Momma’s Boys: The good, bad and ugly of loving a guy who adores his mother

Dear Duana,

What do you know about the man whose controlling mother offers approval only when he makes Mom #1….the man who lets his mother openly complain about his wife, tells Mom everything, and then takes Mom’s contrary advice at the expense of his wife’s input on all of it—money, career, parenting?  How does he wean himself from her approval? And what happens if he doesn’t?


Dear Sarah,

Ever notice the clinging, hand-holding, full-frontal-hugging, endless-kissing, crying-at-partings indicative of…a one-year-old and his mother?  Our first passionate relationship is usually with Mom and/or Dad.  And if it goes well, it forms the roadmap to Happily Ever After with our eventual mate.    

But before we Go There, please read the following three statements*, and then pick which one reflects you (and then, your partner) the best:  

A. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me.  I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting close to me. 

B. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others: I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them.  I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being. 

C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like.  I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me.  I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away. 

These descriptions indicate your Attachment Style—the basic way you create and sustain a bond with a partner—and they were derived from behaviors originally observed between Mommas and their babies, and later backed up with observations of adult couples parting at airports.  “A” refers to adults with secure attachment (56% of the adult population); “B”, avoidant (25%); and “C”, anxious/ambivalent (19%)—mimicking the percentages of security and insecurity among babies with their parents. 

Although the past does not *have* to dictate the future, about 70% of infants maintain the same attachment style into their 20’s and beyond—and they learn it from the way their parents treated them as babies. 

So, it can be a Very Good Thing  to start life as a securely attached Momma’s Boy, or to marry a man who did.  Not only are secure adults’ relationships more trusting, happy and lasting than others’, they’re more likely to handle inevitable problems appropriately.  In contrast, the insecurely attached may pay so much attention to possible problems that they actually create them—bringing up conflicts destructively, and often refusing to be soothed no matter how their partner responds.    

Continuing life as/with Momma’s Man is another matter.  The central emotional task of marriage is creating a sense of I’ve-Got-Your-Back, We’re-In-This-Together Solidarity.  And women’s inherited mating psychology is geared toward seeing *any* other woman’s high rank in her partner’s heart as a threat to that solidarity and her security.  Women value being loved not only for its own sake—placing it ahead of all other criteria for marriage, everywhere in the world—but also because love signifies a partner’s *willingness* to provide and protect.  A man who devotes his resources to someone else is, plainly put, useless as a spouse.  And it’s well-established that men give their resources to the #1 person in their lives.  So, if that’s Momma….  

Which means two things: 1. I really hope your question was academic and not personal, because 2. although research usually hedges or gives a range of options, science shows one and only one solution to the Momma’s Boy problem:

The husband *must* side with his wife against his mother—letting everyone know that the wife is #1.  Failure in this guarantees a loss of his marital happiness, and potential loss of the marriage itself.    

It might be tough to convince your man of this, though, not only because of the training he’s received from Mom, but because men usually don’t see that they are making a choice.  Ironically, research shows that most men who do all those things you listed in your letter, Sarah, do not think of themselves as putting Mom first.  They just want everyone to get along; they see their role as pleasing both of the women they love, and are dumbfounded when it doesn’t work.    

But Trying To Please Two Women Never Works—unless by “works” we mean the guy masochistically enjoys being the object of rage.  To quote John Gottman, the master in this arena, “It is absolutely critical for the marriage that the husband be firm about [putting his wife first], even if he feels unfairly put upon and even if his mother cannot accept the new reality….he has to stand with his wife and not in the middle (emphasis added).”    

Upshot?  Men can’t wean themselves off Mom’s approval.  They must Just Do It, making the wife #1.  For instance, if your monster-in-law makes a snide comment about you, your husband must man up and say he won’t hear anything negative about his wife.  If something’s on his mind, he must tell you first, ask your opinion first, and take your input more to heart than his mom’s.  If his mother offers unsolicited advice about where you should vacation, what he should eat, how to discipline the kids, etc., he must side with you: “That’s an interesting idea, Mom.  Sarah and I will discuss all our options.”  He should remain respectful to Mom—but he can no longer sit on the fence. 

