My Sick Mother & My Love Life

L0022722 A. Morison "Physiognomy of mental diseases", casesWhat happens to your love life if you’re unfortunate enough to be brought up by a sick mother? If you’re not conscious of what you’ve “learned” about love relationships from her…plenty. The two most prominent effects are: 1. You’ll become a “care-giver” when you’re in a love relationship, and; 2. You’ll “keep your love partners at arms length” emotionally whether or not you’re in a committed relationship or not. Let’s talk about these two love life “coping” behaviors in depth.

The care-giver is a son or daughter who learns to look after, try to fix, rescue, or simply take care of his or her parent in the course of growing up in a family. Usually it’s one particular child, and often a child with special attributes like a developed sensitivity to others, intelligence, willingness to self-sacrifice, and/or an ability to manage the responsibility given. Taking care of a sick mother is not a small responsibility. In short, it surely has its advantages and disadvantages.

Obviously, the greatest disadvantage is it’s not suppose to happen. Children are supposed to think of their parents as the care-givers not the other way around. When this kind of role-reversal takes place a significant sacrifice of childhood pleasures and activities comes with it. Now the advantage is the “special” status that is often attributed to the caregiving child. The somewhat grateful parent may bestow gifts, money, clothes, etc. on the child to show gratitude and, less obviously, to lock in the care-giving as per the parents ongoing emotional and/or physical needs.

Care-giver children, now adults, will often replicate some aspect of the relationship with mother, now with the person they fall in love with. This will manifest itself first in attracting people who are needy or demand care in a love relationship. Then a love relationship with the care-giver will develop with he or she taking care of his or her love partner usually in a unilateral manner. That means a one-way love relationship, where one person takes care of another. This kind of love relationship usually guarantees escalating misery over time because the care-giver will inevitably resent the person demanding all the care, and the person being cared for gets locked into a “less than” childlike position that is bound to result in a diminishment of respect in the relationship.

For those children who grew up with a sick mother and are able to avoid the responsibility of taking care of her, perhaps because it was assumed by a sibling, he or she will usually grow up observing and experiencing the “burden” imposed by the mother’s illness in the family. For these children of a sick mother, now adults, assuming love partners will recreate a limited and self-sacrificing love relationship like the one they witnessed in childhood is common. Keeping the people you fall in love with at a “defensive” arms length to avoid this burden will only guarantee an ongoing discomfort with “too much intimacy.”

This type of defensiveness often explains the serial love relationships some people have where the emphasis is on meeting new people to fall in love with while avoiding depth in a love relationship to avoid the expected burden of neediness.

The only way I know to interrupt these negative influences on the adult love life of the adult children of sick mothers is to first tolerate the self-honesty required to identify the problem, challenge the pattern now made conscious, and practice doing something healthier in the long run of your love life. For the care-giver, stop yourself from transforming the people you love into sick mothers. For the defensive person keeping a distance from the predicted burden of neediness, take a risk, and find out for yourself whether or not the person you love has something to give.

Comments welcome, Dr. Jordan

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Dr. Jordan

Dr. Thomas Jordan is a clinical psychologist, certified interpersonal psychoanalyst, author, professor, and love life researcher.

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