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Monday, December 28, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: How the Defense Mechanism of Idealization Can Get in the Way of Having a Healthy Relationship

It's not unusual for young children to idealize their parents.  A mother or father can seem to be all-knowing or powerful in many ways. It's usually a stage of development that children go through and, in many ways, this idealization helps them to feel safe and secure with their parents.

How the Defense Mechanism of Idealization Can Get in the Way of Having a Healthy Relationship

Over time, as children get older, especially during adolescence, their peers become more important in terms of bonding, influence and achieving a sense of autonomy.

But many people, especially people who have had a traumatic family history, get stuck in this idealization phase to the detriment of their personal growth as adults and also to the detriment of the issues they want to work through in their therapy.  For them, the idealization becomes a potent defense mechanism.

Many psychotherapists have had the experience of hearing a client talk about having "wonderful parents" or a "great childhood," only to discover later on in therapy that the client had a serious history of abuse or neglect as part of his or her family history.

As young traumatized children, who are powerless to move out and who are often too afraid to let anyone outside the household know about abuse or neglect, the early roots of this problem are understandable.  Most children who are being abused or neglected would prefer to believe that it's their own fault than to believe that their parents are abusive people.

It would be too scary to realize that they're in a home environment that is dangerous.  So, it's preferable to idealize their parents and believe that that, as children, they must have done something "bad" to cause their parents to abuse them and that, if their parents are abusing them, it must be because they "deserve it."

When a therapist realizes that a client is using an idealization defense mechanism with regard to his or her family of origin, it's important to be compassionate and tactful.  Being mindful of how the idealization defense developed in childhood helps to be compassionate.   It also helps to appreciate how strong this defense can be and that it requires a nuanced approach in therapy.

It helps both therapists and clients to realize that idealization, as a defense mechanism, like most defense mechanisms, served an important purpose in childhood to keep the children from feeling overwhelmed in a situation where they could not escape.

At the same time, when adult children idealize parents who were abusive or neglectful, as mentioned previously, this defense mechanism gets in the way of their psychological development and can derail their therapy.

Let's take a look at a fictionalized vignette which represents many different cases:

Mike
Mike came to therapy a few months after his last relationship ended.

How the Defense Mechanism of Idealization Can Get in the Way of Having a Healthy Relationship

Even though his friends told him that they felt he was not being treated well in his relationship with Ann, Mike couldn't understand what they were talking about--until Ann ended their relationship because she started a relationship with someone new.  Even though they had agreed to be monogamous, she admitted that she was cheating on Mike with this other man throughout most of their relationship.

Throughout his relationship with Ann, Mike was aware that he was the one who wanted a commitment and Ann didn't.  Even though he felt disappointed that two years into their relationship Ann didn't even want to define it as a "relationship," he didn't realize that his needs weren't being met.

He could talk to his therapist about how his friends felt that Ann gave him mixed signals about what she wanted and that she often cancelled their plans or disappointed him in other ways.  But Mike was unable to admit to himself how hurtful this was to him.  He said he thought that Ann just needed more time.

Even after the breakup, when he realized that she had been cheating on him with another man, Mike rationalized Ann's infidelity saying that he thought she was confused and she would come back to him.  But after three months, he had to admit that she was probably not coming back, and that's when he started therapy.

He felt that it was probably his fault that he didn't live up to Ann's expectations, although he was unclear as to what those expectations were because she never told him.

When his therapist asked him about his family history, Mike said he had a "wonderful" childhood that could not have been better.  He spoke about his parents in glowing tones.  He admired his father for being a strong, principled man.  He admired his mother for pursuing her dream to become a lawyer at the same time that she was married and managed a household after Mike was born.

Over time, as his therapist explored Mike's former relationship with Ann, she noticed that Mike made a lot of excuses for Ann's mistreatment of him.  He didn't seem to think that Ann should be held accountable for disappointing him, giving him mixed messages about what she wanted or for cheating on him at the end of their relationship.  Instead, Mike took on the blame.

How the Defense Mechanism of Idealization Can Get in the Way of Having a Healthy Relationship

His therapist pointed this out to him. She also asked him what he would think if his best friend told him similar things about a relationship.  At that point, Mike became uneasy.  His eyes became slightly unfocused and he seemed to be tuned out.

