The Oedipus Complex in Divorce Situations

Since writing my last post about the Oedipus complex, I’ve been thinking more about those situations where we might make use of Freud’s ideas concerning the family triangle; one that occurred to me is a toxic divorce situation of the kind I described in my post on the shame-based divorce.

To summarize the basic ideas in that post: In situations where unconscious shame and mutual idealization have played a large role in a marriage, if the relationship breaks down and the couple divorces, they usually battle one another to see who will be the “winner” and who the “loser”. They often try to enlist the loyalty of their children against one another; the parent who can get a child to turn against the other parent will then feel triumphant over the former spouse. This is a tragic instance of the narcissistic needs of that parent overriding his or her concern for the welfare of the child: desire to take vengeance on their ex drives them to sacrifice the child’s fundamental need for a good relationship with both parents.

This dynamic always damages the child, but it can be doubly toxic when added to an Oedipus complex dynamic. Here’s a scenario that may be familiar to many of you. I’ll describe it in relation to divorced mothers and their sons because I’m more familiar with that situation, though it would also apply to fathers and daughters. In cases where the husband’s infidelity instigated their divorce, the ex-wife may often have legitimate grounds to be angry, but that wouldn’t justify the kind of destructive narcissistic behavior you sometimes see.

I’m thinking of the ex-wife who makes her son into the “little man”, who turns to him for the sort of companionship she might look for with a spouse, and who confides thoughts and concerns inappropriate for a child to hear. She might discuss her financial situation in ways that subtly make the boy feel responsible and protective; she might complain to him about the difficulties of her new status as a single woman and the burdens of running a household alone. Looking to a son to assume some of the chores her ex-husband might have shouldered is one thing; asking him to step into his father’s shoes as confidante and life partner is another.

The ex-wife’s attempts to poison the relationship between father and son make the situation much more lethal for the boy. You may recall that in Freud’s view, the Oedipus complex is “resolved” when the son identifies with his father, internalizes him as part of his conscience as conceived of in the id ego superego model of the mind. That resolution implies an intact family, where the father’s authority opposes the son’s desire for exclusive possession of his mother; it depends upon the boy’s respect for his father and an awareness that the father doesn’t actually want to retaliate for those patricidal impulses the son may have harbored.

So what happens when the mother enlists her son as a surrogate husband and at the same time tries to destroy his relationship with his dad? In a particularly toxic way, it confirms the Oedipal fantasy. By trashing her ex-husband, she subtly invites the boy to “kill off” his father; how then can he “resolve” his Oedipus complex in the usual way, by internalizing a positive authority as part of his superego? Even if you don’t find the Oedipus complex a compelling idea, you’ll probably agree that we do internalize our parents as part of ourselves. What effect will it have on a boy’s sense of self to internalize a damaged father? I think it undermines that sense of self and encourages a hatred of authority, even legitimate authority, that will handicap him in his ability to navigate roles and relationships in the world at large.

It’s interesting to me that in my practice, I rarely make interpretations that concern the Oedipus complex. It’s more something I see as I look around me in the world-at-large. So much of the comments I make to my clients concerns the mother-infant dyad (issues about neediness, emotional dependency and helplessness) or shame and damage to our earliest sense of self. Maybe issues arising from the Oedipus complex have more to do with later development; most of the clients I’ve seen have struggled with first-year-of-life type issues or come from shattered families. Now that I’ve been thinking about the Oedipus complex, though, I’ll be on the lookout for more instances; I’ll let you know if I observe anything noteworthy.

And in the meantime, if any of you has an interesting anecdote that illustrates the Oedipus complex at work, please let me know.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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49 Responses to The Oedipus Complex in Divorce Situations

  1. Paul says:

    Thank you once again for this site. My ex-wife and I went through a divorce that was at times financially complicated and occasionally nasty. We did agree that our children should not be pawns in our divorce game and that we individually needed healthy relationships with our children. The children are adults now and maintain good relationships with each of us. This was contrary to my former wife’s sister who managed to turn her daughters against her ex-husband. I think the daughters have had relationship problems with men ever since. Thank you once again for this site and allowing me to comment.

