#48 – Relationship Boundaries with Mother Enmeshed Men (MEM)

This is the first episode of the month, so it’s dedicated to the topic of women and boundaries. Specifically, this episode is a response to a listener’s question about being in a relationship with a man who suffers from mother enmeshment. If you haven’t heard of this term, this episode will clarify what mother enmeshment is, how it develops, as well as what you need to know if you are in an intimate relationship with a mother-enmeshed spouse.

Biggest Takeaways From Episode #48:

  • Enmeshment is a boundary issue. It means that there are poor (or no) boundaries between two people or within a family system. These poor boundaries don’t allow the child independence or the ability to express themselves independently.
  • In adulthood, mother enmeshment can manifest as being commitment-phobic, a sex addict, or a perpetual adolescent.
  • If you’re in a relationship with a mother-enmeshed man, he probably sees you through the lens of his childhood experience with his mother. Keep in mind this has almost nothing to do with you, but rather his childhood experience of his mother.
  • One tool for making a request of a mother-enmeshed man is to give him at least 24 hours to answer. If he agrees to do something you asked him to do, and then resents or regrets it, don’t take it personally — it’s not about you.

Highlights from Episode #48:

  • Welcome to the podcast! This one is dedicated to the topic of women and boundaries, specifically about being involved with a man who suffers from mother enmeshment.  [00:40]
  • Vicki explains what mother enmeshment is, and talks about the “ick factor” this term can evoke. [02:44]
  • We hear a quick example of the kinds of things that a mother with boundaries might share with a child, as well as how being mother-enmeshed can manifest in adult men. [08:08]
  • Mother-enmeshment is often described as the mother putting a boy child on a pedestal or treating him as a hero, Vicki explains. [13:26]
  • Vicki talks about other kinds of mother-enmeshment that may sound more familiar. [15:29]
  • How does all of this impact the partner of a mother-enmeshed man? [18:30]
  • Vicki gives a relatable example of how mother-enmeshment comes up, and how to handle it. [25:37]
  • Don’t take it personally when your mother-enmeshed spouse agreed to do something and then resents or regrets it. [33:20]
  • Vicki points out something else to remember: you cannot change another person. [37:06]
  • It is possible to develop compassion around the toxic legacy of enmeshment. [41:53]

Links and Resources:

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19 Comments

  1. Laura on August 20, 2019 at 1:32 pm

    My husband’s mother is a covert narcissist and my husband was diagnosed with narcissistic tendencies. He’s spent 20 years controlling me, just like his mom tries to do, and he has a porn addiction. Is there anything on narcissism and mother enmeshment? I’d like to better understand the connection. I would like to understand why he tries to please her but prefers to control and demean me. Oh and she lives across the street and attends the same church. She hasn’t spoken to me in 2 years but loves to speak badly about me to others, lies about me, and I quit going to their home because I like her not talking to me. He isn’t going over as often and he is making some changes and seeking help with his addiction. I’m just afraid of her control over him and how its affecting my marriage and children age 13 and 17.



    • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on August 20, 2019 at 3:18 pm

      Hi Laura, for information on narcissism and MEM I recommend going straight to the source which is Ken Adams’ work. You can find out more about him here.

      I applaud the self-care and boundary work you are doing — keep it up!



  2. Mazzy on October 1, 2020 at 10:11 pm

    This was such a great talk, thank you Vicki! I found out my husband is a mother enmeshed man after he revealed a string of emotional affairs. His mother is a vulnerable covert narcissist and even though he rarely sees her or talks to her, she had a huge hold on him emotionally and psychologically. She was very competitive with me and so destructive to our marriage the first few years that we moved 3,000 miles away from her. Still, my husband carried immense guilt and she was always the Number One woman in his life. We spent years of our marriage mired in conflict and strife over him projecting his rage and resentment towards her on me. We also struggled with intimacy and sexual issues. We are now on a path of healing and I am trying to have compassion for what he experienced as a child while also establishing my boundaries and bottom line for what I will and will not accept in my marriage. Thanks for explaining this from the perspective of the spouse of a MEM – there isn’t a lot out there directed toward the spouse. Being in a relationship with a MEM can be confusing, lonely and isolating.



