Emotional Incest, Part 1: Definitions

“Emotional incest” is a tricky term because it sounds as though it implies a sexual relationship when it doesn’t. Some scholars use the term “covert incest” instead, but that doesn’t really help because it retains the word “incest.” Other scholars have used the term “enmeshment,” “co-dependency,” and “emotional abuse” is another related concept as well. For the sake of this short series of posts, I will use the term “emotional incest” because I think that if you can get past the “ick” factor of the word incest, this construction is actually very descriptive.

Emotional incest involves an unhealthy relationship between parent and child in which the child serves as a sort of emotional “spouse” to the parent. This can be mother/daughter, father/daughter, mother/son, or father/son. Here are a couple definitions, some using the term “covert incest” and others using the term “emotional incest.”

Covert incest occurs when a child plays the role of a surrogate husband or wife to a lonely, needy parent. The parent’s need for companionship is met through the child.  The child is bound to the parent by excessive feelings of responsibility for the welfare of the parent. The demand for loyalty to the lonely, needy parent overwhelms the child and becomes the major organizing experience in the child’s development.

Covert emotional incest begins when a person perceives and responds to a family member as a replacement or substitute for a partner.

This form of incest is described as a relationship where a parent turns a child into a partner or confidante that is inappropriate to the child’s age and life experience. Or to put it another way, when a child is manipulated into the role of a surrogate wife or husband by a needy parent. While some refer to this as covert incest, others refer to it as emotional incest.

You get the idea. Emotional incest takes place when the (emotional, not sexual) relationship between a parent and a 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.

I think it’s important to remember that there are different degrees of emotional incest. It’s not an all or nothing kind of thing. Sometimes emotional incest is extremely severe and debilitating, and other times it’s more moderate and can almost go unnoticed. Regardless of its intensity, though, emotional incest is harmful and unhealthy.

In Part 2, I’m going to look at the Botkin sisters and reveal that emotional incest is essentially mandatory in the world of Christian Patriarchy and Vision Forum, and in Part 3 I’ll point discuss the “daddy’s girl” effect. Finally, in Part 4, I’ll address some of the pain and harm emotional incest causes.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Mattie Chatham

    Ohh, man. I’ve been there. I’ve never really known how to talk about it, though. It’s really uncomfortable and frustrating. The unhealthiness of it is all-pervasive in the home life when it happens. It took me two years to wean my parents off of needing me so much when I went away to college, and it was never talked about afterward.

  • Wendy

    I, too, didn’t know what to call it, but for years my mother was the main thing about me. “Major organizing experience” is…exactly right.

    This is why I read blogs like yours although I come from a secular background.

  • Abby

    Wow, I’ve never heard emotional incest before, but I’ve definitely observed it… A few years ago my in-laws were getting a divorce. My husband (then boyfriend) was right out of college and living at home to save money. When his mom moved out, he was forced to do the shopping, cleaning, and cooking because his father refused to help out around the house (as this was what he was accustomed to in marriage). Whenever my husband tried to ask his father to help, he would be called a “bad son” or flat-out ignored.

    I convinced him to move out after about ten months, but it was hard for him to do. He thought he had a responsibility to take care of his dad and little brother, but it was really just an unjust responsibility pushed on him by a negligent father, and it seriously prevented him from getting his own life in order. Ugh… I get angry just thinking about it.

    • Pat

      It’s very sad what his parents did on your husband…

      And all that emotional manipulation…. Bad son… of course… as soon as one tries to get independent. On the opposite there is the good son, meaning a virgin 40 years old man still living with his parent.

      I have a history of emotional incest with my italian mother that put me in place of a partner. She tried everything she could for me not to grow as an independent adult like for instance always saying what I was doing was bad (this is the softest thing she said daily). I talked to her many times, but nothing changed cause she was thinking & saying “I gave you birth”. I asked professionals for help but they are too blocked by societal taboos (untouchable parents, children must obey). These so called professionals told me to talk gently to my mother… Gently ? Why speak gently to someone that tries to destroy you. Because some lame dude long ago said that children and to obey and you had to turn the other cheek ? Never worked… So one day I gave my mother a paid of good slaps. I don’t her anymore. My family has put a “bad son” tag on my head, but I am free of them. I’m glad I did that cause now I have a wonderful wife (25 years together) and a wonderful daughter.
      Honestly, in my case and hopefully not for every body, I see parents as only able to give us their issues and nothing else.

