Sick Mother & Her Son’s Love-Life

This post is about the possible effects of a ‘sick mother’ on a son’s adult love-life. My male patients often see a connection between the difficulty they are having in their love-lives and the fact of their own mother’s emotional sickness when they were growing up. This state of ‘sickness’ includes either or both physical and emotional sickness severe enough to compromise a mother’s ability to parent.

This post focuses on what a man might experience with a mother who is sick and how it might influence his adult love-life. I’ve also organized our treatment of this topic into three parts: your emotional need for your mother, what you should learn from your mother, and what parts of your mother’s personality you might identify with.

Men: Mothers are the primary source of love when you are born into this world. Put it this way, her love is needed for both mental and physical health and well being. If your biological mother’s ability to love is compromised by emotional or physical sickness, there will be a feeling of loss and substitutes will be required for appropriate development.

A loving father can fill in the gap to ensure his son’s growth. Difficulties occur if the loss and grief are not taken seriously and the attachment to the mother as the opposite sex parent is too dependent. The problem with mother substitutes is they are too often only temporary. When they leave another emotional injury occurs similar to the previous loss.

For some sons this repeated experience of loss can encourage defensiveness that grows to the point of pseudo-independence and a premature conviction that a mother’s love is no longer needed. This often happens to boys (more than girls) who are expected to suppress their feelings. Now a son’s heart grows cold in order to protect himself again future hurts he cannot handle. Too many men make it to adulthood in this state of mind.

As you can imagine their dealings with women are negatively influenced by an internal defensive numbing that gets easily confused with deliberate insensitivity and misogyny. They just can’t let themselves get hurt by needing and losing a woman again. Unfortunately the history that created this problem often stays out of sight even to the subject himself.

Another large group of men with sick mothers and inadequate fathers cope by trying to find the mothering love they lost by searching for it amongst girlfriends and wives. The semi-conscious objective is to find the love that was lost by introducing unresolved childhood and adolescent needs for love into their adult love relationship. The need for mothering can be subtle and hard to detect. It can show up in the form of ‘needing’ to be taken care of in certain ways, or in the form of  possessiveness or control that creates tension and discomfort in the relationship.

However it shows up, the point is these needs for parenting love do not belong in an adult love relationship. There is only one chronological childhood. We can’t get unresolved parenting needs met in adult love relationships. The outcome of this kind of effort is always further disappointment and limited intimacy. The only recourse is to grieve the loss of love, let it go, and learn how to accept and enjoy the limited but satisfying love available in adulthood.

Another subgroup of sons with sick mothers and inadequate fathers become what is called ‘parentified’ children. These children solve the problem of sick and inadequate parenting by taking care of their parents. They in effect become parents to their parents, giving to the sick parent what they need from the parent. Now the roles are reversed. This seemingly creative solution is unfortunately too self-sacrificing to be healthy in the long run.

‘Parentified’ sons who take care of their sick mothers in order to cope with their inability to parent, struggle to suppress obvious needs for love and feelings of loss. They learn to work hard taking care of the needs of others and living off of the scraps that come in the form of reinforcements for their competence and reliability. Their needs for love are overlooked and overshadowed by everyone else’s needs.

Too often the unfortunate outcome of this kind of adaptation is children who grow into adults who burn themselves out by taking care of others until they begin showing signs of emotional exhaustion. Male children who become caretakers to this extent foster dependency and dysfunction in lovers who at first appreciate the ‘love’ they receive in the form of doting and care taking.

Now adults, sons with this problem will often find ‘needy’ women to take care of and nurture with the hopes of transforming them into mature loving women. The more hidden wish is to be given back some of the love given to satisfy the son’s underlying need for love. Unfortunately, the outcome is usually resentment and a breakup because trying to ‘fix’ a lover in this way is never successful.

Without a stable loving mother, a son can’t learn what is required to understand what makes ‘females tick.’ If the father is adequate to the job, that’s good, a lot can be accomplished. If his mother’s limitations are covered by other more mature and loving women in the family, that’s good too. If his father can’t do some of this and no other mature woman is around to do the rest, a son is faced with the task of figuring women out while interacting with them, supplemented by the help of other men. There are a smaller group of men who learn a lot about female psychology by making lasting friendships with certain women.

But the majority of men in this category are left trying to make sense out of women in love relationships with them, and with male mentors who may not have had any more success then they’ve had. The important lessons revolve around knowing how to relate to a woman, the communication of feelings, knowing when sensitivity takes the place of more masculine relating, and understanding how to encourage a woman’s growth in a love relationship.

Of course for those men strong enough and courageous enough to be humble and vulnerable in a love relationship, there is always the ‘socializing’ a woman can provide for a man she is in love with. This socializing is whatever a woman needs to do to teach a willing man the sensitivity required to be a committed lover.

Now we’re left with the issue of what influence a sick mother will have on her son’s personality. He can search for the healthy mother’s love in every love relationship he forms, or he can search for the sick woman he can love back to health and try to get the love back, or both. He can also turn himself into his sick mother. What this means is, he becomes the sick son who takes the place of the sick mother in his generation. Now the son has found a ‘sick’ way to solve the unresolved problem of loss. If he can’t have his mother in a healthy way, he’ll have her in a sick way, by identifying with her.

Once again frustrated love has its day but in a twisted way. Usually, sick sons attract caretaking women and the cycle begins again. When a son, now a man, realizes the limitations of these various solutions to the problem of loss, he will feel the grief and be in a better position to heal and change.

The hard part is working your way back to the feeling of loss with the understanding that the burden of lost love can be resolved and should not be carried for a lifetime. Our objective is to outgrow our parents’ limitations while dispelling the guilt feelings that try to stop us. The way we do that is to realize the ‘internal resources’ we can draw upon to live through the feelings of loss, let them go, and revel in the fact of a new love-life.  Dr. T. Jordan




Dr. Jordan

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

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