Sarah, it’s rare that science provides one and only one solution, and I wish there were more options.  Because in a sense, this puts the power in the hands of your husband.  Will he see what it will cost him to keep making his mom the primary woman in his life—and how he will benefit by putting you in your rightful, top place?  Hopefully so.  May he do the best thing for you and your marriage.  It will be the right thing for him, too.    




*Taken from Cindy Hazan’s and Phil Shaver’s Adult Attachment Questionnaire

The author wishes to acknowledge the following scientists and sources:

Thomas N.  Bradbury and Benjamin R. Karney, for their outstanding textbook regarding Intimate Relationships, including attachment theory.

John Gottman, for the definitive longitudinal work on what makes marriages succeed and fail—and what to do about it.

David Buss and his colleagues, for worldwide research into evolved mating preferences, and for the comprehensive text Evolutionary Psychology.

Cindy Hazan and Phil Shaver and Chris Fraley, for their research into adult attachment styles via questionnaires and/or at airports.

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, for groundbreaking work in attachment theory and infant-caregiver attachment.

D. C. van den Boom, for experimental research showing how to create secure attachment in children by educating the parents. 

Everett Waters and others, for longitudinal research showing that attachment styles are usually stable from infancy through adulthood


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Reader Comments (16)

Dr. D -- perhaps I could have guessed that men who fail to replace World's #1 Mom with Worlds Most Fabulous Wife might be in for a rocky road, but I had no idea of the magnitude of the consequences of failing to make that transition. I suppose it goes hand in hand with growing up. At some point, your own values and needs supplant your parents' and you begin to make decisions that might contradict those that they would make for you. But a parent who has provided a safe place for a child to exercise his decision-making skills in situations with increasingly significant repercussions will recognize that as a natural progression. Unfortunately, the tendency to want to shelter growing children and direct their activities usually lags behind those children's ability to make those decisions for themselves.

I guess this is sometimes carried to the extreme as Moms might try to continue to direct their grown children's behavior. So I'm wondering: What are the consequences of a grown woman failing to place her husband as #1 in her life? Seems I've heard countless late-night comedians rail against the control that Mother-in-laws can exert on their daughters. And, I wonder why there doesn't seem to be a huge problem with daughters failing to transition from from Daddy's Little Girl to Hubby's Main Squeeze (I heard all the fathers of daughters out there just tighten their grip on their armchairs). :)

Thanks for another thought-provoking article!!

April 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

If someone is insecurely attached as a child, and they want to become securely attached as an adult, how can they successfully change?

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Lucio

2 random observations:

First, I almost feel sorry for Mama! If I'm the Mama, I want to say to my son, "But I'm your MOTHER ....!" Sniff. Maybe I'm feeling the future of having to let my own little one go...

However, as the wife, I'd be most definitely furious if my husband put his Mama above me.

Second ...

As a dating woman, this rings completely true. The mama's boys held zero appeal for me. I thought: If they can't take of themselves (i.e., strike out on their own), then how can they take care of me? Interestingly, I didn't need taking care of - I had plenty of ability to do that myself. But I still wanted a real man, not a mama's little boy.

I feel for Sarah, but I'm wondering why she didn't see her man's attachment to his Mama during the dating stage ...

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

I am avoidant . . . because my mother was/is anxious.

I don't relish being the bone of contention between two women, any time. And I definitely chose my wife as my Number One, over Mom. But, darn it . . . my wife turned out to be fixated on *her* parents (mostly her father, but also wishing for her mom's love).

Anyway, I could not tell from this article whether any of the three attachment styles in a man truly have an advantage for a woman and for the couple's partnership. I do agree with the observations about men's need to choose their wives and their dumbfoundedness at the tension between mom and spouse.