  2. Penny says:

    Having recently become the girlfriend of a man in a toxic separation situation (he and his daughter’s mother were never married), I’m often alarmed at the nasty way in which the two ‘adults’ interract in front of their young teenage daughter. I’ve also heard very anti-authoritarian comments from the 14 year old in question. Sometimes I really want to walk away very quickly and leave them to it, and I’m not entirely sure that some of this toxicity isn’t infecting my relationship with my boyfriend. Am I in any position to be a positive influence?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      The way he relates to his former girlfriend and the emotional environment he creates for his daughter tell you something about him. I doubt you can have much influence, but if you raised the issue of shielding his daughter from the venom in his transactions with his ex, you’ll learn something more: is he capable of hearing advice — obviously good advice — and trying to do better for his child? If he can’t … well, that’s important information to consider for your own future.

  3. GT says:

    In a case where infidelity was the cause of the divorce & the children form their own opinion & lose respect for the parent that engaged in the affair & on’t want to spend time with that parent, how is the other parent to mitigate that problem for the child? How about when kids are in preteen years? Do you withhold the reasons for the divorce to protect them from knowing the facts that could possibly cause them to not want a relationship with the other parent? Could the withheld information & allowing them to keep a “false” image of the parent later cause more damage in the child? Assuming the reasons will eventually be known?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      In my view, a parent’s relationship with a spouse and a parent’s relationship with a child are two different things; there may be some emotional overlap, but it’s best to think about them separately. Young children don’t always need to know the reason for a divorce. Often they’ll misunderstand what you tell them anyway. And I don’t think it’s necessarily “false” to tell a child something truthful but incomplete, waiting for a time when they’re older and better able to understand the truth. For instance, saying, “Mommy and Daddy just don’t love each other any more and they think it would be better for everyone if they lived apart.” That’s not untrue; it just doesn’t give them details they might not be ready for. And if you’re going to tell them the “truth” — about an affair — are you going to go into the years of emotional issues within the relationship that preceded the divorce? That’s part of the truth, as well. Better to tell them something simple that won’t require them to divide their allegiance or turn against either parent.

      • JB says:

        I cringed when I read “Mommy and Daddy just don’t love each other any more …” was an okay reason to give kids for divorce. If Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other any more FOR NO REASON (as far as the kids know), the kids are going to worry that Mommy and Daddy may just stop loving them one day too. If the parents fought frequently in front of the kids, then used the “don’t love each other any more” excuse for the divorce, the kids may internalize the idea that all disagreements are to be avoided. For all the turmoil and pain that divorce causes kids, the least the parents can do is spend some time and energy deciding how to tell their kids very briefly a real, concrete reason for the split. If that is an impossible task, then they need a therapist to help them figure it out.

        My own parents finally divorced my senior year in HS. My father had a long term affair starting when I was toddler, which my mother knew about very early on. As far as I can remember I have always known about it. But my mother was so emotionally violent that as a kid, I never blamed my dad. As an adult I am more critical of his behavior because I know that he did have options other than a long term affair. I also see that he “paid” for his transgressions by giving my mother her way with everything else. She could do no wrong as a mother (in his eyes) . He turned a blind eye to her emotional abuse of the kids as much as possible, and defended her (or joined her side) if something did happen to make his radar.

        When my parents divorced it wasn’t a clean break, even though my father married his “honey”. You could call it a “betrayal bond” or “enmeshment”, but whatever it was, it was bizarre and unhealthy. My mother even started calling herself a widow when my father died.

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          Sounds like your parents stayed together “for the children” as people of earlier generations often did. I think it’s impossible to know which would have been better for you from this perspective. You don’t know what it would have been like for you to grow up with him outside the home, probably with much less contact than you had. It’s also possible that your mother would’ve been even more emotional abusive to you if he’d left her. You just don’t know. I think many of us look back and think we would’ve been better off if our parents had done such-and-such; maybe we would have, maybe we wouldn’t.

          As for what to say to the children, telling them that Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other any more BECAUSE Daddy had an affair may not be true, either; he might have stopped loving Mommy before then. There may also have been many reasons within the emotional dynamics of the marriage that led to the end of their love; do you want to explain all of it to a small child? I wouldn’t. When parents divorce, I think the children always feel some sense of abandonment and insecurity, regardless of what you say to them.

  4. Parents who use their children to hurt their (former) partner are, in my opinion, awful people. I’d never thought of it in the context of Freud though. It’s an interesting twist. Thanks for your thought-provoking articles.

