Do you have a strained or complicated relationship with your mother? Maybe difficulties from childhood carried over into your adult relationships, setting the stage for complications with romantic partners or your own children.
People often call these difficulties “mommy issues.” While the term itself may sound a little cringeworthy, it does describe some very real distress.
If she abused you, manipulated you, or failed to provide essential emotional support, the psychological aftereffects can persist into your adult life.
So-called mommy issues can also result from overprotective or overly permissive mother-child dynamics. Maybe she did all the household chores and looked the other way when you made mistakes. Or perhaps she tried to be your best friend and confidant, not your mother.
These doting, loving parenting styles may not seem so negative, but they can also have some serious effects.
You had no control over the way she chose to parent, so you aren’t to blame for any outcomes of a toxic maternal relationship.
Still, it’s worth making the effort to address any relationship difficulties you experience. After all, you can control your behavior now.
How do they show up?
People usually apply the term “mommy issues” to men who display some of the following traits and behaviors:
- an expectation that romantic partners will provide more than a fair share of household labor or emotional support
- trust issues or difficulty showing vulnerability
- a strong need for affection and approval or difficulty showing affection or rapid shifts between the two
- “cold feet” when it comes to relationship commitment
- a need for maternal guidance when making decisions
- difficulty spending time with or discussing their mother
- relationship anxiety
- discomfort with intimacy
- extreme sensitivity to real or perceived criticism
- underdeveloped relationship boundaries
- a habit of dating people who share certain similarities with their mother
Patrick Cheatham, a psychologist in Portland, Oregon, explains that people who have a strained or toxic maternal relationship often expect romantic partners to fulfill needs their mother could not.
When relationships do play out like this, he goes on to say, you might end up idealizing your partner.
When this doesn’t happen, you experience some disillusionment that leads you to shove them off the pedestal, so to speak.
Does this mean I had a ‘bad’ mother?
It’s easy to see how people with unloving or emotionally unavailable mothers might carry lingering scars as a result of harsh or distant treatment.
But what if she simply wasn’t there?
Maybe your mom died or couldn’t care for you properly because she had physical or mental health issues and lacked support. She might have even made the choice to leave you with your other parent because she thought it would give you the best possible life.
Her absence can create feelings of abandonment or rejection, no matter her reasons or lack of control over the situation.
You might try to seek this missed love from other mother figures or romantic partners. The need for their affection might leave you with the urge to do everything possible to keep them happy so they don’t leave, too. Sometimes, this can show up as clinginess or people-pleasing.
There’s also, of course, too much of a good thing.
Perhaps, far from neglecting you, your mother smothered you with well-intentioned guidance and refused to let you make your own choices.
Growing up unable to meet your own needs and expecting partners to support you can lead to some pretty unhealthy dependence.
Can women have them?
Yes, but they probably won’t look the same.
Anyone can experience distress as a result of a painful or estranged maternal relationship, but gender can affect how these issues show up.
Daughters of unkind or overly judgmental mothers might grow up with a poorly developed sense of self-worth.
If your mother spent a lot of time pinpointing your flaws or critiquing your appearance, you might have a lot of shame and insecurity as an adult. This sometimes contributes to unhealthy relationship patterns or mental health symptoms, including depression and anxiety.
An enmeshed relationship, or one that lacked normal parent-child boundaries, can cause problems, too.
Maybe she tried to be your best friend when all you really wanted was a mom who set boundaries, enforced limits, and told you to be careful around “bad boys” instead of begging for details of your sex life.
This can create an entirely different set of complications. Maybe you do everything you can to shock your mother into giving you some tough parenting love or withdraw completely to keep her from popping in every part of your life.
This can be tough when you want motherly guidance as you establish yourself as an adult, and pursue relationships and children of your own.
How do they compare to ‘daddy issues’?
If you’ve heard of mommy issues, you’ve probably heard of “daddy issues,” too.
Both these terms have their roots in attachment theory, which we’ll go over below. They also relate to Freud’s controversial Oedipus complex theory.
Neither, however, are diagnoses that any credible mental health professional recognizes.
You may have heard that women have daddy issues and men have mommy issues.
In reality, people of any gender can experience psychological distress as a result of an unfulfilling relationship with either parent.
People sometimes use the term “daddy issues” in the context of sexual behavior, something both inaccurate and stigmatizing. All it really means is that your less than ideal relationship with your father affects your adult relationships.
Someone who has so-called daddy issues might:
- have trouble trusting partners
- form romantic attachments easily or struggle with intimacy
- experience relationship insecurity or anxiety
- need a lot of validation and emotional support
- seek out partners with some of the same traits as their father
Some of these sounding familiar? That’s right: They’re pretty similar to traits associated with mommy issues.
Do they really affect relationships that much?
Just above, you heard that mommy (and daddy) issues relate back to attachment theory. Here’s why that’s important.
