We talk a lot about the toxic men that we settle for and marry our lives to. But where do they come from? As the old adage goes, they don’t come out of a cabbage patch. They are born from human beings. Sure, some of them grow into the abhorrent examples their father set for them…but what of the mothers involved in raising these toxic husbands and boyfriends?
The time has finally come to address the elephant in the room: the toxic mother who produces toxic sons.
Often, she is the woman who refuses to say no. Less often, she is the mother who parentifies and dissolves herself in the identities of her sons. No matter how she comes, though, the shades of these toxic women are born and reborn over and over in their chaotic sons and the abusive, domineering relationships they create.
How do we break the spell that toxic men have over us? We get to the root of the problem and address the toxic mothers who make excuses and allowances for them.
What is the link between the toxic mother and the toxic son?
While there is no parent who holds more blame than the other, there is certainly a connection between a certain kind of toxic woman and the sons she raises. Toxic mothers are often the earliest point of encouragement and excuses that a dangerous or abusive man has. She may set the tone for the rest of his relationships by twisting the relationship she cultivates as a mother and a son.
There are few people who make it more “okay” for men to become dangerous than their mothers. In many cases, you can trace a toxic man right back to the doorstep of a mother who made excuses and allowances for his worst and most destructive impulses. In fact, these mothers are often the first source of validation toxic men get for their behavior.
We see it in the “boy moms” who wave off their son’s earliest issues with a simple, “Boys will be boys.” They refuse to address aggression, bigotry, and harmful self-images. When you look closer, it’s not uncommon to find a mother who blanket excuses anything wrong her son does.
As the excuses stack up, the son’s perception of himself changes. Many begin to believe that they have a right to misbehave, or that it’s a part of who they are. Worse, these allowances can teach them that they’re above the laws we’ve made as a society, or excused from basic compassion.
These early allowances are the first “green light” some destructive men get in being destructive. What’s worse is that many of them can even feel encouraged as they watch their toxic mother create a shield of excuses for their worst impulses and escalations as immoral and harmful men.
It’s not all pushovers and allowances when it comes to the toxic mother. The relationship between this mother and her son can be incredibly twisted on an emotional level. One might find that there is a high degree of emotional incest in this relationship. The toxic mother may come to rely on her son as an emotional “partner” of sorts and parentifies him in many ways.
That’s damaging to a child. When this unbalanced mother tries to turn him into her “ideal man”, it crosses lines and objectifies the male child. It teaches him that he’s responsible for her emotions and that he must carry her expectations on his back.
Why is this so toxic? Wouldn’t it teach a man to be more compassionate? No. In fact, it can encourage that man to resent women, to see relationships as negative, and minimizing. He can also become clingy and emotionally incestuous inside his own relationships. Or, he may seek revenge against the unfair pressures he experienced in childhood.
Toxic mothers are nothing if not guilty of objectifying their children. This is especially true of narcissistic mothers, who can turn their male children into extensions of themselves in ways that are extremely harmful. Like the emotionally incestuous mother (above) these mothers burden their sons with unfair expectations. The difference is the punishment that awaits if they don’t meet their mother’s unrealistic demands.
How does this translate in the man’s adult life? Like any child raised by a narcissistic or otherwise objectifying parent, they can pick up those same behaviors in themselves. A man raised by this kind of woman may learn to see people as extensions, possessions who are created to perform for their desires and needs.
That increases the tendencies that man has toward dangerous behaviors and relationships. Narcissistic women can, without a doubt, raise narcissistic sons and abusers who make romantic relationships a suffocating affair.
Many of the terrible lessons a toxic mother teaches her son begin with the hierarchy she creates around him. So many of these harmful mothering types are willing to put their children up on pedestals. Not only do they believe that their sons are better than others, they teach their boys to see themselves in the same way. Toxic moms teach their sons superiority before they even have a concept of relationships.
Some do this by showing extreme favoritism to their sons — especially against their other female children. By coddling them and making special allowances for them, these mothers teach their sons to be toxic by believing they’re “above others” from an early age.
