The Mother Wound

Dan Jenkins

I like to tell a humorous story about my oldest daughter when she was somewhere between two and three years old. My wife had placed some figurines on a coffee table and she told our daughter not to touch them. I was reading on the couch the next day when I noticed that our daughter was standing in front of the coffee table, staring at the figurines. Her hand was poised, ready to snatch them up. I was about to say, ‘Melissa, don’t touch those,’ when to my surprise I heard her utter the very same words. ‘Don’t touch those.’ She said these words twice out loud and in a soft whisper. I could almost see the battle waging inside her mind when, unfortunately, her hand won the debate and I had to confirm the command to not touch the figurines. But it told me that she had internalized what her mother had said the day before.

Our daughter had internalized the command, even though she chose not to obey it.

Likewise, all children internalize very important aspects of the mother-child relationship. Mothers provide love, nurture, warmth, and the constant attention that all children need. Infants are born with constant recurring needs, and if those basic needs are met they grow up to understand what it means to build relationships based on trust. If the infant’s mother is largely emotionally absent, then the child does not learn to internalize a healthy representation of attachment to his mother, and later in life, to other people.

Picture a small infant, alone in a crib. Before long, the child is going to need attention, but for a variety of possible reasons, mother is not available. Maybe she is too preoccupied with other children, work, drugs, depression, etc., to give the child what he needs at that moment. If this becomes a pattern, the child will develop an internalized representation of mother that has actually been split into two opposite extremes. There will be the ‘Idealized Mother’ who is perfect and can meet all needs. This is an internalized mother image that can save the child from all the pain and anguish that comes from being isolated and alone.

On the other hand, there will also be the ‘Absent Mother.’ From the child’s perspective this other extreme internalized representation personifies all the negative aspects of the mother-child relationship. Mother is untrustworthy, hurtful, and very inconsistent in meeting the child’s needs. A child with this kind of internalized mother wound will grow up to idealize a relationship . . . until the first disruption, and then the idealized person will fall from the pedestal to turn into the person who is always absent.

You can see how a tremendous fear of abandonment would develop in a person with this kind of early attachment deficit.

Many men who have experienced this ‘splitting’ of their first relationship will find it hard to give up on the idea of an idealized woman who could meet all their emotional needs. They often feel cheated by women, who seem to change after the relationship becomes more emotionally intimate. They fail to see that this recurring pattern originates from within themselves rather than other people.

In more specific terms, they fail to see that it is not the woman who has changed as much as their perception of her. A woman who is a stranger can seem ideal, but as her humanity and frailties become known, she seems to become all that is personified in the ‘Absent Mother,’ along with the intolerable states of aloneness and the desire to find something to fill the void. This leaves the man with a deep sense of loss and abandonment, as well as vulnerability to use idealized sexual fantasy as a counterfeit for true attachment.

If the infant’s needs are largely met, then a different scenario unfolds. Around the age of three the child has internalized enough of the mother to start exploring around in the world without her. He may need to frequently return for attention or other needs, but he has internalized enough of the mother to be able to take her with him wherever he goes. He still feels loved even when she’s not in the same room. The good ‘love-object’ is constant and not going to go away. This also contributes to a stable and constant sense of self. It makes it possible to feel good about yourself, even when you fail.

The Hebrew word for ‘weaned’ actually means ‘satisfied.’ You are supposed to have it taken away after you have had enough. Unfortunately, many people have been left unsatisfied and still hungry from early bonding deficits. Searching for that ideal woman who will meet all our needs is a fruitless and hopeless endeavor based solely in a dysfunctional fantasy from the past.

The first woman you fell in love with was your mother. She set the stage for all subsequent relationships. It’s no wonder that those early wounds would impact your perception of women.

Daniel Jenkins, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in San Diego, California. He is also a Professor of Psychology at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Reality Sets In

Wes Mason

This past weekend I helped teach junior high boys at our church’s Disciple Now weekend. The group was made up of kids of all shapes, sizes, and levels of maturity, but all sharing the awkwardness common to the age and matching bright yellow t-shirts that bore the retreat’s theme in big, black letters across the chest: Reality Sets In. These young men were challenged to respond to the reality that they needed God in their lives. For many of them this reality apparently did set in, as several of them accepted Christ during the retreat.