  5. GT says:

    Why the assumption that the betrayed parent is sacrificing the children to hurt the other parent? I get that hurting the betrayer is a sweet revenge, but as a mother I’d like to think that I can rise above it, if nothing else for the sake of my children’s well being. Nonetheless, as I deal with questions from my kids and navigate the situation as to shield them from the “truth” all of it, I do wonder what is the best thing for them. Interesting you brought up the issue of all the emotional stuff preceding the divorce, at my kids 1st counseling session, her reply as to what she understands about her parent’s d was that they hurt each other emotionally. I only want to do right by kids & don’t excuse myself from my end of the responsibility for the state of the relationship within the marriage. But, IMHO infidelity is ultimately the responsibility of the betrayer & his/her character flaw to own. The consequences of that affect the kids & their relationship to the betrayer parent. My question was to what degree does the betrayed parent protect the kids as to not tarnish their relationship to the other parent. Is the emotional & psychological need for the children, who are able to understand infidelity, better to withhold the info until they’re older, when, ever???

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      While I agree that infidelity is the responsibility of the betrayer, in my experience infidelity is rarely so cut-and-dried as that. Of course infidelity does affect the children; however, the betrayer didn’t betray the children but rather the other spouse. Yes, it shows limited concern for the consequences to the children, but the only reason I can see for telling the children is to get the “victim” benefit. The truth is rarely so plain and simple as “s(he) betrayed me.” Many parents who have had affairs go on to have wonderful relationships with their children throughout their upbringing; it’s the other parent’s job to further that relationship to the extent possible.

      • Lifesizevision says:

        I found my mother cheating on my steapfather while I was in high school. I had suspicions for years prior however, which she later confirmed. My mother and father divorced when I was maybe 3 years old and I believe my mother used the divorce as a way to bind me to her. She taught me to sweep everything under the rug, emotions, incidents, you name it and I was her “little man”. I was her emotional spouce, her endless spring of narcissistic supply. Anyway, point of this reply is that my mother, indeed all infidels as she is, betray not only the spouce but any children too. People make a commitment to their spouces, and the family (even a future family) that they will always be truthful and have the family’s best interest at heart. In engaging in infidelities, the parent has effectively broken a promise to put the family first. My mother made a promise when she married my stepfather. Broke it repeatedly when she had her affairs. She lied. She cheated. A broken promise is a lie. A lie is a betrayal. That is “cut and dried”.

  6. GT says:

    It is interesting that you say infidelty is rarely “cut-and-dried” and yet make such a cut-and-dried statement that the “ONLY reason I can see for telling the children is to get the “victim” benefit. First of all I don’t see myself as a “victim” in the situation and I’ll state what the other reason I’m struggling with are later. But, infidelity is ultimately a lie!!!! What ever way you cut it. I have great respect for those who walk out of a relationship that is not working for them or is not meeting their need, or whatever … but, by definition it is an act of deception. If you were drunk and incapacitated to make think coherently, maybe. Yes, the children were not betrayed, I agree with you there, but show me a daugter (who’s father betrayed her mother) and by the time she becomes a wife and a mother herself doesn’t feel “betrayed” by her father. I bet many are or should be in therapy for this wound. I have no quams that people fall out of love, they get infatuated with another … but, walk out of a marriage before you commit the act or want your cake and eat it too. That said, my main concern is that my daughter could possibly find out from others and to what degree can I control that? Is the damage of finding out from others where I have said she’s not old enough to know less than taking a chance to not tell her. The other scenario I’ve heard is of a mother who waited until the child is 18 to tell her and apparently the daughter was enraged at her Mom. But, do you think that the “good” relationship the mother allowed her daughter to have with her father through her childhood is in the end healthier for the daughter than her finding out later and feeling she was lied to?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      What I should have said was, “telling them the truth before they’re old enough to understand and cope with it.” That, of course, is very difficult to ascertain but it’s our job to figure that out. And just because the 18 year old was enraged with her mother when she heard later on, it doesn’t mean she’d stay enraged. She’ll have to work out her feelings of anger with her father (and with her mother for not telling her) but she’ll be at an age when she’ll have experience and mental capacities which hopefully enable her to cope better than she might have as a child.

