My doctor, my GP, was a very wise woman. She still is, I’m sure, but she’s not practising any more. She was my doctor for almost twenty years during which time I saw her about fifteen times. Her impact on me was out of all proportion to the time I spent with her. She was a no-nonsense doctor, prescribing the gym rather than expensive treatments or painkillers, offering me work space in her surgery if I wanted to re-establish myself in legal practice, telling me I would have died in childbirth if I had been living in Africa, and, most of all, telling me that I had to make sure that my relationship with my husband came before my relationship with my children because that was the rock on which all other relationships would be built.
I’ve never forgotten her saying that and her words have always nudged me at appropriate times, at difficult times.
It easy to see families where this cardinal rule has not been appreciated. Sometimes I think whole continents are populated by families where the oppposite rule prevails, but I think my doctor got it right because this is what I think happens when the rule is ignored.
Take a man who believes that he is superior to his wife. And feels the need to insist on it.
His wife’s self esteem will naturally be affected by constantly being given the message that she is inferior. Nobody can bear being in this position in their primary emotional relationship without some detrimental effect on their self-worth.
She may to some extent bolster her opinion of herself by communing with other women, but she lacks something essential to a healthy couple – mutual, reciprocal self-regard.
Chances are that he still holds his mother up to be the perfect woman, and measures his wife against her. Perhaps he also has a sister whom he outwardly adores and against whom the wife is measured and falls short.
What is the wife to do?
She could leave, but she is unlikely to do so, especially if she has children.
Odds are that she will, unconsciously, seek to find fulfillment in her children. In her sons. In her younger son if she has more than one. Or in her older son if the next child is a way away or is a daughter. Feel sorry for him now for he has no idea where he is being led.
In addition to needing to know that in someone’s life she comes before all others, she also needs to define herself in relation to the Other, and daughters don’t cut the mustard. She is female only in relation to male. This two needs are normal, natural, essential.
But the way she finds of meeting them is disastrous, for it perpetuates the cycle.
The son is too young to be the bearer of his mother’s emotional needs. He will feel swamped and, underneath, angry that this has been put on him. This will be mixed with his love for his mother, his primary carer, and the resulting mix is toxic. It breeds narcissism – that horrible combination of shame and grandiosity that wrecks the lives of so many people. It is a terrible thing to do to a son, however understandable the mother’s behaviour is. No wonder he grows up angry, full of rage.
In order to salve his shame, and unable to do so himself, he will seek a woman to make him feel better. He might be obviously full of his own importance, in which case he will be easier to spot, but he may well appear shy, but charming. She’ll probably be the sort of woman who was ignored by her father at home. Very possibly a daughter from a family with this narcissistic germ in it. She’ll be keen to please, kind, self-sacrificing, full of praise (never having had any), encouraging, nurturing, mothering (having had to mother herself). She may well be able to see the shame of the little boy on the inside and desperately want to rescue him. Who would not feel sorry for him?
Though initially he is attracted to her and he hopes she will save him from his shame, she will push his red panic buttons big time – his fear of being smothered by his mother. And so he will, sooner or later, distance himself from her. He will never allow true intimacy to develop, though there may be sufficient tantalising glimpses to keep his wife hooked in and assure him of his narcissistic supply. She may or may not be able to see what is at the root of his discomfort, but it very unlikely that he will see it, or allow himself to see it.
His wife will feel lonely. After all, her emotional needs are not being met. She will, subconsciously, realise that this man is hollow at his core. And she will be desperate for food, like the rat seeking comfort in the cage of intermittent reinforcement.
And the cycle starts all over again, especially if she has sons.
It’s possible to break the cycle at any point.
The husband can recognise his ambivalence and seek help to resolve it. He was a victim when he was a child and it was not his fault, though his behaviour now is his responsibility.
The wife can recognise her enabling behaviour and stop. The relationship will almost certainly fail, but it’s possible the husband might join her in counselling.
The son can recognise what has been done to him, and seek help to ensure that he does not repeat the pattern. The hardest part will be facing up to his relationship with his beloved mother and, if she continues to place emotional demands on him which are inappropriate, dealing with those and the fall-out in their relationship.
The daughter can acknowledge what she has been denied and seek help to ensure that she does not find herself in a similar relationship to her parents. She will have to face up to her feelings of not having been loved, and will have to develop the strength to deal with her family members without giving up too much of herself, and she’ll probably have to go through several relationship with men like her father before she recognises that there is a pattern.
I wish my doctor was still around to speak to every young woman like me, getting married or having her first child – to give her such good advice. I was so lucky not to find myself married to a man like my father. It seems like a miracle, considering, and I am endlessly thankful for an opportunity to break the cycle with our family and our daughters. I am grateful that my mother-in-law did not smother her son.