Healthy Relationships Between Mothers and Adult Sons

Relationship balance between mother and son

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

Ideas and expectations regarding gender roles have changed quite a bit in the past 50 years. However, the patterns that have influenced human behavior for centuries are still potent, especially when members of older generations are involved.

Some of those old patterns involve relationships between mothers and their adult sons. As men get married and have children of their own, their relationship with their mothers must evolve to reflect the new roles of each person: the sons as husbands and fathers, and the mothers as in-laws and grandmothers.

These relationship changes sometimes involve tension as a mother learns to accept and respect the role that her son's spouse plays in his life, especially if the mother and her son are especially close.

It can be tricky to navigate these new waters gracefully, but by setting appropriate boundaries and communicating with understanding and compassion, the mother-son relationship can be strengthened and even see growth in this new phase of life.

Son and Husband

A solid relationship with a mother is a good portent for a happy married life. Women are often credited with fostering emotional intelligence in their children, and research shows that couples with greater emotional intelligence are likely to have a higher degree of marital satisfaction and fewer conflicts.

Although a mother's good influence on her son may be recognized by his partner, the partner may also be a little jealous of the mother-in-law's continuing role in her son's life. For the mother's part, if she feels displaced from her role as the primary person in her son's life, tension with the son's partner is more or less inevitable. 

The new obligations that a man assumes when he marries will take up some of the time and energy that he may previously have devoted to his mother. Even if his mom lives across the country, her son may still find himself with less time to catch up with her by phone or online.

For a mother who lives nearby and/or one who is single, figuring out her new role in her son's life can be even more complicated. Sometimes, the mother has christened her son the man of the house and may have depended on him to an unhealthy degree.

She may have gotten used to turning to him on a near-daily basis for things like home repairs, computer help, or the simple comfort of a call at the end of the day.

When her son marries, however, his first commitment is to his new spouse, and this may be a hard reality for a mother to accept. A mom who lives locally might lack the physical distance she needs to become more independent and become accustomed to a more separate relationship with her son.

A mother in this situation may feel:

  • Hurt by her son's lack of attention
  • Rejected by her son and/or his partner
  • Offended by her son spending less time with her
  • Displaced by the new spouse

Mothers who can relate to any of these emotions should first recognize that what they are feeling is completely normal. Because their son does have other obligations now and there are only so many hours in a day, he simply may not be able to spend as much time with his mom as he did in his bachelor days.

This is hard for any mother to accept, probably even more so the closer she is with her son. However, if the mother-son bond was strong before his marriage, that relationship is still there. It's simply changing and growing, just as all relationships do over time.

The challenge facing the two is how to let their relationship evolve as both people take on their new roles. For a mother, this includes showing her son that she loves him without being intrusive.

The son needs to do his part also, making sure that he maintains healthy boundaries with his mother and keeps a balance between his mother and his spouse.

Mothers can try the following ideas to deal with difficult emotions in this transition:

  • Talk to your son honestly about your feelings. Try to refrain from using judgmental or accusatory language, which will make him defensive and less likely to consider what you're saying. You want this to be a connecting conversation, not one that makes the distance between you even greater.
  • If you find it difficult to express how you feel face-to-face, consider writing him a letter or sending an email. Texting may not be the best option with such an important topic.
  • Try to see things through the eyes of your son and his spouse. While you may not know where you fit into your son's new life, he may feel the same way. Open communication can clarify your role as a mother-in-law and help both of you find a way forward that everyone is happy with.
  • Reconnect with friends or family members you haven't seen in a while. There are probably other people you know who are going through the same transition you are. Remember not to use your time with friends to gossip or trade negative stories about your son and his partner, however. Just try to enjoy yourself and have fun together.

Son and Father

When a son becomes a parent with children of his own, conflicts can arise between him and his mother, particularly if she oversteps her boundaries as a grandmother.

When the grandmother takes on too much responsibility for the child, does not accept her son's new role as a father, or does not observe the parenting techniques used by her son and his partner, there could very likely be some dissension between her and her son's family.

Treating Your Son As a Child

In extreme cases, a mother may not view her son as an autonomous adult with the ability to make choices of his own. As a result, she may still be treating him as a child and his children as her surrogate children.

