Note: This is the first of a two-part series.
Dear Neil: Am I doing something wrong, or are men just needy and selfish? Among the many things I have done for my boyfriend, here are a few: choosing his clothes for him when we’re together, and laying them out on his bed in the morning; I cook and clean up for him; pick up after him; I’ve made all our dinner and entertainment reservations; I remind him of his doctors appointments and that his dry cleaning is ready to be picked up; I prepare his favorite dishes; organize his dresser drawers for him—truthfully I’ve worked very hard to fulfill all his needs. So why is he rejecting me, telling me he feels no passion for me anymore—and saying he is wanting to date other women? The nerve of him after everything I’ve done for him! I’ve been in this same position with men over and over again—I bust my butt for them and do everything I can think of, and then they tell me that they feel mothered by me and they dump me. Why?
Fuming in Canada
Dear Canada: Although you are clearly trying to nurture and take care of the man in your life, perhaps you are guilty of mothering him, and therefore inadvertently pushing him away. Author Barbara DeAngelis describes mothering as a destructive habit that is controlling, treats men like children, assumes that a man can’t take care of himself, and makes a woman act as if her man is incompetent and therefore needs her to run his life.
Other behaviors of mothering a grown man include acting overly helpful by doing things for him that he can do for himself; assuming a man will be absent-minded or forgetful and therefore reminding him of information that he should remember by himself; taking charge of activities that you assume he can’t do right; correcting and directing him; and scolding him as if he were a child.
DeAngelis says that women mother men in order to become indispensable to them, because as you work hard to fulfill all of his needs, he is likely to become more and more dependent on you. And, you assume, the more dependent and indispensable you are to him, the less likely it is that he will ever leave you. Right?
Although that seems right, it turns out to be far more complicated than that. Mothering your man can also destroy your relationship, make your man feel incompetent in your presence, and it is likely to kill the passion between the two of you. DeAngelis gives a beautiful description of this process in her book Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know (Dell Publishing). She says that it is very likely that your man will wind up resenting you and rebelling against you, just as every child has to assert himself by breaking away from his parents and becoming his own person. Further, as your man winds up feeling incompetent in your presence, the more incompetent he will feel, the lower his self-esteem will slide, and because he no longer feels good about himself, he will cease to act loving toward you.
Here’s what you can do in order to stop mothering a man, according to DeAngelis: First, stop doing things for him that he should be doing for himself. That means when he asks you if you know where his keys are, say: “I don’t know,” and let him look for them himself. Don’t suggest what clothes he should wear—a grown man should be completely capable of dressing himself. When he leaves a pile of clothes lying around, don’t pick them up for him. Don’t stop being loving, nurturing and supportive, but quit being a mommy to him.
Second, treat your man like a competent, reliable person. Don’t remind him of information he should remember, and don’t be his calendar. Act as if he is a competent adult who can be counted on. After enough missed appointments and forgotten events, he will learn to keep better track of his own schedule. Third, stop talking to your man as if he is a five year old child, and no scolding.
Forth, decide what responsibilities you want him to be accountable for in the relationship, and don’t take over even when he makes a mistake. Trust that things will work out in the end, even if they don’t happen the way you would have liked. Fifth, don’t give in to the temptation to rescue him. Sixth, make a list of all the ways you play mommy in your relationship. The first step in changing your behavior is becoming aware of it. Seventh, talk with the man in your life about your tendency to mother, and make some agreements to call each other on it if either of you start falling in that trap again—either of mothering or of wanting to be mothered. Finally, be consistent in following your new rules and avoiding your old mistakes.
There is a companion dynamic to this, and that is a woman acting like a little girl in order to get what she wants from a man. I will address that issue in next week’s column.