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Love the article.

It makes me wonder about my step-mother. She didn't want her husband (my father) paying any attention to his adult daughters. I thought she just didn't like us.

But ...maybe it's the same thing that's happening to Sarah: For the marriage to work, husbands must side with their wives against their mothers. Likewise, must husbands must side with their wives against their adult daughters?

What a jealous creatures we are, we are.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoan

I see that the wife has to be #1 against all others. But if I'm the man's mother, or his adult daughter, it feels like a bitter pill to swallow, i.e., that some other woman now outranks me.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

Dear Kelly, “…a parent who has provided a safe place for a child to exercise his decision-making skills in situations with increasingly significant repercussions will recognize that as a natural progression. Unfortunately, the tendency to want to shelter growing children and direct their activities usually lags behind those children's ability to make those decisions for themselves. “ = Perfectly Said; I’m sure there’s many a parental (and child) nod to that.

Regarding your question, “What are the consequences of a grown woman failing to place her husband as #1 in her life?”, here is the Official Answer:

Nobody Knows.

That is, to my knowledge, nobody has studied this in depth. The only references I’ve read say that despite all the jokes about the wife’s mother (or father)—and the *fact* that moms and daughters usually have the closest lifelong family bond—husbands seldom bring this up as a counseling issue. Men do not seem to leave or even become significantly distressed by their wives’ clear involvement with his Ma-In-Law at a level where (were the situation reversed) women would be plotting mayhem if not murder.

Just because science hasn’t officially addressed this doesn’t mean we lack plenty of theoretical support to explain the apparent acceptability of being Momma’s Girl, though. Here we go:

1. Maybe husbands are enraged by wifely devotion to Mom and Dad, and they just don’t tell the counselors, or they put up with it and focus on other areas of their lives, or they divorce their wives but give another reason. This seems the least likely explanation, but it’s possible.

2. Think of your family. Who does the holiday and birthday shopping? Who plans the parties? Who keeps the brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, dads informed of everyone’s news? Research would bet it’s The Mom. Sociologists have an official term for this largely unacknowledged role: Kin-keepers. Families may not even notice that Mom serves these important bonding functions until she’s gone…at which point, many siblings –sans Mom’s help or an adult daughter’s taking of the kin-keeping place—no longer keep in touch.
Kin-keeping is not only important for social ties, but for survival. Raising infants and young children is exceedingly difficult even now, with every modern convenience. Raising them throughout most of history and most of the world today—simply in terms of survival—is/was much moreso. Because our psychology comes from ancient times reflected in modern behavior, we can expect that the kin-keeping function of mom-daughter bonds literally helped keep kids alive. Still does.

And so, we should expect men to support (or at least not object to, aside from some ribbing) behaviors that help keep their children alive. Kin-keeping, as such an action, in theory would not prove terribly offensive to men. And in reality, for most men most of the time—it doesn’t.

3. As for women’s closeness to Daddy, this, too, appears not to devastate families as a rule. Some research shows that women and children fare better when they live close to the woman’s father and other male kin, because the abuse rate from other men (including the woman’s husband) falls sharply. In this sense, women with nearby dads are benefiting from kin protection, and the children of that woman and her husband are benefiting as well.

That said, though, in any marriage or permanent partnership, the data are clear: The happiest couples are those where *both* partners put their spouse first. Men may tolerate abundant presence of their in-laws in their and their wife’s life, but couples who thrive have two members who have boundaries when it comes to everyone outside the marriage.
Thanks for a great contribution.

April 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Here is a letter I received from a man who wonders if being gay and being a Momma's Boy might be a different matter from being a straight MB:

Dear Duana,
I’m a gay man whose mom is one of my best friends. I’ve seen straight relationships end over this issue--do you see trouble brewing for me?

