Emotional Incest, Part 4: The Pain

In Part 1 I discussed the definition of emotional incest, in Part 2 I discussed its relationship with the stay-at-home daughter dynamic of the Christian Patriarchy movement, and in Part 3 I discussed other ways emotional incest can occur as well. I am now going to turn to the problems and pain emotional incest causes.

Emotional incest causes a multitude of problems, but I’m only going to address the three I see as most significant: first, it creates a relationship triangle between the parents and the child; second, it makes the child responsible for the parent’s well-being; and third, getting out of this situation can have the same effects as a really, really nasty breakup.

A Relationship Triangle

In the case of father/daughter emotional incest, a sort of relationship triangle forms between the father, the daughter, and the mother in which the mother can become shut out. The father can find affirmation and emotional fulfillment in his daughter rather than in his wife, and the father can make his daughter, rather than his wife, his partner in plans, dreams, and hopes for the future.

In Christian Patriarchy, the husband is in charge and the wife acquiesces. In this sort of a situation, it is not uncommon for the husband to have very little respect for his wife’s intellect and judgement. Furthermore, wives in patriarchal relationships aren’t always completely happy with their situations, even if they believe it’s what God has commanded, and this can lead them to chafe at being under their husbands’ authority and to nag or resist in little ways.

Daughters in Christian Patriarchy, however, were generally raised with these ideas from the very beginning. Thus the friction that may be present in the parents’ relationship will often not be present in the relationship between the father and the daughter, and the daughter will instead adore her father and think of him as perfection itself. Furthermore, a daughter can offer her father the chance to shape and create his ideal woman, complete with intellect and the heartfelt adoption of his goals and dreams. (Think of the Botkin sisters.)

The result is that the father may make his daughter his confidant, and prefer to bask in his daughter’s adoration than to face his wife’s discontent. In this way the daughter can come between her parents, and even replace her mother as her father’s confidant and as his partner in dreaming and planning for the future. Speaking from personal experience, this ranges from awkward to extremely guilt-inducing.

An Unfair Responsibility

Next, emotional incest results in the child feeling responsible for the well-being of the parent, and in the parent’s well-being becoming dependent on the continued affirmation of the child. The result is that the child becomes stuck. The child must continue to feed the emotional needs of the parent, or else risk hurting the parent and feeling responsible for doing so. The ability to destroy the parent is placed in the child’s hands.

In Christian Patriarchy, parents believe that it is their job to shape and mold their children, not simply to raise them to become independent individuals. (This dynamic is not unique to Christian Patriarchy, of course.) When a daughter – or a son – raised in a family in the Christian Patriarchy movement begins breaking out of the old and forging her own way, she can suddenly appear to be completely broken and ruined. It’s as though a perfectly chiseled statue comes to life and, and by moving out of the pose it had been set in, dashes the hopes and dreams of the craftsman who created it.

And now I’m going to be personal for a moment, because I was one daughter placed in this situation. In my case, when I began questioning his beliefs and refused to conform to his ideal my father responded by withdrawing into his shell. It was one of the most painful experiences in my life. Watching the horrible pain I had caused him by stepping out of his mold and refusing to be his ever-adoring confidante was quite simply excruciating.

For a time, I felt incredibly guilty about the pain I had caused. What I felt perhaps most guilty about was leaving my mother and siblings with the aftermath of the pain my defection had caused my father. I felt bad that they had to pick up the broken pieces and clean up the mess I had so unwittingly helped create. But somewhere deep inside of me I knew that my father’s emotional well-being should never have been in my hands in the first place, and that what had happened was not my fault.

Going through a breakup

When emotional incest occurs, for a child to get out of the situation she – or he – has to essentially break up with her parent. I realized recently that the dynamic between my father and I when I return home is not unlike the dynamic between a couple who were together for years and then experienced a nasty breakup, but still have to see each other at certain functions. There’s the knowledge of what you used to have together, but also the memory of the painful breakup and of the hurt that accompanied it.

Of course, for this analogy to truly work you have to remember that the relationship that was broken off was not one between two equal adults. Imagine a relationship in which an older partner feeds off the adoration of a younger partner and requires conformity and obedience. Then, when the younger partner resists this obedience and conformity, a long and painful breakup ensues, beset by emotional manipulation and attempts by the older partner to get the younger partner back by whatever means possible.

I adored my father so much growing up that I frequently said I wanted to marry someone just like him in every way. I literally thought my dad was perfect – as in, I thought this when I was 17, not just when I was 7. I gave him everything and practically worshiped him. And then I lost him. The moment I started questioning the beliefs he had taught me, he closed himself off from me. Our relationship ended that day, and all that remained was anger, manipulation, and guilt.

It’s funny, the purity culture teaches that girls are supposed to give their hearts to their fathers for safekeeping. This way the girl will not give her heart away to some boy and have it broken, or so the argument goes. There is never any consideration that a girl’s father might break her heart.


I should point out here that some of the problems listed above – such as a parent’s pain at a child choosing a different path – are not necessarily connected to emotional incest. This is true. But what happens is that the unhealthy emotional attachment makes this pain into something much worse than it should be. It makes it into a betrayal, a breakup leaving scattered broken hearts in its wake.

Is Child Marriage Wrong if the Parents Consent?
A Case for Calling the Duggars ATI Rather Than Quiverfull
Maintaining a Relationship with Difficult Parents
When Love Is Abuse
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.