    • Tea on October 18, 2020 at 12:30 am

      This is exactly the same situation where I am now. Except I came recently with my child from Europe to live with my husbund and his mother in Mexico. When I realized how big problem he has and after expiriancing psychological abuse I am leaving Mexico with my doughter and we are going back home.



    • Jamie on October 20, 2020 at 2:22 pm

      Hi Mazzy. Your words describe my marriage exactly. Was it difficult for you to get him to acknowledge this was the issue (the root of all the other issues)? And if so, how did you get him to do so? My husband (together 17 years) has threatened divorce multiple times in the last year and the topic is now off the table. I came to the realization that this was our situation in February – March of this year after she changed her Christmas plans to occur opposite of mine, and he went, angry at me for being angry. He is hearing none of it. He says I don’t have to see her anymore…which I took him up on. But the holidays are coming…she is ramping up, and I feel it’s just a matter of time before there is another ‘episode’.



      • Mazzy on January 18, 2021 at 6:20 pm

        Hi Jamie, it took him 17 years to finally acknowledge there was an issue with his mother. We started therapy when we were first engaged because his mother was cruel to me and insisting on remaining as the Number One woman in his life and he was riddled with guilt over it. The solution was for us to move away from her but the problem still was there. I threatened leaving him unless he explored the emotional issues that drive him to be dishonest and betray me. I would highly recommend Ken Adam’s workshops on Mother Enmeshed Men. My husband did the 3 day one and it was the push he needed to understand the destructive hold his mother had on him and that her legacy prevented him from being intimate and emotionally authentic.



        • Maba on March 8, 2021 at 10:15 am

          Mazzy, Thanks for your response. I have been trying to get my husband to do the 3 day workshop with Ken Adams but he gets so upset, angry and feels demeaned in some way because he cannot see how him, his perfect mum and family of origin can have nay “flaw”. I am wondering whether your husband would be willing to communicate with my husband on how useful it was for him in terms of opening his mind and heart to the possibility of how enmeshment is destructive and is unnecessary? The freedom to love is an amazing experience for any adult!
          Thank you!



  3. Kelly on October 24, 2020 at 9:59 am

    I am in a new relationship with a man who 100 percent suffers from this. I truly love him and he has some wonderful qualities, but it is smart to get out now or is it something that he can potentially work on? It took a little bit of time for me to figure it out, but now that I know what can I do to support him and protect myself? He does not seem to recognize this and that is the biggest issue for me, thanks!



    • Ally on November 19, 2020 at 6:22 pm

      Speaking as someone finally leaving a relationship like this, be very careful. Never let him doubt your instincts or feel guilty for sharing your concerns, and remember that there is no excuse for him not taking responsibility for his actions. Be prepared to leave.



    • Anne on March 19, 2021 at 2:12 pm

      Having struggled through 15 years with a MEM and now considering walking away, if I knew then what I know now – I would not hesitate to leave. The battles are soul destroying and whilst he might have some wonderful qualities, the most important ones are missing – this is something that may put you in the loneliest spot in the world – right in the middle of your relationship.



      • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on March 22, 2021 at 10:51 am

        Hi Anne, and all women struggling with another person’s issues or problems. Focusing on another person’s issues, problems, and struggles will slow you down and make you miserable. Please use the power you have to create the boundaries (self-care) you need so that you can feel better, no matter what any other person is doing or not doing.

        I highly recommend all of the women on this comments thread listen to this episode:

        #81 – Diagnostic Distractions: When Someone You Love is NPD, MEM, ADHD, Bi-Polar, etc.



  4. Abby on February 1, 2021 at 12:37 am

    I wonder: Do MEMs recognize that the way they live their relationships is not normal? Do they recognize that other people’s romantic relationships have emotional intimacy and authenticity?



    • Ruth on February 20, 2021 at 9:14 pm

      Unfortunately Abby, no. They are blinded. In my experience, their emotional needs are met by their mother/family so they have no need or desire for emotional intimacy from their partner. Its heartbreaking I know but thats just the way it is and it is highly unlikely to change.



