In Part 1 I looked at the definition of emotional incest and in Part 2 I looked at how integral father/daughter emotional incest is to the Christian Patriarchy movement. I want to take a moment here to point out some other ways emotional incest can play out, both in families not involved with the Christian Patriarchy movement and between mothers and sons in families in the Christian Patriarchy movement.
Jungian analyst and author Marion Woodman describes psychic incest as “unboundaried bonding” in which the parent or parents use the child as a mirror to support their needs, rather than mirroring the child in support of the child’s emotional development.
Emotional incest can happen in any family. It can happen to married parents and to single parents. At the most basic level, it happens when a parent’s emotional needs are not being met and the parent responds by looking to the child to fulfill those needs. It is usually either father/daughter or mother/son.
There’s the Daddy’s Little Princess effect:
Consider a simple family of Father, Mother and Daughter. It is right and wonderful that parents love their Daughter – as a daughter. If a parent needs a substitute for a partner, chaos and suffering soon follow.
If Father loves his daughter as a substitute for loving a partner, few daughters can resist his love. If Daughter feels that Mother does not appreciate Father, Daughter may try to love Father in the way that Mother seems to withhold. Mother may feel that Father and Daughter betrayed her; and withdraw.
Father’s marriage to Mother may be the first sacrifice. An entangled Daughter may ignore potential partners – except substitutes for Father. The family may not confront this issue unless Daughter becomes depressed or suicidal.
And there’s the Mommy’s Little Prince effect:
Our story begins with a pregnant mother. While pregnant, Mother likely enjoyed her femininity and the attention of her family. When Baby is born, attention often shifts from Mother to Baby. Mother may feel abandoned, perhaps showing postpartum depression. Many mothers regain family attention, approval and respect, by becoming a Super-Mom.
The husband of a Super-Mom may feel rejected, particularly if he depends upon his wife to provide meaning for his life. He may feel that a a boy baby is a rival. He may withdraw from his wife’s requests for intimacy, support or responsibility. He may become depressed and/or have intimate affairs.
A Super-Mom sees her Son as special. Mother may dream that Son will make a special contribution to the world that Mother cannot or will not make. Mother’s expectations help balance her emptiness. For Mother to feel special, Son has to be very special – or risk losing Mother’s love.
For more, see here and here. See also an extremely creepy article by now-discredited author and speaker Hugo Schwyzer. Schwyzer’s sketchy relationship with women, which includes sleeping with his students and attempting to murder one of his girlfriends, makes his detailed description of his tendency toward emotional incest with his small daughter stomach-turning to read.
Families that are dysfunctional, abusive, troubled, and broken are especially prone to emotional incest. There’s the single mother (or abused wife) who ends up seeking to find in one of her children the emotional fulfillment she would normally find in a spouse, for example. Here’s a quote from one of the comments to illustrate:
My parents divorced when I was a teenager. I pretty soon had to take over house repair stuff, which wasn’t an issue. But pretty soon my mother looked to me for company, and got upset whenever I went out. That wasn’t healthy for either of us.
This can happen with father/daughter relationships too:
In the case of father-daughter emotional incest, disenfranchised fathers compensate by becoming emotionally over involved with their daughters. The emotional cost of father-daughter emotional incest includes stress and anxiety disorders, mental and physical illness, identity disorders and underdeveloped and confused sense of identity and depression.
It should be surprising that emotional incest should correlate with the amount of disfunction in a family. I suspect it also correlates with lack of strong outside support networks. If a parent’s emotional needs are already being met, after all, that parent is less likely to turn to the child to meet those needs.
Mothers and Sons in Christian Patriarchy
I want to finish by turning briefly to mother/son emotional incest in families involved in the Christian Patriarchy movement. After I started this series, focusing especially on father/daughter emotional incest in the Christian Patriarchy movement, blogger Sierra wrote a post about mothers and sons that I found fascinating:
In the last years of my fundamentalist sojourn, as I was about to turn eighteen and exert what independence I could, a thought occurred to me.
Women in Christian patriarchy frequently transmute their desires for equal partnership and respect from their husbands into an emotionally incestuous relationship with their sons.
… It existed with every mother and son I knew. Even that early, I had figured out that when you reduce the marital relationship into a master-subordinate equation, the affection, respect and mutual enjoyment get pushed out somewhere else.
The great thing about sons, in fundamentalist culture, is that you don’t have to obey them. My church retained the parental right to rule over the patriarchal one, so grown men could be compelled to “honor” their mothers by mostly doing what they asked. So when Sven’s mother wanted someone to share her interests – to watch movies with her, to go on trips, to have lighthearted discussions – she turned to her son.
I’m not surprised by the dynamic Sierra describes. Because most of the families I knew growing up in a family influenced by the Christian Patriarchy movement had older daughters and younger sons, I didn’t notice this dynamic. I would imagine, though, that it can also occur mother/daughter in these families as well, especially if the mother in question leads a fairly sheltered existence without a strong network of friends. Really, the potential that a mother in the movement might rely on her children for emotional fulfillment she is not finding elsewhere is not surprising.
Tomorrow I will write about some of the problems that flow from emotional incest.