It was clear to his therapist that Mike wanted to avoid seeing how he was mistreated by Ann.  It was also clear that he was not aware of his avoidance.

When his therapist explored prior relationships, she heard similar themes where Mike chose women who were abusive, but he never saw the abuse.  Instead, he blamed himself.

Recognizing that this was a longstanding pattern for Mike, his therapist realized that Mike used the defense mechanism of idealization to ward off the hurt and pain that he surely would have felt if he were not defending against it.  She also surmised that, based on how ingrained it was, this defense mechanism probably didn't start with his relationships with women.

In a tactful and compassionate way, his therapist asked Mike to write about his family history from the point of view of a biographer--so not from his own point of view, but from the perspective of an outsider.  She wanted to see how Mike would describe his family if he had the perspective of an outsider and if Mike was using the idealization defense mechanism with his family.

When Mike came back the next week, he read his description of his family from the point of view of a biographer.  Most of it was still filled with admiration for both parents.  But there were also particular stories about his parents where it was obvious to the therapist that Mike was minimizing problems.

In one particular vignette about his father, Mike described how his father taught Mike valuable "lessons" on how to be "strong." One way that his father did this was to, without warning, take out his belt and wallop Mike unexpectedly every so often from the time that Mike was 10.

Mike told this story with a slightly dissociated look and with no emotion.  He told his therapist that, according to his father, the "lesson" was that Mike had to learn to deal with the unexpected and his father wanted to "make a man" out of him.  As he relayed this to his therapist, Mike said appreciated that his father did this for him.

Mike also described another incident where he fell and hurt his arm when he was 11 while playing baseball.  When he got home, he told his mother, who was the only one home, that his arm really hurt, but she told him that she was too busy with a legal brief she had to write and told him to ice his arm.

Throughout the night, Mike cried in pain in his room by himself.  With his father away on a business trip, his mother told Mike the next morning that she thought he was very inconsiderate for keeping her up all night with his crying and Mike felt badly about this.

When he nearly passed out from the pain, his mother took him to the ER and discovered that Mike had a broken his arm.  The doctor scolded Mike's mother and told her that she should have brought Mike in right after the accident.

Once again, as Mike told this story, he berated himself for being such a nuisance and he was glad that his father had not been home to see him cry.

Mike's therapist could see that Mike wasn't ready to see that he had been both abused and neglected by his parents.  Without realizing it, he preferred to idealize them rather than see how they mistreated him, and this was a pattern that he continued to use in his romantic relationships.

One the one hand, his therapist realized that if she proceeded too quickly, Mike would either be overwhelmed or he might leave therapy rather than acknowledge being mistreated as a child and as an adult.

On the other hand, his therapist also knew that if Mike didn't address his propensity to use the defense mechanism of idealization as a form of denial, he would continue to repeat this pattern in future relationships.

Knowing that Mike was cut off from his emotions, his therapist began to teach him how to become more attuned to how his emotions could reveal themselves in his body.

Using situations that did not involve his family or former girlfriends (so he did not idealize in these situations), she helped him to recognize when and where he felt anger, sadness, and joy, among other emotions.

This was a new experience for Mike, who never really paid attention to how he felt emotions in his body.  He was able to identify that when another driver cut him off on the highway, he felt angry and he felt it in his throat and stomach.  He was also able to identify that when his friend threw him a surprise birthday party, he felt joy and it felt like an expansiveness in his chest.  When an elderly neighbor died, he felt sadness as a weight in his chest.  And so on.

As Mike became familiar with his sense of embodied emotions, he was able to begin looking back at his relationship with Ann and allow himself to feel angry about how she treated him.

Over time, Mike was also able to look back at his childhood and feel the hurt and anger about how his parents treated him.  Rather than idealizing them, he came to a more balanced view of them as well as his childhood experiences with them.

Part of the work in therapy was helping Mike to grieve for his unmet emotional needs as a child.  At that point, because of the prior work he did with his therapist, he was able to tolerate feeling his emotions and allowing himself to grieve for what he didn't get as a child from his parents.

Although he was sad, Mike was also relieved to be able to feel his true emotions rather than suppressing them.

Over time, Mike also learned how to forgive his parents--not because he felt that he was at fault but in order for him to let go of his sadness and anger.

