Men and their mothers
Dynamics in mother/son relationships
If a man wishes for a healthy relationship with intimacy, with authority or simply a better relationship with himself, the journey may need to start with the hidden dynamics held in the system between him and his mother.
Men who can resource themselves whilst finding an appropriate distance from their mothers, men who have understood and integrated their mother’s absence or closeness, who do not feel under or overwhelmed by the feminine, can thrive. Mother is in her place, exactly as she is or was and her son is in his.
Men’s contact and inner relationship with their mothers is crucial for survival, growth and becoming an adult, a man. The relationship between mother and son is a challenging one to grow up and out of, to find an appropriate distance that allows both to be free, yet connected. But it is a journey every man must make if he would like his life to be in flow, his relationship with women to be respectful and mutual and his leadership to flow.
This is a large subject which this short article begins to explore from a systemic perspective.
Keep your distance
The impact of the mother on a boy and the man he grows into cannot be underestimated. It’s the primary connection in the family relationship system, but it is also a genetic and physical bond. Your mother was born with you inside her. The egg from which you were created was already present in her, at her birth and so you were both also inside your maternal grandmother. So you are deeply connected to the feminine and as a result are also connected to the emotions and dynamics emerging from the major events and life experiences that your mother and grandmother experienced.
Finding the ‘right’ distance between you and your mother is crucial. If you stay too close it will limit your ability to grow up to be a man and live your own life fully as a partner, father or leader. Many men are entangled with their mothers and so feel overwhelmed by the feminine. These men may struggle with their passion, perhaps exhibiting sexual, predatory and controlling behaviour with women. These men, truly a ‘mother’s son’ (see below) are often the same men who tend to seek power in business and/or society. This can be an outer expression of their inner battle for balance with the source of their life, their mother.
If, on the other hand, men reject their mothers, they also reject the many resources that live in her system waiting to be explored and used for their growth, fulfillment and success. Finding the best balance, where the flow of life and love is restored, is a challenge for many.
Men are born of women and bond first with their mother. This is a powerful experience for mother and son and can overwhelm and entangle both. The relationship is symbiotic in that the mother loves the son but the son also knows that he will not survive without the mother, so tries to attend to her needs, actively works to keep her present. When a son can’t find the strength to grow apart, to individuate from his mother and stand at his father’s side and move into the world of men, he may grow up to become a ‘Mother’s boy’.
How men act and react towards their mother is often the way they will act and react towards their partners and spouses. This, however, is less true for a ‘mother’s boy’ who may act and react to the mother as though she is his partner and see others as somewhat of an intrusion. In this case he may respond to Mum’s call ahead of his partner’s call, creating tension.
Men who are overwhelmed by the feminine and get caught in this dynamic may often turn into ‘macho men’ who are on a private mission to conquer the power of the feminine energy, through multiple sexual relationships. They may combine this with loud and aggressive behaviour. Look a little closer and you may see a tattoo or other mark of respect for ‘Mum’ and/or her first name, as if they were friends or lovers. Anyone who insults or appears to insult their mother is bound to receive their most aggressive, often violent attack.
“I have created a $5m foundation to give scholarships to women directors.
It will be named after my Mom.
I won’t disappoint her”
(October 2017, after being identified as a sexual predator)
Other ‘mother’s sons’ are so in tune with their mother and the feminine that they appear to ‘get’ all women and may become ‘the deep friend’ to women with a seductive wisdom and understanding, or be a lover to all but struggle to commit to one, as they have not yet completed with the mother and may therefore not be available to any ‘one’ else.
“I don’t matter, but I have killed her . . . She won’t get over it! She won’t survive . . . .”
“Who?” asked Rostov.
“My mother! My mother, my angel, my adored angel mother,” and Dolokhov pressed Rostov’s hand and burst into tears.
Dolokhov the bullying, brawling womaniser after his duel with Pierre in ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy
In these examples – and there are many variations between those extremes – relationships with other women are limited as the man’s attention is focused on his mother. He has become a ‘surrogate spouse’ and mother always has first place, so he has little room for closeness or intimacy with another. No one else can measure up to mother.
“Look at the masters of the classic symphonies where they basically relax the audience with the first movement by using lullabies – the voice of violins, the mother’s voice.”
