What’s his mother done to him?
You can tell a lot about a man’s behaviour from the way he was brought up – and the relationship he has with his mother in particular, is responsible for more than you might imagine
AS GEMMA FLIPPED open her boyfriend Chris’s suitcase, she was surprised by the colour-coded rows of folded jumpers, divided by layers of tissue. In Berlin for a romantic mini-break, Gemma couldn’t comprehend this neat-freak system as the work of her messy boyfriend. But Chris hadn’t packed the suitcase – it was the work of his mother.
Mothers-in-law: we laugh about them, we moan about them, but scratch beneath the surface and there’s a far more complex psychology at play. The rst voice a baby boy hears and the rst face he recognises is that of his mother. As he gets older, his mother’s relationships with men – husband, father, friends – are the most compelling examples of how men interact with women. This has a pivotal impact on a son’s personality, behaviour and selfesteem, and can determine not only what he thinks about himself but also what he thinks about women in general.
‘His mother is the rst woman a boy loves,’ says Kate Stone Lombardi, author of The Mama’s Boy Myth (R277, Penguin Putnam). ‘Therefore, much of the way a man views women is shaped by this foundational relationship.’ So what does this mean for you?
The smother mother
Relationship psychologist Jacqui Marson predicts that a man with an anxious or overbearing mother, like Gemma’s boyfriend, will both be attracted to that kind of relationship – because that’s what he knows as love – and repelled by it. ‘He may be inconsistent in his behaviour,’ she says. ‘At rst he may seem loving and attentive, but later he may become unavailable. Suddenly he has a lot on at work and you can’t get hold of him.’ She says often sons of smother mothers become workaholics, possibly to escape the fussing at home. But Kate says there are positive personality traits that can emerge, too. ‘If a mother’s relationship with her son is hands-on in a positive, healthy way, it’s the best thing that can happen to boys,’ she says. ‘They’ll do better in school, form stronger friendships and have better mental health. They tend to have emotional intelligence and strong communication skills. These are guys who like women, and who can communicate well with them.’
However, if the relationship is more overbearing than healthy, there’s a chance he may inherit his mother’s neurotic ways. Something Susie, 34, a GP, identi es in her husband, Ben. ‘He speaks to her every day – she goes nuts if she can’t get hold of him,’ Susie says. ‘He nds her sti ing, but caters to her every whim. She was constantly fussing over him and his brother when they were growing up, and as a result he’s a worrier – turning the smallest thing into a crisis. He runs a busy ER department, but she still doesn’t think he’s as capable as he is.’
The distant or absent mother
Surprisingly, a man who has a distant mother, either emotionally or physically, may experience a similar impact
to that of a smother mother. Jacqui says, ‘He may have felt insecure – her distance might have left him confused about a ection. He will likely crave the loving closeness he didn’t get, but on the ip side, too much intimacy might make him retreat.’ Kate agrees: ‘If a mom pushes her son away perhaps believing he needs to toughen up , the lesson he’s learned is that the woman he loves and is dependent on has pushed him away. Is it any wonder those boys often grow up with commitment and anger issues?’ Kate says that boys with distant moms often have problems with relationships. ‘They might not trust women. If a boy really dissociates himself from his mom, he tends to have a more fragile sense of what it means to be a man, which can get internalised as contempt for women.’
The Stepford mother
Kate refers to this as ‘little prince syndrome’, warning that men who put their moms on a pedestal can enter adulthood with a disproportionate sense of themselves. ‘He may believe the world will worship him like she did.’ Jacqui agrees: ‘He could be a bit of a narcissist, but probably underneath there’s an insecurity.’ And if you’re dating the son of a supermom? ‘ ou may nd it hard to compete, as there’s only room for one on that pedestal. He may be a high achiever, but fragile. And he may expect a certain amount of adoration from you because that’s what love is like to him.’ The success of your relationship depends on whether you’re happy to stay second-incommand, which may not be all bad – a groundbreaking 2 study by Harvard niversity found that men with a close childhood bond to their mother do better at work and earn an astonishing $87 000 (about R1 million) a year more than men with ‘uncaring mothers’. The study also suggested a strong mother son relationship helps prevent men from developing dementia in old age.
The single mother
‘The main love should be between parents,’ Jacqui says. ‘But when one parent’s needs aren’t being met by the other, or the relationship no longer exists, that parent often forms an attachment with the child. And that relationship, in a sense, becomes that of a couple .’ There’s nothing innately wrong with that kind of attachment, but many women nd it di cult to cope with their partner having such an intimate mother son bond. However, Kate has an opposing view. ‘There’s a stigma around mother son closeness,’ she says. ‘The fear is that boys who are close to their moms will be sissies. This isn’t true. If a boy has a healthy, close relationship with his mom, he will have an easier time with intimacy and relationships with women.’
Jacqui has advice if you’re dating the son of a single mom. ‘Avoid getting into a power struggle with his mom – he’ll be torn.’ That’s something Lucy, 2, has had to accept. Her boyfriend’s dad left home before he was born. ‘I did worry he’d have a warped view of relationships, as his mom has been single ever since,’ she says. ‘But he’s more sensitive towards women than most guys. He doesn’t like leaving his mom on her own, particularly at Christmas, but I understand, so we spend it apart.’
The mother who was wronged
The adult behaviour of a son whose mother was treated badly by his father will be more about the beliefs he may have picked up on from childhood, Jacqui says. ‘This can subconsciously a ect his actions as a man. He might be protective of women, thanks to an undercurrent of guilt that tells him all men are bad, or he could act in the same way his father did.’ Louisa, 2 , believes her boyfriend, an, would never be unfaithful, as a result of his dad’s in delity. ‘Seeing his mom go through the pain of that really a ected him,’ she says. ‘If he hears that one of his friends has been unfaithful he gets angry.’ Equally, the son of a mother who was unfaithful may make him suspicious of women. Jacqui says, ‘In his head there’s an unwritten rule that tells him not to trust women. He may need constant reassurance from you, and in some cases become jealous or possessive.’