This bond is usually formed with your mother. It becomes your first relationship and partly lays the groundwork for other important relationships you develop throughout life — namely, with romantic partners.
According to attachment theory, there are two main types of attachment, along with several subtypes.
“Adult attachment style is remarkably congruent with childhood attachment style,” Cheatham explains.
“You might consider attachment the way people balance intimacy with identifying and then preventing or protecting themselves from perceived risks in relationships,” he says.
When your mother is available to meet most of your physical and emotional needs from the get-go, you’ll most likely grow up securely attached.
You could depend on her, so you feel comfortable trusting other important people in your life. Securely attached people generally feel safe and embrace intimacy within relationships.
Perhaps your mother was physically or emotionally absent or showed up sometimes, but not always. In either case, your
Anxious attachment is a type of insecure attachment. It might suggest your mother was sometimes unavailable.
Your mom might have showed inconsistent affection or struggled to provide support when stressed or caught up in her own issues. Maybe she was distracted by work, put her partner first, or couldn’t be fully present due to health concerns.
With an anxious attachment style, you might feel terrified your partner will also reject you or fail to provide support and need constant reassurance to believe otherwise.
Even with reassurance, you struggle to trust them, so you find yourself checking in (or checking up on them) often.
Avoidant attachment is another type of insecure attachment. It might develop when your mother ignored you or treated you harshly.
Maybe she was overly critical and expected you to keep your emotions and behavior completely under control. Instead of offering support, she expected you to look after yourself and meet your own needs.
With an avoidant attachment style, you might prefer to avoid relationships, especially committed ones. You were discouraged from showing emotions or expressing needs, so you never learned to do so.
Partners might see you as distant, even cold, since you need to maintain plenty of independence and control.
Learn more about the complexities of attachment theory.
What other effects can they have?
In addition to affecting your romantic relationships, mommy issues can come into play when you become a parent yourself.
In many families, parents traditionally looked to girls to help maintain household harmony, take care after younger siblings, and generally work toward becoming a mother.
Sons, on the other hand, traditionally had more freedom inside and outside the home, including more forgiveness of behavioral lapses.
These expectations are changing. Phrases like “boys will be boys” are going out the window as people increasingly recognize the flaws with a binary view of gender.
That’s great news for future generations, but many adults today still experience “mommy issues” that reflect gendered assumptions.
Some men might struggle to complete any household task, from laundry to picking up after themselves, because they were never expected to do so.
They might look for a female partner who will manage these responsibilities and continue the cycle. Cheatham explains they might also have unrealistic expectations when it comes to their partner’s parenting.
On the other hand, some adults (women in particular) might bend over backward to be a better parent than their mother was to them.
“Parenting might be more complex for women who have a complicated or estranged maternal relationship,” Cheatham explains.
Society already tends to place overly high expectations on mothers, which can be a lot of added pressure if you’re also trying to make sure you aren’t recreating the relationship you had with your mother.
Remember, though, there are plenty of ways to be a good parent.
Maybe your mother wasn’t always there for you, but she might have tried her best with her available resources — just as you will for your children.
Can they be resolved?
It can take some good hard work to overcome the effects of a difficult maternal relationship.
An important first step in the right direction involves acknowledging how your mother’s parenting style might have contributed to the traits and behaviors creating problems in your current relationships.
A lack of awareness around these issues makes healthy resolution pretty tough to achieve, but identifying them can enable you to begin making changes.
Say you realize you fear rejection from your partner because your mother threatened to leave if you weren’t good. From here, you might work to remind yourself that your partner loves you and wants to be with you.
Of course, this isn’t always easy to do alone, even with healthy support from a partner. That’s where therapy comes in.
Professional support can have benefit for any kind of attachment issues.
A therapist won’t diagnose you with mommy issues, but they will acknowledge the lasting effects a strained or toxic maternal relationship can have, and they can offer support as you begin addressing these concerns.
In therapy, you can:
- explore what you needed but didn’t get from your relationship with your mother
- practice setting healthy boundaries
- address mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression along with people-pleasing tendencies, codependency, or toxic shame
- make a plan for talking with your mother and working through issues together, if it feels right and appropriate to you
- develop skills for healthy romantic relationships
A therapist can also offer guidance on what healthy parental relationships look like in adulthood.
It’s completely normal and OK to update your mother about your life, but remember, it’s your life.
Your mom shouldn’t make your decisions, shape your career, or select your romantic partner (unless your culture practices arranged marriage, and you’ve given her permission to set one up).
The bottom line
Rather than writing off real concerns with overused terms that don’t get at the heart of the matter, let’s call “mommy issues” what they are: attachment issues.
Your attachment to your mother absolutely can have an impact on your romantic life, but support from a therapist can help you work to develop more secure, stable relationships.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.