NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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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 (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.