They tell them that they exist in a hierarchy above their sisters, above their father, above the people at school, and in the rest of the world, etc. Toxic mothers are more likely to teach their sons to reach for things they won’t allow their girls. Why?
Their girls are competition and their son isn’t. They’re happy to see their sons thrive where they want their female children to suffer. Thus the hierarchy in the family is created and reinforced by toxic women.
Without fail, toxic women use weaponized connections to create sons who are a menace to women in relationships. What does this look like? Generally, it looks like a woman who wedges herself in all her son’s intimate relationships. When things go wrong in those relationships, she sides with him no matter what.
This becomes the opportunity that this toxic mother uses to turn her connection with her son into a weapon against her daughter-in-law (or his girlfriend). She may turn the son against the partner by creating suspicion or picking out flaws. If that doesn’t work, she will wait for conflict and then join in tormenting the son’s partner for disappointing the son’s desires.
It helps the toxic mother to keep control of her son and to ensure she remains the center of his affection and attention. But there’s another level to this too…
When a mother wrongfully joins a fight to punish another woman, she teaches her son that it’s okay to mistreat his partner. She can also become another source of validation which reinforces the idea that her son only ever has to consider his side as the “right” side. This creates a dangerous narrative for all future relationships.
Taking an honest look at the sons of toxic mothers in romantic relationships.
One of the biggest issues with the toxic mother is who her son becomes in a romantic relationship (and a family). On his own, it’s not uncommon to find this man controlling, manipulative, narcissistic, bigoted, and dangerous. Why? Those are the examples that have been set for him, and those are the behaviors and outlooks that have been encouraged by the mother who shielded him with excuses or made room for the worst of him.
- Controlling: It’s not uncommon to find the son of a toxic mother turning into a controlling individual. Maybe this mother spoiled that son, teaching him that the worst parts of his personality were worth rewarding. Always getting his way in childhood teaches him that all women should give him his way in adult relationships.
- Manipulative: When the toxic mother is controlling or overbearing, her son often learns to be sneaky and manipulative to get his way. That can translate into being a manipulative partner, who uses women to get what they want while not holding them up to a standard of emotional equality.
- Narcissistic: One of the most common causes of narcissism in adulthood is being raised by a narcissistic parent. Narcissistic mothers raise narcissistic sons, who show up in their relationship as completely domineering and menacing agents of destruction.
- Bigoted: The boy who is raised to resent women is more easily made bigoted in their manhood. The hierarchy that many “boy moms” raise their sons within teaches them that other groups (like women) are below them and worth hating or treating as “less than”.
- Abusive: There’s no denying that some sons of toxic mothers grow up to be abusive. Having shown these tendencies early on, the excuses and shielding from their mom can teach them the behavior is acceptable, excusable, or justifiable even when it isn’t.
Mothers are the first reference point their sons have in understanding how to treat the women in their lives. When the toxic mother teaches their son to look down on her, to look down on others, they do all of society a disservice. Here, a man should learn to hold women in equal compassion, not how to hate them or subjugate them in service to his own needs.
How to spot the toxic mother-son relationship.
None of the above information does much good if it’s ignored or not applied to your relationships, patterns, and behaviors. Pay close attention. Are you about to commit to someone who has a poisonous connection to their mother? Spotting the toxic mother-son relationship can prevent a lot of heartbreak and upset on the partnership-building journey.
Too much time together
Are you trying to figure out if your new husband or boyfriend has a toxic relationship with his mother? Look first at their relationship, specifically how much time they actively spend together and the quality of that time. Is every waking free moment spent in the company of one another? Do they still live together despite being healthy and well-adjusted?
A mother and adult son spending too much time together can be a worrying sign. While close relationships can be good and healthy, the toxic mother and son often have an unhealthy relationship with weak boundaries. The two become melded and form their identities based on one another.
At that point, the line has been crossed. The best way to identify this is to look for parasitic tendencies. Do they struggle to make decisions without one another? Does your husband or boyfriend have to have his mother’s opinion on everything he does in his life? Does he always yield to her desires of his own?
