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

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Words MARIE-CLAIRE DORK­ING and NI­COLE MOW­BRAY @MarieDork­ing @nicole­mow­bray

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.’

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