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When you first started dating, your husband's strong connection with his mother might have won you over. After all, it sets a good example of how he treats his closest relationships—right? Family is important, and when you're married, you're a part of his. But as you settle into routines together, you might find that your mother-in-law is the highest priority on his list. So how do you separate your husband from his mother in a healthy way for everyone?
If you're married to a mama's boy, it doesn't mean that you'll never come first. Before you consider kicking him to the curb, remember the strong family values that are now a part of your life together. With a little encouragement and understanding, your husband's relationship with his mother can be beneficial for everyone.
Below, read on to learn what to do when he chooses his family over you.
Signs That Your Husband Is a Mama’s Boy
When your mother-in-law insists on remaining the top person in her son's life, it can feel like there's no way to become his number one. To know if you're dealing with a mama's boy, look for these signs:
- His mother's wish is his command. If she wants him to run an errand, take her to the doctor, eat with her, etc., he always obliges regardless of your wants.
- He wants daily or nearly daily contact with his mom, either via phone or in person.
- He always chooses her over his spouse or children.
- He never moved far away from his mom, or even still lives with her.
- He has trouble making decisions without his mom.
- He expects you to take care of him in the same ways that she does.
- He has financial ties to his mother, which keeps him on a short leash with her expectations.
If you've recognized these signs, don't panic—there are plenty of ways to build a healthier relationship with your husband (and his mother) moving forward.
Once you've established that your husband is a mama's boy, determine which behaviors are tolerable and where you draw the line. For example, you may tell him that it's no problem for him to call her regularly, as long as it doesn't infringe on your time together. You may not be okay with him turning to her with problems that would be better discussed with you. It might be fine to live in the same town, but not to live with your in-laws.
A big mistake many partners make is expressing their feelings to a spouse or mother-in-law—with anger or aggression—without thinking first.
Dr. Herb Goldberg says partners should keep the peace, not making an issue of their husband’s relationship with his mom (even if it crosses a line). Instead, it's important to develop a strong personal identity. Goldberg notes that it's more helpful to set limits with your husband, not your mother-in-law, and stand firm.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Herb Goldberg is the author of What Men Still Don’t Know About Women, Relationships, and Love, and served as Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University.
Your marriage shouldn't always take the center stage in your life. Make yourself your top priority—so be a little selfish (in a good way). Work, find a hobby, explore new interests, and develop your relationships with friends and family outside of your husband. He must recognize that you’re independent, Goldberg says, and that you might leave if he continues to ignore your needs.
While it's an easy habit to fall into, it's not beneficial if your feelings about your husband's mother come off negatively (so try not to nag him about spending less time with her). Instead, remember that putting his mom down is hurtful. It could even diminish his feelings about himself as a husband. Those feelings can turn into resentment, which is a dangerous tension in a healthy marriage.
Meet the Expert
Diana Kirschner is a Clinical Psychologist in New York and author of Love In 90 Days. She successfully ran the 90 Day Love Challenge on the Fox Morning Show, and has frequently appeared on The Today Show as well as Oprah, Good Morning America, Nightline, and Access Hollywood.
“You must give guidance and set limits in a loving way,” says expert Diana Kirschner. She adds that even when set carefully, limits can be stormy—but you must be firm without getting angry. If he wants you to attend the fifth family dinner with the in-laws in the last three weeks, Kirschner says, say something like, “You can go, but I will not. I have already attended many family functions recently, and now I need my space.” Even when it's hard, stick to your boundaries. If your mother-in-law makes you feel guilty, or your husband argues, your needs still come first. Eventually, you'll develop a routine that everyone understands (and it takes time).
How to Deal With Your Mother-In-Law
Tension is common between the mothers of mama's boys and their spouses. Being the bigger person, difficult as it may be, will help avoid jealousy and work to your advantage. Remaining cordial and respectful with your mother-in-law is a healthy way to express your boundaries. “Don’t try to straighten out the mother,” says Kirschner. “You’ll never win.”
Don’t try to straighten out the mother…You’ll never win.
That's not to say that you have to spend as much time with your mother-in-law as your husband does, or tolerate poor treatment from her. It's okay to maintain some distance. Let your husband (and children, if you have them) keep their relationship with her strong. You can see her less often if you like. The decision is up to you, and it should be based on your comfort level.
Cutting the Cord
Ultimately, your husband will be the deciding factor in whether his attachment to his mom breaks your marriage. Try expressing to him that putting his marriage first is good for him, too.
“You can’t happily be both a husband and a mama’s boy, because you’re always torn in two directions,” says Kirschner. If he accepts your limits and starts putting you first, then be gentle with him as you both determine a new normal together. If he doesn't, you might need to take some time away to let him decide what his priorities are.
Still, you can’t do the work for him. He has to be the one to cut the cord, adds Kirschner. “He has to form a boundary between his new family and the family of origin, or be torn [for] the rest of his married life,” Kirschner says.
Ultimately, the best move is to start a conversation with your husband about what you expect from the relationship. It probably won't happen overnight—so don't get discouraged if it takes some work to make both parties happy. You might find that a healthy balance even brings you all closer together.
Birditt KS, Wan WH, Orbuch TL, Antonucci TC. The Development of Marital Tension: Implications for Divorce Among Married Couples. Dev Psychol. 2017;53(10):1995-2006. doi:10.1037/dev0000379