When Mike began dating again, he was much more attuned to what he needed and wanted in a relationship.  He was much more discerning and attuned with regard to the women that he dated.

How Defense Mechanism of Idealization Can Get in the Way of Having a Healthy Relationship

After dating several different women, he met Sally, a woman who had the qualities that he was looking for in a partner, and they entered into a mutually satisfying relationship.

Conclusion
Like many other types of defense mechanisms, idealization is a form of denial.

Idealization in and of itself isn't harmful.  For instance, children often idealize teachers, mentors or other role models who are nurturing and helpful to them.  Idealization in this form isn't a defense mechanism.

Idealization is a defense mechanism when it's used to avoid seeing problems with another person or other people, as in the fictionalized example above about Mike.

Idealization as a defense mechanism is an unconscious process so the person who is idealizing abusive parents or an abusive lover doesn't realize that this is what s/he is doing.

Other people, who might see the situation more objectively, can see it.  But the person, who uses idealization as a defense, often won't see it even when other people point it out to them.  If friends or loved ones persist in trying to get this person to see it, s/he often become more tenacious about maintaining the defense.

Experienced and attuned therapists know that it would be counterproductive to try to force the issue prematurely.  Even though they know that this defense has been harmful in many ways, they also know that the idealizing defense protects the client from being overwhelmed.

Therapists must use a more nuanced approach when working with these clients.  One way that is often effective is to help these clients, who are often somewhat cut off from their feelings, to become aware of their emotions in ways that are manageable by educating clients about the mind-body connection.

When clients are able to feel their emotions in an embodied way, starting with situations that are non-threatening for them, they can gradually learn to deal with the more difficult work of letting go of the idealization defense for significant relationships.

Although clients often experience grief at this point, they are also usually relieved to be able to feel their authentic emotions.

Getting Help in Therapy
Idealization as a defense mechanism is common.

If what you've read in this article resonates with you, you could benefit from working with a psychotherapist who has experience working with this issue.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.
































































Monday, December 21, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Understanding Your Emotional Needs

In a prior article, Are Your Emotional Needs Being Met in Your Relationship?, I began addressing the importance of having your emotional needs met within your romantic relationship or marriage.  But there are many people who don't understand what their emotional needs are, so I'm addressing this issue in this article.

Understanding Your Emotional Needs

Without being able to identify and understand your emotional, you can't really ask for what you need in your relationship.

Many people who had unmet emotional needs as children grow up to be adults who don't understand what their emotional needs are and how to even find out what they are.

Many of these same people go on to have romantic relationships with people who are, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, abusive, including emotional and/or physical abuse.

In contrast to people, who grew up where their emotional needs weren't taken care of, people who grew up in households where the love and nurturing was "good enough," usually have an intuitive sense of what they need from their romantic partner.  If their partner mistreats them either emotionally or physically, they are much less likely to put up with it than people who grew up with unmet emotional needs.

It's important for you and your partner that you understand what you need emotionally.

Let's start by identifying some of the most common emotional needs that people have.  This list will give you an idea, but it's, by no means, exhaustive, and you might identify other emotional needs that are important to you.

Common Emotional Needs
  • to be seen for who you are
  • to be heard
  • to be understood
  • to be encouraged, supported and nurtured
  • to feel loved
  • to receive affection
  • to have emotional intimacy with significant others (family, friends, partners/spouses)
  • to be allowed to grow and develop as a person
  • to be forgiven
  • to be touched and held
Once again, there are just some of the most basic needs that most people have, but there can be others.  For instance, someone who needs time to him or herself might have a need for a certain amount of solitude.  Or, there could be other important emotional needs, depending upon the individual.

Discovering and Understanding Your Emotional Needs
So, if you haven't had the experience of having your emotional needs met (or, maybe you not even aware that your emotional needs weren't met when you were a child) how can you go about discovering what these needs are?

As a psychotherapist, one way that I find to be very effective is to begin paying attention to what's going on in your body.

Your body contains both conscious and unconscious emotions and memories, so that focusing on what's going on in your body can begin to help you to understand your emotions as well as your emotional needs (see my article: Mind-Body Psychotherapy: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Depending upon how in touch you are with your embodied emotions, this can be challenging, especially if you are dissociated (i.e., cut off) from what's happening in your body due to emotional trauma.

