The Disastrous Duo: Controlling Mother, Passive Father

I've noticed a strong pattern in the lives of a lot of guys who I've been talking to lately who have had issues with self-confidence, especially around women: the combination of a dominant, controlling mother and a passive father. It's the disastrous duo for a boy's confidence growing into a man.

One of the unfortunate realities of life is that controlling women tend to attract passive men. So if you have a controlling mother, you're likely to also have ended up with a passive father as your primary male role model.

Controlling people attempt to dominate the people around them in order to assuage their own inner anxiety about the unpredictable nature of life. Confident, powerful men don't put up with this sort of behaviour: they assert themselves and if necessary walk away knowing that there are plenty of other fish in the sea. So controlling women tend to end up left with passive men who are willing to be pushed around because they don't know how to stand up for themselves.

I remember as a child witnessing the frustration that my passive father experienced at the hands of my critical mother. Any time he stepped out of line, she would criticise him mercilessly. He was unwilling or unable to deal with her verbal attacks effectively so he would seethe internally with resentment until he exploded with rage. Oscillating between passive resentment and explosive rage is not a powerful way for a man to relate to other people, and makes for a very disempowered role model for his children.

If you don't break the cycle, you end up repeating it: boys who have grown into passive men at the hands of the disastrous duo are likely to go on to attract another controlling woman into their life, and so the problem gets handed down to the next generation again.

The only way to break the cycle is to develop the confidence to learn to stand up for yourself. Just because your father was passive in the face of an onslaught from a controlling woman is no excuse for you continuing to behave as if you are powerless. You can learn better communication skills than your parents had, you can develop a deeper sense of inner confidence than your father had, and you can learn to stand up for yourself whenever any person tries to exercise control over you.

One of the ironies of the controlling-woman/passive-man dynamic is that the woman's anxiety will remain high for as long as she can sense that the man she is with is unable to effectively protect her. A controlling person is so anxious that they feel under threat internally the whole time, which is why they attempt to control the environment around to manage their inner anxiety. A controlling woman is subconsciously testing a man by trying to control him; and every time he collapses and submits to her authority, he fails the test.

When a passive man learns to step up and assert himself, the woman starts to see that he is in fact able to protect her. If he can stand up to her, perhaps he can stand up to other people too. This lessens her sense of anxiety allowing her to let go of the need to control him all the time. The more he steps up, the more able she is to relax. Deep down, controlling women actually want men to assert their masculinity and stand up to them, so that they can feel secure.

If you're a passive man in a relationship with a controlling woman, your only real option is to learn to stand up for yourself. The relationship will either blossom under this change or self-destruct, but either way you'll learn to stop being treated like a doormat. If you simply leave the relationship and go in search of a woman who won't try to control you without dealing with your inner insecurity, you're likely to subconsciously attract another controlling woman anyway. They can spot a weak-willed man a mile away, and will gravitate towards you without you even knowing it.

The external world is a reflection of what's going on inside your subconscious. If you want your world to change, look at what is going on inside you. Learn to stand up for yourself and do what feels right to you. Don't keep listening to the latent voice of your controlling mother inside your head. Learn from your past mistakes and break the cycle of passivity. Women will sense your deeper inner security and you'll notice controlling women taking up less of your time and energy.

About Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.
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17 Responses to The Disastrous Duo: Controlling Mother, Passive Father

  1. Truth Seeker says:

    Wow, what wise words are written on this site—helpful for women too. I am a woman who married the son of a critical + emotionally neglectful mother/passive father duo, whose husband is suffering from the consequences. And by suffering, I mean he is never satisfied with what he has or has done/accomplished (and it's a lot!), and when his given things or praise—rejects it. In your experience, what makes men come to their senses and say, "I'm good enough, but came from a family dynamic that was dysfunctional?" Men don't seem to like to dig into their inadequacies by nature, so how do they recover instead of living a life of spinning their wheels.

    • Thanks for your kind feedback and question.

      In my experience, the first step is to overcoming perfectionism is to recognize that it stems from our family programming; and may in fact go back several generations. Then to heal the emotional wound involved requires facing the pain we're still carrying around having not been loved unconditionally. In other words, dig into precisely the inadequacy and feelings of not-being-good-enough that many men prefer to avoid. That's what I help men do as a therapist/coach, so if your husband would like to shift this pattern, please let him know I'm here to help.

