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What Does It Mean to Be Tied to the Apron Strings?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sometimes presented as "tied to mother’s apron strings," this type of expression is used to illustrate a situation in which someone is considered to be dependent on another person to a degree that is considered unhealthy. The idiom is often associated with men who are dependent on their mothers well into adulthood, but is also sometimes used to identify a male who is extremely dependent on a spouse or partner. A broader application of the term can also refer to situations in which females are unusually dependent on their mothers or other female relatives, often to the point of damaging their other relationships.

When an individual is tied to the apron strings, the imagery involves someone who has yet to develop the ability to make decisions independent of an authority figure. The most common example is that of an adult male who still relies on his mother for support in a number of ways, ranging from doing laundry and preparing food to making important decisions regarding romantic relationships. Often described as a momma’s boy, a male who exhibits this degree of dependency on his mother is likely to be unable to make a commitment to a spouse or partner. Even if a romantic relationship is achieved, the son still defers to his mother in making any type of decisions, often at the expense of his romantic interest. As a result, many people will avoid developing romantic or even platonic relationships with men who are thought to be tied to the apron strings, citing the inability of those individuals to make decisions on their own.

Variations of the apron strings phenomenon can also occur. A male who defers to his spouse or partner in all things, or will not make a decision without consulting that love interest first is sometimes viewed as being too dependent on the partner. This is not to imply that couples should not make major decisions jointly. Those who are said to be tied to the apron strings typically are unable to make even small decisions without obtaining the permission of the partner. With an apron string arrangement, there is usually no healthy discussion of options, but a unilateral decision made by the dominant partner, with little to no regard for the opinions or thoughts of the submissive partner.

In any situation, being tied to the apron strings indicates a lack of confidence and maturity, and an unhealthy level of dependency on another human being. People who exhibit this trait can and sometimes do seek counseling as a means of working through this unhealthy situation, and eventually reach a point of being able to seek advice from others while still reserving the right to make decisions for themselves. Depending on just how tightly those apron strings are tied, achieving that independence may take years.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By AnswerMan — On Mar 08, 2014

My oldest daughter married a man who literally moved his mother into their home. At first my daughter thought it was for health reasons, but then she started realizing he wasn't prepared to leave the family nest, even though he was gainfully employed and in his early 30s. They had a large house with an attached mother-in-law suite, so privacy shouldn't have been an issue. However, her husband usually found reasons for his mother to come over for extended visits. Only her son could convince her to leave. It was not a healthy way to live, and eventually my daughter filed for divorce. She still loved him as a person, but she couldn't convince him to cut the apron strings.

By Phaedrus — On Mar 08, 2014

It seems to me that "apron strings" work in both directions. Some mothers are not prepared to let their baby boys become independent adults, just as "mamas' boys" aren't prepared to cut off ties with their mothers. It can be a vicious cycle or a battle of wills sometimes. I've known a few people in their 40s and 50s who are still dependent on their mothers for one thing or another.

I think it's important to make a distinction between an emotionally dependent son and a devoted caretaker. Some men do cut the apron strings and live independent lives, but they find themselves having to become caretakers for aging parents. The relationship is not codependent or immature.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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