For many people, who grew up in households where they were physically abused or emotionally neglected, as children, it would have been either dangerous or too emotionally painful to be in touch with their emotional needs.

In such situations, children often defend themselves against the emotional pain by suppressing their needs.  This is a common defense mechanism.  This defense mechanism protected them in a way from feeling the emotional pain.  It protected them from feeling too vulnerable.

The problem is that these same children often grow up to be adults who are out of touch with their emotions and don't know what they need emotionally.  Even worse, they often enter into romantic relationships that replicate their childhood experiences.

Let's take a look at a fictional scenario to understand this:

Dina
Dina came to therapy because she was confused about her two year relationship with John.

Understanding Your Emotional Needs

Her close friends had been Dina all along that John wasn't treating her well after they moved in together.  Although she trusted her friends and she knew that they wanted the best for her, Dina didn't see it and she wondered if she was missing something.

When she provided her family history, she talked about growing up as an only child and being raised primarily by nannies.  Her parents were often preoccupied with their careers and too busy to spend much time with her.

As a result, before going to school, Dina spent a lot time playing on her own.  She remembered having a young nanny who was kind and attentive for a short while, but her parents fired the nanny after they discovered that she was allowing her boyfriend to come over to spend the night when Dina's parents were away traveling.

Dina remembered waking up one day to find that the nanny that she loved wasn't there.  She was given no explanation until much later when she was an adult.  This was a big loss for Dina that she suppressed and never discussed until she came to therapy.

The new nanny that they hired was somewhat quiet and reserved.  As a result, Dina often felt sad and lonely, and she sometimes went to her parents to try to get their attention.  During those times, her parents scolded her for being "needy," which made her feel ashamed.  Later on, when she was old enough, she was sent to a boarding school far from her home.

Understanding Your Emotional Needs

Shy and sad, Dina had difficulty making friends at boarding school.  There were a couple of students who were more outgoing who befriended Dina, but being at boarding school and hardly seeing her parents was a sad and lonely experience.

By the time she went to college, Dina gave the impression of being "independent."  But it was really a pseudo independence that was a defense against being emotionally vulnerable.

Intelligent and attractive, she attracted the attention of many male students in college, but she dated very little and spent most of her time with a few outgoing friends who initiated friendships with her.

Dina met John in her senior year of college.  Shy and unsure of herself, she initially kept John at arm's length.  But he was persistent and found ways to be around her during college activities.

After John asked Dina out many times, she agreed to go out with him.  Initially, she found him to be very attentive.  Not only was he good looking and intelligent, he was also very funny and made Dina laugh, so she began opening up to him more.

Dina had never experienced anything like this before, and she became captivated by him.  He was her first and only lover, and their love making was very passionate.

After they graduated from college, they found jobs in NYC and moved in together.  By then, they had been together for a year.  At first, looking for an apartment and making plans was fun.

But shortly after they moved in together, Dina realized that John seemed to change.  Whereas before he was very attentive to her, he now seemed to be preoccupied with other things--his job, his male friends, hobbies, and other activities where Dina was not included.

At first, Dina thought that John was adjusting to post college life, but a year later, he was still the same. Whenever she tried to talk to him about it, John became uncomfortable and dismissed what she had to say.

Then, a few months before she came to therapy, Dina discovered an email on John's account from another woman and she realized that when John said he was seeing his friends, he was actually seeing this other woman.

When she confronted John about it, at first, he denied it.  But she showed him the email, he blamed her.  He told her that she had become boring and it was her fault that he looked outside the relationship.  He told her that, as of now, it wasn't serious, but he wanted to continue to see this other woman to see whether it would develop.

At first, Dina took John's words to heart and she blamed herself for his infidelity.  She thought:  Maybe he's right.  Maybe I am boring.  What can I do to change?

When she talked to her close friends about it, they told her that John was making excuses, not taking responsibility, and blaming her for his own behavior.  They told her that John was mistreating her, but Dina didn't see it.  She believed that if she could be more interesting, attentive, and sexy, she could lure John back.  But no matter what she tried to do, he continued to see the other woman and spend most of his free time with her.  He wasn't even coming home at night any more.

When Dina started therapy, she wasn't sure what she felt about John seeing another woman.  She knew she wanted him to be monogamous with her, but beyond that and blaming herself, she wasn't in touch with any other emotions.

