Isaac happened to find a wife that, in his eyes, was everything his mother wasn’t. She was tall, laid-back, outgoing; his mother was short, rigid, and socially awkward. But when kids came along and he and his wife sank into a new stage of life, he found her to be overly critical of him in the same way his mother was when he was growing up.
“She became anxious about how I handled the children, worrying about me taking them outside and about how played with them,” says Isaac, 42, who lives in San Francisco and, for privacy reasons, asked to keep his last name private. “They were small similarities at first. But then, one day when my mom was over, the two of them both scolded me for roughhousing with our in a way they thought was unsafe. Then they rolled their eyes at the same time and I thought: oh, no.”
There’s an old vaudeville ditty that goes, “I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad.” It’s a nice sentiment, sure, in that turn of the century pop song sort of way. And sure, many mothers have wonderful qualities that we’d all be happy for our partners to display. But what happens when you realize your wife is too much like your mom?
Although we think that we’re in control of our actions and behaviors, a large component of how we interact with people is hardwired into us from a young age. As a result, that early electrical work can dictate our choices for us, especially when it comes to choosing long-term partners.
“We as human beings are drawn to the familiar,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and a regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors. “And the familiar is what is reminiscent of our most powerful first relationships.”
When a mother nurses her baby and looks down at him or her, they gaze eye-to-eye at each other and an in-love experience is established. “That’s the first experience of love for that baby, and it becomes the baseline for all relationships moving forward,” says Walfish. “It’s the thing on which all relationships are compared and contrasted.”
With your unconscious mind driving your behavior, you’re going to find yourself consistently drawn to those familiar relationships without even realizing that it’s happening.
“That’s the first experience of love for that baby, and it becomes the baseline for all relationships moving forward,” says Walfish. “It’s the thing on which all relationships are compared and contrasted.”
“We don’t get to choose our mothers or our fathers, but we do get to choose our partners,” says Walfish. “But when you have a mom who’s your baseline —maybe she’s smothering or maybe she’s harshly critical or maybe she turns away and abandons you when you’re struggling — you’re drawn to that kind of personality. You’re caught like wheels that are stuck in the mud in a pattern of being powerfully drawn.”
This can also work with connections to fathers.“Let’s say the baby had a good-enough mother who was warmly attuned and consistently empathic,” says Walfish. “But the father was narcissistic and critical and had an explosive temper. That baby might have grown up with a stronger identification with the father because the baby perceived that power within the family aligned with the louder person.” In this scenario, while mother might have been the peacekeeper and had more power, the baby perceived power with the louder one. “And now he becomes a loud screamer, a critical guy and he keeps ending up with submissive women.”
As is the case with all manner of complexes, Oedipal or otherwise, the cycle is complicated, and hard to recognize. Breaking free of it, says Walfish, often comes in the form of an “ah-ha” moment of self-awareness, an instant of clarity where the person realizes that they’re either trapped in a dysfunctional cycle or that they themselves have inadvertently created one.
Walfish stresses that therapy is often the place that such issues can be unearthed and worked out. Hell, the entire practice of psychoanalysis was built on a foundation of doctors in thick German accents saying “tell me avout yer motha”.
But she also says that with or without therapy, dealing with such issues comes down to simply knowing yourself and identifying your weaknesses. You don’t have to fix everything right away, she stresses, but as long as you know it needs working on, you can begin to address it a little bit at a time.
“I define good mental health as knowing where your issues are and being accountable,” she says. “Owning up and being able to be in a relationship and say, ‘You know what? You’re right. That was my problem, I stepped on one of my parent’s issues and I yelled at you. I’m so sorry.’
She continues: “To be able to own it and not blame everything on the other person is a very big thing. Because I think most people don’t expect their partner to be perfect. Just to be willing to own up to their own part of the equation.”
“We don’t get to choose our mothers or our fathers, but we do get to choose our partners,” says Walfish. “But when you have a mom who’s your baseline —maybe she’s smothering or maybe she’s harshly critical or maybe she turns away and abandons you when you’re struggling — you’re drawn to that kind of personality.
The degree of dysfunction, of course, varies case by case. Isaac says he had a fine relationship with his mother; she just tended to be overbearing and anxious. “In other words,” he says, “she was human.”
His first realization that his wife was acting more and more like his own mother came hand-in-hand with her own transition to mom – and he admits that he “may have let his insecurities show through a bit.” He and his wife talked it out (granted, he said, in a conversation in which his wife made plenty of fake vomiting sounds) and worked through it.
This part of it, the owning up to your shortcomings, doesn’t have to begin with therapy. As with everything in a relationship, communication is key. If you realize that either you or your partner is mirroring negative behaviors of one or both of your parents, you can start to resolve it by simply having a conversation.
“Sit down over a dinner and give yourselves a chance to just listen to what the other one thinks,” she says. “Open up communication where you each take turns to listen without interruption or judgment. You don’t have to try and fix everything or come up with solutions, but just give each partner a chance to be heard, acknowledged, validated and accepted, flaws and all. That takes courage and strength. And if you can do that? That tells me that you don’t need therapy.”