Hi, Jeffrey--
I think you can go right on being great friends with your mother, although if you want the very best possible love relationship, you'll need to reserve the Best Friends spot for your partner.

That's because men seek youth and beauty in partners--regardless of sexual orientation. So they're not usually seeking someone to provide for and protect them. This means that as a gay man, you are held to a higher standard of physical beauty than straight men typically are. But unlike a straight man (whose female mate may feel threatened by *any* woman's supremacy, since men tend to invest resources in their #1 person), you aren't likely to have a partner who will see your relationship with Mom as a deal-breaker.

And PS: If anyone gives you a rough time about your attachment to Mom, know this: Gay, straight, and lesbian attachment styles in adulthood are indistinguishable from one another.

April 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hi, Laura,
I, too, would love the answer to your question about how people switch attachment styles. It's very plain that some of them--about 30%--do, so we know it can be done.

What's less clear, though, is how to change your attachment to a secure style if you started out life insecurely attached. In Everett Waters' and others' long-term research analyses, they stated that "negative life events" were the things associated with a shift in attachment styles. Meaning that some folks who were securely attached had experiences beyond their control as older children or adults, and these bad experiences then took these formerly secure people and made them insecure in their style.

But that answer is not only depressing--it doesn't address your question. You're asking about whether people can consciously choose to become secure. The best answer I can give is this:
It hasn't been studied in-depth, but I know people who have successfully changed their attachment style to a secure style. And here's how they did it:

1. They acknowledged that their attachment style wasn't working for them.
--I had a client who thought herself securely attached, right up until she took Shaver & Hazan's three-item survey (above in this article). She turned out to be avoidantly attached, which was a big shock to her. It explained a lot of why her relationships had failed. And she decided that wasn't good enough for her.

2. Then, they made a conscious decision to alter their attachment style by Noticing when they were feeling or behaving insecure, and then Acting As If they already had the secure style they sought.
--Simply noticing when we're doing something that is contrary to our best interest, is a remarkably effective strategy for change. Without beating ourselves up, if we just start to pay more attention to what we would like to change about ourselves, change will gradually occur.
--Acting As If has also been empirically shown to help people to change. It has certainly worked for my clients.

3. There is another route to change, and it is this: Be With Someone Good. Sometimes, a marriage can heal the attachment troubles of the past, if the insecure partner follows the steps above, and the secure partner is very, very patient. Marriage at its best is a place of safety and healing that permits growth...even when our backgrounds may not have let us start out as secure beings.

Thanks again for an important question, Laura.

April 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Gillian,
Although it's likely that men show many signs of being Momma's Boys before saying I Do, Sarah didn't specify whether she's really with a Momma's Boy, or whether her query dealt with mere curiosity. For her sake, I really hope it's Choice B. However, I did receive several letters that were personal and asked about various angles on the Momma's Boy issue (to wit, Jeffrey's letter, above).

Your point is well-taken, though. Marrying a man who hasn't cut the apron strings is a dangerous proposition. He may change, but he may not. Better to find out beforehand.

April 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Here is another letter I received, this one from a man who is having a tough time finding a mate (or even a date) who will accept his living arrangement:

Dear Duana,
I'm tired of being called a Momma's Boy. Yes, I do live with my mother at age 35, but only because I had some setbacks and needed to return to school. Women won't cut me any slack, though. Why can't they see that I'm improving myself and besides that, I'm nice to my mom, so I'll be nice to them, too?

Dear Canaan,
If you've never seen it, I want you to watch "Jerry McGuire" and pay special attention to Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character when he shouts "Show Me The Money!"

Because that is, in effect, what women are saying to you now. See, women don't have as many years to procreate as men do, and yet we usually prefer a man who is only slightly older than us--so we often accept a young man, based not on his current achievements but on his *future* prospects. For men who are expected to be full-fledged adults, though, little slack is cut.