By helping Dina to become more aware of what was going on in her body, Dina began to slowly develop more of an awareness of her internal experience.

For instance, she began to recognize that when she felt her stomach muscles clinched, she was either anxious or angry and that when she felt a sinking feeling in her chest, she felt sad.

Over time, Dina began to realize how much she had suppressed her emotions as a child as a way to protect herself from feeling overwhelmingly sad and angry with her parents.  She developed compassion for that younger part of herself that was often left to fend for herself, and she appreciated why she had to suppress her feelings as a child.

But she also realized that she was much more resilient as an adult and she could now handle the emotions that would have been too overwhelming as a child.

Part of the work in therapy involved grief work for her unmet emotional needs as a child.

The work was neither quick nor easy, but eventually Dina was able to feel her anger and disappointment and recognized that John was mistreating her.  She also realized that she needed to feel loved, valued and treated with respected and her needs weren't being met in her relationship with John.  So, she summoned her courage and broke up with him.

Understanding Your Emotional Needs

Several months later, Dina began dating again.  She used her new awareness of her embodied emotions to understand what she needed emotionally in a relationship and she used this awareness to eventually enter into a much healthier relationship.

Conclusion
When children grow up with unmet emotional needs, they often protect themselves emotionally by suppressing those needs.

As adults, they often continue to suppress those emotional needs so that they're unaware of what they need emotionally.

This lack of awareness has consequences for the individual on his or her own and for being able to choose healthy relationships.

When clients are unaware of their emotional needs, one effective way of working in therapy is for the therapist to orient the client to what's happening in his or her body with regard to embodied emotions.

Getting Help in Therapy
Using the mind-body connection to identify your emotional needs is an effective method.

If the issues in this article resonate with you, rather than struggling on your own, you could benefit from being in therapy with a psychotherapist who has a mind-body orientation to doing therapy.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.










































Monday, December 14, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Recovery: The Myth About Having to "Hit Bottom" to Change

The myth that people who have addiction problems have to "hit bottom" before they decide to change is both extremely dangerous and completely wrong.  This is an outdated concept that is still around in some recovery circles, and it has been detrimental to many people.

Recovery: The Myth About Having to "Hit Bottom" to Change

Even though many people in recovery now realize that "hitting bottom" is detrimental, there are still some people in recovery who still believe it.

If you're struggling with addiction, whether it's drinking, drugging, compulsive gambling, sexual addiction or some other form of addiction, or you love someone who has an addiction problem, it's important that you understand why the "hitting bottom" myth is dangerous.

Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario and see how believing in the "hitting bottom" concept can be dangerous and what to do if you or a loved one is stuck in this type of distorted thinking.

Ed
Ed began gambling in college.  Initially, his gambling involved sports, like gambling on the Super Bowl.  Over time, it grew to include other forms of gambling.

While in high school, Ed was able to hide his gambling from his parents.  But by the time he was a senior in college, he gambled away his tuition money, so he was forced to reveal his gambling problem to his parents.

Ed promised his parent that he would never gamble again, so they lent him the tuition with the agreement that he would pay them back when he graduated college and began working.

When he graduated college, Ed got a high-paying job in finance and he began to pay his parents back.  Little did his parents know that Ed never stopped gambling, and his secret gambling problem had progressed to include going to the casinos, playing high stakes poker with friends, and online gambling.

Recovery: The Myth About Having to "Hit Bottom" to Change

After a few months, despite his high salary, Ed was making excuses to his parents as to why he was unable to make his monthly payments to them.  He was also asking to borrow more money from them.

By then, Ed's parents realized that he had not been honest with them and he was still gambling, so they confronted him about it.  At first, he denied it.  Then, he admitted that it was true.  But he felt that he could "control it" if he wanted to and rejected their suggestion to get help in therapy or to attend Gamblers Anonymous.

Recovery:  The Myth About Having to "Hit Bottom" to Change

Not sure what to do, Ed's parents spoke to a close friend, Tom, who once had a gambling problem, but who overcame it by attending Gamblers Anonymous (G.A.).  Tom had been in recovery for many years, and he rejected their idea to have a family intervention to confront Ed about his gambling problem.

Instead, Tom told Ed's parents that Ed would only be willing to change after he had "hit bottom." He told them that it would be useless for them to try to persuade Ed before that, and they should let Ed find his own way to his "bottom."

