Incest is defined as a sexual relationship between two people who are too closely related to marry, such as parents and children, siblings, or other pairs of close family members. However, during my first marriage, I learned about something called emotional or covert incest when I realized my husband’s mother also played the role of his wife. It sounds creepy because it is — but it absolutely exists.
I knew something was off — really off — when I realized that Henry’s mother, Joan, would get upset anytime he and I exhibited public displays of affection. I found it jarring when she screamed “Not in my house!” when her son gave me, his wife, a chaste kiss over Thanksgiving dinner. Though my mother-in-law and I made fast friends back when I was dating her son, I thought that maybe her feelings about me had changed since he and I got married. But I’d come to realize it wasn’t me she didn’t like; it was what I represented to her. Joan was a woman who looked at her son as her partner, confidant, and friend — qualities a woman looks for in a husband, qualities my husband and I found in each other. Divorced for decades and living alone — with her son married to me — who would she turn to for this sort of emotional intimacy?
Through our friendship, courting, and marriage, I witnessed and felt Joan’s increasing jealousy and her one-way competition for Henry’s attention and affections. Early in our relationship, I saw signs of a woman desperately trying to hold on to her son by catering to him the way a wife might. Still, I wasn’t sure if what I saw and experienced was as inappropriate as I thought. Growing up, I had a strained relationship with my mother, so part of me wondered if I just didn’t understand what a loving mother-child relationship looked like. So, I married Henry and into his dysfunctional relationship with Joan.
I think I’ve encountered every version of a relationship red flag, but one of the most disruptive is the mother who treats her son as her husband and the man who allows it. Stereotypically, mothers-in-law are protective of their sons and never really approve of their wives. This may be a trope, but it’s based on what is often true. Even with all the horror stories I heard from friends and seen in movies and television shows featuring destructive mothers of married men, I never imagined I’d meet a woman like Joan.
I was never Henry’s therapist, but I knew enough to see the origins of Joan’s abandonment triggers and fears. His father had left the family decades earlier, leaving Henry to take care of his mother. When he started working, he was the primary source of financial support in the household. As a young man, he was paying bills, buying groceries, and even paid for his siblings’ college tuitions. Henry had been married twice before we met, and when I brought up his mother’s behavior, he admitted that he’d gone through the same things with his first two wives. She hated them and purposely drove them away, and he did nothing to stop it from happening.
When it comes to finances, families often pitch in to help and that’s just the way it is. But more than just his mother’s financier, Henry was made to fill Joan’s emotional needs and intimacy voids as well.
One Saturday night, Henry received a call from Joan, asking him to drive two hours to her house to fix a clogged drain. As always, he obliged. When he arrived, she made him dinner, and that evening he slept over, which was not unusual. She often needed him to handle random chores around the house, making sure there were enough tasks to keep him busy until it was too late for him to drive home.
Early the next morning, however, Henry made it home to me, and I was surprised that he’d honor our plans for a romantic brunch that day — our first Mother’s Day together as a married couple with our kids. Well, he almost honored them. Within an hour of Henry’s arrival, Joan called our house.
“Hello,” I answered, prepared for the worst.
“You fucking bitch!” Joan screamed. “Put my fucking son on the phone!”
We often call them Mama’s boys, and though it’s encouraging to be with a man who loves and respects his mother, it is devastating when those rivers of love and respect flow into an ocean of unhealthy attachment styles and disrespect for the wife a man has chosen.
Henry left his mother’s home before she awoke, assuring he could go without her trying to stop him. When Joan woke up to find Henry gone, she felt as if her husband had left her for another woman — and that’s exactly how she reacted. Shortly after ending the intense call with his mother, Henry headed back to Joan to spend Mother’s Day with her, leaving me alone with the children. As usual, Joan won a battle over our husband that only she was fighting.
I told Henry there was only so much I could take. He said he could see it all clearly but didn’t know how to stop it. He was always under so much pressure to be and do everything for her and their family that there would never be space for a family of his own. So, after nearly six years together, Henry and I finally called it quits. About two years later, and weeks after I remarried, Joan called me to ask how I could’ve moved on and married someone else so quickly. She couldn’t fathom how I could let go of Henry after all her years of holding on to him; I couldn’t fathom her inability to let go.
There’s no way to compete with a man’s mother, just as there is no way for a wife to unravel decades of familial trauma and emotional misappropriation. We often call them Mama’s boys, and though it’s encouraging to be with a man who loves and respects his mother, it is devastating when those rivers of love and respect flow into an ocean of unhealthy attachment styles and disrespect for the wife a man has chosen. Too often, single mothers make husbands of their sons. And with women of color being statistically less likely to marry than their White counterparts, there’s an influx of Black men who are playing the role of their mother’s husbands.
There’s something so wonderful about bringing up a Black boy and watching him turn into a man. As the mother of a grown son, I’m overwhelmed at the greatness I have helped create, and now more than ever, as his mother, I have to do all I can to keep him safe — even from me. Like every human, I have traumas and voids, insecurities, and shortcomings, and it’s my job to heal my afflictions and keep them from affecting my son.
In passing my wounds onto him, I would only do him harm and assure that he would never have healthy relationships with a partner. When he marries, whether spiritually, legally, or both, I never want his wife to feel like she has to compete with me. She will be my daughter, and I can’t wait to meet her.
It’s okay to set firm boundaries with your mother. There is nothing you could do to make her love you less, but there is always something to be done that will make her respect you more. As mothers, we can only raise sons; becoming a man is all on you. Sometimes, you’ll have to remind your mother that you will always be her son, but you will never be her little boy again. And when you find the woman you want to share your life with, place your marriage before your mother. A good mom will understand, and your wife will be grateful.