There are variations, but the phrase is widely repeated among many women: How a man treats his mother is all you need to know about him. Women share this gem with each other as if reading tea leaves on the future treatment they can expect from their boyfriends or future husbands. But can you really judge a man by the way he talks to his mother? Turns out, we have it backwards. You can tell a lot about a man by the way his mother talked to (and talks to) him.
It’s unclear where the saying originated, but it permeates the relationship advice culture for women. You can find it in a million memes, It’s reiterated in personal essays from women who say their worst relationships were with men who yelled at their moms, and the good ones are with men who didn’t. Look around on wedding forums and relationship advice sites and you’ll see women debating it. “Is how a man treats his mother ALWAYS a sign?” a woman asks on Wedding Bee, laying out how her husband snaps at his mother, but to be fair, his mother is controlling and annoying. Which comes first? Mean son, or mean mommy?
My friends were divided on the saying’s veracity. One said she didn’t believe it was a valid hypothesis — romantic relationships aren’t like parental ones. Another said it was a perfect misogynist test. After all, how he acts around the only woman on planet earth who ever exerted power over him is a clue to what it will be like to live with him, particularly in terms of his expectations of women.
But what I’ve always found strange about the saying and its implications is that it assumes not just a lot about mothers, but also about men. If a man acts disrespectfully toward his mother, it can only be because he’s a bad dude, because all mothers are great. Or, conversely, if the mother is not great, it’s still incumbent on the son to treat her right.
But what about the mothers who aren’t great? What about the abusive mothers who themselves are damaged, critical, distant, or controlling? What if a son distances himself from his mother for his own mental health and preservation? And what if, whenever they interact, it’s combative, or bad, or difficult, or argumentative? Is that man a bad potential partner, or is that just a man with a bad mother? Or both?
The saying weirdly puts all the responsibility of the quality of the mother-son relationship on the man only. What’s more, by treating such a scenario as a relationship red flag, it implies that such a man is, by no fault of his own, basically unlovable, all because he got a shit mom. It’s a form of dysfunction shaming: People with bad parents are bad, too, and you shouldn’t be in relationships with them.
Still, the psychological underpinnings of the argument make some kind of sense, insomuch that we are all a product of our upbringing. It’s intuitive that the way we’re loved, or not loved, by our parents, indisputably affects the way we form bonds — or don’t — with others, and especially romantic partners. And the research backs this much up.
“There is a tremendous amount of evidence in childhood development research that supports that the attachment styles we develop with our mothers become the attachment styles we show with our partners and children as adults,” psychologist Jacqueline Duke tells MEL by email.
If all goes well, you end up with what’s called a “secure” attachment style, which generally means well-adjusted emotionally, and able to deal with conflict and express emotions, and be content alone or with someone else. If not, you end up with any of the other styles, which tend to be a lot needier.
“There is a specific pattern of parenting that causes a child to grow up with an insecure attachment to their caregiver that leads to an insecurity as an adult that could manifest in their being a bad partner,” Duke explains.
Duke — and note that she isn’t just talking about men here, but men and women — is referring to anxious attachment style, which she explains can lead to a person who is “insecure and self-critical.” Some research suggests that while roughly 60 percent of people have secure attachment styles, the other 40 percent are split between 20 percent anxious and 20 percent avoidant.
The anxious style attachment folks, Duke continues, “have an insatiable hunger for approval and reassurance from others, yet no amount of validation permanently eases their self-doubt. In romantic relationships, these deep-rooted feelings of self-doubt make them distrusting. This can cause clingy or jealous behavior towards their partner from constantly anticipating rejection and looking for signs that their partner is losing interest.”
Yikes, amirite? This may produce a lot of undesirable behaviors in a partner we might call “drama.” As Duke puts it, the anxious attachment person believes they have to express this anxiety in an “outwardly dramatic way,” or they won’t get the response they need. They vacillate between “violent outbursts of anger” and “over-the-top gestures for forgiveness and love.”
But in spite of all that, Duke says, if we are looking for red flags in a male partner, “It’s not as simple as spotting a mother who is overly picky in her son’s choice of partner or a mother who has her own personal flaws or eccentricities. The more likely culprit is a mother who is remarkably unpredictable in her responses or one that tries to live vicariously through their child.”
It’s these types of mothers, she explains, who are likely to continue this behavior with their adult sons when they attempt independence from them, by acting out, withholding love, or otherwise making threats by using manipulation. This is probably what we’re witnessing when we think a man is treating his mother badly: a bad relationship, based on bad parenting, that remains fraught.
By that logic though, we should amend the phrase: In order to understand a man, look not at how he treats his mother, but how his mother treated him. And even then, that’s only one piece of the puzzle. We should also look at the other relationships in his life.
Duke explains that while there’s validity to observing how we were parented, because attachment styles are “usually carried into adulthood,” it doesn’t mean there aren’t other caregivers in a man (or person’s) life who stepped in and modeled a more functional bonding style. Or that a person from such a background can’t succeed in relationships in spite of it. (Some therapists focused on helping such men call it working on the “mother wound.”)
“There are many cases when the other parent, grandparent, or caregiver was able to provide the type of relationship to form a secure attachment, thus setting the foundation for a perfectly healthy romantic relationship,” Duke says. You can also do therapy to identify and move through the issues, too.
Of course, sometimes not, and here’s where the adult man’s accountability comes into play. Though attachment styles aren’t set in stone, and people can work on them and still have successful relationships as an adult, a man who was raised this way may very well go on to treat women badly, particularly if he has no idea why he’s the way he is, or that it’s his mother who is essentially to blame.
But the only solution here would be to help men understand the ways in which their relationships with their mothers have affected their relationships with other women. That starts with getting them to even acknowledge this in the first place. But there are cultural roadblocks to this kind of insight.
“When a man tells a woman his life story, he’ll more than likely start by telling you about his father,” Peg Streep writes at Psychology Today. “But, on reflection, is that because the myths of motherhood — that pastel-colored, gauzy notion that all women are instinctively loving and nurturing — muzzle sons even more effectively than daughters? As counterintuitive as it sounds, might it be even harder for a son to acknowledge the pain he’s suffered at the hands of an unloving mother?”
Streep concludes that it is harder, in part because it forces an uncomfortable conversation about the ways in which mothers “unwittingly enforce masculinity” too. We could try to help men and their mothers understand this connection, or we could keep circulating pithy, reductive memes that tell us, and them, very little about how they got that way.