During infancy, we develop strong emotional bonds with our mothers – and of course we do. Our mothers feed us and hold us and rock us to sleep. We rely on them for love and support and positive attention. As we grow older, we learn to set and maintain healthy personal boundaries with our mothers. We still look to them for support and comfort, and we maintain strong emotional bonds with them for the remainder of our lives. But we also become emotionally autonomous, learning to regulate and take responsibility for our own personal feelings. Boundaries help us to create a strong sense of individuality.
Lack of Personal Boundaries
When an individual grows older and finds that he is not able to emotionally separate himself from his mother, the two may develop an enmeshed relationship. The son may attempt to set boundaries, only to find that he is completely emotionally entangled to his mother. They may live in separate homes, even in different states – but he finds that his sense of well-being relies almost wholly on how well his mother is doing. The son likely feels as if he does not have a choice in the matter. He has no apparent sense of self; his identity revolves around this familial relationship. More often than not, the enmeshed son will be constantly consumed by two overwhelming emotions – anger and guilt. The anger will stem from a deep-seated inability to say ‘no’ when it comes to mom, and the guilt will stem from even considering setting such boundaries.
It is hard to obtain a sense of peace or personal empowerment when you are trapped in a world of shame and frustration. Being caught precariously between these two powerful emotions, the son finds that he is even less able to set boundaries and stand up for himself. Eventually, he forgets that he is a separate entity; an individual capable of making his own decisions and feeling his own feelings. He adopts the wants, needs, and personal preferences of his mother. Meanwhile, his personal wants and needs are forgotten or ignored. The way his mother feels becomes his responsibility; it is up to him to keep her happy. Perhaps the man begins seeing a woman that his mother disapproves of. He stops seeing her in order to make mother happy. Mother knows best, after all.
In a functional upbringing, a child would be recognized as an individual, and given the space to develop his own sense of self; his own personal identity. The mother would allow the child to set his own boundaries, and she would graciously respect them. She would set her own boundaries, and teach the children the importance of self-sufficiency and independence while offering nurturing encouragement. If the mother is emotionally undeveloped, needy, and incapable of setting and maintaining her own boundaries, the child will grow up playing an unhealthy role. The child will be used to satisfy the emotional needs of the mother. He will grow up believing that his purpose in life is to make sure his mother is happy and okay.
This kind of parenting will inevitably lead to a long-standing and emotionally damaging role reversal. Rather than the other tending to the developmental needs of the child, the child will tend to the unmet emotional needs of the mother. An emotional or physical absence of a father figure often leads to an exacerbation of these relational issues. The mother will rely on her son to fill the emotional (and sometimes physical) void left by the absentee father, and the son will grow up believing that this inappropriate level of emotional intimacy is normal; this is what love looks like. Because separation never occurred during the necessary stage of individual development, to separate later on in life will bring on overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety, emptiness, rejection, and abandonment. It is much easier to stay trapped in a viciously enmeshed relationship than it is to face all of those negative emotions and begin setting boundaries. At least, the son believes that it is.
Consequences of Enmeshment
In reality, the consequences of living in an enmeshed relationship with mother are absolutely tragic for her son. Aside from lacking a vital sense of personal identity, he will struggle to form healthy interpersonal and intimate relationships. He will struggle to let other women into his life, and experience overwhelming feelings of guilt and betrayal when he attempts to form intimate bonds with others. He may be attracted to women who resemble his mother on an emotional level – women who are possessive, smothering, and needy. Because he is completely detached from his own desires and requirements, his emotional needs will likely not be met in any relationship he does manage to form. That is, until the enmeshed relationship is adequately addressed, and the process of healing begins.
To the enmeshed male, the relationship he has with his mother is normal, natural, and perfectly acceptable. It is all he knows. It often takes a great deal of intensive therapeutic care to break these detrimental relational patters, and guide the enmeshed son towards developing a strong and imperative sense of personal identity. We at Next Chapter have extensive experience helping men who have long-since been enmeshed with their mothers, both in overcoming deeply rooted feelings of guilt and shame and in learning to develop and maintain healthy and functional intimate relationships with others. For more information on our program of trauma and addiction recovery, please feel free to contact us today.