  • Judy L

    I’ve never used the word ‘incest’, but I’ve always talked about my father holding his children responsible for his emotional needs as a form of abuse. And it also lead to physical abuse, when we didn’t meet his expectations (I remember him kicking me and throwing my head fairly hard against a wall on February 14 when I was ten or eleven years old; he came home slightly drunk and was hurt because I hadn’t made him a Valentine’s Day card). He frequently ‘went on strike’ when we weren’t ‘being nice enough to him’, which always baffled me as he had all the power; it wasn’t a negotiation tactic, it was just pure neglect and punishment.

  • kagekiri

    Shoot. When I heard you were writing about emotional incest, I assumed it was more the Daddy’s girl effect…but forgot the Momma’s boy effect would also be included. Your definitions strike pretty close to home; both my parents definitely use quite a bit of guilt-tripping to manipulate and feed off of me and my siblings, but my mother is particularly blatant about it.

    Thus I got to deal with things like hearing my mom talk about how unsatisfying her life is and how ungrateful her children were and how she wanted to abandon her family and move away to start over. She expected full acceptance of that kind of emotional trash dumping, while also ignoring the person I was and expecting me to conform to her needs….GAH.

    I’m looking forward to your posts on it.

  • http://greatgrandmotherskitchen.blogspot.com/ Jesse (Great Grandmother’s Kitchen)

    I’m going to be following this one closely…this sort of intimacy, particularly expecting the child to be able to deal with information they are incapable of processing was something both my parents did regularly, as they had no friends or confidants their own age, and refused to let me or my siblings have any close friends either. It took me a long time to get to a place where I didn’t feel like I had to tell someone everything.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    *shudder* Few things make me feel like I need a shower more than the Botkins. Sometimes I wonder how “emotional” that incest really is…maybe not with them in particular, but I can believe that the kind of relationship they’re promoting could EASILY serve as a cover for some not-so-covert incest in some families.

  • S. Lane

    I’m not sure if this is already in your plans, but I think it might be worthwhile to note the overlap (or not) between emotional incest and narcissism. In the non-CP world, I think all emotional incest is instigated by narcissists, but I don’t think all narcissistic parents will necessarily instigate emotional incest–I think this is only present in certain degrees/types of narcissism. (Not that I’m an expert on the issue.)

    But what’s interesting is that not only does CP enable already narcissistic people to create an environment that feeds that pathology, it takes regular people and insists that they become or at least act like narcissists! So in CP, unlike the rest of the world, even a non-narcissist can be emotionally incestuous. Nicely done, CPers, for creating a religious framework to elevate your own backwards psychological pathologies!

    For kicks, here is a really great (and humorous) piece about narcissists and breaking free from them: http://merrillmarkoe.com/enough-about-you-my-explanation-of-narcissism

  • Beguine

    I’m not sure I agree that ONLY narcissistic personalities engage in this with their children outside of organized CP, S. Lane. My mom did this, a healthy skepticism of religious groupthink is still among her better qualities, and I wouldn’t call her a narcissist (histrionic, maybe, but narcissist just doesn’t fit). However, my father traveled for work from the time I was born until he left in a spectacularly messy display on both sides, we lived in a small town where we were ‘outsiders’ because our grandparents hadn’t been born there, and she herself had been abused and neglected as a child, and had no real concept of where healthy boundaries between parents and children were. I suspect that social isolation for the adult, poor role models during the adult’s formative years, and significant emotional trauma/damage to the adult either during formative years or during child rearing are the stressors that prime the pump for this sort of abuse from people that are not inherently narcissistic, though it does seem that with a narcissistic personality these stressors may not be necessary. Interestingly, the former stressor is actively encouraged by the CP lifestyle, and judging from the blogs of women who have left the CP movement, it seems like the latter two are far more common among adults who become entangled in the movement than the general population.

    • S. Lane

      Perhaps I was too hasty in making that generalization–thanks for bringing that to my attention. I think you’re absolutely right that social isolation plus lack of knowledge of healthy boundaries are the major risk factors, and those things may or may not coincide with a narcissistic pathology. So your points are duly noted. :)

    • Karen

      I tend to agree; my mother really, REALLY wanted to live vicariously through me, and got angry and befuddled when I didn’t conform to her expectations. (I’m an only — adopted — child.) She was Catholic, but had absorbed a version of Christian Patriarchy in her youth that carried into adulthood and colored her opinions. She lived a relatively isolated life both as a child and as an adult; as a child she didn’t fit in with her siblings, being the One Her Drunken Father Didn’t Beat; as an adult, she was married to a workaholic. (Dad was in many ways a wonderful person, but he owned his own business and didn’t know how to set good limits on how much work to do.)

      In Mom’s fantasy, I would find some dead-end job until I married “John” (she even had a name for him!), quit work, and start producing grandchildren in quantity. She expected at least three, maybe more, grandchildren. Instead, I went to college, got an engineering degree, married someone whose name was not “John”, started a career, suffered mental illness, and as a result chose not to have children.