Ed's parents weren't sure what to do.  They were worried that Ed's gambling would continue to get progressively worse if they didn't urge Ed to get help.  But they decided that Tom had a lot of experience in G.A. and he must know what he was talking about.  So, with much difficulty, they stood by while Ed continued to gamble, hoping that he would "hit bottom" soon before he had ruined his life.

A year later, Ed's parents were shocked and dismayed to discover that Ed was arrested for attempted fraud as part of an internal investigation in his company.  He was taken out of the company in a pair of handcuffs.

Recovery: The Myth About Having to "Hit Bottom" to Change

Fortunately, since it was his first offense, the judge mandated Ed to get into treatment, a combination of psychotherapy and Gamblers Anonymous in lieu of going to jail.

His parents attended some of his therapy sessions in order for them to understand what happened and for Ed to repair his relationship with his parents, who were hurt and angry.

During one of those sessions, Ed told his parents that, before he was arrested, he was sure that he could stop gambling at any time if he really wanted to do it.  But, after a while, he was deeply in debt to loan sharks and he was so desperate that he did what he never would have thought he would do--he tried to embezzle money from his company.

Ed took full responsibility for his actions.  But his parents realized that following Tom's advice to allow Ed to "hit bottom," rather than doing a family intervention earlier on, was ill advised.

The therapist, who had an addictions background, also advised them that "hitting bottom" was a dangerous myth.

Conclusion
The motivation to change can come in many different ways.

Sometimes, people get a wake up call that they're heading down a slippery slope and they need to make changes in order to avoid a disastrous end.

Other times, people make a few false starts before they make a commitment to change.

The idea of "hitting bottom" would certainly be seen as ridiculous with just about any other type of problem.  Imagine telling someone who had a progressive medical problem that s/he had to wait until the problem got much worse before s/he got help.

The idea of "hitting bottom" is just as ridiculous and dangerous when it comes to addiction.

Getting Help
If you have a loved one who is caught in the grip of an addiction, rather than waiting for the problem to get worse, express your concern.  If that doesn't work, try doing a family intervention in a loving and tactful way to let your loved one know that the family cares and is concerned.

If you're the one who is struggling with addiction, get help sooner rather than later, before there are serious consequences to you and your loved ones.

Living a healthy and fulfilling life is its own reward.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me

































Monday, December 7, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Feeling Caught Between Your Spouse and Your Mother

In an ideal world, spouses and in-laws would get along and no one would feel caught between a spouse and their parents.  Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world and it's not unusual for there to be tension between spouses and in laws.

Feeling Caught Between Your Spouse and Your Mother

There are any number of reasons why spouses and in laws don't get along, and it would be impossible to address them all in one article, so I'll present a common scenario which is a fictionalized case based on many different cases.

Mary and Bill
As an only child, Bill was raised by a single mother who struggled to provide for them after Bill's father abandoned them without a penny.

Bill and his mother were very close.  He grew up being aware of how much his mother sacrificed for him and felt guilty that he couldn't do more when he was a child.

By the time he was a teenager, Bill worked a part time job after school and on weekends to help his mother out financially.  Even though he did as much as he could to help, he felt like he couldn't ever do enough for his mother.

By the time he was ready to go to college, his mother had already established herself in her own business and she was dong well, but Bill felt guilty for her earlier struggles and continued to feel indebted to his mother.

Bill met Mary as they both entered into their senior year of college.  Soon they were spending most of their free time together.  After a few months, they knew they were in love and only wanted to date each other.

Feeling Caught Between Your Spouse and Your Mother

When Bill brought Mary home to meet his mother and his extended family during his last year of college, everyone went out of their way to make Mary feel welcomed--except for Bill's mother.

Feeling Caught Between Your Spouse and Your Mother

Bill's mother was usually a friendly and gregarious person, but when she met Mary, she was inexplicably cold and distant, even though Mary tried her best to develop a rapport with Bill's mother.

Afterwards, Mary spoke to Bill and told him that she thought his mother didn't like him.  Bill seemed very pained and hesitant at first, but he eventually acknowledged that he was surprised by his mother's unfriendly behavior.  They both hoped that things would improve.

When Mary introduced Bill to her family, they all welcomed him warmly.  Throughout Mary and Bill's courtship, they invited him to family functions and they were very pleased when they got engaged.