Mother too close
When a woman seeks attention and love from her child in a way that she wishes she had from his father (and usually also her father), or when a boy clings too long to his mother and is unable to make the difficult journey to his father, then he may find himself entangled with her.
This entanglement can become a lasting dynamic in his life as he feels increasingly unable to get away from his mother’s sphere of influence. His inner agreement to stay, his inner ‘life sentence‘ may be along these lines:
✣ “Dad’s not there for you, so I will be.” (“Later, I’ll be angry with you when I realise that I am trapped.”)
✣ “Mom you are/were hurt and I will make sure no one ever does that to you again, by staying close to you…”
✣ “I will take care of you forever and you will never have to be frightened again…”
✣ “You have given me so much in my life. I can never repay you but I will try not to let you down, by always being available to you.”
✣ “We don’t need anyone else here, we are enough you and I. I can make it all better for you.”
✣ “Mum I will protect you from Dad and be your friend/advisor. I will keep you safe.”
✣ “You sacrificed your life to raise me and I will sacrifice mine to take care of you.”
✣ “Mum, I’m always here for you. This makes me impotent with other women.”
These inner words, these ‘life sentences’ keep the son stuck in his mother’s sphere of influence. The knots of these entanglements can be loosened over time through careful, respectfully facilitated personal work in a systemically orientated setting. It’s in this context that the balancing words, the ‘sentences for life’, which emerge in constellations, can be useful.
Here are some examples of ‘sentences for life‘ which support an appropriate separation between mother and son. Like others in this article and on the LifeLoveLeadership.com website they are not intended to be used generically but simply as examples of words that have touched the heart and soul of an issue for a particular client in a particular context and constellation:
✣ “Mum you were hurt and I will leave that with you. It’s yours to carry not mine, I’m just your son, not your partner or father.”
✣ “What happened between you and Dad is not mine to solve. I am your son and only your son. Now, I choose you both.”
✣ “You are my Mum and you will always be my Mum. There is always a place in my heart for you, just as my mother.”
✣ “I see you Mum and I will always be grateful for what you gave me, exactly the way it is and at the price you paid.”
✣ “What I will take from you is…(specific relevant strengths, qualities etc) what I will leave with you is…(specific relevant burdens, pain, life experiences that belong to her, etc).”
✣ “Because of you I can have a good life and I will honour that gift by living fully.”
✣ “Please bless me when I am loving and when I am loved. Because of you, I have a deep respect for women.”
“She was always over-interested in me. I wanted to be very private.”
Lucian Freud talking about his mother
“My mother was suffocating. She always had to be right about everything. I’m not blaming her, that’s who she was. She could never hear anything I said, because nothing I said could possibly be as important as what she believed. My mother was, to some extent, a wall herself that I was banging my head against.”
Roger Waters, Pink Floyd
Talking about the album ‘The Wall’
Mother too far
Some mothers are not able to be in close contact with their sons due to their own systemic distractions, entanglements and traumas. Others are kept at a distance by their sons in punishment for something they think she has done wrong, some way she has failed them. This can occur when trust is suddenly broken for example.
The distance between mother and son may be embodied, internalised in an inner ‘life sentence‘ for the boy who grows to become an adult. These ‘life sentences’ limit the man’s ability to function, partner and love:
✣ “Mum I will reject you before you have a chance to reject me.” (Which later becomes: “I will reject women before they can hurt me.” And/or “I will recreate the distance between you and me in my other relationships with women.”)
✣ “I judge you as helpless and so bring that element into my relationships with other women. In this way I can unconsciously keep you present and rescue you over and over again.”
✣ “If my own mother couldn’t see me, how will any other woman see me?”
✣ “You had an affair and you were gone emotionally. I will find a woman who will leave emotionally and my children will share my burden.”
✣ “When I cannot accept you fully, I remain engaged with you in the ways in which I remain angry, distant, disrespectful of you. And so I remain angry, distant and disrespectful of my wife and children.”
✣ “One of my children may find a way to represent you by being a lot like you, in an attempt to balance who I’ve excluded.”
✣ “I know that Mothers give birth and sustenance to life, business and relationships; what I cannot take from you I may look for in others and then I will reject them too. I will idealise them and then hate them when they fail me like you did.”