      As far as Mom was concerned, I was a failure.

  • Jeremy

    I’ve been excited about this series since you teased it a few days ago. Recently, I followed some older links on your blog and ended up reading Ken Adams’ books on covert/emotional incest. I was floored: there, on the printed page, was an exact description of my upbringing. Everything I thought was normal, and my fault for objecting to, was diagnosed as problem parenting or abuse. I’m still not quite sure how to deal with that, but it certainly has made me hungry for more information.

    When you get to the end of the series, I’d love to hear if you have any thoughts on how to go about recovering from this sort of thing. Learning it’s a problem and that you have been abused doesn’t seem to solve anything, on its own, and Ken Adams doesn’t really have very much to say on the subject. I’d also like to hear if you have any advice on how to help siblings who are still trapped in the emotional-incest situation, and on what the adult sibling’s responsibility is to the younger siblings.

  • seditiosus

    Well that was a lot of squick for one lunch break, but thanks for working through it for us Libby Anne. It’s an important issue to understand. My own suspicion is that social isolation and difficulty getting emotional needs met are key triggers for this kind of behaviour, so that if you put a parent in that situation they are more prone to covert incest than they might have been if they had a better social support group. It seems like CP environments encourage social isolation and make it difficult for parents to meet their emotional needs (when you have eight or ten kids at home, how on earth do you meet your own needs adequately?), and encourage women in particular to deny their own needs. That’s not healthy for anyone, but perhaps there are people for whom it’s particularly dangerous.

  • Rilian

    It doesn’t make any sense to call it incest. That word doesn’t mean parent and child. And couldn’t a non-relative do this to a child?

    • http://kagerato.net/ kagerato

      I think it’s probably more along the lines of emotional abuse, or parental dependency. Incest carries a sexual implication, which is fairly confusing. It also doesn’t define the degree or form of relationship, as you point out there.

      However, typically I find it ends up being useless trying to police the terms other people come up with for concepts. Ideal phrases rarely become the common usage; rather, whatever has the “catchiest” sound or most emotional impact tends to dominate. This happens even in technical fields…

      So, while I see your point and agree with it, I doubt we will be changing anyone’s mind.

    • Judy L

      Incest does by definition mean sexual intercourse between people too closely related (which used to be called a too-close ‘relation of affinity’) but Emotional Incest as a phrase works because it’s an inappropriate emotional relationship between people who are related. A non-relative could indeed do this to a child, but only if that non-relative had parental-like authority over that child. In order for Emotional Abuse to be Emotional Incest, there has to be (pre)-existing familial relationship; it’s this ‘corruption’ of the healthy expectations of the parent-child emotional relationship that defines it.

    • Tsu Dho Nimh

      Rillian –
      Any person in a position of authority could do this … bosses who expect you to let them dump on you and do non-employee things would be tops on that list.

      But that usually happens to adults and a reasonably healthy childhood lets you look at the boss and say, “TMI, I’m not getting paid to hear about your sucky life.”

  • Rilian

    The term to me sounds like it would mean a romantic relationship between relatives.

  • http://fester60613.wordpress.com fester60613

    I’d never heard this term “emotional incest” before – but it certainly fits my childhood! My father died when I was 10. My oldest brother went off into the Marines and my next older brother turned into a hateful abuser… abuse which my mother, even when confronted with evidence, refused to acknowledge.
    I broke away from my family in my early 20′s, yet mother’s guilt tripping and manipulation continued. I finally broke away from her completely when I was in my 30′s.
    To this day I’m torn between pitying her and hating her.
    I even spit on her grave a few weeks ago – and instantly regretted it.

  • Pingback: 4 Part Series on Emotional Incest « A Quiver Full of Information

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  • poigant

    I;ve experienced being emotional incest by both parents, I have to do what i told if not suffer the consequnses making parents sad or being verbally abussed by my father.Thank God I seek help by counseling and theraphy and now im better and accepted what had happen and can move on with my life,lesson learned will not do that to my kids.
    But true theres no sexual conduct in emotional incest.

  • Brian

    Around 6 years ago, I married a woman with 3 grown adult children. The middle daughter, who is 29 years old, has a 7 1/2 year old son. This daughter lived with us for the first 2 years of our marriage until I finally wanted her to move out. The problem, I think, is that since the daughter was an early teenager, my wife has treated her as a substitute spouse. My wife never had any type of relationship with her first husband so she went everywhere and did everything with this daughter. Now that her and I are married, she will leave me to go on holidays, day trips, evening trips and so on with her daughter. When my wife and I go out, she also wants to bring her daughter and son with us including buying her a membership to the same gym we go to. I sent her an article on emotional incest only for her to get incredibly angry with me to the point of wanting me to move out and her daughter to move back in with her. We’ve tried counselling but she’s a very likeable person who seems to befriend every counsellor we go see. What do I do?