      I find that there’s too much morality involved in calling something a “lie”; as I’ve often said, honesty is a highly over-rated virtue and all of us tell a great many lies designed to spare people’s feelings when being entirely honestly would be hurtful and serve no purpose. It’s difficult to decide what sort of partial truths a child can understand, how much to say at what age, etc., but always telling the complete truth is not the answer.

    • GregN says:

      Wow GT. You really sound like you have some serious issues. I’m not saying that to be rude or mean or anything but you are getting angry in your writing and there is no reason for it. You say “show me a daughter whos father betrayed her mother who doesn’t feel betrayed by her father”, so tell me then, why would you tell her that? If she finds out from someone else THEN you can explain to her that that you didn’t want that info to affect her relationship with her father and she would definitely understand and think even more highly of you and your job as a mother. There really is no other reason to tell her that Info except to receive the “victim” status. You also sound like you put all the blame on your ex husband for cheating (which there he was definitly wrong for doing) and seeing how angry you sound on this website (which there is absolutely no reason for that) shows the world that you have some issues that most likely contributed to his infidelity. If you were truly putting your daughter first you wouldn’t want her to know that her father betrayed her mother. If you want to tell your daughter the truth when she’s an adult that is fine as long as you also admit that he’s not the only one at fault for your divorce. If a daughter gets enraged with her mother for keeping this Info from her and doesn’t understand why you would keep this from her and respect you more for that then she got some issues going on anyway. You sound like you are a very loving mother and care for your daughter a tremendous amount but you are definitely hurt and are not thinking clearly.

      • Lifesizevision says:

        GregN – you are ignorant. From what I read, your feeble attempts to make it seem like you are not blaming GT for the spouse’s infidelity, when in actuality you are. You are defending the cheater and in this way, you are ignorant. You would do well not to say to someone “wow, you have issues” when clearly, you are not someone to talk.

  7. GT says:

    Much better said & agree, that it IS my job, as a mother, to figure out how to daily live and navigate the issue in the lives of my children, ultimately having their short-term & long-term emotional & psychological “health” as my priority – It is in that regard that I’m trying to learn from other’s experiences and figure out how to best “damage control” with real concrete answers instead of a “theory” of what’s best. Many issues are in play here, for example, one has to also take into consideration the values that both parents have tried to instill in the kids and the violation of those values and the damage of hypocrisy in teens & preteens. Much to navigate through and no easy answers.

    The issue of a “lie” and that truth is overrated is a discussion in its own. That we all lie on a daily basis doesn’t make infidelity such a light matter – any which way you cut it, the wreckage it leaves behind, at times, for generations is not a light matter. In addition, assuming that a betrayed mother/father who’s trying to figure out the best for the kids during the daily grind, not just in theory, is just a “victim” and really only ultimately wants to hurt the betrayer is so wrong. I’m not denying that the desire to hurt the betrayer is not there, but as for me, not at the expense of my children. I hope your correction to your previous statement is authentic! I find such comments to be as biased as if I were to make the comment that any man/women who feels must “withhold” the truth for the sake of the children, has cheated before and is trying to cover her/his own behind.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I was talking about the occasional need for “lying” to children until they’re able to cope with the truth; the lying involved with infidelity is another matter entirely, and never justifiable.

      What concerns me about your motives is that I sense an awful lot of anger in your writing … even towards me, simply for questioning the value of telling children the complete truth. For instance, it’s fairly hostile to say to me that you hope the correction to my previous statement is “authentic! ” The implication being that maybe I’m dishonest. Why would you even question my sincerity?

      I think this discussion has taken up enough room in the public sphere. Please feel free to write to me at: afterpsy@gmail.com

  8. There are no winners or losers in divorce and couples that view divorce as a battle will inflict significant psychological scars on one another.

    If the couple have children, then they will be the most affected of all. Divorce, in nearly all circumstances should be a collaborative process.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Too many people are sadly unable to view divorce with this level of maturity, especially the deeply narcissistic ones who entered marriage with wildly idealized expectations.

  9. MonnaG says:

    Divorce is a tough step in everyone’s life to make., but sometimes this is the single solution for two to be happy again. I agree that we need to view it with due level of maturity.

  10. Sophie says:

    What struck me when I read this post was the links to my own relationship with my mother and how this may have impacted on my same-sex desire.

