The following is an excerpt from John Lee’s forthcoming book, Breaking the Mother-Son Dynamic, due out in 2015.

One day in my mid-forties I called my mother and very gently and compassionately said, “Mom, you’re fired! I don’t need you to be mothering me anymore. In mid-life, I had been a college teacher for twelve years and an itinerant lecturer and speaker for a dozen years. What I need is to create a new adult-to-adult relationship with you if it is at all possible.”

My mother was silent for a few moments. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I mean the time for you to be mothering me is over, and the time for me to be ‘sonning’ you is over. I have to stop ‘sonning’—acting, talking, thinking, and behaving like a boy/son—and treat you with respect and you talk and interact with me like an adult.”

A key to breaking the Mother-Son Dynamic is to stop being a “son” to anyone. A forty-year-old man named Jason told the men gathered around him how he spoke one night on the phone to his mother. He was “sonning” up a storm, and his mother was mothering in the only way she ever knew how. “Sonning” is a term Dr. Joseph Cruse taught me to describe how men perform the role of a son without even realizing it; a role that turns men into little boys. When men act like sons, their parents act in kind, and men get pissed off, frustrated, and end up feeling small. Perhaps more importantly, if men are still “sonning” with their parents, they’re sure to be doing the same with wives or lovers, leading to dysfunction that can rival that of their childhood.

A man letting his wife, girlfriend, or lover treat him and talk to him like he is a boy will have serious ramifications. If he is her boy and she is his mom, one of those ramifications could be, as I have often seen, that he takes on a mistress—sometimes it is a woman, sometimes it is work, golf, making money, pornography—but he can’t make love to a mother.

Jason had been reduced to raging tears several times in his weekly men’s group, remembering how his mother had never listened to him when he expressed his emotions, how she had only wanted Jason to achieve, not grow or feel. One night, Jason decided to call his mom: he wanted to share what he’d learned with his mother, and to tell her about the men’s gatherings he’d attended. He needed his mom to hear him.

“Well, that sounds fine, son. I’m sure it was worth the time and money you spent. But I will always be your mother no matter what that therapist tells you. Is he even licensed?”

His mother’s patronizing tone and lack of interest put Jason right back where he was before all his work; at least for the moment, he became a son seeking the approval of a mother who couldn’t give it twenty-five years ago and still can’t.

As Jason told us how much he had wanted his mother to listen, he looked at me with eyes as sad as anyone’s I’ve ever seen and said, “I’ve even got to let her go at this level, too, don’t I? I have to let my mom go, don’t I?” All letting go truly means is letting go, shutting the tap that dysfunction flows from. There is no therapeutic process that can take away the good stuff your mother gave you. The good memories sometimes are turned on in direct proportion to how much of the bad we let go.

At that instant, I could feel that Jason was finally willing to stop sonning, and he joined the ever-increasing group of men who are no longer willing to act on their need for mothering or fathering from their parents. I then asked Jason to tell his mother how he felt now. And this is what he said: “Mom, I’ll always be your son and you’ll always be my mother, but I don’t need parenting by you anymore. I need to stop sonning you. I need you to talk to me like an adult you respect and appreciate. I don’t need your money, your advice, your shaming, your criticizing, or for you to ignore my boundaries. I need to treat you like someone who I love and share a great deal of history with. But I need to forge a new relationship with you and I need for you to be willing to try to be my friend as I am willing to try to listen to you and speak my truth even if it hurts you to hear it.”

I went on and told my own mother, “I don’t expect us to master this new mode of being overnight. I know that after decades I would slip back from time to time and act thirteen with you, and I know you all will act like it’s 1960. But I do expect you to be willing to try with me. And if you should choose not to try, then we will not be able to be close for a while. I refuse to son you. I would rather not talk to you at all. I know this will be awkward and difficult for a while, but I need to let you go. I’ve felt anger and grief at the way I was mothered, and I’m sure I’ll feel some more from time to time. But I can tell it’s time to let you go and to say, ‘Stop mothering. I’m going to stop sonning.’”

Jason and his mother are now sending texts back and forth every month or so. They have agreed to use this medium as a way to really show each other who they are now. They’re trying to become friends.

Are you still acting, talking and behaving like a “son” around your parents, bosses, partners or spouse?

John Lee

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John Lee has been a leader and author in men’s health issues for over a decade. Lee began his career as a professor at Austin Community College, the University of Alabama, and the University of Texas. He has written 18 self-help, psychology, recovery, creativity, or relationship non-fiction books that explore men’s health issues, like alcoholism and co-dependency. In addition to literature, Lee has advocated for the maintenance and improvement of men’s health in magazines, like Newsweek and on shows such as Oprah and 20/20. In 1986, Lee co-founded Primary, Emotional, Energy, Recovery (P.E.E.R.), a training program for counselors, social workers, and psychotherapists. Two years later, he founded and directed Austin’s Men’s Center, a counseling center that specializes in men’s issues. In the late 1980’s, he opened his own private practice in Austin, Texas specializing in men’s issues, relationships, adult children of alcoholics, and co-dependency. His latest two books, The Anger Solution and When the Buddha Met Bubba, are on sale now on Amazon.com. More information about John Lee can be found on his web site http://www.johnleebooks.com and on his daily blog at http://openingtheheartnow.blogspot.com.
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