Christian Patriarchy and Emotional Incest

Libby Anne has a fascinating and troubling series on emotional incest and how Christian patriarchy actively cultivates it. The whole thing is must read. Here are a few key selections:

First, from part 1:

I’ve been hesitant to write about emotional incest for two reasons: First, it’s too easy for people to think “emotional incest” implies a sexual relationship when it doesn’t, and second, I’ve had some experience with it and drudging that up can be painful…

Emotional incest is essentially when the relationship between a parent and child becomes like that between two spouses, except that given the immaturity of the child the relationship is one-sided and the parent feeds off the child emotionally while the child ends up feeling responsible for the well-being of the parent.

From part 2:

Vision Forum teaches that adult daughters are to stay at home until they marry. More than that, it teaches that they are under their father’s authority just as they will after marriage be under their husband’s authority, and that well they remain at home it is their duty to adopt their father’s “vision” in place of their own and serve as “helpmeets in training” to their father in preparation for serving as “helpmeets” to their future husbands.

The possibilities for emotional incest become obvious. In fact, like I said, emotional incest is practically mandated. Adult daughters are to subsume their identities in loving, adoring, and serving their father, and they are to make his vision, his hopes, and his dreams their vision, their hopes, and their dreams. The father in turn is to guide his adoring daughter to maturity in preparation for handing her off to an approved suitor…Given all this, it would appear that the teachings of Vision Forum and the Botkins essentially mandate father/daughter emotional incest.

Libby Anne builds part 3 primarily around another article called Princesses, Princes, Daughters, and Dads: Against Emotional Incest by Hugo Schwyzer. Schwyzer is a father vigilant about letting “daddy’s little girl” feelings turning into emotionally incestuous ones and describes how the temptation to do so arises:

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen men play their daughters against their wives, mistakenly believing that the way in which their daughters see them (as heroic and perfect) is the way that their spouses ought to as well. If a man hasn’t done his “work”, he may find himself looking at his daughter, gazing up at him with adoration, and he may start (resentfully) to contrast his girl’s fierce and uncomplicated devotion with the somewhat less enthusiastic reception he may be getting from his overworked and exhausted wife. In most cases, this doesn’t mean the papa will turn to his daughter sexually, … [b]ut he may find himself relying more and more on the affirmation he gets from his adoring baby girl.

…a great many dads (and it wasn’t until I became a father to a baby girl myself that I realized how common this was) start to rely more and more on the simple intensity of their daughter’s love rather than doing the much more difficult work to remain connected with their wives. I’m certainly not saying every father of a daughter does this, but it is common — and if you ask the mothers of daughters, as I have, you’ll hear plenty of anecdotes about this.

Plenty of daughters grow up with a sense that they are somehow responsible for taking care of their fathers emotionally, for being the good and understanding woman in his life (as opposed to the mother/wife figure, who is invariably cast as judgmental and cold.) To do this to a daughter is child abuse, and I am determined not only not to do it myself, but to be bolder at calling out other fathers of daughters when I see the signs of what can only be called emotional incest.

Finally, in part 4 Libby Anne will bravely opens up about the extremely personal and painful subject of her own experience with emotional incest.

Your Thoughts?


For whatever it is worth in assessing the value of his thoughts on this issue, Happiestsadist in the comments reminds me of Schwyzer’s terrible past, which included attempting to murder an ex-girlfriend and had sex with students before having a conversion to feminism. I remembered his story but hadn’t remembered his name before posting.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • ChrisWhiteWrites

    As a father of two daughters it is incredibly difficult not to see the unconditional love of my two girls as being ‘right’ and my wife’s ‘conditional’ (as in sometimes she thinks I’m a jerk, not she will only love me if I do what she says) love as being too demanding or ‘wrong.’ The way that I, at least, try to combat this is by reminding myself that all humans a fallible, and also because I know that I’m often actually a jerk.

    Love your partner for what they are – mature and emotional humans, capable of holding and forming complex opinions.

    Love your children for what they are – human beings whom you have a duty to. A duty to raise them as social and emotionally able and active humans, regardless of their gender.

    Also, if you have daughters, raise them to exist outside of the patriarchy, raise them to feel like complete humans regardless of whether they have a man’s approval or not.

  • Happiestsadist

    Schwyzer is also an admitted rapist who attempted to murder an ex-girlfriend. So forgive me if I consider his thoughts on women, feminism and being a good person to be rather suspect.

  • Beth

    I am reluctant to agree with the label of ‘child abuse’ for this behavior. While I recognize that any behavior taken to an extreme can be damaging to the child and considered abusive, I don’t think what has been described here should be classified as something on the level of beatings or abandonment.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Indeed. We really probably should reserve the word for the more severe kinds of harms to children.

  • Bret

    The things people will call “child abuse” these days…

    *shakes head*

    Weird? Yes. Child abuse? Come on…

    I would like to see the reaction to “calling out other fathers of daughters when I see the signs of what can only be called emotional incest.” I love watching people butt their nose in where it doesn’t belong and then being told off.