This is likely to be resented by her son's spouse and can cause major ongoing issues between her and his family, as well as within the marriage relationship.

The son needs to see that he must explain to his mother, as gently as possible, that he is the parent of his children. Just as she had her chance to raise him, it is now his turn to raise his own kids. He will make some mistakes (as she did), but it is now his chance to be the parent.

Over time, with respectful communication from both sides and the maintenance of healthy boundaries, a mother can learn to enjoy the experience of watching her grown son raise his own children with pride and happiness rather than impatience or frustration.

Try to enjoy your time as a grandparent and seize the chance to shower your grandkids with joy and affection while not worrying about raising them.

Don't Take It Personally

When a mother's son and his spouse practice markedly different parenting techniques than his mother did, it may be tempting for her to take it personally. If she feels that he doesn't agree with the way he was raised, she may see his way of parenting as a personal attack on her (and her spouse, if she's married).

In this case, it can be helpful for the mother to remember that while she had the chance to raise her son as she saw fit, he has the same right to raise his own children in his own way, however different that may be from her methods.

Mothers should also keep in mind that supporting the relationship between her grandchildren and their parents is best for everyone involved, even if she disagrees with the parenting techniques used.

Maintaining Healthy Boundaries

It's best when all participants strive to maintain a natural balance in their relationships. Of course, a man's spouse should come first, but there should be some time and energy left over for his mother.

And both his spouse and mother should strenuously resist any situation in which the man would have to choose between the two. Maintaining healthy boundaries between the mother and son can help avoid this situation.

Below are some things a mother can do to honor appropriate boundaries in her relationship with her son.

Do This
  • Hire someone to handle your home repairs, technology issues, and other odd jobs if you can afford it.

  • Tell your son and his partner that you have confidence in their ability to work through problems together.

  • Treat both your son and his spouse equally. When you call, try to talk to both of them if possible.

  • Show appreciation for gifts from either your son or his partner. Remember, it's the thought that counts.

  • Recognize that you are the grandparent, not the parent, of your grandchildren. Respect and maintain the parents' rules and boundaries.

  • Reinforce the relationship your son and his spouse have with their children.

  • Call or text before coming over to see when it's a good time.

Don't Do This
  • Call your son for every job you need done around your house.

  • Tell your son and his partner what you would do in their situation, or how they should solve their problems (unless they ask.)

  • Favor your son over his spouse. This will drive a wedge between you and your son's spouse and may strain their relationship.

  • Criticize any gift, no matter how big or small. Exchanges and refunds can be made discretely later.

  • Impose your own way of doing things on your grandchildren.

  • Undermine the way your son or his spouse parent their children. This will only widen any distance between you and your son's family.

  • Drop in unannounced.

While the above points are directed mostly toward mothers, the son also has a burden to maintain good boundaries with his mother and to take responsibility for his own family.

A son who is accepting money or other support from his mother, for example, is not practicing appropriate boundaries. Being an adult means setting boundaries in all areas, not just the ones that are convenient.

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, along with texting and face time. Try to be mindful of your son's time, though, by keeping calls brief unless it's a holiday or birthday. Avoid calling at busy times, such as dinner time or when the children are being put to bed. If you are in doubt about whether it is a good time to call, text your son and ask him to call you when it's convenient.

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?"

Invite your son's family over for dinner occasionally if you live close enough, or for a weekend or longer visit if you are farther away. If you're local, keep in mind that expecting your son's family to come over for dinner every week may be too much, unless you are very close to his family and all adults agree on this arrangement.

While visits to your son's home are another way of keeping in touch, they can be intrusive if not thoughtfully planned out. Mothers who live near a son's family should resist visiting too often, keep visits tactfully short, and never drop in without contacting them first.

Mothers who live a distance from a son sometimes 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.

A Word From Verywell

Boundaries not only benefit the son and his family, they also benefit the mother. When you communicate that you are committed to honoring someone else's boundaries, you are showing them your love and respect.

They will likely reciprocate those feelings in their words and actions, resulting in a better, stronger relationship for both of you.

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