✣ “What I reject in you I will mirror and become – as a way to keep you close.”
✣ “I would rather die than take anything from you (or any other woman).”
These inner words, these ‘life sentences’ keep the son stuck in his mother’s sphere of influence. The knots of these entanglements can be loosened over time through careful, respectfully facilitated personal work in a systemically orientated therapeutic or coaching setting. It’s in this context that the balancing words, the ‘sentences for life‘, which emerge or are co-created in constellations, can be useful. Here are some examples of words which may support an appropriate reconnection between mother and son.
✣ “Mum when I take life fully from you as you passed it onto me I am free to take what is useful and leave with you that which is not. In this way, I acknowledge your place and take my own.”
✣ “Dear Mum, I have resources that allow me to be present in a way that was not possible for you. Please look kindly on me if I use them.”
✣ “When I can accept you fully exactly the way you are without wishing to change you, I am free to look at my wife and do the same. I am also able to live my own life with deep respect for your fate.”
✣ “Mum, I will leave your chapter with you and begin to write my own.”
✣ “When I look at you as the source of my life and feel grateful, I can look at my wife as the source of my children’s life and be grateful.”
✣ “I am grateful when you bless me to do well. It gives me permission to live a full and happy life. In this way I honour what you have given me. Thank you.”
✣ “When I look at your life and see how and why you struggled, my heart opens and I can begin to live life differently.”
✣ “Thank you for being as available as you could be. You gave me what you could and I will grow it, into something wonderful. In this way I will remember you and honour what you were able to give me.”
✣ “Dear Mum, I thought I was supposed to have a perfect mother. Now I understand what it is to be a parent and can see how hard you tried. You are OK just as you are and were. You gave me the gift of life. Please watch me as I do something with it.”
“Many men believe they should have had a perfect mother. As long as they stay attached to this fantasy they will be disappointed and judge their mothers as insufficient, not enough. This weakens the man and the system, limiting the flow of life and love at its most essential point.”
“Children disentangle themselves from family entanglements by obeying their parents’ true wishes – to be happy and successful. It takes great courage for children to see their parents suffer and yet still obey the greater love, to see to it that they themselves succeed in life and fulfil the desires of their parents’ hearts.”
“When children say to their parents “Under no circumstances will I ever be like you” they continue to love their parents blindly and are bound tightly to them. In spite of themselves, they commit themselves to follow their parents’ example, and so they become exactly like them.
When children fear becoming like their parents, they constantly watch them, because whatever they don’t want to become they must continually observe. It’s no wonder then that they become exactly like their parents.”
Men who are connected to their mother’s energy, who are not overwhelmed by the feminine and who have the strength of their father alongside as a resource, often experience themselves as happy, content and resourced.
A man who is entangled with his mother in a way that keeps her at a distance may feel partially cut off from life, sad and likely to suffer from bouts of depression. From a relationship-system perspective it’s clear – if you are cut off from the source of your life it will be hard for you to feel fully alive. It will also be hard to take in the richness of what life has to offer and difficult to take in what lives in the female line and wider family system for you to grow from.
In this way depression may be described and experienced as an emptiness and a longing for an energy or life source that is not there, feels inaccessible or not desirable.
Depression can emerge with a particularly potent strength in men who judge and exclude their mothers. Their inner anger at her failings turns within and leads to the depression, which they may then blame on her for not being there for them, for abandoning them. However, what they reject in mother they also reject in themselves, thereby inducing a double feeling of sadness and frustration.
“I want people to empower women. I want people to be afraid of women I dress.”
When a man is so close to Mum that he struggles to individuate, he may struggle to see his life or even imagine his own future, instead seeing only Mum’s life and his need to protect it. He is not invested in his future but perhaps more stuck in the past, her past, her life, her dreams. The entanglement may lead him to connect with women he thinks he can save, but may cost him dreams of a future and his own family.
He might also find it easier to connect with a number of women but only to a point before ‘duty calls’, leading to frustration and depression and a sense of feeling trapped in a life or fate that is not his to live freely.
Men with a particular bond to their mother may also become overly-romantic men. This dynamic, which is sometimes combined with bouts of depression, is explored in the next section.
“Mother is the name of God on the lips and in the hearts of little children.”
The novel ‘Dr. Zhivago’ by Boris Pasternak was turned into an ‘epic romantic’ film of the same name. The central character Yuri, played by Omar Sharif, loses his mother at age 10 but she leaves him a musical instrument, a balalaika. This instrument stays with him through his life as he grows to become a poet, a romantic poet. He teaches his lover Lara, played by Julie Christie, to play.
They are separated and years later he thinks he sees her in a street in Moscow. Running after her he suffers a fatal heart attack.
At the very end of the film the balalaika is seen again, over the shoulder of Lara’s and Yuri’s daughter.
Men who adore their mother can show up as Casanovas, the darling of many women, romantic to a fault. They may seem to understand women deeply and be more attentive than others. They may be described as ‘a deep man’, but they often also have a sadness about them. With a deep understanding of their mother, they may make the grand gestures that appear to make the woman happy, yet be unable to really commit because their deeper loyalty is still with the mother. It’s as though he can be there, deeply romantic and then, a little like Cinderella – when the clock strikes 12, he ‘goes home’ to Mum and disappears.
This is why men who describe themselves as ‘serial-entrepreneurs’ are also often deeply connected with their mother. They may be very close to her or, more often, overtly distanced, judging and estranged but inwardly searching and yearning for that connection. They may originate multiple businesses in repeating attempts to show their unconscious love, or search for connection with, their mother.
There is a separate article on the subject of founders and some of the dynamics around founding an organisation, on this site here.
If you are a man who feels drawn into romantic relationships in a repeating but unsatisfying pattern you may also find the article on romanticism useful.
The son watches the father…
When a son sees how his father interacts with his mother he will either attempt to model his father’s behaviour or, if he secretly disapproves, will step in and try and protect – emotionally and sometimes physically – his mother. He will also either model his father’s behaviour towards women, or try hard to do it differently.
If Dad is not available, he may move close to Mum, almost like a partner, a surrogate spouse. This pattern can depend on several things: whose fault he thinks the dysfunction is; the one with whom he bonds first and deepest; the pattern in the family or the one who holds his attention the most – it could be Mum’s sadness or Dad’s dominance for example.
“If you look at the childhoods of Franco, Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, one very obvious thing they all had in common was very complex relationships with their fathers. Each of their fathers were frequently absent, and then, when present, were drunk and violent and threatening. That meant each child developed very close and emotionally intense relationships with their mothers. They went through their life resenting their fathers, while they always saw their mothers as a sanctuary of emotional refuge.
It’s easy to imagine the conversation. After a violent outbreak from their father, a mother vesting her hopes in the child could fuel a sense of that the child will be different. A belief in themselves as somehow greater than their environment.”
History Professor and author of ‘Franco: The biography of a myth’
When the father is emotionally or physically unavailable the son can become distant from him, to protect himself but also his mother. The son knows that his life depends on Mum being around and so he gets closer to her and rejects Dad. Sometimes with an anger, knowing that he is having to take on a place in the system that’s not his. He can then become the ‘parent’ in the family giving and giving, in an attempt to show them that he needs to receive. This pattern then informs life, relationships and work.
Watching Mum and tending to her needs can create an anxiety for the boy. In a sense his life goes into service of hers. He may become the pleasing son, the dutiful son and in some cases the colluding illegally with Mum son. This dynamic is reflected in the plot for Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Psycho’.
When a boy has a father who is difficult, dangerous or controversial and he protects Mum, he also shuts down half of himself. When he cannot connect overtly to what is strong and positive in his father, he may find himself unconsciously connecting to the painful aspects of his father and then repeating a version of his struggles later in life. These men may often be ‘on a mission.’
This, perhaps, may have been an undercurrent in the political crisis and leadership vacuum that emerged in the UK in the summer of 2016. In Nigel Farage’s (then leader of the UK Independence party ‘UKIP’, campaigning for Britain to leave the EU) autobiography ‘Flying Free’ he describes the shock, at aged five, of hearing that his parents were to divorce. “I bitterly resented the censorship which had kept me in the dark until the sudden announcement of the fait accompli.”