  5. Ruth on February 20, 2021 at 9:09 pm

    Hello ladies. I totally understand where you are all coming from. I have been married to an enmeshed man for almost 22 years. He is enmeshed with his family. His mother passed away 14 years ago but her brainwashing of her children still can be seen today (by me…of course they can not see it as they believe they had the best most loving mother and family). The truth is, their “love” is very unhealthy, strange and obsessive. They acknowledge no fault or wrongdoing in one another (all issues and shortcomings are swept under the rug), never go against one another or stand up to one another even when it is needed. There is a strange misplaced loyalty my husband has for them that has basically destroyed our marriage from the outset. I have struggled with this for many years.

    At first, it was quite a shock as I knew he had a large family and they were “close” but little did I know the extent of the mothers control and brainwashing of them. It hit me like a ton of bricks at the beginning and sure enough the problems and arguments between myself and my husband began. To cut a long story short, even after more than two decades many of the issues still remain. My husband claims to have changed but when it really comes down to it, he is still loyal to his family and has failed to connect with me emotionally as a result. It has been a very lonely 22 years. We have two children and I do not want to separate or divorce as he is a good father to them.

    I would just like to share the long and exhausting journey I have been through…

    First 21 years: anger, frustration, fighting, disappointment, heartache, tears, struggle, hurt, loneliness, resentment (towards husband, his mother and siblings). Trying to get through to him. Hoping that he would realise and change. Literally banging my head against a brick wall. To no avail. It took me two decades to realise and understand what was happening and why. Only with time, experience and hindsight can you work out the dynamics of such an unhealthy and toxic situation. At the beginning I was lost and confused. Now I understand the enmeshment, control, guilt and brainwashing. It has taken me more than two decades to figure out why he is the way he is.

    Next stage: Dawns on me that it is not going to change. The brainwashing is too deeply rooted. As hard as it is, I finally accept that the situation is not going to change. I let go of all hope for change. He will never stand up to them or be emotionally open and committed to me. I have no expectations from him anymore. He will not change.

    Then follows: I make a decision to accept that this is the way things will remain but with God’s help I can still find a way to live a happy, peaceful and full life. I pull away slightly from the relationship to protect myself from further heartache and disappointment. I choose to focus on the many other positive aspects of my life and my many blessings instead of my failed and disappointing marriage. I choose not to fight and to maintain peace instead.

    Most recently: After a couple of months, I relapse into anger and everything comes flooding back. Fights resume.

    Today: I need to make a decision. Now that I understand the situation and more importantly, have accepted that it is not going to change, what am I going to do? Do I continue in anger and resentment or do I live my life in peace and let it all go. I choose the latter. I pray and hope that I can maintain peace and let go of all anger and resentment that has built up in me over the years. I have too many good things in my life to focus on and enjoy. I do not want to be broken anymore just because I chose to marry a weak man from a dysfunctional family. If I continue to be angry and controlled by it, I keep myself part of that toxic situation and live out the rest of my life broken and bitter. If I choose to let the anger and pain go I allow myself to focus on making the rest of my life the best it can be, I free myself from the toxic situation and am no longer shackled to it. Unfortunately, my husband will remain shackled to it and stay blinded and deluded. But that is his call.



  6. Carolyn C DeLuise on March 15, 2021 at 11:27 am

    Vicki,
    This was a very good podcast. I have been doing research on this topic for years once I figured out what I thought the issue might be. I have been in a relationship for several years with a man who is totally enmeshed with his narcissist mother (codependent is an understatement). His mother was married four times, shared many relationship confidences, still shares other family confidences with him, as if he is her husband/partner. He is fiercely loyal to her above any other woman he has ever dated. He has never been married and his relationships usually move on at the 2 year mark. He is non-committal and his emotional state seems to vascillate between a teenager trying to transition to adulthood but does not know how to get there. It is extremely sad to watch and has been so painful and lonely in the context of our relationship. He has struggled for years with self-worth, confidence, commitment issues, and self loathing he claims he does not know why he is this way. His embedded and unhealthy emotional enmeshment with his mother has not only detrimentally impacted him his whole life, it is detrimentally impacted our relationship. We have discussed this many times. Although he recognizes that something is not right in his emotional health, he refuses to go to therapy…this is a very deep and insidious issue that has ruined what potentially could have been a great relationship. I will share this informative podcast with him and if there are other podcasts, seminars, that you could share, that would be most appreciated and hopefully helpful. Several years back, I bought him the books that you had mentioned, Silently Seduced & When he is Married to Mom and another book on narcissistic mothers, but, to my knowledge, he has not read one. As he is more of a hands-on visual and audio learner, I think this video at 45 minutes may be the start to how he can try to help himself moving forward. He is a good human with a very haunted soul…who has never experienced the healthy and rich love of a woman because of this issue. Its really such a shame on so many levels. This issue has caused so much pain and loneliness within this relationship that I am ready to say goodbye.



    • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on March 16, 2021 at 5:01 pm

      Hi Carolyn, it sounds like it is time to turn the focus to you so that you can do what is in your power to feel better. I would love for you to join me tomorrow for a free LIVE Masterclass: 3 Truths Every Woman Must Embrace. I know that the information I will be sharing will be helpful for you.

      You can sign up for this free session here:

      Click here for 3 Truths Every Woman Must Embrace Masterclass



    • Anne on March 19, 2021 at 7:07 am

      I am in an almost identical situation and it feels like moving on is the only thing left to do. My heart goes out to you – I know all too well the pain you feel.



  7. Anne on March 19, 2021 at 7:05 am

    So many of these comments and shared experiences sadly mirror what I’ve been living since 2006. It has all but destroyed my marriage and relationship, with a build up of resentment and disappointment now like a toxic layer of fumes infiltrating every part of our life. My husband’s mother psychotically drummed into him as a teenager he should never get a girl pregnant because it would ruin his life (he was conceived out of “marriage” in the 1960’s) so the resulting dysfunction for him has been devastating in adulthood. I raised right from the start of our relationship it was a big issue for me but wanted to believe his promises that he’d change – (he basically trained himself to never be able to ejaculate inside a woman – therefore never risk pregnancy) This meant having children never happened for us – and that heavy disappointment, combined with all the manipulative emotional blackmail that still goes on today, makes me feel like the last 15 years has been such a lonely and wasteful chapter of my life. I’ve heard so many promises of change and “I’m going to work my shit out” for so long, I now feel pretty certain it’s never going to happen. He’s had some therapy that he believes has improved his “relationship” with his mother but there’s still no change in the things I’ve been kindly and compassionately asking for for longer than I care to remember.

    So is it time to just get on with finding a normal, adult passionate and sexually functional relationship ? because I’m just so tired of being in a situation that’s not satisfying any of my needs – physical, sexual, spiritual or emotional.

    I think I’d rather move on and potentially be alone than continue to be despairingly lonely with the status quo.



  8. Kristy on March 27, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    Thank you so much for this podcast. I am in a painful situation, as I’ve been with a MEM for 19 years, and just left the relationship because he won’t marry me. Over the years, we have had many struggles with this, and he has essentially led me on with notions that he would marry me. She is now elderly but psychologically has a big hold on him. I think he has a lot of guilt and shame and obligation. Although I have left before, and he has returned and appeased me with engagement ring and so forth, he hasn’t been able to get married and keeps making excuses and wanting to buy time. I love him so much, and we have a really good life together in general, but I have now moved out of our beautiful home and am so sad and lonely. Although it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and I have second-guessed myself, I have decided that this is a gift to him and to me, because I need to have my core needs met, and it has always been a gnawing pain not to be recognized in marriage. I am thinking it is a gift to him as well, because thus far, he hasn’t been able to go back and work through the severity of the enmeshment and narcissistic abuse he suffered under her, and I am praying that his love for me might enable him to grapple with that and have love trump the fear and get him to deal with that trauma. I moved out and haven’t been in contact with him, and it is so hard, but I am hoping he might eventually be able to come forward. If not, then I will need to move on and figure out why I stayed for so long with an unavailable man, and how I can make myself more available for real, committed love. My question is: do you think he will be able to deal with his childhood issues due to this fear of loss of me and end up coming forward to offer me marriage? Or is this hopeless?



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