Dr. Lynn Margolies
Competing Family Loyalties in the Holiday Season
The holidays are ripe for unearthing family dramas, often featuring a popular story line about competing loyalties. Though there are variations on the plot, the focus here will be on this dynamic as it plays out with men and boys and their mothers. Many men, caught up in powerful family dynamics from childhood, are plagued this time of year with having to choose between their mothers or their wives, as practical decisions regarding shared holiday time take on added meaning and consequences.
Holidays typically recreate old family dynamics as adult children reunite with parents, creating pressure from the original family system to replay the same patterns as before. This pressure invites conflict as new boundaries, competing with earlier ones, are tested and challenged. How the scene unfolds, and the outcome, depends on the level of differentiation achieved by the man from his mother, and the security of the boundaries he has established around his marriage and new family.
Loyalty binds are part of a common dysfunctional family dynamic which occurs when mothers use their sons to make up for previous loss, and lack of connection with - or anger at - their husbands. In such families, mothers often have a history of unresolved trauma, loss, or insecure attachments with their own mothers. This leads to a parallel and compensatory style of attachment with their sons, whereby instead of the mother tuning in to the child’s emotional states, the reverse occurs, requiring the child to adapt to the mother’s needs.
“Good enough mothering” involves a delicate dance of noticing and attuning to the child’s own rhythm, and adjusting one’s own rhythm to be in sync with the child’s need for closeness or distance, stimulation or retreat. Healthy attachment requires mothers to be secure enough to allow their children to safely differentiate from them without pulling them back in with the threat of anger, withdrawal, and/or guilt. Unresolved issues from the mother’s own childhood, particularly around separation and loss, can impede her capacity to allow the child’s needs and rhythms - not their own - to guide attachment.
As the child becomes an adult, a mother with this anxious, insecure attachment style may refuse to let go, secretly needing to remain the primary love attachment. This may not become apparent until her son finds a romantic love partner and devotes himself to her, allowing a competitor to enter the scene. The situation is then often enacted in full drama around family events and holidays when the mother’s explicit demands, and (unspoken) expectation of “loyalty” (e.g. exclusive love) from her son, conflicts with his role as a husband.
Jason’s mom required a possessive, symbiotic union with her son to guard against experiencing buried feelings of loss and abandonment. Losing her hold over Jason as he shifted his loyalties to his wife was the ultimate threat to her sense of security and control. When Jason married Kelley, the split he felt as a boy when he had to choose between his mom and dad - was recreated between his mother and his wife. This split became most apparent during their first holiday season together, when Jason’s mom made him feel guilty about how he divided his time, accusing him of abandoning her, and directing hate and blame towards Kelley.
Jason’s parents divorced when he was a very young boy. Growing up, when he was at his dad’s, his mom called him frequently, asking him if he was ok - even when he was happy - and reassuring him that he had other people (her family) who loved him. She communicated to him in a variety of explicit and implicit ways her hurt and betrayal over his dad, which made Jason feel responsible for taking care of her.
Jason coped by developing a pattern of emotional detachment and blunting his feelings with both parents, so as not to let on that he was having too good a time with either. He experienced muted enjoyment with his dad in particular, often acting as if he were less excited than he was, especially when his mom phoned him, which was often. He felt particularly protective of his mom - the “abandoned one", often hiding the nature of his relationship with his dad, though it was secretly vital to him, and feeling guilty for leaving her alone. Jason’s father, in turn, took his son’s blunted reactions at face value, worrying that Jason did not like him or enjoy their time together, often pulling back in reaction or becoming angry.
Jason was in the dark about how he felt because both parents imposed their own feelings onto him. No one helped him understand what was happening or gave him a safe space to experience his own natural reactions, which went underground. Without help articulating their own and other’s states of mind through words and emotional resonance, children do not develop a “sense” of themselves. This self-awareness or inner wisdom is needed to guide us, allowing us to gauge what is happening in our relationships, and make decisions that are true to ourselves.
In place of authentic experience, Jason developed an adaptation to relationships in which he was detached and “other directed”. His reactions were driven by fear and dread of his mom’s unhappiness. When she was angry or hurt, through a process of “projective identification”, he took on her feelings as if they were his own, experiencing the weight of her depression, and the related feelings of guilt and badness she projected onto him.
Projective identification is an unconscious psychological process occurring in relationships whereby one person’s disowned feelings are put onto the other. The recipient identifies with these projected feelings as if they were his own and both enter into a shared delusional cycle. In this case, Jason experienced his mom’s rageful accusations of abandonment as an emotional truth, feeling depressed, guilt-ridden and mad at himself for not looking out for her.
Using guilt, as Jason’s mom did, to control others in relationships disregards boundaries and disrespects the other person’s autonomy. This approach to relationships replaces mutuality and negotiation with greed and emotional blackmail, presuming a lack of faith that others would give of their own free will. It is typically an unconscious process whereby the guilt-tripper feels self-righteous, entitled, and innocent of any misdeed. Emotional manipulation through guilt can be costly - breeding resentment, limiting authentic engagement, and hijacking initiative and genuine desire.
In cases such as Jason’s, the lack of differentiation between mother and son is so complete and unconscious that the man may be unaware of the source of his resentment, easily displacing it onto his wife, usually a safer target than mother. This pattern leads to unintended collusion with the mother, causing the marriage to become divided until the man “owns” his unexpressed conflict with his mom, and recognizes that she is the source of his anger. An absence of anger towards his mother, or the inability to come forward with it is likely a sign of re-experiencing a once adaptive, but now instinctual, response to danger experienced as a child for any such emotional separation from mother.
Jason needs to see what is really happening in order to disentangle himself from his mother’s projections and find a space to think and feel for himself. Awareness of his internal conflict and anger over the emotional burden and manipulation he has had to bear will allow him the courage to set limits with his mom. Standing up to his mom will reduce his fear and avoidance, creating a space for him to act of his own volition and desire and choose his wife as his primary loyalty and partner in life.
Tips for the woman:
• Stay aligned with your husband• Communicate feelings and requests clearly, without anger, or acting out• Don’t demonize or bad-mouth his mom • Refrain from holding or playing out conflicts that reside between your husband and his mom• Don’t behave like his mother and try to control him• Allow him needed autonomy• Be mindful of the burden he has had to bear and that he is reacting to survival instinct
Tips for the man:
• Recognize that your primary allegiance is to your wife• Set boundaries with your mom to protect your marriage • Learn to say no to your mother and not give in reflexively• Call your mom out on inappropriate behavior and demands• Never collude with mother’s complaints about your wife or confide in your mother about your wife • Present you and your wife as a united front that can’t be split
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.