    I am female and have had primarily relationships with men, however I have some degree of sexual attraction and desire towards women, and had a couple of same-sex relationships. I think of my sexuality/desire to be ‘problemetised’ in some way, in so much as I feel like my desire for women is shameful/wrong somehow and it doesn’t feel like an authentic part of me. (I am not trying to universalise this experience; I think women can have attractions towards women without it being shame-based or inauthentic and I don’t want to pathologize same-sex desire.)

    You discussed the “ex-wife who…turns to [her son] for the sort of companionship she might look for with a spouse, and who confides thoughts and concerns inappropriate for a child to hear.” Etc

    My mother did this to me, her daughter, and I am now wondering if this could be the root of my same-sex desire. Has anyone expanded on Freud’s theory to incorporate this type of phenomenon that I describe? I guess it may be a bit of a political minefield.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Other people have certainly written about this issue but I don’t know who they are. I’m sure you’re on to something about your mother, that your attraction to women has its roots in your relationship with your mom. Without knowing all the details, I don’t think I can say more about it. What you’d want to think about are the particular emotional dynamics in those relationships you’ve had with other women. Were there any similarities to the way you and your mother interacted, or were there opposite ways? Were you to some degree a caretaker? Or did the other person have nurturing qualities that your mother lacked?

      When you say that this is a “political minefield,” do you mean because certain interest groups will be upset if you suggest that sexual orientation might not simply be “in your genes,” but could be the result of early experiences in the parent-child relationship? From my experience dealing with many gays and lesbians over the years, this is often the case. I don’t believe that makes their relationships “sick” or unhealthy. But I do believe that our fundamental attractions are based on our earliest relationships and interactions with our parents. ,

      • Sophie says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am going to start examining this added dimension of the relationship with my mother with my therapist.

        Yes, with the political minefield I meant that GLBTI groups might be upset by the idea that sexual orientation could be determined by dynamics with your parents, especially in a case like mine when it was the result of a negative relationship with a parent. It’s the type of thing that might make GLBTI people and their supporters feel invalidated I guess. Which is not my intent at all, but given the negative public arena I think it is understandable it may be taken badly. In any case, I think your description of it is handled delicatley and correctly, in so much as our “fundamental attractions are based on our earliest relationships and interactions with our parents.”

  11. Beth says:

    Wow. I have referred to my ex as “Oedipus”, not to his face, though. He has a very strange relationship with his mother. They call each other about 10-15 times a day. He consults her on every decision. If his cable goes out, he will have his mother call the cable company. She accompanies him everywhere. The grocery store, all Dr. appts., etc. She as called him on several occasions “to say goodbye”, and when we would arrive at her apartment after these calls, she would be naked, unconscious, her home torn apart, pills all over the floor. However, she seemed to get it together pretty quickly when she saw that I was with him. It made me think that it was just a show. She has a history of drug abuse, & prostitution. These activities occurred while my ex was growing up. He has recounted incidents where he was in the same room on a trundle bed while his mother “worked”. His age was approx. 9-10 at that time. He has recounted stories of his childhood, saying that he had to become the man of the house when his mother left his physically abusive father when he was 6. The relationship he has with his mother is very much like the relationship of a husband and wife, with the exception of physical intimacy.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Now THAT is an unhealthy relationship.

      • Lily says:

        What do you think about a marriage where you find your spouse reacting to you saying you are doing the same things he says his mom did? I have come to know that my husband’s relationship with his mother was very unhealthy and while he is totally cutoff from her now he now rages at me. Simply example I was very hurt and cried and the next thing I heard was “I have had enough of this sh*t . I am not going to perform and take care of you”. Increasingly I hear him say things to me that are just the things I have heard him say about his mom. His was definitely a Oedipus complex and he unfortunely did get his mom. The effects on a marriage are mind boggling. Funny thing is he has said I am nothing like her and she even said when we married I wonder why my son married someone nothing like me. My question is how does it end up showing up in our marriage?