Perhaps the sudden need to take care of his mother – “I was the man of the house now” – and his displeasure at his father was a hidden dynamic in his campaigning against “the old men in Brussels.” For, once independence from the ‘old men’ was gained, he suddenly resigned, saying that his job was done. His mission complete.
On the other hand considered recognition and approval of a son by his father allows for growth to happen in a way that is balanced and encouraging and supports the separation of the son from his mother.
Older men with young women
Boys, just as girls do, bond very deeply with their mothers when they are young and they are wholly dependent on her presence. This deep connection often extends to other women; for example nursery nurses, babysitters, care workers, sisters and female teachers. Young boys are often surrounded by youthful female energy and it can subtly dominate, sometimes overwhelm their psyche.
If the boy struggles to get out of his mother’s sphere of influence and stand alongside his father as an adult man, this can become one source of the search for younger women, where the man yearns for the deep connection he once had, now almost out of his conscious awareness but deeply held in his inner image of women. His mother was, by definition, young when she gave birth to him, in her twenties or early thirties perhaps. This youthful energy infuses his mind and emotions and he is both ‘in love’ with her and also utterly dependent on her. This complex duality can have an impact on him as an adult man and can lead him to search for that connection with youthful female energy that embodies that same mix of intimacy and caretaking.
When you see a man with a younger woman that duality is often embodied – a mix of visible intimacy and sweetness and a degree of ‘taking care of the other’ in both, often the woman to the man.
A recent UK study found the proportion of women marrying younger men rose from 15% to 26% between 1963 and 1998. The study also showed a higher divorce rate as the age difference rose when the woman was older and a lower divorce rate as the age difference rose when the man was older.
Because men tend to mature later than women, it can also be that a man feels able to ‘start again’ when he is older, especially if he realizes that he has ‘married his mother’ in his first partnership as so many men do. For some men, particularly perhaps mother’s sons – who are drawn towards all life giving systems – they may also feel a drive to create more children, in order to ‘get it right’ second time round.
A systemic dynamic can also emerge around choice. For men who were chosen by a woman or had the choice made for them in other ways, they may feel as they age that they deserve the right to choose. In this way they may go back to the choice-point, which was often in their twenties or early thirties, and make a different choice. This is often with a woman of the age at which their choice was compromised and so it feels particularly right, a true choice. To the outside world this may be judged or frowned upon but to the couple it seems natural and ‘the right choice.’
The combination of maturity and success through his work can liberate a man and attract younger women who may themselves be looking for a more mature man, a man who has ‘played his youthful games’ and is more able to truly commit. In this way the relationship could be seen as a balance between her youth and beauty and his sense of his place in the world, his psychological ‘weight’ and groundedness.
Women who have been abused (physically or emotionally), or abanonded by a man in the past, may also choose an older man, a ‘father figure’ who is also probably a ‘mother’s son’, because she imagines his sexual energy is dimmed, so she will be safe in his arms. However, the painful pattern tends to repeat in these circumstances and the woman may find herself abused in some way again.
There are often a number of complex dynamics in older/younger relationships and although some fail, many can last, especially if they are balancing something that was out of balance in a previous generation in one or both family systems. For example if a man finds his ‘soul mate’ late in life and feels drawn to balance all the love and care his mother gave him the relationship may endure.
This is one way in which systems self-regulate in the search for coherence and balance.
Healing your mother
If you are trying to heal your own mother, rescue her from pain or a difficult fate, you may get entangled in such a way that limits you and indeed her. Parents get stronger, we get stronger, when our difficulties are returned to us and not carried by our children. Relationship systems and the individuals within them get stronger when responsibility and guilt are returned to where they belong. So, when we can look at our parents’ fate with respect and without trying to remove it from them or carry it for them, it gives them dignity. It removes judgment and when we look at it in the multigenerational context it brings compassion, wisdom and insight.
If you are caught in a cycle of trying to rescue your mother, it’s likely that you will be embodying an inner ‘life sentence’ over yourself, something like this:
✣ “You were hurt and so I will save you, make it better. You are too weak to take care of yourself, so I will.”
✣ “He (partner of mother/father of boy) was not there for you, but I always will be. He’s ‘bad’, but I’m a good boy.”
✣ “I don’t need him and I don’t see him. We have a life outside of Dad…”
✣ “Mum, you are my responsibility now.”
