Matthew Perry: Family, Parents, and Feeling Alone

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing" by Matthew Perry. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who were Matthew Perry’s parents? Was his family supportive of his acting career?

Matthew Perry’s family is detailed to a great extent in the author’s memoir Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing. However, Perry doesn’t have the fondest memories of growing up as an only child of divorced parents.

Keep reading to learn about Matthew Perry’s family troubles growing up.

A Lonely Child

Matthew Perry’s family relationships may have caused his struggles in relationships, the actor claims. His mother is a former beauty queen turned high-powered career woman. His father is a former musician turned actor who never achieved much success outside of a famous perfume commercial. (Shortform note: Perry’s father did get a chance to shine in prime time, though, when he made a cameo in season 4 of Friends.) They got married and had him almost immediately, but then divorced when he was nine months old. After the divorce, his father moved to California to pursue a career in show business, leaving Perry and his mother, then only 21 years old, in Canada.

Perry often felt alone and parentless during his childhood. One of his earliest memories is of traveling alone from Canada to LA to visit his father. He was only five years old and he flew as an unaccompanied minor. He remembers being scared and feeling relief when he finally saw LA from the plane, knowing that he would soon be with a parent. He believes that memory is behind him feeling at ease—less lonely—in homes or apartments with a view of the city lights.

Back home in Canada, feeling alone was a constant. His mother worked long hours and, although he was usually under the care of his grandparents or nannies, he was often home alone. Knowing that his father had taken a plane to go to California, every time he saw a plane overhead he worried that his mother was on it, leaving him behind.

The Trauma of Invisibility

Perry’s description of his childhood suggests that his parents were emotionally neglectful, which might have caused him to suffer the “trauma of invisibility.” In this phenomenon, children experience emotional isolation because they feel: 

That they’re outsiders in their family. We will see later that Perry felt like an outsider, especially after his mother married for the second time and had other children.

Abandoned because their parent demanded that they cede their own feelings and needs to tend to those of that parent. Perry often used humor to tend to the negative feelings his mother experienced, which meant the parent-child relationship was focused on making the parent, rather than him, feel supported.

Unloved for who they truly are. As we’ll see later in the guide, Perry has a hard time letting people get close to him because he thinks he is, deep down, unloveable.

Craving His Mother’s Attention

With a father he only saw rarely, his mother was his primary caregiver, but he had a difficult relationship with her. Perry believes that spending his childhood trying to get his mother’s attention led to him being attracted to unavailable women. She worked for the Prime Minister and was away from home often, which made young Matthew feel lonely. That feeling intensified when she got remarried and had children with her new husband. Although Perry says he loves his mother’s husband and his half-siblings, he felt out of place in the new family. This led to him later deciding to move to LA to live with his father.

Perry implies that his desire for fame might be another consequence of his relationship with his mother. He remembers making jokes to entertain his mother and to make her smile when she was stressed or sad. He believes all the shows and movies he made later were simply to get her to pay attention to him. But even at the height of Friends, he didn’t feel that she was interested in or proud enough of his accomplishments.

How Children Cope With Emotionally Immature Parents

Perry’s desire for fame and fixation with unavailable women reflects a coping strategy of children who experience emotional neglect. In Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, Lindsey Gibson says that many children cope with emotional neglect by constructing future scenarios in which their life is better. This ray-of-hope escape hatch sustains them through difficult times. But carrying these dreams into adulthood can lead to having unrealistic expectations and not understanding why they continue to feel alone.

In Perry’s case, he fantasized about being famous and being loved by the women he idealized because it gave him an escape from the reality that he didn’t receive enough attention or affection. But as we’ll see, fame and relationships with unavailable women didn’t help him feel less alone.
Matthew Perry: Family, Parents, and Feeling Alone

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew Perry's "Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing summary:

  • Actor Matthew Perry's autobiography about health, loneliness, and addiction
  • Words of hope for those who are currently struggling with substance abuse
  • A look into Perry's childhood, his time on Friends, and his life after Friends

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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