What this means in practical terms is that women are using your living arrangement to assess not only your current lifestyle, but your future lifestyle. While most women will overlook a man's living arrangements in his late teens or early 20's, that is probably because that's Launch Pad time. Women understand that a man that age is working hard to achieve independence at that point, and so they use other markers (ambition, grades, family connections, degree program) as signs of *future* resources.

But you are now at a point in life where women expect you to have achieved Lift-Off and be on your own.

For these same reasons, women are likely to see a mid-30's man who resides with Mom as a poor bet for financial and emotional dependability and stability. David Buss' and others' painstaking research in dozens of societies shows that women around the world, in cultures ranging from the USA to non-industrialized and hunter-gatherer cultures, highly value “dependable character and emotional stability or maturity.” Most literally say these qualities are "indispensable"--Deal Breakers, in other words, if absent. And only love ranks higher as a prerequisite for marriage. (Interestingly, men and women usually don’t differ on this—when they do, though, women value dependability and stability even more than men do.)

All this said, if you are willing to lower your standards abysmally, you will find plenty of women who are willing to accept your current situation. But my guess is that these are not the women you would have anything to do with once your education is complete and you're on your own. Just as the women you now want are probably highly desirable and don't need to settle for a man living with Mom, you'll be the one in the position to pick and choose once you've achieved your goals.

So finish up school, get out of Mom's house, and *then* look. You'll find it's a great new world.


April 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hi there, Tom,
GREAT question. Yes, *both sexes'* current attachment style definitely benefits (or hinders) your partnership and also any children you produce. I t can be well worth your while to look into the tips I gave Laura, above, for changing your attachment style.

First, let's consider the Secure Attachment style. According to Shaver & Hazan's on-going research through the 1990's, Secure adults' relationships are marked by
--Ease in establishing intimacy with others;
--Lack of worry about getting too dependent on others;
--Enjoying the sexual aspect of long-term relationship;
--Long, satisfying relationships.

And Secure adults are most likely to be around to raise their children. These children, in turn, are not only likely to be Secure themselves, but to benefit in nearly every regard, from grades to likelihood of teen pregnancy.

The picture for Insecurely Attached adults is quite different. Adults who exhibit Avoidant Attachment tend to be:
--Fearful in their relationships, showing discomfort at getting close with others;
--Dismissing, wanting independence and self-sufficiency;
--Sexually promiscuous compared to other styles, having, for example, more one-night stands than the other styles. BUT they have fewer affairs once married than any other attachment style, maybe because of ambivalence about wanting *any* relationship;
--Not too invested in relationships; more likely to leave relationships.

Finally, Anxiously/Ambivalently Attached adults tend to be:
--Untrusting, and more possessive and/or jealous than the other attachment styles;
--More likely to break up repeatedly with same person;
--The most easily angered in conflicts;
--And the MOST likely of the three Styles to have extra-marital affairs. Ironically, it appears that the fear of being abandoned may lead some of these adults to hedge against being alone by finding a 'back-up".

Tom, I'd also like to elaborate here on some of the benefits children receive from having fathers who are Securely Attached--or at least, highly involved in their lives.

Girls without fathers in the home between toddlerhood and age 7 are not only sexually active sooner—they literally mature faster--reaching menstruation at an earlier age--, as David Buss reports. And “In one mammoth British study following 7259 children from birth to adulthood, those whose fathers were most involved in parenting (including outings, reading to them, and taking an interest in their education) tended to achieve more in school, even after controlling for many other factors such as parental education and family wealth (Flouri & Buchanan, 2004--as reported by David G. Myers in his Exploring Psychology, 7th Ed.).”

That's father involvement. But numerous studies show that babies need—not just want—attachment from at least one parent, of either gender. If they are institutionalized and not given an attachment relationship prior to 8 months of age (or left in the institution beyond a timeframe of 8 months), the emotional problems are long-lasting. Similarly abused children’s brains appear to be re-wired in such a way that serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter, is too low—corresponding to the formerly abused who become aggressive as teens and beyond. Brain and behavior changes occur for other abused and neglected mammals, too.

