A single friend was asked about her dating life. With complete sincerity she said there was no reason to date. She honestly didn’t need a man because, ‘I have my son. He gives me everything I need’. Psychologists have a label for it, emotional incest. If we can control the gag reflex, we come to understand this as an emotional, not sexual, relationship between parent and child that more resembles husband and wife.
Research indicates this is most common when a parent lacks emotional intimacy and support through healthy adult relationships, most notably a marriage. Absent this crucial element, either through divorce, death, or marriage dysfunction, the child begins serving as the backfill, becoming the parent’s surrogate companion, confidante, and means of satisfying unmet emotional needs.
While this can happen with any parent, it’s especially prevalent among single mothers and wives whose husbands are emotionally or physically absent. Lacking that emotional connection and validation so intrinsic to her nature and vital to a successful relationship, the mother inexorably gravitates towards whatever she believes can fill the void or numb the isolation. For some it’s alcohol, others it may be drugs, work, the gym, or an extramarital affair. But for too many the burden lands on the shoulders of the next closest male in her life, though it can also be daughters. Nature abhors a vacuum. The boy is asked to assume the role his father can’t or won’t.
It’s a dangerous imbalance, more so because it’s virtually unnoticeable. For strangers and especially other moms, it seems a relationship to be envied – a rare and close bond between mother and son brimming of attention, adoration, and validation. By itself that should never be a concern, it’s when digging deeper that this union reveals those negative qualities.
The mother/son relationship is fundamental and God ordained. A mother’s value can never be overestimated. In the early years of her child’s life she is not the center of his universe, she is his universe. His northern star whose rays light his path guiding him along his way.
As with any parent, she gains immense fulfillment from such deep regard and affirmation. Little boys want to delight their mothers. She represents everything beautiful about femininity and is the lens through which he sees the world and, in time, every other woman who walks into his life. Is it any wonder that most little boys at some point want to ‘marry mommy’?
Yet it’s the emotional void along with her son’s desire to please that creates an environment where this unhealthy relationship can grow and blossom. The boy often becomes a willing participant in his own conversion by a mother, who, blinded by loneliness and insecurity, begins molding him into the shape of her ‘little husband’.
I’ve witnessed this crisis and experienced the consequence such relationships have on the parent, but especially the child.
In the emptiness left by her partner’s emotional abandonment, that would otherwise come through other healthy adult relationships, the mother begins diligently searching and ravenously feeding on her son’s approval and validation – but without the need to legitimately earn it. Leveraging instead her authority and influence. If unable to warrant his attention, she will begin demanding it. Often through guilt, occasionally using bribery, routinely by control. As her primary source of self-worth, she will strive to maintain it at virtually any cost. For fear of disfavor, she’ll cave into his every whim. For fear of abandonment, she’ll control his every move.
With this manufactured support mechanism in place, she now sees no reason to seek or nurture appropriate adult relationships, most notably romantic ones. If single she chooses not to date other men since her son ‘gives her what she needs’. If married, she’ll abandon trying to repair the relationship with her husband, opting instead to ignore the dysfunction through her son’s distraction. Consequently, this leads to her unhealthy dependence on the child, and that dependence develops into a smothering of his autonomy and a crippling in the formation of his own identity.
But perhaps worse, she forces her son into a role he isn’t designed for or mature enough to fulfill. In his naivety and desire to please her, he will invariably assume full responsibility for maintaining her emotional equilibrium, believing he must ‘because no one else will.’ He may begin taking on attributes of a ‘people pleaser’. Since he sees it as his job to keep her happy, this characteristic may carry over into other relationships.
He may equate love with performance as validation has been incumbent on his ability to please. Anxiety permeates, especially in the face of failure or others’ perceived disappointment, as he fears they’ll withhold acceptance when he doesn’t deliver. In the extreme he may lose his own sense of self, caught between his mother’s needs and his own, which often go ignored.
It’s tragic so many boys are asked to wear a suit never cut for them. Yet it’s understandable in the wake of widespread divorce, the curse of out-of-wedlock births, and the scourge of absent fathers. And while it feels natural – and perhaps a signal of motherly achievement – for her and her son to have such a close connection, there can be no arguing to the dangers when that relationship takes root and is cultivated free of all emotional boundaries.
A boy desperately needs his mother; to model for him the real meaning of femininity, to teach him proper respect for the Divine differences between sexes, and demonstrate how to appreciate and honor those distinctions. What he doesn’t need, and in truth can’t have, is a mother who, in the grip of emptiness and depression, steals her son’s childhood by molding him into her ‘little husband’.