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Mary Tyler Moore and the “Playing House” (aka “Living Symbolically”) Dynamic

She did turn our world on with her smile. Mary Tyler Moore gave us thousands of hours of happiness and laughter with her “Oh, Rooooooooob!” and her spunky Mary Richards character (“I hate spunk!”). But the lady behind the big smile and marsupial cheeks (her words; not mine!) was playing a scripted role off-screen in her personal life as much as on-screen for our viewing enjoyment.

I call it “Living Symbolically.” She called it “Playing House.” We won’t quibble about terminology. But it’s about time we faced this nearly invisible, jello-like, hard-to-pin-down dynamic Adult Children of {Insert-Dysfunction-Here} Parents hone in childhood and continue to play out in adulthood.

Mary first uses the term “playing house” on page sixty-five of her autobiography, After All. She’s talking about her first marriage and oops-I-forgot-to-use-my-diaphragm pregnancy less than two months after saying “I Do”:

Certainly any questions I might have had
about whether this marriage was the bliss I had hoped for
was scrambled by the pregnancy because
I had to then concentrate on motherhood.
I started wearing maternity clothes right away because, of course,
it was important to the part I was playing in this game of “house.” (emphasis mine)

The part of Wife-and-Mother in this game of “Playing House” was merely the newest role Mary Tyler Moore played. Her first role was, of course, Perfect-Daughter-of-an-Alcoholic-Mother and Aloof-Cold-Disapproving Catholic Father.

If you were also raised by an alcoholic, a drug addict or a personality disordered parent, you know that role well. Even when some well-meaning  person asks you point-blank, “Is your father an alcoholic?” or “Does your mother ever beat you?” … you lie your ass off! Put on a big smile. Pretend that Ward and June Cleaver are your parents. That’s when the dynamic starts: in childhood.

In February of 2016, I first broached the subject of “Playing House” in an article on my website entitled Don’t you Dare Show Pain. Smile! Smile! Smile!  But even in that article, I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what “Living Symbolically” or “Playing House” really is. Every time I got near it, like The Blob, it “leaps and glides and slides” away from me. But hope springs Eternal so here’s the best definition for it I can conjure at the moment.

Living Symbolically or Playing House
is always behaving like you’re a perfectly happy Cinderella in the last act
when the fairy tale comes true and
she lives happily ever after.

But in reality, your Cristina Crawford living in Mommy Dearest’s secret Hell.

Or maybe you’re one of the Turpin children. Or Elisabeth Fritzl imprisoned by her father.

The script you’re acting and speaking from
is a play called “My Life is Perfect.”

But you’re in the wrong play, following the wrong script.
The play you’re actually in is called “My Life Is Hell.”

Yet, we just keep saying the My Life Is Perfect lines.

Our words and our actions don’t match our reality nor do we react to reality appropriately because we’re too busy playing Cinderella.

That’s the best I can articulate it (and yet I’m still dissatisfied.) Until I read After All, I’d never heard anyone try to articulate it either. I mean, all children of alcoholics, addicts and personality disordered parents will talk about the lengths they went to in childhood to hide the truth about their homes and parents from their little friends.

We’re trying to pin down how this habit of acting from an invisible script that doesn’t match our reality unknowingly translates into adult life. Mary Tyler Moore writes:

I was as meticulous in mothering as I was at housekeeping…
I wanted this home and baby to have the perfection
I thought everyone else had obtained.
To be like life in the movies, Ozzie and Harriet.

She was so busy acting like the Perfect Wife and Perfect Mother, that she completely missed perfection…and happiness:

I brought little joy to the small amounts of time
I spent with [Baby] Richie …

Duty was the blanket in which I wrapped us both.
(emphasis mine)

Stop right there. That’s profound! Read it again:

Duty was the blanket in which I wrapped us both.

How many times does the word “duty” dance in your mind and perhaps on your lips? Personally, I’m obsessed with doing my “duty.” As if, my father’s going to swoop down, confiscate my Adult Card and bust me back to my childhood bedroom if I let one thing slide or one ball drop in this juggle known as “Life.” (Yeah, my Stockholm Syndrome is showing and I know it!)

Mary Tyler Moore goes on to say:

I wanted to be a perfect mother …
I thought more about [education] than cuddling.

I was raising Richie as if it were
a dress rehearsal for something to come.

She played the Mother role perfectly, but it wasn’t authentic, it wasn’t warm, it wasn’t in-the-moment. It was her part in their little family drama. It was her duty. She was just Playing House.

And, so, it spectacularly backfired.

I actually envied other mothers in the park
whose children were shy and clung to them.
Surely, they were responsive mothers to elicit
such declarations of warmth and need from their children.
But since I wasn’t initiating any more interaction with mine
than was necessary, I don’t know what I expected.

She was playing June Cleaver. So why wasn’t Richie playing Beaver Cleaver!?! He was letting the side down, not following the script, damn it. She may as well have stopped harping about college and cuddled Richie. She only had him for twenty-four years.

She carried this same dynamic into her second marriage to Grant Tinker as well. Mary writes:

Our friends knew they were our friends
because we’d go out to dinner with them occasionally,
not because we confided in them.
We didn’t.
We wisecracked and laughed
and talked about the art of putting on shows
in the business of television….

Grant and I were the blind leading the blind….

Anytime we erupted in disagreement
(and after stifling so much for so long,
it could indeed be explosive)
we ruefully regarded the unpleasantness as erosion,
not a cleansing process of discovery.
It was a strange dynamic for a marriage.

I walked on eggshells and so did he….

In time, Mary Tyler Moore learned to throw away the My Life Is Perfect script and to live deeply from within her actual reality. It took two divorces, therapy, starving herself and a descent into alcoholism (“Mirror, mirror on the wall…) that ended with a stint at the Betty Ford Center to finally shed the façade, the role, the script and face life as it really was. It wasn’t pretty, but it got better.

So how do you know if you’re “Living Symbolically” and “Playing House.” That’s easy. Just ask yourself, “Do I live by the twelve ‘Life Rules’ listed below?” and you’ll have your answer.

Life Rules for “Living Symbolically”

  1. Smile, always smile.
  2. Behave as you would if life and people were perfect at all times, no matter what happens. Don’t respond to the situation. Respond to the “perfect” world.
  3. Always be happy.
  4. Never react when someone hurts you.
  5. Never set a boundary.
  6. Never complain.
  7. Never cry.
  8. Never show pain of any kind — physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.
  9. Never have compassion nor empathy for yourself.
  10. Always “do unto others,” although they never do unto you.
  11. Always make sure everyone else is happy.
  12. Never do anything to please nor care for yourself.

If this describes you, oh baby! I feel your pain!

Mary Tyler Moore and the “Playing House” (aka “Living Symbolically”) Dynamic

Lenora Thompson

Lenora Thompson is a syndicated Huffington Post freelance writer and food blogger. Her readers call her the "Edward Snowden" and "Wikileaks" of narcissism because of her no-holds-barred-take-no-prisoners approach to writing about narcissism. “Narcissism Meets Normalcy” is the real-life, ongoing story of her healing journey from being held “hostage” by a multi-generational, cult-like narcissistic family. It's gritty and real, bloody and bruised, humorous and sarcastic. Lenora Thompson considers herself a “whistleblower,” shining a spotlight on narcissistic abuse so others can also claim their freedom and experience healing. To learn more about Lenora, her husband Michael's heroic battle with Pulmonary Alveolar Proteinosis and to read her writings about food, please visit Thank you!

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APA Reference
Thompson, L. (2019). Mary Tyler Moore and the “Playing House” (aka “Living Symbolically”) Dynamic. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Feb 2019
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