Bonnie-and-Clyde dynamics aren’t a sign of a functional mother-and-son connection. Anything but. If you notice this type of relationship at play, question your own space in the partnership and if you are willing to settle for second best for the rest of your life.
Always on the same side
One of the clearest places to see the toxic mother-son relationship on display is during conflict. Where does your partner’s mother stand whenever he gets himself into trouble? Is she always on his side, no matter what? Does she defend him even when he is indefensible and clearly in the wrong? That’s a big red flag.
While a mother can certainly remain supportive and loving of her son, a healthy mother can also hold him accountable when he gets it wrong. She doesn’t go to war against his spouse if he has hit her spouse, or terrorized their children. The healthy mother does what is right and defends those who truly need defending.
On the reverse side of that, a toxic mother will often choose to defend her son and proclaim his innocence, no matter what. Meaning that he learns it’s okay to cause harm to others as long as it’s done in the name of his desires. She’s a shield for him and an automatic enemy for anyone who tries to hold him accountable.
Willing to make excuses
Next, consider the excuse game. Look at your husband or partner’s mother. Does she always make excuses for his bad behavior? Is she always willing to play devil’s advocate, or (worse) play the “moral middle road” of saying nothing at all when her son is being blatantly dangerous and abusive?
This is an even more insidious and important red flag to be aware of. Some toxic mothers are not overtly toxic. Rather, they linger quietly in the background and claim plausible deniability in the whole affair. Morally, they are no better than the son they are quietly excusing and encouraging.
There is nothing noble in the silent mother who watches her son commit harm. Doing nothing in that situation is just as bad as encouraging him. In fact, it’s a different walk down the same path. When the mother doesn’t admonish her adult son, she helps cosign the license he uses to cleave a path of chaos through the lives of others.
Lastly, it’s important to pay attention to any hateful dynamics you may find in the relationship between a male love interest and his mother. This can occur on a couple of different levels, so subtleties have to be acknowledged. If a man has a hate-filled relationship with his mother, it’s more likely that shades of that relationship will come out in his other intimate relationships with women.
Pay attention to the way your significant other communicates with his mother. Is it hateful? Aggressive? Does she allow him to cross her boundaries? Speak to her disrespectfully? Does he talk down to her, make fun of her, or treat her like she’s a lesser person?
This is the most obvious toxicity to look out for. If he is willing to treat his mother that way, what is to stop him from treating any other woman in his life that way? It’s not a trick question.
There could be other subtleties at play (and to be aware of). In fact, you may notice that your partner doesn’t have a relationship with his mother at all. This is also important to note. Find out more. Why is this relationship severed? Why is it fraught? Does your partner have unresolved issues? Did his mother treat him cruelly? Dictate and control his life?
Make sure some of this has been resolved before making a serious commitment. Don’t ignore hateful language being used about the mother, and don’t settle for stonewalled silence when it comes to his own poor behaviors and decisions when it comes to the women in his life. Otherwise, you risk becoming a part of a bigger repeating pattern.
We're better off when we stop ignoring the obvious.
The is undeniably a link between toxic, narcissistic, and emotionally immature mothers and their sons of equal toxicity. These problematic women are willing to go to the very end of morality for their sons, even when their sons are obviously dangerous or plainly in the wrong. Being attached to a man with this kind of toxic mother-son relationship is not only challenging, but it’s also heartbreaking.
Breaking this pattern of toxic mothers and sons should be one of our top priorities. These dynamics result in the upbringing of toxic men, who breed broken families, and children with the same patterns and biases. It goes beyond romantic relationships with those men, the entanglements with their mothers, and touches on the very heart and soul of our species’ future.
What can you do to stop this cycle? More importantly, how can you take action to protect yourself from these women and their sons? There’s no one size fits all answer. Make certain to choose the path that’s right for you.
Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2017). Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In Abnormal Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
© E.B. Johnson 2023