Renewing Vows to Mom

For the sake of avoiding confusion, I will refer to experiences of women with mothers-in-laws, and to husbands. I endorse all forms of couple-ship, not solely heterosexual marriages. For reasons relating to my personal experience and work, this is where I can best elaborate.

These dynamics can also occur within any parent to child relationship. Whether the child is homosexual or heterosexual, the dynamic plays out in a multitude of ways. This focuses on mother-son enmeshment and its effects on the son’s adult life, but you can have mother-daughter, father-son, and father-daughter enmeshment that overlaps so much that you cannot tell where one person’s life ends and another’s begins. Think of Howard’s relationship to his mother’s on The Big Bang Theory.

Ken Adams’s book, When He’s Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment, discusses mother-enmeshed men and how that dynamic disrupts the men’s abilities to commit. Mother-son enmeshment affects all parties involved: the mother, the son, and the wife. In her work, Pia Mellody paints the portrait of emotional intimacy between parents that is healthy, and how emotional incest can develop when boundaries are neither taught, modeled, and sometimes overtly violated. This disclosure of information puts the minor in a situation to form judgments about people or experience feelings at an inappropriate age. One example is a parent turning the child against the other in a nasty custody dispute. The juvenile may become a repository for the painful feelings of one parent and hear details about their unsatisfactory marriage. This manipulates the child to form negative views of the other parent. It not only disrupts the other parent’s ability to guide the child, but it also ruptures the child’s attachment style which will affect his life in all future relationships.

There is a point where joining with the family becomes infiltrative. Relationships developed after one parental unit is boundaryless often continue into adulthood. Where there is no limit between sharing information or controlling behaviors, dysfunctional relational patterns emerge. It may take the form of the child-parent sharing of intimate details that are inappropriate for either the child or the parent to know, or through controlling and oppression of the kid’s self in order to meet the needs of the caregiver. The parent may discuss intimate details of the sexual and relational aspects of the spouse with the child. The parent takes part in major life decisions for the child, deciding for that child or controlling what feelings the child can express. Negative reinforcement such as shame is used to manage the behaviors. This begins in youth but continues through adulthood until stopped by that individual. Familial conflict leads to major adjustments and limit setting at such points, should intervention occur.

Parental approval of spouses is one common source of distress for many couples. The mother-in-law against the son’s wife, or father-in-law disapproving of the daughter’s husband scenarios are commonly seen in practice. When the parent pushes spouses out for reasons the parent lists, then the manacle between the parent and the adult-child is grossly inappropriate.

How many people do you let into your marriage?

If the answer is any, then it’s time to re-evaluate the partnership. The dynamics of relationships slide downhill rapidly when unhealthy patterns of communicating and connecting intimately with those parental figures dominate one’s own companionship. Triangulation, exclusion, exile, scapegoating, and other dysfunctional familial patterns of interacting persevere. So powerful, these protect the dysfunctional family system. If not addressed, it will become an abusive environment and ultimately, break that bond.

a mature woman sitting beside a woman and a man
Photo by Gustavo Fring

This relates to toxicity and over-involvement in any situation between spouse and parent, to the point that it becomes disruptive to the couple-ship of the Adult-child and his/her spouse. Think of Everybody Loves Raymond, that sitcom where the wife Debra Barone has an ongoing feud with her mother-in-law Marie Barone. In this show, Raymond, the main character, is a conflict-avoidant introvert who seeks acceptance from everyone. Raymond’s mother coddled him in childhood, leading to the childish behaviors and laziness exhibited throughout the show. This running gag is this very setup where he seeks his mother’s advice and protection when defending himself against his wife, Debra, whenever confronted by her for his behaviors. Scared of his mother, Raymond often sides with her over his wife, furthering their marital difficulties and leading her to dissatisfaction and sometimes outright angry outbursts. Signs of such enmeshment include the disclosure of intimate details to the parent from the spouse; the parent taking a part of major familial decisions such as career moves, financial decisions, childbearing, and raising kids; moving; dismissal of one’s concerns when voiced; secret-keeping; either enmeshed party consistently defending the other while attacking the concerned spouse; and continuous passive-aggressive behavior from either.

Does your spouse confide more in the parent rather than you?

When uncomfortable situations arise, what is the method used by both parties to resolve conflict? If they share the intimate details of the relationship with the parent, this triangulation results in the judgment, discredit, and dismissal of the spouse’s concerns. Feeling ousted in the incident, the victimized spouse seeks either to recoup her power somehow, passively accept the situation, or end the relationship altogether. Neither is healthy in terms of communication or finding a resolution to the discomfort experienced; it deflects responsibility from hurtful tactless behaviors.