As the retreat progressed my thoughts strayed to another group of men more than a thousand miles away. At that same time 74 men were gathered in the Washington, DC area for our monthly Every Man’s Battle workshop, having traveled from more than a dozen states and as far away as France and Russia. It occurred to me that some of these men may have also made their decision to accept Christ way back in junior high, just like these retreat kids. But now they were challenged to respond to a new reality they were facing. It was a sobering thought. These young guys at a retreat in Melissa, Texas have no idea the kinds of struggles that may be headed their way in the years ahead; these men in Washington probably could not have imagined when they first became a believer that years or decades later they would become so ensnared by sexual temptation.

When it comes to sexual temptation, there isn’t just one reality that sets in, but a series of them; in the workshop we call them crises of truth. As a man moves down the path from small-scale flirtation with sexual temptation to sexual addiction, these realities get more difficult to face; the consequences become less controllable. In this way sexual addiction is like cancer. Most are not terminal, and even the bad ones can often be conquered or managed if caught early enough. If left too long without attention, however, the options to control the outcome become more limited.

So, what do you do when you’re finally serious about working on your sexual integrity and then discover that there are consequences to your past actions that don’t easily erase? Maybe you’ve done all the right things: surrendered, disclosed, gotten into a program, taken actions to make amends, and gotten an accountability partner. You felt the freedom that comes from finally seeing the burden of your secrets lifted. You had reached the darkness at the bottom and are on your way up and out. Unlike your failed attempts in the past, which had an action plan consisting of willpower alone, this time you’re taking this seriously and you’re finding success. Nice feeling.

But it’s at this point, when the battle’s momentum seems to finally be turning your way, that you may face one of the most difficult realities and least nice feelings of all: the consequences of that past behavior. Sexual sin damages relationships most of all, so it is not surprising that relationship repair is one of the most difficult steps in the road to recovery. How do you face this reality and repair the damage to these relationships? Here are some ideas on how to start with the two most affected relationships a man in this situation faces: with God, and with his wife

Relationship to God: We are fortunate that God has a long history of restoring broken relationships. He is well-practiced at it after interacting with us over an entire human history filled with our failings. Our failures, no matter how serious, do not shock God. He is also committed to relationship restoration, going so far as to send his Son to the cross to demonstrate that commitment. We see the historical examples of men who have fallen much further than we have, such as David, who was restored to be a man after God’s own heart. We relate intimately to the words of the apostle Paul in which he shares his pain with the believers in Rome, where he says,

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do’I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord’Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
In your desire to restore your relationship with God, you have the benefit of God doing much of the work. You have a guarantee from God that if you want to restore the relationship with Him, and take the steps toward restoration mentioned above, restoration is yours. No exceptions, no concern that God will reject your repentance and heartfelt commitment to change.

Relationship to Our Wives: Perhaps you’re on that steady path of recovery; you’re action plan is in place, you’re reassured by the knowledge of God’s still loves you and forgives you despite your failings. But your wife isn’t sure she loves or forgives you; worse yet, she may be convinced that she is no longer capable of either. What do you do?

First, it’s important to understand that your wife is not obligated to simply put the past behind her, and isn’t likely to do so, at least not quickly. Worse yet, she may never be able to get over this completely, or at all. Recently on our radio program Steve Arterburn was talking to a caller who was involved with this kind of problem. He asked the caller to go through a mental exercise that is worth sharing. Imagine that you are standing on a floor with your feet together. Draw a line on the floor around your feet, about two feet out. Inside this line is everything in this world you have control over. Talk about reality setting in; you can only control what you do with your recovery, not how someone else responds to it. That small circle of control can make a man feel a bit claustrophobic, especially if he’s the controlling type, a common characteristic of the sex addict.

The good news is that what you do with your recovery is likely to be highly influential in how your wife responds. If she is listening to good counsel, she’ll be giving little attention to your words and a lot of attention to your actions. She needs to see with her own eyes, over time, a man who is living a life of sexual integrity. Very slowly, depending on what she sees in your life, the trust may begin to return.

This slower approach may be difficult to accept, and there may be a temptation to pressure her to come along at your pace, rather than her own. Professional counselors will tell you, however, that if she is too quick to forgive and forget, without resolving her feelings of betrayal, her anger will find its way back into your relationship in less obvious ways.

The challenge for a man who has fallen but now strives for sexual integrity is to demonstrate, over time with consistency, that he is a changed man. If he does that, the reality is that everything else is in God’s hands; not such a bad place to be for a believer, regardless of whatever other consequences may come his way.

If you would like additional help in restoring your marriage, we encourage you to prayerfully consider attending one of our couples groups at our next New Life Weekend.