So: Attachment Matters. It matters for our whole lives. And it matters for the lives of future generations.

April 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Joan,
I'm sorry for your step-mom's dismissiveness, but not surprised. My answer to Kelly, above, applies to your situation, I think. Women see the presence of *any* woman who seems primary in a man's life as competition for resources and security, even if it's not always conscious (as much of our inherited mating psychology is not). This explains not only your own step-mom's lack of affection for you as an adult, but also a major reason divorced dads have often paid as little to their offspring as possible: Most of those dads remarry, and the new wife wants him to devote his resources to her and her kids, not his children from another union.
Not that this excuses the dad's behavior. But it does show why people are so impressed with kind and generous step-mothers, and with fathers who show on-going devotion to their first family's kids even after having another family later on.

As for the biological adult daughters of Mom & Dad...Based on evolutionary psychology and what is nailed down about women's mating psychology, most women will probably feel pretty good about their husband showing lots of generosity to the daughter. Their Genes are marching forward through that daughter, and our Genes tend to persuade our Brains to emotionally like stuff that gets the Genes passed forward.

That doesn't mean, though, that most women would be fine with having their husband make their daughter #1. The top place is *always* for the wife...or else. :)

April 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hi, Gillian,

Sadly, the only way to raise a best friend without ruining your kid's life is to raise a daughter. There's a lot of truth to the saying that "A daughter's a daughter for all of her life, but a son is a son until he takes a wife."

Undeniably, though, you're correct. It's bound to be galling to be the mother or daughter of a man who used to worship you...and has now relegated you to #2 or even less.

For moms, there is some concrete advice regarding how to keep your son as close as possible *without* ruining his and your grandchildren's lives:

--Accept that a major part of Mothering involves teaching men to be Men, and that if you've done your job well, your son will want to put his own family of creation first. It's *his* job, so that his own kids can do well and Pay It Forward.
--Accept your new position. Anything less will result in the harming of your son's family, or your dismissal from all favor. Neither of these is good for anyone.
--Don't accept disrespect. It's mandatory for a man to politely (yet firmly) say he won't hear criticisms of his wife, or to politely (yet firmly) insist on taking his wife's input above Mom's, or to refuse to divulge personal information about his wife or their relationship.
But it's inappropriate for a man to insult or shout at his mother. *That*, you could reasonably object to.

April 16, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Oh, this one really *got me going*, on several fronts. Paraphrasing Darren's mother on "Bewitched"..."A son is a son till he takes him a wife, but a Mother's a Mother for the Rest Of His Life." As you well know, Duana, my long-term marriage has absolutely EVERYTHING going for it. Now I can add another + to the list. Both Glen and I were loved, etc, both entered adulthood with a Secure Attachment style. Glen's brother had a harder time letting go of Home and Mom & Dad...I once said their Mom cut the apron strings, but Don wouldn't let go of them. Glen, on the other hand, took the severed apron strings and carried them in his pocket, next to his heart.

But my parents, who had a 54-yr marriage and adored each other, had a much rockier road. Daddy's stepmother, who came into his life when he was 5 years old, always had to be Number One, wherever she was. Especially with the 2 men in her life. She was an "old maid" of 35 when she married. I have always thought my grandfather married her to provide a mother for his beloved son...he never recovered emotionally from the tragic death of his first wife in childbirth. Mamaw hovered over the little boy, whom she loved as much as if he were her own (according to everyone with whom she shared her feelings). But her idea of *love* was Control. The woman had to be in Control. Daddy did not know there was any other way. He was never told anything about his birth mother...found pictures, jewelry, special dishes in the cedar chest following Mamaw's death. But that's another story.