      Cheers,
      Graham

  2. tessa says:

    Yes. How sad. How unfair. How misunderstood. Because dad refuses to be a dad - mum has to play the double parenting role. And what does she get for it, for her super hard work and enormous efforts? The sticker on her forehead for being dominant.... Sonnyboy starts to hate her as he interprets her double role as controlling - no matter how understandable, what choice does a mother have? Not control, or rather discipline, and let her son grow wild?? With no dad to set limits, boys sense this very quickly and push boundaries with mum just the harder - so mum needs to step up the fights to save her son - and more nasty stickers on her forehead soon appear. And who gets the blame if things dont turn out well for the son? Correct, mum, while it is in fact dad, the do-nothing guy for his kids. And yes, the boys become passive aggressive, oppostitional defiant (disorder), because they get sick of the "over"controlling mum - which only seems that way because she does dads job as well and hence is busy with it way too much of the time - but again, what choice does she have???? The sons find it hard to understand this - otherwise they would kiss the ground their mother walks on!!!! Fortunatelu most sons as adults start to see that mum did it all out of pure love and care. Sure there are overcontrolling mums, but most sons will fight tooth and nail to get away from this, and if they dont, then they have a problem in the first place. Probably to weak, just as their father, so let's blame genetics and not injustly mum as usual.

    • Hi Tessa,

      It certainly is sad for all concerned, and from your comment I'm guessing you've seen yourself in the role of the misunderstood mother in this scenario. There are two sides to every story, and I think when we're feeling misunderstood or unappreciated it's worth asking the question: How might I have contributed to this situation?

      I'm uncomfortable with the picture that you paint of a controlling mother being some kind of pure, innocent, powerless victim of her circumstances. Controlling mothers tend to be quite narcissistic and selective about which needs of their children they choose to meet, while playing the victim card themselves when things don't go their way. Children grow resentful of such parenting styles because they sense the hypocrisy in it. Controlling mothers do have other options, like sitting down with their partner to have a frank discussion about the unhealthy dynamic in their primary relationship, backing off from being so controlling and supporting the father in stepping up. The challenge here is that the mother may have to confront her own demons to do this: there's a reason she got into a toxic relationship with a passive man in the first place; and she can avoid this introspection to some extent by simply stepping into an unhealthy domineering (rather than a healthy supporting) role.

      I don't buy they idea that parents always operate out of "pure love and care"; they are human after all, and have their own needs which will sometimes conflict with the best interests of the child. I would recommend any parent who seeks their adult children "kiss the ground that they walk on" that they would benefit from some personal work in therapy. It doesn't reflect what I consider to be a healthy adult/adult relationship of peer equals that I recommend men work towards establishing with their mothers where possible.

      Cheers,
      Graham

      • Anonymous says:

        I am in agreement with most of this article. I can honestly relate to being a "domineering" type of wife married to a passive husband. Yes, I have anxiety and I resent being so domineering all of the time. However, I don't think it is fair to say that these women "seek out" these men in order to find someone to control, without also addressing the fact that these passive men ALSO seek out domineering women to run the show so they can avoid the stress of making important choices, taking action, building boundaries with others, etc.! It takes two to tango in this dysfunctional relationship - which is exactly what it is - a dysfunctional way of relating between two people - not necessarily between two "dysfunctional" people. I talk to him about me being less controlling and him being more assertive, in which he agrees, but when he never steps up to the plate, never handles things, procrastinates or never makes important decisions, it puts our family at risk and I feel it necessary to jump in to get things done. I give him so many opportunities to handle issues or be 50/50 in making choices, but he is so used to having what I call a "free ride" on MY decisions, while not having the stress of worrying, weighing pros/cons and the job hassles of effective decision-making, that he will perpetually wait for me to make a choice and stand idly as things fall apart from his lack of action. I am so sick of having to control everything because he won't do anything. In addition, I am then negatively labelled as "controlling" and he is unhappy and resents me because he never nurtures his own self. A current example is that he has a history of skin cancer and had to have surgery to remove it in the past. He now has a new growth on his skin that fits all of the properties of cancer, yet does not call the doctor. I have been reminding him daily for over TWO YEARS! I refuse to call and set up an appointment for him the way I used to in the past. He also told his mommy about it and she immediately picked up the phone to make him an appointment...he is 35 years old! I told her he is 35 years old, he can handle it himself, thank you. I think it is irresponsible of him to procrastinate with something important like cancer growing throughout his body. We have small kids. He has still yet to make that appointment! It drives me nuts! I don't know what else to do at this point. If one person in the dysfunctional relationship is ready and willing to make healthy changes, but the other person is not, then the relationship no longer works. At this point, he verbally agrees with me (as usual) and is highly passive with everyone in his life (which like you said, does not make a wife feel protected), but will not take actual steps to assert himself at home or elsewhere. How do I get him to actually follow through? He has been conditioned to be this way from his over-bearing mother for 35 years now and I don't think he knows how to change. I am more than willing to do anything I need to do on my part.