  12. YGB says:

    Dr. Burgo,

    It was chilling to read your text, as I am seeking for answers about my own self. My parents divorced when I was 7 (after my father lived for a year abroad). Reading your text I could remember clearly that when I was 10 or 11 I said I wanted to live with my father for a while. My mother cried and gave me a TV in my room so I could stay. I would always visit my father on weekends, but my mother was always convincing me that he was a loser. I then didn’t want to be like him. I’ve always been there for my mother and heard her personal struggles in early age. Since 11 years old I prepared my own breakfast and went to school on my own. Then she struggled in a relationship with a wealthy man that was married. And then she had another relationship with also an older man — once I was 13 and lying on their bed, and he embraced me, he pretended he was sleeping and thought it was my mother.
    Dr., I don’t know what happens to my sexuality. Please give me some advice. I’m 30 years old now. With 16 y.o. I was in a relationship with a 7-years-older man that in my view was rather abusive. From 16 to 19 I had relationships with same age and older men. Then from 19 to 21 same age young men. With older men, they were not emotional, but physical. With same age, they were less sexual, more of a friendship. After that, I had a girlfriend and I deeply loved her. Later in life, I had few episodes of masturbation with other men (same age) and, finally, a relationship with a same age girl to whom I want to marry.
    I never felt emotionally connected to men, but physically yes. I still masturbate thinking of older men. At this point in my life, I already made a decision of getting married. But I crave, I deeply crave to understand WHY I feel this. I’ve read enough to conclude that neither the hetero bull is acceptable, as well as I don’t accept the gay label. In Oedipal terms, can you give me an explanation? It doesn’t matter how outdated Freud is. I need to know, so if you could tell me anything, please do.
    Sincerely,
    Ygb

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That’s a very interesting description, but I don’t think I could explain it to you or offer advice. Sounds like it might be quite a tangled web to unravel and you might want to find a good psycho-dynamic therapist to help you.

  13. Freudian slip says:

    trying to understand a lot of stuff I was brought up with being a grandchild of a psych who studied under freud in zurich. Think it’s gone one step further in my relationship. Partner totally impotent has been for six years. Mother has never has a driver’s licence but father is her personal chauffeur. Will wait for hours in the car whilst she lunches etc. She’s very easy to get along with but has this hidden ‘hold’ on my partner, youngest of five. He even calls me mum which can invoke quiet dry reaching in me. He has very strong feminine side which is sort of lovely but am convinced the lack of ability to make physical contact is due to this genre of oedipus complex. love some advice. Have kids but has all been my initiation.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Before I could give you advice, I’d have to hear a lot more (and then, I’m not sure how helpful my “advice” would be). It sounds like these are some very complicated relationships.

  14. freudian slip says:

    Love to share more. What would like to know?

  15. Oedipus Unresolved says:

    What advice would you have for the wife of a man that was forced into the “little man” role since a very young age, after his parents divorce? He was convinced growing up his father was at fault for everything, yet his father has had a very loving and stable relationship with his second wife since just a few years after the divorce. His mother who has not had a real relationship since her son became a teen, is a classic narcissist and still wants him to fulfill the role of emotional partner, as well as taking care of things around her home even though she lives several hours away. She is not elderly and has the financial and physical means to do many of these things herself. The emotional demands and constant laying on of guilt for not attending to her “needs” are what have taken a toll on our still young marriage. We now have a toddler that is her only grandchild, as he is her only child, and she has began to manipulate our child emotionally as well. Saying things like, “No one loves grandma.” or asking our child “Doesn’t anyone care about me? I’m all alone.” Our daughter is just old enough to start telling us these things when she comes back home from a trip to grandma’s house. My daughter seems upset by these “conversations” her grandmother is having with her. I am unsure of how to handle this. Obviously it is up to my husband to do much of the “handling” but he is still afraid to hurt his mother. He has recognized it is a definite problem, and her manipulations anger him. He looks to me for advice, but I am at a loss myself. I do not want his mother to be lonely, but I have realized the more we give the more she takes and the more she expects. It seems like it was easier when we kept contact to a minimal, but I am easily guilt ridden and dislike the thought of someone being without close family. What do we do?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I think you have to live with the discomfort that comes when you set limits and keep contact to a minimum. From what you say, this woman is a toxic influence on your family and you need to protect your child. I don’t know if it would help, but you might need to start setting limits for her behavior, making it clear that saying and doing certain things is unacceptable and will lead to specific consequences. You need to think of her as a child. You might want to read my post on narcissistic mothers. Also, it sounds as if your husband needs to see a professional counselor.

