Emotional Incest, Part 1: Definitions

by Libby Anne

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. But given how integral emotional incest is to the teachings of Vision Forum and Christian Patriarchy, I’ve decided to devote a few posts to it.

Emotional incest is sometimes also called covert incest. It does not involve actual sexual or physical contact. Rather, it involves an unhealthy relationship between parent and child in which the child serves as a sort of emotional spouse or companion to the parent. 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 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.

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 Christian Patriarchy, and in Part 3 I’ll point out that emotional incest is in no ways limited to the more extreme world of Christian Patriarchy, and discuss the “daddy’s girl” effect. Finally, in Part 4, I’ll address my own experiences and the pain and harm emotional incest causes.

Discuss this post on the NLQ forum. Comments are also open below.

Part 1 ~ Part 2 ~ Part 3 ~ Part4

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the religious right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving fundamentalist and evangelical religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the problems with the “purity culture,” the intricacies of conservative and religious right politics, and the importance of feminism. Her blog is Love, Joy, Feminism

She’s graciously allowed us to cross post this from her blog.

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce


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  • madame

    Thank you for taking on this subject, Libby Anne. I look forward to reading your posts and especially about your own experience.

    My marriage has suffered a lot as a result of FIL and DH’s relationship, so the topic touches very close to home.

  • abba12

    My family was not patriarchal or quiverful or anything, but reading this, it all sounds very familiar to what my mother did to me. I never knew it as a label or anything, just something I grew to hate and ended up with me cutting emotional ties with her completely. It will be interesting to read this series.

  • http://coveredcanary.blogspot.com Pippi

    My husband’s cousin got upset when I told her that his relationship with his mother (her aunt) was emotionally incestuous. I hadn’t heard the expression before but it was the only way I could describe the screwed up, backwards relationship they had. She insisted that her aunt was merely co-dependent, and I tried to explain that he was actually the co-dependent one. She couldn’t separate the sexual connotation to understand what I meant. She kept talking about “parentified children” and how all three of us fell into that category. But it went way beyond that in his case. She and I had to pick up the slack, either by choice or demand, that our parents were unwilling or unable to fulfill in the household. He had to be the parent to his siblings, the caretaker of their home, and his mother’s father/spouse/whipping boy/best friend, all at once. His true self was very nearly extinguished. Everything she did, felt, said or lacked was somehow his fault, or was his responsibility to change.
    Thankyou for addressing this topic.

  • madame

    I’ve had some really strong reactions, too, when I’ve said that dh and his dad have an almost marriage like relationship. People disagree very strongly when I suggest that dh has to separate himself from his dad in order to really be married to me, and for him to even be able to find out what it is that HE wants to do. He is like an extension of his dad in so many ways!
    You’re right about the child having to “fix” everything that’s wrong with the parent. Dh’s life (and our life as a family) has been sucked away by his dad adn his constant demands. Dh has to help him carry out every dream, and when things have gone wrong in the I-law’s marriage, guess who has to take care of daddy?
    At the same time, FIL believes God speaks His will to all of ous through him. He is like the ultimate patriarch. So messed up!

  • pen

    I have been dating a man who I strongly suspect has an on-going emotional incest relationship with his daughter. As for our relationship he can’t commit . About every 4 months he has bad anxiety and needs space, leaving me with the feeling I will be gone. We have dated 4 years . Of late the daughter who is 35 years is dating a 51 year man. My boyfriend is suffering and has no idea why. I have mentioned about the emotional connection but he doesn’t get. I am going to tell him soon about this emotional incest and hope he gets help. As for me I know I must end this as this will never end. There are 3 people in this relationship not 2. Can you give me some insight for my own sanity.