Everybody loves to blame unhealthy or toxic behaviors in relationships on “mommy” or “daddy” issues. It seems it’s always spoken as an insult — “Oh, she’s got major daddy issues” in a tone of voice that sounds like they might as well be accusing the person of having the plague.
Sure, mommy or daddy issues can absolutely get in the way of having a healthy relationship, but nobody should be ridiculed for something that’s out of their control, since these issues are based off of things that happened during somebody’s childhood.
But what are mommy or daddy issues really?
The Psychological Explanation of Mommy or Daddy Issues
As you may know, these issues are a result of the relationships you had with your mother or father when you were growing up, and maybe even how the relationship remains today. So let’s just get this out of the way — Daddy issues are about more than wanting to call someone “daddy” during sex (and spoiler alert, it’s a misconception that the phenomenon is always related to daddy issues).
“‘Mommy issues’ is a term originating from the psychoanalytic Oedipal complex, coined by Sigmund Freud. Carl Yung followed up with the Electra complex, modernly spoken of as ‘Daddy Issues,’” explains Talkspace Provider Amy Cirbus Ph.D, LMHC, LPC. “These terms were developed and understood through a psychoanalytic lens, where it was believed that young boys were thought to be in sexual competition with their fathers and young girls to be in competition with their mothers.”
However, today, we know it’s about much more than this. Basically, mommy or daddy issues (which, by the way, are terms that are thrown around way too loosely) are the psychological effects lasting into adulthood that are caused by childhood relationships with a mother or father. Some possible causes of mommy or daddy issues in an adult could be:
- A parent who left the family or was mostly absent
- A parent who was emotionally or physically abusive
- A parent who wasn’t loving or nurturing
- A parent who is extremely overbearing
- A parent who treated the other parent badly
How Mommy Issues or Daddy Issues Usually Manifest
When we think about mommy and daddy issues, it’s often the case that a man in a heterosexual relationship is experiencing the mommy issues and taking it out on the female partner, or that a woman in a heterosexual relationship is taking the daddy issues out on the male partner. Of course, though, there are always exceptions and obviously situations can play out differently in same-sex relationships.
When it comes to mommy issues, Cirbus explains, “Generally, this is a man who seems to be seeking a substitute mom as opposed to an equal partner, or behaving as if in reaction to unresolved issues with his mother, rather than the partner.” This can lead to relationships having an unequal balance of power between a couple — whether the man goes to the extreme of being very controlling or in the other direction and becomes very submissive.
Mommy issues can also cause a man to have different expectations of a partner or spouse. If a man’s mother did absolutely everything for him and babied him up until…well…last year, it’s likely that he will expect a female partner to provide the same, waiting on him hand and foot like his mom has done.
Daddy issues can manifest as trust issues or fear of abandonment for some women. “Women who have an absent father, inconsistent presence, or malfunctioning relationship are at risk for seeking to resolve this through an partnership with a man,” says Cirbus. This can cause women to constantly seek validation or approval from men, or seek out people who are emotionally unavailable. They might also have a fear of abandonment if their father left their family when they were young, afraid that a partner will leave in the same way that their dad did.
Alternatively, a woman might have lofty expectations and needs. “For women truly struggling with their partners because of their relationship with their fathers, they often struggle with a feeling of rejection,” Cirbus states. “If they felt unloved and rejected by their father, they are at risk for having needs that are unrealistic or difficult for their partner to fulfill.”
All of this being said, everybody’s different. Different childhoods and parent-child relationships can result in different outcomes in adulthood, and conversely, somebody who has a rough childhood won’t always have mommy or daddy issues. Plus, as previously mentioned, these terms are often used too loosely. “As a mental health provider, I’m weary of someone using these terms,” says Cirbus. “They’re casually overused, often without a clear understanding of the root cause of what problem is. It’s too often used to blame and label rather than describe or understand.”
The Effect of Mommy Issues or Daddy Issues on Relationships
While mommy and daddy issues can possibly spill over into all aspects of life, it’s most common for them to affect your romantic relationships. “Having unresolved issues from the relationship with our parents can manifest in a lack of self awareness,” says Cirbus. “When we aren’t clear about why we feel a certain way, we react to our partner without clarity. This leads to misunderstanding, miscommunication, and hurt feelings.”
Some negative effects of mommy or daddy issues you might experience in a relationship are:
- Trust issues
- A need for constant reassurance and validation
- Fear of abandonment
- Unequal power balances
- Poor communication
- Negative self esteem getting in the way of the relationship
- Constantly dating someone much older than you
What do you do in couples therapy?
Couples therapy helps a couple gain insight into their relationship, resolve conflict and improve relationship satisfaction utilizing a variety of therapeutic interventions. Couples counseling is a safe place for you and your partner to work through your problems and share feelings that you might not have previously expressed. It is a type of psychotherapy in which a therapist with clinical experience working with couples, most often a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). Your therapist will support you and provide you with practical solutions to improve your communication and problem solving techniques in the future, sometimes by assigning partners homework to apply the skills they have learned in therapy to their day-to-day interactions.
What You Should Do if You Have Mommy or Daddy Issues
Since the mommy issues and daddy issues are deeply rooted, meaning they originated because of ongoing behavior that happened in your past, they can be really difficult to unpack. It’s possible that you’ve buried some of these memories, or tried to ignore past trauma — but ignoring the feelings you have surrounding your childhood and your parents is only going to make it harder to get beyond the struggles you’re facing.
“Taking the time to understand, process, and work through the unresolved grievances and feelings we have about our parents is essential,” says Cirbus. “Healing ourselves gives us the ability to have healthy partnerships that are equal and fulfilling.”
Cirbus recommends therapy for anyone who needs help discussing their past and childhood relationships. A mental health professional will be able to help you unpack your emotions and process them in a healthy way, as well as teach you to cope with the emotions, allowing you to work towards having better, healthier relationships.
There’s no need to be ashamed to be dealing with these challenges, or embarrassed about going to therapy for it. Remember, nobody chooses the family they’re born into. You can’t hand pick your birth mother or father, and when it comes down to it, your mommy or daddy issues aren’t your fault. But most importantly, remember that with hard work, you can move past the issues and have loving, fulfilling, romantic relationships.