  16. Steve W says:

    Mom and Dad meet at Stanford in the mid-50′s. Mom refuses to follow her father into the law. Strike 1. Dad ‘blends in’ in the Army, then in commerce. Nice guy but isn’t going anywhere. Mom goes crazy living Eisnehower Stepford life, gores to work in Hollywood in costumng. Strike 2. Mom divorces Dad, gets blackballed by her parents, who pull the loan of her house. She becomes single working mother (1964), hires babysitters. Declared unfit mother by parents during costody hearing and son moves in with maternal grandp[arents. Fathe takes apartment somee iles away, is frquent guest at grandparents. By age 8, son has been through 4 schools, medication, counseling and is packed off to boarding school to “get him out of the tug-of-war.”

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Sometimes it seems like you might never recover from this kind of childhood, and I think there’s no way that you will ever resemble the person who had a supposedly “normal” childhood. But it’s not hopeless. There is more possible than living with an elderly roommate and your dog.

  17. Deke says:

    This is a really sad condition for the parent who wants peace and lead a happy married life. A high conflicting situation arises when one of the partners starts making a mountain out of a molehill. Issues which have been highlighted in the post such as haircut etc. are limited to the individual. In such a case the parents can opt for a parenting class instead of going for separation. This is helpful from the point of view of your children as well.

  18. TS says:

    My husbands father passed away quickly when he was a teen, and was left with his 2 older sisters and mother. Although, he was the youngest, they all depended on him heavily to be the man of the house and even support the family financially at such a young age. Initially, I recognized that they all had “uniquely” close relationships (which I chalked up as being a result of their unfortunate tragedy).

    The problem now is I’m not sure where to place the blame or cause of the oedipus complex; in my husband or in his mother? I have always felt that she constantly touches him inappropriately, fondling him, stroking his arms and chest, trying to kiss him on the lips, etc.. But the strange part is, my husband plays right into it and encourages more of it. Initially, I thought this was because he felt guilty that his mother is a widow and (although she lives less than 5 minutes from us and has a social life bigger than mine) that he feels shame around her being lonely. But now I dont know what to think.

    We are in our 3rd year of marriage, no children, and every single day is about his mother – how many times a day he can see her, how many coffees they can share together, (and if he’s travelling on business) she’ll ask: when am I going to see you again?!?!? (in a childlike, desperate voice as if she will evaporate if she doesnt see him every 10 hours or less!).

    I cant stand it anymore. He wants to have kids and I can’t stomach this sick twisted relationship they have let alone picture bringing a child into this messed up family. I feel that she manipulates him, calling him to read her mail (pretending not to understand it), to pick things up for her, etc. I thought I was just being harsh in the beginning but about a year ago, I was emptying the trash in his office and on a side table saw a stack of random photos of him and his sisters and mum throughout the years; I started flipping through the photos and noticed something so striking – in every single photo – birthday, graduation, get-together – his mother is sitting on his lap AND if that wasnt bad enough, there are pictures where – if you didnt already know I was his wife – you would think one of his sisters was his girlfriend with the way they are “holding each other” in these photos.

    Our marriage and life runs smoothly and great every summer (when his mother vacations for 1.5-2months overseas) and/or if she stays with her daughter in another city to help raise her children for spurts at a time… But on a regular day/week, my life feels like hell!

    I have no idea what to do. I keep quiet about it for awhile and then it eventually boils over and we end up screaming and having wicked fights. I am his wife – not his mother. I should be the #1 priority – not his mother. I am his immediate family now- not his mother/sisters.

    Do you have any suggestions for me? I am in my early 30′s and I feel hopeless, as if the only time I will finally have peace will be when she passes on. And she is in her early 60′s so, that could be awhile :s

  19. Carisa says:

    Hi Dr Burgo
    I am actually in a sticky situation ATM, and am combing through the Internet to find answers of how to think and what to do. I am in a relationship with a 25 year old guy who is extremely close to his mother. She wants to move in with him, or wants him to move out with her and to save her from the situation she is currently in (living with her sister). His mom and dad divorced when he was young, and the mom has a too-closer-for-comfort relationship with both of her sons, and an estranged relationship with her only daughter. My bf has taken the role of provider and protector and it makes me sick. He speaks of her in such a loving kind way, as if she does no wrong. For Christmas, she buys gifts that I could never afford, in the past has walked around in underwear and a skimpy top occasionally when he and I were in the living room, made his favorite dishes every week (streak for 2), and pops her head in and says something really witty to him when he and I are in an argument.
    I’ve tried sharing this with him, but he thinks I am crazy. I severed such strong attachments with both of my parents when I was younger, and expected to have a close intimate relationship like that with my SO, but it makes it really hard when he has one already with his mom. Am I crazy?