  • cata

    I am a step mother of an 18 1/2 year old daughter. My step daughter , her father and her mother are all Emotional incest . You are wondering how did this happen!! Well, it all starts with using manipulation and guilt . It is becomes a vicious cycle . His daughter seems to be the one driving force in this father and daughter relationship (parent and child becomes like that between two spouses ). One example: She sits between us most of the time. My step daughter relationship with her mother is : the bond she has with her mother by excessive feeling of responsibility for the welfare of her mother. Her mother sucks her dry to fill her own inner emptiness .
    We have been married for 10yrs and it is just getting whores . My Step daughter has been living with us since she was 7. and now she is thinking of dropping out college to go live with her mother because she feels obligated to do so now. Her mother said that her daughter is doing this for her. Of course support becomes a product, ” if you give me support” in staying with me , you will earn a car, dollar gifts. Convert POWER and CONTROL! Her mother uses this towards her daughter and my step daughter uses this toward her dad. I am going to talk to a therapist asap!!!!! Or else i am going to walk away from it all!!!! I do not want to leave my husband!

  • Dr. R Mora

    I am a practicing clinical psychologist with experience living in Europe and in Asia. I believe that what you are calling emotional incest is unique to cultures that espouse the individual over the group or family. For example, in Italy, a child’s temper tantrums are called “un crisis psicoafectivo” (a psycho- emotional crisis). As a consequence, everything is done to give the child whatever they demand so as to lessen the crisis. The result of such child rearing behaviors is to give the child the message that everyone who loves you is responsible for your feelings and vice versa. As a consequence of this and other aspects of the Italian culture, the family and other groups become central to one’s life experiences. It is considered awkward for someone to go off on their own so that it is more common for children to remain close to their families throughout their lives. For those raised in a culture that rewards individualism this is tantamount to an enmeshed family system and does not work in such a culture. However, in a culture where the family is central the effect is to ensure that the culture survives and that there are built in rewards for sustaining this from generation to generation. I would suspect that the Mormon subculture typically uses such devices in its child rearing though this is not reinforced in the greater American culture and so individuals are caught in a bind of feeling as if they are in an enmeshed dysfunctional relationship with their families when they attempt to bridge the gap between themselves and the greater American culture and to become acutely aware of the inherent difficult in ostracizing themselves from their family of origin.

    • Sam

      Mormon subculture does not typically use this though radical off shoots may (FLDS cult). As a Mormon (LDS church) I know first hand that there are cases of emotional incest (me).

  • mom2many

    I am a mom who has just been told that I am guilty of this “Emotional Incest” . To the children on this site thank you for your comments. I can now see my daughters perspective. I more than my husband is the lead parent in terms of discipline. Our 21 year old daughter and I became extremely volatile with each other. I didn’t like her drinking & her choice in guys . I often wanted her to keep in touch with me when she was going out. In my mind when having these discussions it was normal parenting. Looking back I see that at age 21 its time to dial down the parenting and watch her make her choices, if i like them or not. Sometimes its hard to watch your children grow away from you. This is a difficult task because we spend our lives teaching, protecting, guiding and disciplining. I am dedicated to learn and separate, overall our goal as parents are to see our children happy, and my actions have pushed her away.

  • John

    im an only child with a mother who made me responsible for her emotions and used guilt, arbitrary ever changing rules and anything else she could think of to keep me by her side instead of with my peers. When i see this message tied to feminism i want to throw up. my mother is the picture of a feminist born in the 50s yet commits all the wrong doings you usually attribute to masculinity and maleness. your movement will not create equality it will only generate hate which left unchecked may drive some to violence. the sad thing is how easy it was to avoid. all you needed to do was see people as people while fighting against people who saw you as less than people. I see you as hypocritical adult children with the blood of many real children on your hands

  • Survivor

    I was raised as a devout Jehovah’s Witness and my mother emotionally incested me while standing by and watching the stepfag physically and sexually abuse me. The Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower Society did everything it could to cover it all up and to tell me an 8 year old kid that it was my fault. I’m still very angry about what happened to me, I have had chronic depression for years, had to get on disability, couldn’t keep jobs, substance abuse, many suicide attempts, failed relationships, no friends. It was only after leaving that evil Watchtower Society cult and severing ALL ties with my mother and her husband that I finally was able to have some kind of healing come into my life.


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