        • I hear that you're really frustrated with your husband's passive behavior and the situation seems unfair to you. I get that if you were to let things slide so he felt the true impact of his passivity, your children might suffer. Sounds like a job for a professional. It sounds like he needs to cut the emotional umbilical cord with his mother, and I'd be happy to talk to him if he wants to do that. We can't really force change on other people, and perhaps your husband is happy with the status quo where you do all the worrying for him. I'm curious if you have sought help for dealing with your anxiety and for being truly assertive with him? Cheers, Graham

    • Daniela says:

      I couldn't have said it better myself!

  3. Michael says:

    Both our parents are so extremely kind and affectionate. If you met my mom, you would totally like to talk to her as she would keep on talking with you about so many things. As a stranger, you will have all the liberty to talk to her about your personal matters and she would guide you very well. But when it comes to her own children, she emotionally made us feel like we cannot cross certain boundaries as adults, no matter how old we get.

    I wonder if anyone ever had a mother who enforced an emotional blackmail type of control over them. I'm 30 and my mom won't leave me nor am i able to leave her. She had made me a dependent as she had been, washed vessels, She follows me wherever i go, move or relocate. She had created a mindset in me so that i cannot do anything without her. She thinks i would become a "bad boy" if left alone.

    My dad is a cool and funny guy. He is a very shy person, though and had always been quite scared of my mom. About 6 to 7 years ago, he had lost huge chunk of savings, property money, etc. Since then my dad has been extremely passive and totally accepting to be enslaved by my mom. I feel it so wrong at times that he is innocent and can't talk back as he is always been a dependent in the house and readily do all the house chores. But watching him sit at home and not being a "Man", annoys me and my brother even to this day. He had lost a great deal of money in investments which my mom had pointed out several times with great anger and frustration.

    Mom would shout at dad often and slam the phone down to end conversations, when he is not able to do some task she had asked him to do, properly. She surely has anxiety. Me and my brother often blame our dad for being so feminine and stay-at-home type guy and not the guy we like him to be as a male role model. He always seemed like a coward. We wanted a dad who took us to places and showed us how to be a perfect man. If i ever had a son, i would think 10 or 20 or 30 years into his future and how he would feel then, so he wouldn't blame me for raising him that way and hopefully raise him in such a way that he would be proud and grateful of me for life.

    My mom had been supremely controlling type. She never let me or my brother go for some adventure with friends or just any long distance outing. Somethings i had difficulty expressing as many may find it silly. But just wanna open up here. She would often claim that she had bought a TV just so that we watch colorful stuff during our childhood. But truth is that she had banned us from watching TV throughout our childhood and through our 20s, in emotional ways, while she was ok with buying us personal computers without the knowledge that an internet connection opens up portals like TV wouldn't. Even now i can't go and sit on the sofa and watch the TV like every other 30 or even a 18+ year old guy would, even if their parents are around. This caused us great fear talking to colleagues or friends as they discuss about TV shows, sports, etc. that we are not familiar and cannot quote the aforementioned reason for our limited knowledge in such areas.

    Whenever travelling with her to some place, mom always had her eyes on our eyes and controlled whom we were looking at. If a hot girl is on the road, and our eyes are on her, she would exclaim "hmm.." like as if she is angry and wants us not to even look at the girl as a person. This made it impossible to even naturally look at girls in our late teens and throughout our 20s, when parents are around. Being a 30 year old frustrated virgin male is taking a toll on me, personally.

    I often feel suicidal as i keep ageing. Almost all of my friends and colleagues in my age group are married with kids or at least have girlfriends. Every year that passes by, feels like i am only as good as dead single and all alone. When you cannot talk to parents about the issues that you face as men, owing to their control, it's really messing with our lives. These days she occasionally asks me (jokes) to get a girlfriend and i can't even reply back to her and just go away from her as i don't know how to ask her to be serious about some things. It's coz of her that i am still not confident enough like all the other guys i know of, while talking to girls. I feel annoyed when my parents talk (joke) about me getting married. I often feel like running away somewhere to a foreign country and do all i want to do and never return home to see my parents, relatives, friends, etc ever again.

