What is it?
The term Emotional Incest (also known as covert incest or psychic incest) describes a relationship between parents and children that is sexualized, without actual incest/sexual contact. The relationships are harmful and one-sided, and similar to a relationship between adult sexual partners but without the type of physical contact that would qualify it as child sexual abuse. The effects are similar to, though less severe, than that of actual incest. The definition of Emotional Incest has a broad set of criteria.
Basically, Emotional Incest, is a covert incest, a form of emotional abuse in which the relationship between a parent and a child is inappropriately sexualized without actual sexual contact. Often substance abuse, as seen through the alcoholic dependent needy dysfunctional parent for instance, is associated with covert incest. The effects of this covert incest somewhat mimic sexual incest but often to a lesser degree. The victims have been described as having anger or guilt towards parents and issues with self-esteem, addiction and sexual and emotional intimacy
Emotional Incest started to be recognized about 25 or 30 years ago. It has primarily been defined by the few researchers and therapists who acknowledge it and work with it, as as an emotionally abusive relationship between a parent (or step-parent) and child that does not involve incest or sexual intercourse. It involves similar interpersonal dynamics much like the relationship between sexual partners. Particularly similar to ‘old time’ seasoned partners who have gotten comfortable with each other, marriages where sex is no longer the prime purpose in their lives, but the emotional support and bond is strong between the members of the relationship.
Think of the couple that has been married for many years, sex has waned, or is non-existent, but they still rely on each other, and at times need each other, for support in their daily lives. An example, is that alcoholic mom who struggles with daily life and functioning, who is often put down by her spouse for being a drunk, so she pulls ‘jr’ aside, and talks to him, reminding him what a bastard dad is, but that only he (Jr) really understands her, and she can only go on living thanks to jr and jr being there for her! Now ‘jr’ is hooked, seduced emotionally into a power position without realizing it. Emotional Incest is a parent responding to a child’s love with adult sexuality and energy. Problems between parents often facilitate emotional incest; as the parents distance themselves from each other both physically, sexually, and emotionally, one parent then begins focusing more and more on his/her child. The child becomes the surrogate partner and source of emotional support for the parent. The abusing parent may also be afraid or unable to meet their needs through a relationship with another adult. Alcohol and other substance addictions are often present in emotional incest
Emotional Incest rears up when a parent is unable or unwilling to maintain a relationship, healthy or otherwise, with another adult and forces the emotional role of a spouse onto their child instead. The child’s needs are ignored and instead the relationship exists primarily to meet the needs of the parent. The adult usually is not aware of the issues and implications created by their actions, and justifies the relationship in a variety of ways. Emotional incest happens when parents fill their own inner emptiness by overly connecting with their child, bonding as equals and “buds”. A red flag is the parent who tells her daughter that they are like ‘sisters’ not like parent and child, they see this as a wonderful thing. Parents need to learn how to take responsibility for their own feelings so that their children do not feel this surreptitious maneuver. Mom’s hugs and attention to Jr. can be come weird after time. All young boys, reach a point where mom’s hug is ‘gross’ BUT that is normal child development. It’s when mom continues to hug and hug… and yup, hug some more with an odd energy that is felt by the kid, that starts to feel odd, but he can’t express what is wrong with it.
Early on, an affected individual can experience distress in their own personal friendships and relationships and later on, in sexual relationships. Mom’s often become jealous of the child’s friends, and makes the child feel guilty when he or she does not spend time with mom but goes off with the kids. Often, mom’s will have some very disparaging comments about the child’s friends, or make some comments after the friends are over, that makes it clear mom does not want the kids around. Then the choice is, “do I hang with my friends, or hurt my mom?” Tough call for many kids. And as pointed out later, there are perks staying with the parent, special privileges and rank in the family if there are other kids, that will occur by being loyal to mom. As my friend Valentin stated once, “support becomes a product”, i.e., “if you give me support, you will earn a tangible reward” which can range from use of the family car when older, to loans and outright dollar gifts. Covert power and control.
Emotional incest occurs when a parent sucks dry a child to fill their own inner emptiness that is really the parents responsibility to fill. The kid did not sign on as cruise directors AND therapist when they were born. Dad and Mom are supposed to give the kid energy. When a parent abandons himself or herself, gives up on the future in many ways, that parent latches on to the kid to fill the chasm that occurs from self-abandonment. While it might not be as traumatic as sexual incest, it occurs for the same reasons – a wounded parent using a child addictively to get love and avoid pain.
Emotional incest parents often feel they are being good dads and moms when they spend time talking with their kids, they might follow them into their rooms at night and visit. But it becomes focused on the parent venting about their issues and the kid is getting nothing but tired! And drained.
A parent with a gaping inner hole that comes from inner abandonment cannot just stop the emotional incest without recognizing what is going on. They need help in finding healthy sources or resources to nurture and not put the weight of THEIR world onto the child’s little shoulders. Ironically, one of the perks for the kid, is that feeling that they are strong, they are powerful, they are good cuz they can and do handle the problems of mom or dad. And dang, guess what? Many of them become … THERAPISTS, or social workers. They are the ones in the psych class who say they chose to become therapists and social workers, because they are good listeners and have been told how helpful they are by others. Certainly a parent can stop the overt actions, but to stop the energetic pull, they need to be doing their own inner work so they can learn to fill their own inner emptiness.
dr. jim gordon, ph.d., mft
beverly hills, california 90212