EXAMINING THE DYSFUNCTIONAL MATERNAL RELATIONSHIP
Everyone has a mother. They bring us into the world, give us care and comfort in our earliest days, and guide us as we develop and grow. Almost without exception, we can rely upon our mothers to worry about us, to look out for and care about us, and to always have our best interests at heart.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this maternal connection is essential. It begins with a close bond that forms instinctively while the child is still in the womb, and develops as the child learns and grows. In fact, the maternal bond is so thoroughly entwined with a child’s development that a number of troublesome mental health issues can be traced to it breaking down.
However, a strong maternal bond is not always desirable. Just as the absence of maternal bonding can impede development, so too can a bond that overpowers and overrides the normal course of maturation.
Our reliance upon our mothers is near total at birth and should wane over time. We count on our mothers (or caregivers in a similar role) to guide us and teach us as we grow and eventually learn to take care of ourselves.
This is an important process in human development, as it is in the wake of this growing independence that our identity and self-image emerge. As we mature, we embrace greater autonomy, and establish emotional boundaries that divest us of our reliance upon our mothers. Although this does not actually change the nature of the maternal bond, some may perceive it that way, and seek to subvert the process.
A mother, for example, may reject the idea that her son is mature enough to handle tasks on his own, and undermine his emerging autonomy by insisting upon doing everything for him. In this scenario, her intent is not to hamper his development, but simply to be the best mother possible by providing all of her son’s needs. In her son’s infancy, this kind of behavior made her a dedicated and caring mother, so it may be hard for the mother to recognize any negatives arising from continuing to do so.
However, it is precisely for this reason that dysfunction can arise. Because the mother’s intentions are good, she is unlikely to recognize even the potential for negative consequences. The effect her “smothering” behavior has upon her son is not immediately apparent, and often won’t show up for years, when the relationship is truly enmeshed.
Unfortunately, in a scenario such as this, the son is also likely to recognize his mother’s good intentions, and will therefore feel guilt or shame for even trying to assert boundaries between them. Because he is unable to develop his own autonomy, his personal identity and self-image remain so closely affiliated with his mother’s, that he cannot clearly distinguish between his needs and hers.
This is enmeshment, a dysfunctional relationship with devastating consequences for the son.
OUT OF BOUNDS
Often, cases such as these begin with a mother’s own unresolved childhood issues. It may be that, having faced a similar upbringing, she will come into her maternal role needy and emotionally underdeveloped, completely unaware that she is meeting her own emotional needs by attending to her son’s. It may also be exacerbated by the absence (emotional or physical) of a father figure, leading the mother to rely more heavily upon her son to meet her emotional needs. The greater her need, the fewer boundaries she will allow to be established between them.
This relationship outside of normal boundaries will not seem aberrant to the son, as it is the only kind of maternal relationship he knows. Even as he physically matures and sees his peers take on greater autonomy, he will still believe that his purpose is to attend to his mother’s happiness rather than his own. His own natural desires will bring about feelings of guilt and shame, eventually leading to frustration and anger.
Not only will these feelings arise whenever he attempts to form relationships with others, but his lack of experience establishing emotional boundaries will make it difficult for him to do so. He will likely seem controlling or domineering, and have difficulty respecting the boundaries of others. His poorly-developed social skills may repel others, rendering him an outcast. He will struggle to allow other women into his life, and when he does, it will almost certainly be a similarly enmeshed relationship.
Ultimately, his detachment from his own personal desires will keep those needs from ever being met, and will keep him from living a life of happiness and fulfillment.
Unless he is able to receive treatment, and finally recognize and begin to resolve the effects of his enmeshment.
UN-MESHING THE ENMESHED
At Next Chapter, we commonly treat dependencies that arise as the result of unresolved personal trauma. While the dysfunction of an enmeshed maternal relationship may well lead to drug, alcohol, or sex/love addiction, it is also a form of dependency itself. It’s also one that we are ideally suited to treat.
Not only does Next Chapter have a great deal of experience untangling enmeshed maternal relationships, but our program also includes one of the industry’s highest degrees of family treatment as well. Because we require our clients’ families to participate in weekly family therapy, we are better able to recognize and address enmeshment as part of a client’s overall treatment.
Like every condition we treat, enmeshment is easier to unravel the sooner it is treated. Unfortunately, by the time a client comes to us for treatment, it may only be a part of the issues they are facing.
Thus, to help people recognize and curtail enmeshment in maternal and other relationships, we’ve published this article which lists the various symptoms and suggests ways for the enmeshed to begin establishing boundaries.
For more information about Next Chapter, visit nextchaptertreatment.com or call 561-563-8407 today.