    • resident_alien

      Given that the emotional incest I have suffered has given me a self-mutilation habit,an eating disorder as well as recurring severe depression,fucked up my relationships with my peers and men in particular and has taken over a decade to even begin to tackle,I do find I’m within my rights to call it child abuse,thank you very much.When I tried to find help as a teenager,all I got was a bit of “there,there” and condescention thanks to the attitude you are perpetuating (I wasn’t habitually beaten to a pulp,so no problem,right?).
      In short:Fuck you,asshole!

  • Timid Atheist

    I’m a bit puzzled by the rejection of this being seen as child abuse. It’s not physical, no, but isn’t emotional abuse damaging to children as well? If my father had treated me like my mother and looked for support and love from me in every way but a sexual one I don’t think I would have considered that simply weird. Perhaps I’m missing something?

    • Daniel Fincke

      It is simply weird. But is simply weird child abuse?

    • Timid Atheist

      No I really don’t think this is simply weird. It’s emotional abuse. Just because there isn’t anything physical doesn’t mean it can’t have a negative impact on the child experiencing it. And especially after reading Libby Anne’s articles I don’t think this is harmless even in the most simple of cases. And really, labeling it as not abuse when there are those who have experienced it and been negatively affected by it, is denying their victim status. I’m not comfortable with that at all.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I’m not trying to minimize people’s experiences or the pain they cause. The question is whether you call it “child abuse”, which is technical language for a crime. Should (or could) there be criminal penalties for this kind of thing?

  • magistramarla

    I experienced this, but in a mother/daughter relationship.
    My mother was physically disabled and probably mentally ill. She told me that my father was dead, and I didn’t find out that he was alive until I was in my thirties. She was sometimes physically abusive, but she was mostly emotionally abusive and very manipulative. As someone who lived through it, escaped and had to emotionally recover, I would definitely call it child abuse.
    I’ve been reading Libby Anne’s blog with interest. Even though my mother was not the religious type, she used many of the same control methods that Libby Anne describes being used in the Christian Patriarchy. I escaped by going to college, learning about the world and starting my own life despite her, much like Libby Anne did.

  • Giliell, not to be confused with The Borg

    Hugo Schwytzer of all people should shut the fuck up about abusing women of all ages.

    Oh, and I have to wonder how those fathers with their everloving daughters gazing up admiringly at their daddies actually behave.
    Because well, although our children love, love, love us and will charm their daddy by putting their arms around him and telling him that they love him, they’ll also frequently tell him “bad daddy” the way you chastize a dog who has soiled the carpet.

    • anat

      Because well, although our children love, love, love us and will charm their daddy by putting their arms around him and telling him that they love him, they’ll also frequently tell him “bad daddy” the way you chastize a dog who has soiled the carpet.

      I doubt this happens in Christian Patriarchy type families. No negativity towards fathers allowed.

  • Antonov An-225

    Yes, this is child abuse.

    As someone who has struggled with emotional abuse in the past, it enrages me when people act as though it’s not really abuse unless you get beaten with a belt or locked in a closet. As resident_alien pointed out, you can have a parent who never laid a hand on you, but still rendered you unable to have normal relationships or be a fully functional member of society.

  • Equisetum

    you can have a parent who never laid a hand on you, but still rendered you unable to have normal relationships or be a fully functional member of society.

    Agreed. As for Daniel’s question whether there should be criminal penalties, does mandatory counseling count? A bigger question is How does anyone know that this kind of abuse is even happening? A teacher can see a black eye and question it, but they don’t know that Mommie was out drinking with her son Friday night because she can’t stand being around her husband anymore. (Emotional incest can also be mother/son.)

    There was very little physical abuse visited upon me (my sister has a completely different and horrible story to tell), but the emotional/psychological damage left me a wreck for decades. (To preclude any misunderstandings I must mention that the surrogate spouse in my family was not me but my brother. I don’t think he ever realized it.)
    P.S. Wow. Two paragraphs, and I come up with three abused siblings. And I could go on.

    • John Horstman

      you can have a parent who never laid a hand on you, but still rendered you unable to have normal relationships or be a fully functional member of society.

      I think that “normal relationships”, with their presumptive sexual and emotional exclusivity, presumed heteronormativity, rape-culture-inflected sexist gender dynamics, etc., are extremely bad; same goes for being “a fully functional member of society”, as in a society constructed around a cultish worship of Rational Actor style individuality, exploitation, and intense dynamics of privilege, being a fully-functional member reinforces those horrifying dynamics. One of the problems here is that normative is being assumed to be good. I’m not saying that the kinds of behaviors that “emotional incest” describes CAN’T or DON’T constitute abuse, but I am saying that rejecting what are, in my estimation, seriously dysfunctional relationship models or social roles is not itself a sign of abuse. A parent who “rendered you unable to have normal relationships or be a fully functional member of society” may have done something very, very right, not something wrong. Again, I’m not rejecting or attempting to delegitimize or marginalize anyone’s own experiences, I’m saying that making much more general statements on the basis of (only) one’s personal experience is not valid reasoning.

