Emotional Incest Part 4: The Pain

by Libby Anne

In Part 1 I discussed the definition of emotional incest, in Part 2 I discussed its relationship with Christian Patriarchy, and in Part 3 I pointed out just how easy it is to slip into the harmful emotionally incestuous dynamics (the “daddy’s girl” effect). I am now going to turn to the problems and pain emotional incest causes.

But first, I want to note that emotional incest can happen in any family (not just one involved in Christian Patriarchy) and that it can happen with sons as well as with daughters. In focusing as I have on daughters, and also on Christian Patriarchy, I have of necessity left a lot out.

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.

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.

I’ve written before that my father carefully shaped me into his perfect ideal, and that when I broke out of his mold and started forging my own way, it was like I suddenly became broken and ruined in his eyes. I sometimes think that I was like a perfectly chiseled statue that came to life and, by moving out of the pose I had been set in, dashed the hopes and dreams of the craftsman who created me.

Watching my father withdraw into his shell because I questioned his beliefs and refused to conform to his ideal 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. Looking back, I’m not sure how I did it.

For a time, I felt incredibly guilty about the pain I had caused. But the conformity that was required of me was simply too much to acquiesce to, and at some point I’d gone through enough pain myself that I just wanted out at all costs, regardless of what shattered pieces I left behind. I just needed to get out on my own, to shut the door to what was behind, and to have a fresh start. And this is exactly what I did.

What I felt most guilty about was leaving my mother and siblings with the aftermath of the pain my flight 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

In order to form my own beliefs and opinions and choose my own life path, I had to break up with my dad. I realized recently that the dynamic between my father and I when I return home is, I would imagine, very like the dynamic between a couple who were together for years and then experienced a very nasty breakup. There’s the knowledge of what you used to have together, but also the memory of the pain of the breakup and what led up to 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 my dad my heart 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. I was left to grieve the loss of my father while wading through the storm of pain that was raining down on me.

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.


This post isn’t all that long, but I’ve nevertheless written and rewritten it a dozen times. This subject is difficult to discuss because it still hurts, somewhere down inside of me, and because remembering the pain is not pleasant. And really, I’ve just scratched the surface: emotional incest manifests itself in many different ways and with many different variations.

I think it is important to address this problem in order to bring healing to those who have suffered through it and hope to those who are still dealing with it, and I also think it’s important to point out that the possibilities for emotional incest to occur are magnified in families who practice Christian Patriarchy, and also in fundamentalist and evangelical families (and Christian homeschooling families) in general.

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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  • http://beyond-the-wand.tumblr.com BTW

    Stay-at-home daughters = bonsai daughters.

    ‘Nuff said.

  • Chxlive

    “Stay-at-home daughters = bonsai daughters”

    That’s a brilliant and insightful observation. True on virtually every level except for the bark, I guess.

    Libby Anne, thank you for your series on emotional incest. I, too, ended up in that difficult position in an Evangelical Christian, Calvinist home, between an abusive and hostile mother and a father who adored me. He didn’t “groom” me the way yours did you, but I can certainly relate to being the confidant and the emotional connection. I remember talking to my dad about the costs of grad school, and he said, “I’ll have to make love to your mother once more each week, but it’ll be fine.” Ewww, right?

    Children must be treated with respect. They must be treated as autonomous individuals to the maximum extent their development permits. And the adults in charge must be both mature and responsible and stop taking advantage of their children, using them as little accessories to make themselves look/feel better. The narcissistic parent leaves serious damage in his/her wake.