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.

In Defense of Letting Kids Talk Back
When Courtship Means Regret
Jonathan and Alison Schumm Abuse Case Raises Questions
One Million Moms Declares War on Children of Gay Parents
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.