When one recognizes this condition, then one can step out of the system and make healthy choices. Setting boundaries to protect oneself is inherently important so when in future situations, that person can refuse to take part in such interactions altogether. Have pre-determined consequences prepared should someone violate those boundaries again.

What may this look like for you? I will share my experience. Upon discussion with my husband early in our marriage, I discovered intimate details were being shared with my mother-in-law that I did not give permission to share. He sought marital advice from the only source he knew at the time. While normal for him and his family, this felt like a gross violation of sensitive information I shared out of connection building and vulnerability. My new husband was married to his mother. There were other instances similar occurrences took place where choices were made by the matriarch of his family.

Yes, I was pissed. Super pissed. But, we were young and still figuring ourselves out. I promptly set the boundary to not share details I disclose in private moments to anyone without asking me first. Should this occur again, I will limit these moments of vulnerability or withdraw from the relationship altogether. He has the opportunity to renew his vows at any point to his mother; I made that very clear. He respected this boundary thereafter. I hold my own. This is why I work; so as to not become trapped in another dysfunctional domestic arrangement.

Unfortunately, there are many women who do not realize this choice or do so after deep into their relationships with children to care for and limited funds. I was lucky, I got to witness my parents’ maelstrom to guide me as to what never to do.

I did not extricate myself from one abusive family just to join another in adulthood.

I was unaware I could set boundaries until the age of 30. I did not know what I’d never been taught. My family conditioned me to stay quiet, remain in the background. To survive, I became small and learned how to be unseen and unheard. I kept everything within. It has only been within the last 10 years I have been able to use this power of self and stop giving it away to others. I don’t need their approval to exist. And, it is truly amazing once you internalize that you, like every other person, can stand your ground and protect yourself; appropriately, and respectfully, using non-degrading words.

The mother-in-law knew too much, however. And, as mothers-in-law do, I remained under the eye of scrutiny. 10 years later, while raising children and being a counterpart to my husband, I received escalating passive-aggressive comments and subhuman treatment that attacked my identity as a woman and a mother. Sometimes she outright scolded me in front of my children for feeding my children food that was not food approved of. Other times I’d been put down for bathing my children when not convenient for the grandparents. When I decided I’d had enough, I informed all this inappropriate behavior will cease, or we will not continue the close relationship everyone enjoyed. Given several extended chances, I experienced only empty apologies with effortlessly changed behavior and increasing blame.

Unfortunately, I became their demagogue. Rather than work together to find solutions to the situation at hand or attempt change, they chose to create more distance through denial, character belittling, and gaslighting.

My response was: Really. Do you know what I do for a living?

At one point, the gaslighting behavior fit the textbook definition. Rather amused, I passed along the Merriam-Webster definition along with a comparison of exhibited behaviors and encouraged both to educate themselves. There has since only been silence, and I encouraged all to seek the appropriate professional help needed to work through this difficult period. And, I was able to do so in a manner that did not attack their beings. I also did not have to drink over the situation. Rather, I stated the facts, what I found intolerable, and what my preferences are for engaging in the future are.

Everyone experiences conflict. If one does not, there is usually some type of severe avoidant mental health disorder involved. While not willing to tolerate abusive behaviors, I also keep in mind that I can be offensive. We all have that capacity. I unintentionally do periodically hurt others, and I take accountability where needed. However, sharing one’s reality and feelings, as well as setting healthy boundaries is not a malicious act. To vilify an individual for having feelings, having to protect oneself, and sharing one’s reality with another, is blame-shifting and an overtly abusive tactic commonly seen in narcissists and personality disordered individuals. Should the point come in the future that the in-laws have appropriately addressed these issues, I will be open to building relations back up with them. The point is to encourage change, not to vilify.

Getting mental health help is not a sign of weakness. People who are willing to face their shadow side and do the work to heal are the bravest I’ve ever met. I surround myself with layers of support. As a mental health practitioner, I cannot be the most unstable person in the room. It is my responsibility to keep a healthy mind and body always, so to best help my patients. Especially as a woman in recovery, I seek that of ongoing supervision, constant collaboration with colleagues, increased help where needed to traverse difficult terrain, and consistently attend 12-Step meetings. By staying book-ended, I have many checkpoints should anything go off track.

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