Example of ‘sentences for life’ that have been useful in both one-to-one and workshop constellations to balance these dynamics, spoken by the man to a representative of his mother, include:
✣ “Dear Mum. I can see you are hurting and I’m sorry. And I’ll leave what’s yours with you, with great respect.”
✣ “My father is your partner, your man. I’m just your son…”
✣ “I was and am too small to take care of you. It is not my place.”
✣ “I will always be there for you…but just as your son.”
✣ “I will live a full life Mum – and so give you a legacy to be proud of.”
✣ “From this struggle comes something good and I will make that my goal.”
✣ “I have a place for you and a place for Dad. I see you both. I choose you both.”
✣ “Look Mum, you have created a great son. I’ll live my life fully now.”
Hating your mother
If you feel that your mother abandoned you, wasn’t fully present or in some other way hurt you, then you may have made an inner decision to reject and/or judge her. This is an understandable act of self-defence from a defenceless child but will not form a resourcing strategy as you move into and through adult life.
It’s likely that you will be embodying an inner ‘life sentence’ over yourself and her, something like this:
✣ “You abandoned me. I’ll make you pay for that.”
✣ “I will reject and judge you just like you did me. That’s my way of staying close to you.”
✣ “Because I judge you for what happened I take it out on other women while secretly searching for what I lost with you.”
✣ “Women are never fully available to me…and I keep my distance. I must leave women before they leave me…”
Examples of balancing ‘sentences for life’ that have been useful in constellations, spoken by the man to a representative of his mother, include:
✣ “When you had to leave it hurt me…”
✣ “I’ve missed you. Terribly…’
✣ “I was young and I didn’t understand…”
✣ “When I see the bigger picture of your life, my heart opens and I can start to let you back in.”
✣ “When I judge/reject you I grow more miserable and bitter. Please give me time to withdraw my judgments over you…”
✣ “Seeing you exactly the way you are I can take what I need from you, leave what I do not need and change the pattern of pain.”
✣ “You were able to give me life and a little more besides. Thank you. I’ll do something useful with it. To honour what you gave to me.”
As a man you may resist the simple truth that a reconnection with your mother offers you serenity, belonging and a different relationship with women. In fact it’s likely to seem like a crazy idea – why, isn’t it she who abandoned/abused/forgot/hurt/got too close/not close enough in the first place? Your judgment over her, your rejection of her – or her of you – may keep you overtly distant but covertly deeply connected in a profoundly painful way.
Family system constellations and systemic coaching work was developed around this and other themes that serve the restoration of the flow of love between parent and child and so offer a fresh path to insight, compassion, dignity and integration.
The journey home can start in individual systemic coaching or in a constellation workshop, and will continue for years after – a lifelong journey back to reconnection, back to mother. Go back to her, see her as she really was – as your mother yes, but also as so much more. A daughter, a sibling and grandchild. See her without judgment and with compassion for her difficulties, her pain as a result of her entanglements – that will have their roots in the time before you were born, maybe in the time before she was born. She’s just a human being, a woman doing her best with the resources she had available. She gave you life and a little more besides. Use it well.
When you look at your mother through a multi-generational, whole system lens, patterns, entanglements, compassion and fresh opportunities begin to reveal themselves. In this way you can integrate her as she is or was, start to slowly move away again and stand at your father’s side. A man.
‘Only when a boy’s attachment – loving or resentful – to his mother is resolved can he give himself fully to his partner and enter manhood. A girl’s attachment to her father – loving or resentful – must also be resolved before she can give herself to her partner and be a woman. Success demands the sacrifice of our earlier childhood bonds – the boy to his mother and the girl to her father.
A boy lives his prenatal and early childhood years primarily within his mother’s sphere of influence. If he remains there her influence floods his psyche and he experiences the feminine as all important and powerful. Under his mother’s dominance he may become a skilful seducer and lover but he does not develop into a man who appreciates women and who can maintain a long-term loving relationship. Nor does he become a strong and dedicated father to his own children. To become a man capable of joining fully in a partnership of equals, he must give up the first and most intimate love of his life – his mother – and move into his father’s sphere of influence.’
Extract from ‘Love’s Hidden Symmetry’
By Bert Hellinger