Emotional Incest Part 3: Daddy’s Girl

by Libby Anne

[Editors' note: At the time of writing, Libby Anne and Sierra were unaware of the controversy surrounding Hugo Schwyzer. The discussion of his critique of emotional incest is not an endorsement of Schwyzer by NLQ.]

In Part 1 I looked at the definition of emotional incest and in Part 2 I looked at how integral emotional incest is to Christian Patriarchy, but in this segment I want to look at how easy it can be for even ordinary families to be sucked into (admittedly, less intense) patterns of emotional incest.

I recently came upon an article called “Princesses, Princes, Daughters, and Dads: Against Emotional Incest.” The author explains his own experiences as the father of a young daughter and the measures he plans to take to ensure that he does not fall into the trap of emotional incest. It was such a good article that I’m going to quote from it at length and then finish with some discussion.

Becoming a parent for the first time in one’s forties has myriad advantages, not least that one has had the opportunity to watch a great many of one’s peers “do it all first.” And I’ve seen, a time or nine, an unhealthy triangulation occur with dads, moms, and their daughters. While the dangers of physical incest and abuse are real, there’s a kind of emotionally incestuous dynamic I’ve witnessed between fathers and daughters, one in which dads seek from their daughters the validation and affirmation that they feel they are entitled to, but are not receiving from their wives.

Little children adore their parents. Really, it’s a lovely thing to come home each day and be welcomed, as I invariably am, with gales of excited laughter and delight. My daughter’s love is an impressive thing to feel, especially as she’s gotten better recently at wrapping herself around my neck and squeezing me tight. No matter what has transpired during the day, no matter what I’ve said or done (or failed to say or do), Heloise seems to adore me….

Of course, spouses aren’t the same as children. My wife loves me, a fact of which I blessedly have no doubt. But she most certainly doesn’t have me a on pedestal, doesn’t think I’m flawless, and doesn’t greet me with shrieks of joy everytime I walk into the house. Eira engages with me as a partner, and she challenges me and pushes me and asks me for things; I do the same for her….

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen men play their daughters against their wives, mistakenly believing that the way in which their daughters see them (as heroic and perfect) is the way that their spouses ought to as well. If a man hasn’t done his “work”, he may find himself looking at his daughter, gazing up at him with adoration, and he may start (resentfully) to contrast his girl’s fierce and uncomplicated devotion with the somewhat less enthusiastic reception he may be getting from his overworked and exhausted wife. In most cases, this doesn’t mean the papa will turn to his daughter sexually, … [b]ut he may find himself relying more and more on the affirmation he gets from his adoring baby girl.

…a great many dads (and it wasn’t until I became a father to a baby girl myself that I realized how common this was) start to rely more and more on the simple intensity of their daughter’s love rather than doing the much more difficult work to remain connected with their wives. I’m certainly not saying every father of a daughter does this, but it is common — and if you ask the mothers of daughters, as I have, you’ll hear plenty of anecdotes about this.

Plenty of daughters grow up with a sense that they are somehow responsible for taking care of their fathers emotionally, for being the good and understanding woman in his life (as opposed to the mother/wife figure, who is invariably cast as judgmental and cold.) To do this to a daughter is child abuse, and I am determined not only not to do it myself, but to be bolder at calling out other fathers of daughters when I see the signs of what can only be called emotional incest.

Heloise may or may not choose to be a princess as she gets a bit older. But in her little games, I will not play the part of the prince. I’m a father, and that is something utterly and wonderfully different. And if I need validation, I need to go and get it from my equal, my peer, and my partner — the one who will make me earn that validation, as she should.

I quote from this article both to point out how common emotional incest is and to emphasize that emotional incest is not simply a result of Christian Patriarchy. Rather, emotional incest can occur in any family. And I think this article moved me especially because it sounded so very, very familiar.

What Christian Patriarchy does do, though, is institutionalize this dynamic. It takes the problematic father/daughter relationship this author describes and glorifies it. While the author here sees it for the problem it is, Christian Patriarchy holds it up as the ideal – and then takes it even a step further.

And this article also points out the problem I pointed out in the previous segment: father/daughter emotional incest creates a triangle between the father, the mother, and the daughter, and can result in the father essentially shutting the “troublesome,” “demanding,” or “cold” wife for the warm love and affection of his adoring daughter.

And I’m sitting here with emotion flowing through my body because I know the pain this dynamic causes. I’ve experienced it. I am going to write one more segment in this series, and that one will be the hardest. Writing this series – and doing the internet research needed to do so – has opened wounds and rendered me raw. It hurts. But it’s also how we heal. I can’t move forward without admitting the past, without confronting the past, acknowledging that it happened, and staring it down.

I’m writing this series even though it’s hard because, well, someone needs to write it. Someone needs to talk about it. Someone needs to put this out into the open. Until the problem is seen for what it is, the pattern will just keep repeating.

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

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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  • Jewel

    Libby Anne,

    I commend you for writing this series, which must have been incredibly difficult and painful. It is so necessary to get the word out there about this type of abuse. And I hope it will help to bring about healing for you.

    I saw this played out in my ex-h’s life, as he was in every way a spouse to his mother, except physically. He never left her and “cleaved” to me, so we were never really married. She always, always came first. We are no longer together in large part because of that. I have seen how he has tried to make our daughter a surrogate spouse to him. It makes me sick. I pray that limiting their contact through our being divorced and strengthening my relationship with her now that I am not all caught up and spending all my energy on him and trying to save a toxic, abusive marriage will somehow help. But I can see where she (and my son) both feel responsible for making Daddy happy, and it takes such a toll on them. I wish I could do more.

    This type of abuse is so insidious and so common. God help us!!