He fell *head-over-heels* in love with my Mother at first sight and through sheer determination won her heart. Amazingly, his asthma disappeared when he married :-) He placed her on a pedestal. That's what one does with a Woman. But his Mother still maintained control, and my mother always felt Mamaw's jealousy. Mother wanted to make Daddy happy, filled their home with furniture, even wall-hangings, exactly like the decor in his mother's home. It worked *on the surface* for 15 years.

Daddy, of course, *sneaked around* a tiny bit as a teen...he assumed that's how Life was supposed to be. He was never unfaithful to Mother, but he was not always exactly where he said he'd doesn't tell The Woman everything. All finally erupted, of course, and he finally realized the crippling effects of Mamaw's control over his life. Years of work were needed to repair the marriage...Daddy's first reaction was Rage at his stepmother, which lasted quite a while. But he finally came to terms with her personality style and found a sense of balance. It also helped that Mamaw mellowed with age. Mother always said I was probably the first human being Mamaw ever loved, without the need to control...and she totally respected my mother's intelligence and fiscal control. (Daddy was a spendthrift :-)

About the Kin-keeping. One does not have to be down the street from the Kin-keeper for the benefits to exist. My parents lived all but 3 1/2 years of their marriage in the same city as both their mothers and her siblings. Mother was truly happiest during the 3 1/2 above-mentioned years. She was happy for me that Glen and I lived in a separate state from both sets of parents, as she felt we could more easily form a real bond in a Place of our Own. We traveled quite a bit, taking the children to *Nana & Pa's* or *Grandma & Grandpa's* each holiday and during the summer...but we did not have anyone looking over our shoulder. Is this the healthiest way? Treading a bit afield here, perhaps this is another subject entirely.

I always gain new information in your articles...good stuff about attachment styles. Our gr-daughter was a preemie born in So Korea, had other physical probs as well. Joined our son & his wife at 6 mos., but does suffer from RAD.

April 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen

Dear Carmen,

"Glen, on the other hand, took the severed apron strings and carried them in his pocket, next to his heart." That is poetic--a perfect description of the best-possible outcome for an adult son who loves his mother, but puts his family of creation first. Thank you.

Your letter brings up at least two issues --no, more, but two for now :).

1. How do parents create secure attachment in their children?

--Undoubtedly, attachment style comes from an interaction between the child's inborn personality and the parents' response to that child. Some children really are Difficult, and some are Easy (and some are in-between). Not surprisingly, Difficult babies are much likelier to wind up insecurely attached than Easy babies...the endless demands of the former may just be too much for the parents to handle.

To test this idea, Dymphna van den Boom got parents of Difficult babies to agree to be in an experiment she ran in the early 1990's. At random, she put some of the parents into sensitivity training, where they were shown how to be highly responsive to their babies' needs.

(Responsiveness means picking up crying babies immediately (they are not capable of manipulating!); feeding and diapering them on the babies' schedule, not on the adults'; and carrying the babies a great deal. Human brain development quite literally thrives, driving up IQ and social intelligence, in these circumstances. On the other hand, we know from research on insitutionalized babies and on infant monkeys who are deprived of any attachment figure that IQ and socialization can lag so far behind, as to never catch up.)

Other parents were in the control group, receiving no training. Months later, when Dr. van den Boom tested the attachment of the toddlers to their parents, well over half with sensitivity training were securely attached...and the vast majority of the control babies were insecure.

Which means: Parenting style causes attachment, although it is affected by ithe baby's temperament. And fortunately, parenting style can be taught.

2. Do adult kids and their parents get along better when they live nearer, or further apart?

--Carmen, you're right on in your observation: Parents usually get along better with the adult child who lives further away. Yvonne Brackbill, for instance, repeatedly found that the closer a child lives, the more conflict and disagreement exist, and the more often the parents just flat don't like the nearby kid.
Perhaps it's just easier to idealize those with whom we aren't in frequent contact...and maybe, too, it's simpler to prevent interference in the adult kids' lives when the adult kids aren't too close at hand.

April 18, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.
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