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      It doesn’t sound like you’re crazy. At the very least, he should be taking your feelings into account. After all, we’re supposed to leave our parents and cleave unto our spouse as adults.

  20. Nancy says:

    My ex husband was diagnosed as having delusional disorder in his 30s. We eventually divorced and because he was dangerous, my 13 to daughter had to be informed of how bad things were and how sccary he was in order to be safe…to an extebt. We were in therapy for awhile. It helped somewhat, but as a teen, she did not want to go through therapy bc she saw it, I think, as being weird and different. In any case, she grew up rigid and angry, at times taking the anger out on herself. We constantly stressed that we loved her and it wasn’t her fault, but she was, I think, at times even self defeating. I never gave up on helping her….I got teachers involved, counselors, and eventually a great friend and her family sort of adopted her en I couldnt be there due to my work schedule. Today, she has finished grad school and is a fine lawyer, but her personal life is still hard. She divorced after thre yrs a man who cheated on her and took all her money. I am retired now and help all I can. She still has that hard edge to her personality and is at times rigid. When she is very stressed, she resorts to projection and gets her feathers ruffled easily. I am often her scapegoat since she witnessed her fathers treatment of me, in this way, for so long. Anyway, I think I stayed too long in a bad, dangerous marriage. My daughter has good insight when she is rested and not stressed. I just hope the trauma did not completely destroy her soul.

  21. Naseema says:

    My ex-husband is a classic unresolved Oedipal complex. Cheated on me repeatedly in our 12 year marriage until fate brought the knowledge to me. Luckily, I viewed that knowledge merely as final reason for ending a domineering relationship where I was being disrespected as a second-class citizen. I was even told that I should be more like his mother.
    I have never discussed his infidelity with our 3 children. I softened it to what was appropriate for them at their ages (7,8, 10 at the time). Knowing what i did, i merely told them (or the first time together with him) that Mummy and Daddy don’t love each other any more, and have decided to get divorced; that the decision was really a hard one to make, but that its final. and i was absolutely clear on this, and repeated it over and over when asked, no wavering. And i was clear, and said it over and over, that none of this changes that we both still love them and that this love will never change.
    I went out of my way to protect them from the knowledge of his infidelity which I believe would have been damaging to their sense of self. Children take their esteem from where they come, and it was hard enough my knowing that their father is a lying cheat… I didn’t want to harm them further by their knowing it themselves! With time, they have worked it out, I believe, but we don’t discuss it. What purpose is there?
    7 years have passed, and I have married a kind and loving man and we have had a little one together.
    And my ex? I agree, he has always been a decent father. He continues to play an active, if not perfect, role in their life – no less than the average father. I’m grateful for their sakes that this relationship has not been destroyed as I see it so often is in divorce.

  22. Rose says:

    My ex was diagnosed extreme narc on the border of sociopath. He had serious porn addiction, was drinking a lot. Now he is telling everyone he is bipolar. I am not in contact with him for my own sanity and have been in analysis for 3 years in order to heal and become more whole . My eldest daughter is a hard core addict with major mental health issues and I suspect Oedipal issues with her father. My question is how does narcissism and porn addiction impact a fathers relationship with his daughther, and what’s it gonna take for the complex to be resolved? Is there anything I can do besides love and encourage her to get help? Is my boundary to do no contact further harming my daughters ability to have a relationship with their father? (I have two daughters, both have relationships with him though my younger one lives with me and limits interaction with him because she says he is not a parent in their interactions but acts like a friend without taking responsibility). I am committed to doing what is best for them, and am so sad about this mess and its cost to them.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      These are questions too complex for me to address here on the blog.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks for reading and considering my comment.

        Your comment in the article about how the Oedipal complex may lead to anti-authority behavior is very insightful and explains so much about my son’s current situation. I may reach out to you via Skype for a session, but even if I don’t, your article has shed some more light on what has been at times a dark and difficult path. Thank you.

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