When Bill's mother continued to be standoffish with Mary, Mary asked Bill to speak to his mother to find out why she seemed to dislike Mary.  But Bill kept telling Mary that he was sure that after they got married, his mother would change.

During Mary and Bill's wedding reception, Mary was hurt and surprised to overhear Bill's mother telling Bill's great aunt that he was the best son that a mother could ever want to have, and she lamented about "losing" him to "another woman."

Hearing her words, Mary realized that Bill's mother felt competitive with her and that things were unlikely to change unless she and Bill tried to find a way to resolve this problem.

Mary tried to be patient.  She endured Bill's mother's standoff behavior without getting competitive herself.  She knew that Bill cared very much for his mother and that he felt guilty for his mother's early struggles when he was a child.  But she also felt disrespected by his mother, so she told Bill that they had to figure out what to do because this situation had been going on for too long.

Mary could see how Bill seemed to revert to being a small child again whenever she brought this topic up to discuss.  She asked him to speak to his mother, and he looked down and told her, "I can't."

Feeling Caught Between Your Spouse and Your Mother

When Mary suggested that Bill needed to get help in therapy to deal with the overwhelming guilt that he felt towards his mother, at first, Bill felt resentful.  He didn't want to go to therapy.

But, as he thought about it more and more, he realized that Mary was right.  But he still felt confused.  On the one hand, he knew that Mary had been very patient and he didn't want her to be hurt by his mother any more.  On the other hand, he felt like his mother had gone through so much that he felt too guilty to make any demands of her.

After thinking about it for a few weeks, Bill made an appointment to see a psychotherapist to discuss this situation.

During his therapy, he dealt with his sadness and guilt for his mother as well as the childhood sadness that he never allowed himself to feel when his father left.

Over time, he realized that whenever he was around his mother, he still felt like a child who was too afraid to alienate his mother because he feared that she might leave too.

His therapist helped Bill to gradually overcome his childhood trauma, so that he could have a talk with his mother as an adult.

Feeling Caught Between Your Spouse and Your Mother

When he approached his mother about the topic, he was surprised that she was receptive to talking about it.  She told him that after his father left the household, she dreaded the day when Bill would also leave and she would be alone.

His mother told him that she had nothing personally against Mary, and she could see that Mary made Bill happy.  She admitted that she would probably be standoffish with any woman that he chose, but she realized that this was hurtful to both Mary and Bill, and she knew that she needed to change.

Bill felt relieved that their talk went much better than he anticipated.

Shortly after that, Bill's mother asked Mary to have lunch with her (just the two of them).  She apologized to Mary and, much to Mary's relief, she told Mary that she hoped they could get along better.

By the next holiday, Bill and Mary noticed how his mother was making an effort to be warmer and friendlier with Mary.

Feeling Caught Between Your Spouse and Your Mother

A few months later, Bill's mother went out on a date with a man who had been asking her out for a while. In the past, although she liked this man, she never wanted to go out with him.  But after she and Bill talked, she realized that if she felt lonely, she needed to do something about it rather than trying to hold onto Bill.

A year later, Bill's mother got engaged to this man and she was much happier than she had been in years.  She also kept her promise to Bill about treating Mary well.

During his therapy sessions, Bill admitted that although he was happy that his mother was happily engaged to her boyfriend and that she was treating his wife better, he also felt a twinge of sadness that he was no longer the center of his mother's attention.

At that point, he realized that he had been unaware of his own unconscious need to be the most important person in his mother's life, and how this might have played a role in his reluctance to talk to his mother before he did.

Getting Help in Therapy
As I mentioned earlier, there are many reasons why spouses and in laws don't get along and why adult children often feel caught in the middle.

As in the fictionalized scenario above, at times, people are aware of some of the underlying emotions that are getting in the way of dealing with this type of situation with a parent, like the guilt that Bill felt.

There can also be unconscious feelings that usually don't come to the surface when you're not in therapy.

Although the scenario presented in this article involved a mother and son, this problem often exists between either a daughter or son and a mother or father.

If you're struggling with a situation where you feel caught between your spouse and one or both of your parents, you could benefit from working with a mental health professional who can be objective and who has the clinical expertise to help you to deal with the underlying issues and resolve the problem.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.