Dating in the modern age requires a certain level of patience and understanding, and it seems the older we get, the more we encounter partners who are still working through their history and upbringing to better understand themselves and thrive in a healthy relationship. As we reflect on our upbringing, parenting issues can often rise to the surface. When that happens, it can become too easy to suggest potential partners have mommy or daddy issues simply because we don’t understand otherwise. But these labels have a deeper meaning than their surface value text, and it’s essential to the success of a relationship that we take the time to educate ourselves.
We spoke with couples’ therapist, Marlee Rubel, to chat about mommy issues, including what the term means, how it forms and what the impact on a new relationship could look like. As a registered psychotherapist, Rubel has spent time helping couples understand how their upbringing and the way they were raised by their parents contribute to how they operate in a relationship.
Understand what “mommy issues” really means
“The term mother complex is derived from Jungian psychology, whereas mommy issues tend to be used in a broader stroke to describe any challenges that stem from a person’s relationship, or lack of relationship, with their mother. I always find that when you label something a ‘complex,’ it tends to sound less malleable, so I prefer the term issues, which can be heard as less clinical and more relatable.” explains Rubel.
Mommy and daddy issues are not the same thing
Know that gender has little bearing on mommy issues
“I think it’s always important to interrupt the binary of gender and help create a more accurate complexity in our interactions and existence with self-expression. It’s interesting to consider the strengths of these pulls towards what we consider mommy issues. I’ve recently heard some interesting theories around ‘mommy issues,’ also stemming from the experience of growing up in a patriarchal culture that undervalues emotional labour, softness, and compassion, and the subsequent importance of welcoming a desire for a more caring or emotional attuned climate in a relationship,” she says.
Learn where a partner is on their journey
Make a note of the common issues that could surface in the relationship
Rubel emphasis again that it can circle back to how a partner prefers to be cared for. "Playing out a troubled relationship with your mother in your partnership can show up in many ways. As mentioned, some folks want to be cared for unconditionally, which can look like a lack of boundaries or testing their partner’s love for them. It’s important to remember that healthy adult relationships aren’t unconditional: they are conditional on extremely important relational needs like safety, respect, and shared values. Unlike parent-child relationships, partner relationships are sustained by mutual respect, healthy adult boundaries, and sufficient independence alongside emotional attunement. The care that exists in parent-child relationships moves in one direction, and that direction is from parent to child. When mommy issues are playing out in relationships, a partner may be seeking to get what they needed but didn’t receive from a parent growing up —unconditional love and acceptance regardless of all else."
How mommy issues can show up like in the bedroom
Use “I” statements to avoid triggering defensiveness in your partner facing these issues
"I always suggest voicing concerns using “I” statements to avoid triggering defensiveness in your partner and hold yourself accountable for identifying and communicating your feelings instead of just staying focused on your partner and blaming them. It takes two to tango here, and if you’ve become a parent figure to your partner, you are likely hiding out in their needs and avoiding your own—if this is the case, it helps to take accountability for your share of the dynamic!"
Help to normalize the trickier parts of your partner (and perhaps yourself, too!)
But it doesn’t stop there! Communication is a constant in any relationship, and it requires the work of all patterns involved, regardless of what you might be navigating individually. “Balance the playing field! Cultivate a relationship where both you and your partner can share and receive support on the challenging parts of your history that can play out in your present-day relationship. When you withhold your feelings and needs, you set your partner up to lean on you like a parental figure, where they come to you for support, but you don’t go to them. Be sure to give your partner opportunities to help you balance out the dynamic if they’ve been leaning on you in imbalanced ways.” says Rubel.
Couples’ therapy could help bridge the gap between any misunderstandings in the partnership
If therapy isn’t an immediate option for you and your partner, Rubel has additional thoughts on accessing resources or continuing the conversation with each other. “But because therapy is often inaccessible, I suggest connecting with your communities, online resources, and books about healthy relationship boundaries and communication to strengthen you and your partner’s skills to express what you both need and how you like to receive it. Even if mommy issues are playing out, partners can find ways of meeting those needs without crossing each other’s boundaries. For example, a person who grew up with a very absent mother may feel particularly cared for when their partner sticks to their word or wants to spend quality time with them regularly. Understanding this as a need of your partner can help diffuse the toxic behaviour (boundary-pushing or playing games to test your love) that can arise when your partner feels insecure or triggered. While it isn’t your responsibility to fix your partner’s issues, you can certainly help create the conditions where healing, trust, reciprocity and healthy communication could most easily flourish.”
Take comfort in knowing that mommy issues could have a positive impact on your relationship
Rubel describes this thoughtfully by explaining, "We all come with baggage in our relationships, and the sooner we can own where our complicated parts of self show up with our partners, the sooner we can develop a shared language for it and tackle the shame, secrecy and hiding that often accompany the shadow of our pasts in our present. Relationships, while often tough, are also very fertile grounds for healing. If we can learn to get our needs for care met in a healthily and safely communicated way, we can repair what may have been lost (or never developed) due to how our parents raised us. We have a chance to repair our relationship with our self-worth by not tolerating relationships that mimic unhealthy parental relationships we may have once known. Mommy issues with the right conditions for support and healthy boundaries can become getting our needs met in love and trust for the first time."