his therapy to help him see this, and in time he began to get the point.
"You know," he said to me one day, "I don't think my mother wants me to get married. She wouldn't like any girlfriend I had. She never liked my girlfriends, not even when I was a little kid. She wants me to take care of her for the rest of her life."
This was the critical moment of insight I had been waiting for. It was a first breaking of the hard ice of his denial.
"Do you know what you just said?" I asked him.
"No," he admitted, looking a little shocked at my excitement. "What did I say?"
"You said 'I don't think my mother would like any girlfriend I had. She doesn't want me to get married. She wants me to take care of her for the rest of her life.' How does it feel to say that?"
"It feels okay," he said, a little tentative. He grinned. "It feels scary," he admitted. "I don't want to hurt my mother."
"You're not hurting her. You're just talking to me."
"Still, I'm all she's got."
"You don't need to be constantly on call for her. She's not decrepit. She doesn't have to be as dependent on you as she is now."
"Mom won't let me off that easy."
"This may come as a shock, Sonny, but you don't need her permission. That's what 'setting boundaries' is about. She will accept less of you. What choice has she got?"
"She'll be furious."
"Maybe so," I agreed.
"She'll sulk for months. She won't speak to me."
"When you were little, that was a catastrophe. But now it isn't. In fact, it will give you more time to be with Anne." He considered this and smiled, but it was a worried smile. "You know what, Sonny? Believe it or not, your mom can take care of herself. And she will if she has to."
He nodded, uncertain. I hoped he would think over what I'd just said.
Soon after that Sonny reported to me about a phone call with his mother that had opened his eyes.
"Mom wanted me to come over to help her with something in the basement, and I said I could come on Saturday. It was difficult not to say 'I'll be right over,' but I did it. And guess what? She immediately began to cry and said I didn't care about her, now that I had a girlfriend. I was amazed. Wow, I thought. She really does want to control my life. I never saw this before. Just like you've been trying to tell me. She didn't miss a beat. I was not supposed to put her off, no matter what other plans I had."
"What are you feeling about the phone call?" I asked. "I don't know. Of course, I still love my mother. But I got mad, and I think I'm still a little mad."
"Why are you angry?"
"She made me feel like I don't exist. That what I want doesn't matter."
"And that makes you feel angry?"
"Angry and sad," he admitted. "It made me feel lonely."
"Maybe you felt irrelevant or dismissed?"
"Yes," he said. "Irrelevant. Dismissed. That's exactly it."
One day Sonny came to see me and started to talk as soon as he got in the door.
"Remember the Labor Day party my uncle always has?"
"I think you mentioned that last year," I said.
"Right," he said. "Well, we went back last week, and it was amazing. My father comes up, and he says 'Why don't you go over and talk to your mother?' Just like that. Just like he did last year."
"Maybe he's done it all your life," I suggested.
"I guess so," he agreed. "But I never noticed it like this before. I was amazed, and I said 'No, I'm not going to do that. I've got Anne over here to talk to.' And he just looked at me for a minute, and then he walked away. He didn't like it! He didn't talk to me again the whole day."
"How did that feel to you?"
"I was okay with it. I went over and put my arm around Anne, and I felt completely fine. I said hello to my mom later, but I didn't let her rope me into listening to a long list of complaints. I wanted to relax and have a good time."
"I'm impressed," I said. And I was.
Finally Sonny faced the bitter task of setting boundaries with his mother. Of course, after all his therapy work, it turned out to be "easy." No catastrophes occurred. His mother grumbled and sulked. As he predicted, she refused to talk to him for a few months, but in the end she could do nothing but give in. He had to put up with her disappointment. It was a loss. He was no longer "golden" in her eyes. In return, he could actually plan a life with Anne, and they became engaged.
Sonny's mother never forgave Anne for taking her boy. They visit her once a month. The visits are rather strained. Sonny calls her once a week. He won't allow her to criticize Anne during the phone calls, which he limits to fifteen minutes. Other calls are taken by voice mail. Lonely and seeking other outlets, she has become active in her church and finds supportive acquaintances there.
In the chapters to follow, we will consider how mother-son enmeshment looks for other men. For example, Doug was a womanizer; Tony could commit to his partner but to nothing else; Sam was a cybersex addict; and Father Mark had a problem with shoplifting, fooled around with his female parishioners, and had a food addiction. All were slaves to their unconscious ghosts, until therapy set them free.
Copyright © 2007 by Kenneth M. Adams, Ph.D., and Alexander P. Morgan