Healthy Relationships Between Mothers and Adult Sons

Relationship balance between mother and son

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

In today's world, our ideas about gender roles have been turned on their heads. However, the patterns that have influenced human behavior for many centuries are still potent, especially when members of the older generations are involved.

Some of those old patterns involve relationships between mothers and their adult sons. Sometimes the paradigms persist even when the adult sons are husbands and fathers.

Wife vs. Mom Conflicts

A solid relationship with a mother is a good portent for a happy married life. Women are widely credited with fostering emotional intelligence in their children, and a son who scores high in emotional intelligence is likely to be more understanding of his wife. Such a man is also more likely to reject macho posturing.

Although she may recognize the mother's good influence, a wife also may be conflicted about her mother-in-law. She may be a little jealous of the mother's continuing role in her son's life. For the mother's part, when she is displaced from her role as the primary person in her son's life, tension with the usurper is more or less inevitable. 

The man who feels caught in the middle may react by withdrawing from the field of battle, but neither the mother nor the wife benefits when the man is AWOL. For that matter, the man loses also.

When Mothers Are Alone

Conflicts may be exacerbated when mothers are divorced, widowed, or single. Sometimes, the mother has christened her son the man of the house and has relied on him to an unhealthy degree.

When a grandmother and a grandfather are both on the scene, they tend to have a moderating effect on each other's behavior, helping each other to see when they are crossing boundaries that shouldn't be breached.

Maintaining a Balance

It's best when all participants strive to maintain a natural balance in their relationships. Of course, a man's wife should come first, but there should be some time and energy left over for his mother. And both wife and mother should strenuously resist any situation in which the man would have to choose between the two. For mothers, this means:

  • Don't ask your son to do things for you if you have other resources to get them done — if, for example, you can afford to pay someone to do them.
  • Resist the urge to suggest solutions to problems that your son and his wife may have. They will grow as they work through problems together.
  • Try to treat your son and his wife equally. Talk to them both when you call, if both are available. Spend the same amount on their gifts.
  • On the subject of gifts, always appreciate any gift that you receive. Never take anything back unless it is for a simple exchange such as a different size. Wear or display the gifts you are given.
  • Always, always recognize that you are the grandparent and not the parent of your grandchildren. Obey the parents' rules and respect their boundaries.

Women as Kin Keepers

An old proverb states, "A son is a son until he takes a wife. A daughter is a daughter for all of her life." This quotation expresses the opinion that when a couple marries, they usually maintain a closer relationship with one side of the family than with the other, and often it is the daughter's side.

Research demonstrates that maternal grandparents tend to have stronger ties with adult children and grandchildren than paternal grandparents do.

Greater intimacy with maternal grandparents can be traced to the practice of females serving as "kin keepers." A family's "kin keeper" is someone who maintains ties with members of the extended family. That person is more likely to be the wife than the husband, even in today's emancipated society.

That means that in a son's family, the wife is likely to be the one arranging the family's calendar. And purposefully or inadvertently, she may fail to inform the paternal grandparents about family events or, simply by talking with them less often, keep them out of the loop. Mothers can take up the slack by initiating contact, but the challenge lies in staying in touch without being intrusive.

Rules for Staying Close

Communicating with adult children requires certain skills, but these skills can be learned. Generally speaking, keep reminding yourself that you are talking to adults. Respect them as you would any other young adults. Remember to really listen to what they have to say.

Phone calls are a great way to keep in touch, but calls should be generally short. Mothers should avoid calling at awkward times, such as dinner time or when the children are being put to bed. Of course, it's not a good idea to call later, when parental intimacy might be interrupted! If you are in doubt about whether it is a good time to call, try a text message instead.

When phoning, it's good to ask specific questions. "Does Bobby have any games this week?" is better than "What's new with the children?"

Visits are another way of keeping in touch, but they can also be destructive to family harmony. Mothers who live near a son's family should resist visiting too often, keep visits short and never, ever drop in. Mothers who live a distance from a son often travel to visit and expect to stay for an extended period of time. Such visits can be great for all generations, but the burden is on the mother to be a good house guest and keep the visit harmonious.

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  1. Chan CG, Elder GH. Matrilineal advantage in grandchild-grandparent relations. Gerontologist. 2000;40(2):179-90. doi:10.1093/geront/40.2.179