    • Hey Michael. I hear your pain! That really sucks having a dad as a role model who is under your mother's thumb, and just crushed by life by the sounds of it. I also hear all the fear that your mother has bred into you, which comes up when you're meeting women. I relate, and what I have found helpful is having male mentors who could act as a surrogate father to me and coach me in how to relate to the world as a man, rather than as a wuss. I'd be happy to talk about what you could do next, if you'd like to drop me a line. Cheers, Graham

  4. Jacob says:

    I am a by-product of that DUO... 25 yo never had girlfriend, never kissed, no job, always nervous, emotional and feel worse. Having dominant mother and weak father was disastrous for me and I also was sharing room with my 5 yo older sister and she was copying my mothers bahavior on me so I was bombarded from two sides! My masculinity was choking very hard. Some girls even think and ask me "are you gay?"

    • Ouch, that sounds pretty sucky Jacob. I'm guessing you must be feeling pretty angry about being dealt a hand like that in life. What's your next step in reclaiming your masculinity and building some real confidence in yourself?

      • Jacob says:

        It is a nightmare for a boy to grow in that environment. I'm trying to lower my anger, to be calm and emotionally stable. I watch some self help videos on youtube, read some articles. I really feel like I'm sick... bad decisions, uncertainty, social problems, I dont know if it's to late to recover from this.

  5. LAG says:

    I agree with this! My husband has totally abdicated his role as a leader in our family. He is content to remain checked out of parenting, the marriage, consumed with self-pity over having his life now seriously limited by MS, addicted to watching sports and living in complete submission to life...he lives life like he is a guest in his own world. My children, now 20 and 23 see him as weak willed, clueless, apathetic and a poser. For many years I have worried about my son and growing into man. I have been the one to throw the football, teach how to use tools and power equipment, how to paint, wax a car, fix leaky faucets, hang a light fixture etc. His Dad just passively watched saying he was not good at that stuff....he is simply lazy, passive and apathetic. With the challenges of life, his own crappy father, he chose to get bitter instead of be better. My son has missed out on only what a father can give! It breaks my heart that his Dad turned out to be so useless. He forced me into the role of "the man" by being such a wimp..full of excuses, procrastination, etc. "I forgot", "I just didn't do it", "I don't know" are the common reponses...somehow, my son has managed to see his Dad's weak behavior and has acted with intention to not follow in his footsteps. While it has been sometimes painful, my son has managed to push me away, in a healthy way, and find his way to manhood! He has been blessed with some great coaches and teachers that have filled in a gap. I think he is actually becoming a man with leadership, confidence, and strength...I am soooo relieved. I do not want him to be like his father. I would love to have a man who would step up and relieve me of the need to make sure the doors are locked, the car is fixed, etc. I want to be taken care of, protected!!! I crave it, and not having it makes me see my husband as a mentally disabled child. Who is turned on by that? He started out posing as the perfect guy, but grew tired of the charade after the pressure was off...we moved out of state after 1o years near my family. I am proud of the man my son is becoming, no thanks to his own father.

    • Wow... I'm quite blown away by what you've said Helen. It really highlights to me the importance of men stepping up and learning to really be men, regardless of their original role models. Your comment is the best recommendation of the value of coaching for men that I've come across in a long time. Thanks for stopping by! Cheers, Graham

  6. Bruce Kugler says:

    I think you're idea that women become more anxious when men can not demonstrate they can protect them is not the main reason for the woman's anxiety, but when the woman believes he can not protect himself, this is a far greater source of anxiety. It is the same with children and parents. If the child ridicules a parent, and knows the parent can not stand up for her/himself, it suggests to the child the parent is too weak to defend her/himself. Of course this means the child can not depend upon the parent for protection in the end, but I think before concern about offering protection to others, we need to see the other taking care of her/himself. Your idea of the man not providing protection to the woman assumes the woman, no matter the woman, needs this as her primary need, and this isn't true. But I doubt many women overlook a man not able to protect himself.

    • Hey Bruce, thanks for the insight. I believe anxiety is about safety, and ultimately she's looking to get her own safety needs. Perhaps she knows that she'll feel bad if he gets hurt; so I see where you're coming from. In a way it's not that different: she's afraid of getting hurt either physically or emotionally by his inability to stand up for himself and what's important to him... so she ends up taking control and he becomes even more passive, thus the vicious cycle. Cheers, Graham

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