  • John Horstman

    Can we please ditch the ad hominem critiques of Schwytzer? He did some awful stuff; however, if we’re not going to allow people to change their minds and behaviors if they’ve ever done anything bad (even really bad), we might as well just give up on any kind of activism and get started on building ivory towers. Critique the guy’s ideas (I think he’s frequently wrong, and sometimes vaguely creepy), not his history. No one needs to “forgive” him or any such thing, but even Adolf Hitler had some ideas that were good on their own merits (like not eating meat). Even if Schwytzer really hasn’t changed much and is continuing to do awful things, that doesn’t actually mean one should dismiss anything he has to say out-of-hand.

    I’m a little unclear on the operational definition of “emotional incest” we’re using here. The definitions Libby Anne links are riddled with culturally-specific, normatively-biased, essentializing language and assumptions about what constitute ‘proper’ or ‘normal’ relationships between spouses (and even the assumption that parents be spouses or that a partner/confidant be a spouse) and between parents and children, as well as essentializing assumption about the ‘proper’ roles/behaviors of children not directly related to their relationships. One of the sources for the concept of covert/emotional incest is a woo organization, Soulwork Systemic Solutions. Another is Kenneth M. Adams and Associates; while they look to be a bit more rigorous, they also essentialize what constitutes good or proper romantic and sexual relationships on the basis of cultural norms that I would argue are themselves damaging and functionally-problematic. The third quote is misrepresentative – the author of the linked piece is actually questioning the legitimacy of “emotional incest” as a separate diagnosis from other emotional abuse patterns (rightly so), as well as criticizing the proposed diagnoses for being essentially-meaningless catch-alls:

    But is there a difference between covert and emotional incest? And does either term represent a distinct and relevant diagnosis – one that creates long-term psychological damage? Some who call it covert incest say labeling it emotional incest is inadequate because that implies an absence of sexual damage. However, anything I’ve ever read on emotional incest refers to the sexual as well as emotional impairments created by this relationship. My impression is that there isn’t any significant difference. And when it comes to long-term psychological damage, I find current theories provocative but over-generalized and unsubstantiated.

    Some of the more popular books – “Silently Seduced”, “Sexual Addiction and Covert Incest”, and especially “The Emotional Incest Syndrome – What to Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your life” – make articulate arguments for a long list of emotional and sexual impairments. But when you are told that as a result of covert/emotional incest a child can become either over or under sexualized, insecure or narcissistic (part of the same personality type anyway), develop a love/hate relationship with the offending parent, become compulsive or addictive (again part of the same personality type), or guilty and confused over personal needs, then you have covered just about all the bases of possible dysfunctional results and the term becomes a catchall, watered down diagnosis.

    Article Source:

    Emotional abuse is certainly child abuse in my mind, but the problem of writing laws around it is that it’s frequently hard to demonstrate, the victim/target/survivor may well defend the parent and refuse to cooperate with any legal action, and a lot of the specific behaviors/sings strike me as overly broad/generalized or based on weasel words and cultural projection (what defines “like a spouse”?). In no way do I mean to suggest that parents can’t seriously screw their kids up by emotionally abusing them, nor that anyone who experienced parenting behaviors like those posited as “emotional incest” as abusive is somehow wrong about their analysis of the behaviors as abusive or that their feelings/responses about them are invalid. Again, I very much agree with Weisberg-Ross’s take on this:

    Having said all this, I am not dismissing “covert/emotional incest” altogether. I am however, questioning it as a separate diagnosis from emotional abuse. And I am also questioning how to treat it. Emotional Abuse creates trauma and distrust. It undermines a person’s self esteem and ability to enter into and maintain intimate relationships. When you have been hurt and betrayed by those who were closest to you, those who were supposed to protect you and teach you how to function in the world, then you become emotionally handicapped in so many ways. Instead of creating more provocative diagnoses, let’s look at each individual and deal with their specific pain and their specific deficits. Let’s refrain from continually categorizing people’s pain. When we do that, we miss their humanity, their specialness, and possibly their particular strategy for strengthening self-agency.

    We DEFINITELY can’t legislate about “emotional incest” when it’s still questionable whether the diagnosis should exist at all, what defines it if it does, etc. And even if we can do those things (and I think we can certainly all agree that behavior that is experienced as abusive is bad), legislating against it isn’t necessarily a good idea because of the functional limitations of the law – not everything that’s wrong can or should be illegal (drug abuse, for example: while abusing – that’s ABUSING, which is not necessarily the same as using – drugs is a bad thing for anyone to do, making drug abuse illegal does more harm than good; in fact, I question whether it does any good at all). Particularly when it comes down to legislating specific parenting behaviors that may or may not be harmful depending on the context of the entire parent-child relationship, making “emotional incest” illegal seems like a bad idea.

    Given that I think the ways both parent-child (specifically with a lack of recognition for the independent rights and agency of children) and romantic relationships (gendered relational power/privilege dynamics, as well as the sense of mutual exclusive propriety) are normatively constructed are already harmful, making a diagnosis (or law!) on the basis of certain deviations from these norms just strikes me as intensely problematic. At there very least, there needs to be one hell of a lot more evidence-based research to construct a credible, specific diagnosis/behavioral set concerning what constitutes “emotional incest”, and such research necessarily needs to interrogate what is and is not functional about normative models for both parenting and spousal relationships.