Guest article by Dr. Josh Coleman
When Sam brought Maria home for the first time from college, she didn’t make a particularly good impression. She spent much of the evening on the couch texting on her phone, barely engaging any of the family members in conversation, including Sam’s two sisters with whom he was very close. Sam seemed a little embarrassed by her behavior but was also careful not to pressure her into involvement in the family interactions.
“She’s just shy, I think,” said Sam’s mother to her husband and daughters after the first meeting. “We’re kind of a loud and overwhelming family, she was an only child, isn’t that what Sam said? I think we just need to give her time to get to know us. Sam seems happy with her and that’s all that matters.”
“I think she’s a b*tch,” said Sam’s younger sister, a high school senior. “Seriously, I must’ve asked that girl 10 questions about her college studies, her hobbies, her family, where she grew up. Whatever. I hope she makes Sam happy but I’m just not willing to work that hard to get to know somebody. Did she even ask you one question, Mom?”
“No, but that’s OK,” Sam’s mother said, ever optimistic. “She probably just needs time to settle in. I think if she makes him happy, then I’m fine. She doesn’t have to be my best friend. Besides, she’s his first serious girlfriend so it’s not like he’s necessarily going to marry her or anything.”
“Oh, Lord, I hope not,” Sara said. “Because I know girls like that and this one is bad news. Trust me.”
Sara was right and her Mom was wrong.
Within one year of their dating, Sam had cut off all contact with his parents, sisters, and grandparents, and with all of his childhood friends. Everyone. Like many of these cases, the deterioration in the family relationship occurred over a surprisingly short period of time; a trail of small misunderstandings and mystifying communications construed by Sam’s girlfriend—and then Sam as her defender—as intentionally hurtful, hostile, and manipulative on the part of Sam’s family. Visits with Sam and Maria always ending up with a furious phone call the next day with Sam yelling at his parents or his sisters for disrespecting Maria and “just not getting it.” When Sam’s mother asked Maria if she planned to have children, Sam told her that Maria was incredibly insulted by that and found it intrusive. She also said that she didn’t like Sam’s mother’s cooking, so she didn’t want to have dinner there again.
Part of what was so surprising to Sam’s family, and later friends, was the dramatic change in Sam. He had gone from someone who was friendly and outgoing, to cold and hostile. “It’s like she’s taken over his mind,” his father told me in my first meeting with the parents and sisters. “And the more we plead, the more he moves away. We tried reaching out to her parents, but they had no interest in helping us and acted like we were being mean to their daughter. We said, ‘Look, we’re just trying to get our kid to talk to us and it seems like ever since they’ve been together, he wants nothing to do with us and we don’t know what we’ve done.’ But they just acted like it wasn’t really any of their concern and like we had been mean to their daughter which—if we had, fine, tell us and we’ll say we’re sorry. We’re happy to apologize to her if that’s what it takes but they didn’t even seem willing to help us do that. It’s apparent that they’re in contact with them though because we still have access to his Facebook page and we see all of the activities they’re all doing together.”
This sequence is surprisingly common: Adult child couples with someone who is either troubled or highly insecure; she feels threatened by his attachment to his family or friends, and slowly encourages a dissolution of any and all prior relationships until the only attachment is to her and, not infrequently, her family.
In my practice, I have found that men are more vulnerable to being negatively influenced by their spouses or girlfriends against their families for a variety of reasons: For most, their wives are their best friends, if not their only friends (Bingham 2015). Therefore, men pay a higher price for opposing a wife or girlfriend who’s motivated to cut him off from his family because of her singular importance to him as a source of support and nurturance.
In addition, supporting the desires of his girlfriend can be an important expression of masculinity; as a result, he may be easier to manipulate with claims that he’s a mama’s boy or is failing to protect and prioritize her happiness over that of his biological family’s: “I’m your new family now and you should be prioritizing me and my feelings” may be an assertion that’s hard to resist, especially once children come onto the scene.
Because parents don’t talk as much to their sons about their feelings (Dell 2014), many men enter marriage more compromised in their ability to label their emotions or navigate complex and demanding interactions with a romantic partner. As marital researcher John Gottman has shown, men are more likely to shut down as a way to avoid feeling overwhelmed or “flooded” with emotion (Gottman 2015). Men may be more likely to want to avoid conflict and criticism, even if it means having less contact with family or friends.
While women often have the role of being “kinkeepers” in families and thus pay a higher social price for not attending to the needs and feelings of family (Lee 2015), men are more typically excused from that role and therefore may be less vulnerable to feeling guilty toward their parents when they cut off contact. Finally, for both men and women, supporting a spouse may be tied to their own goals of individuation and separation from a family of origin. Therefore, supporting a spouse against the family may cause them to feel stronger or more independent because it’s developmentally more in line with feeling like an adult.
Dr. Joshua Coleman is a psychologist in private practice and Senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families.A frequent guest on NPR and Today, his advice has also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Chicago Tribune and other publications. A popular conference speaker, he has given talks to the faculties at Harvard, the Weill Cornell Department of Psychiatry and other academic institutions.
He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and has written four books: The Marriage Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony (St. Martin’s Press); The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework (St. Martin’s Press); When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (HarperCollins); and Married with Twins: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Marital Harmony. His books have been translated into Chinese, Croatian, and Korean, and are also available in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia.