Emotional Incest: The Junior Wife

Libby Anne has begun a series on Emotional Incest at Love, Joy, Feminism. In her latest post, she also links Hugo Schwyzer’s striking analysis of the problems with the “Daddy’s Girl” myth and princess culture. The following is my attempt to confirm and add more perspectives to the issue they are bringing to light.

As a child of a believer and a nonbeliever, I walked a confusing and sometimes torturous line between the prescriptions of my church and the realities of a divided household. Additionally, I was the only child, and female. For the first couple of years after my mother joined our fundamentalist church (while my age was still in the single digits), we basked in fellowship and preoccupied ourselves with the joys of home. Fundamentalist culture is extremely good at fostering an environment that feels like shelter, with clearly-defined expectations and an emphasis on the “simple life” – about which I’ll write more later. So for the early years, I happily did my homeschool lessons, read books, played outside, and ran to the door yelling “Dad’s home!” whenever his pickup truck began the descent of our long rural driveway.

Then puberty hit like a bombshell.

At nine, I developed breasts and wrapped them in sports bras to keep them hidden. At eleven, menstruation, which was impossible to hide. I was the youngest girl I knew to cross the threshold into womanhood, and the least willing. Although certain parents in my church had already singled me out by age seven as a sexual threat to their sons, the outpouring of messages about my sexuality was suddenly deafening as I crouched under the table in our church’s reception hall, clutching my abdomen and crying from the senseless pain.

The church had more answers for me than I had questions. Over the next few years, I was set adrift in a sea of advice. I was instructed in the rigors of courtship, plied with the sweet, romantic story of a married couple who first held hands at the wedding altar. Purity pledges became common in my peer group; I bought a key necklace with a cross in the center to demonstrate that I was “taken” by Christ. I even wore a fake engagement ring in public to ward off interested parties. I was warned against talking to boys, the same boys who had grown up my friends. I discovered, to my mortification, that I could no longer give a boy a birthday gift without his interpreting it as a sexual advance. I experienced my first stalker at age 16 – a member of our church a decade my senior. I was taught to look for a Christian boy who would ask my father’s permission to court me, who would show no interest in my physical form, who would be a model of a godly leader and provider. I was taught to expect to obey him and bear him children. I was taught that my father could veto any unsuitable boy; I was his responsibility and he was my head.

I was terrified.
But more than that, I was a special case. My father wasn’t a godly leader. He couldn’t judge the character of my potential suitors, since he didn’t have the Holy Ghost. He didn’t believe in the orthodoxy he was expected to enforce. What was going to happen to me?

My “specialness” in this regard was the subject of great angst between my mother, the pastor, and our friends. My mother asserted that God Himself would be my “head” and send me the right boy. My pastor cautioned that I still needed to be obedient to my father. Our friends told me that I ought to treat him as if he were already godly and he would follow suit as God worked in his heart. I was exhausted with the commentary. What if I just didn’t get married? I tried to ask. Paul had favored celibacy. I could be a missionary! I could run a soup kitchen! I could follow the Lord perfectly fine without courting anybody, ever.

Yeah right, they said.

Now, all of this angst presumed that my father would approach my adolescence completely differently. They presumed that he would encourage me to be immodest and promiscuous, to be a cutthroat career vixen, to abandon submission and childbearing, to have a string of boyfriends and marry only for money. They presumed that he would let me drink and smoke and go to places no decent girl had ever heard of.

They were full of crap. My father was a fundamentalist of his own kind.

My father responded to my changing body with a mixture of terror and possessiveness. He oscillated from warnings to lectures to assertions of power. He claimed the right to see my body naked to inspect my “development,” then warned me that boys my age were only interested in one thing. He lectured me about the weaknesses of men, telling me that they were helpless victims of their urges and that a high-heeled shoe could destroy a relationship. He taught me that men would cheat whenever possible (“it’s in their nature”) and that I should protect myself by withholding my body from them. He told me that boys would do anything to get me into bed. He said that I shouldn’t even trust the ones who seemed genuinely interested in my ideas and my life, because it was all just a mask hiding their real intentions. When we were out shopping, he pointed out boys in the crowd and told me that they had been staring at me, and if they got any closer he would have to kill them. I rolled my eyes and told him I could defend myself, thanks.

My father expected a lot of his rules to be broken. He expected me to get a boyfriend and to be physically involved with him, but demanded the right to grouse about it and treat the boy with suspicion and contempt. My father expected me to dress to attract boys; he wanted me to be immodest so that he would have the satisfaction of telling me to go upstairs and change. He wanted to have “a talk” with my hypothetical boyfriend, to warn him of his impending demise if he “laid a finger” on me. But despite all these expectations, my father nonetheless told me all the same things the church did about men. And ultimately, his actions added up to covert incest: the emotional substitution of a daughter for a spouse. He openly told me that my mother was asexual but I was hot, that she had abandoned him but I would not, could not, because I was his daughter.

From both my father and the church, the combined messages were:

  1. Men are primarily motivated by sex and are hopelessly weak against feminine wiles.
  2. Women do not want sex, but use it to get power and money by leveraging it for marriage.
  3. The father’s job is to protect his daughter from would-be suitors, with physical violence if necessary.
  4. “Boyfriend” is a dirty word that means “drunk sex addict who beats up girls for fun.”
  5. A daughter should adore her father and measure all suitors against him.
  6. Fathers should “date” their daughters to prevent them from seeking admiration outside the family.
  7. Daughters should practice their wifely skills on their fathers.

At the core, the church and my father saw adolescence through the same lens: as a dangerous time in which pair bonds between peers must be warded off and substituted with father-daughter relationships lest the gates of hell pop open and spill out clouds of heroin and gonorrhea. I suspect that fundamentalist-evangelical culture’s enshrinement of emotional incest as “good practice” for marriage reflects a paranoia unique to patriarchs. Men are made to compete with their daughters’ suitors for their hearts and minds. Marriage is only acceptable if the “other man” is nonthreatening to the father’s centrality in the daughter’s emotional world. “Daddy’s Girl” is a life sentence. Marriages might end, but daddy is forever.

This identical lens was the source of serious damage for me as an adolescent. Here’s how:

  1. When my father asserted that he owned my body and could “inspect” it to see that I was “developing” properly, my church told me that I didn’t need to obey my father if he asked me to sin. They didn’t elaborate on whether his demand was sinful.
  2. When my father painted boys my age as sexual predators, the church agreed.
  3. When my father made allusions to our shopping trips and lunches out as “dates,” the church agreed.
  4. When my father told me that other people on the street would probably mistake us for a couple, the church was silent.
  5. When my father told me not to put on clear lipgloss because someone might think I was his prostitute, the church only sighed and shook its head.
  6. When my father told me he planned to drive off any suitors or do them physical harm, the church agreed that this was a sign of his protection.
  7. When my father told me that I was looking “busty” or sexually alluring, my church told me that he ought to say those things to exhort me to deeper modesty.
  8. When my father talked about our “special bond,” the church agreed. Voddie Baucham and the Botkin Sisters had made this “special bond” a God-given benefits package for fathers.
  9. My church told me that I should practice being a wife on my father. I should care for him emotionally. I should do domestic tasks for him. I should always be meek, submissive and adoring. My father’s gruff demand for coffee and his critical eye as I washed dishes were evidence of his “care” and “involvement” in my life.
  10. When I chafed against my father’s invasions of my privacy, against his sexual crudeness, against his erratic moods and his sense of dependence on me for validation and emotional balance, my church told me to be longsuffering and to obey him as much as I could.
  11. When my father ultimately left, the church mourned as if I had become a ship without a rudder. When I told them I was glad to escape his neediness and critical oversight, they told me that I was really acting out because I missed him.

My church enabled my father to practice emotional incest. It gave me no defense against him. Even though he lived outside their jurisdiction, they validated his desires for emotional possession of me and told me that I should accept them as normal. They mourned that he was not there to be my “head,” to take me to purity balls, to “guard” my virginity. They did not mourn that he placed me in the impossible position between doll and wife, the mediator for himself and my mother but also the replacement for her.

I am now engaged to my partner of five years. We have been through hell and heaven together. We are ever more committed to each other as the time wears on. But there’s a problem, you see, for my father and my church. My partner is a “boyfriend” – that inherently evil entity that disrupts the father’s “special bond” with his daughter and deprives him of his junior wives. Hence, within the first six months of our relationship, my father took me out to brunch for the express purpose of telling me that my boyfriend would dump me in the first month of graduate school the moment a “warm body” made itself available.

According to evangelical-fundamentalist culture, he was right to do so.

But he was so, so wrong.

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  • http://icnebavo.wordpress.com Sarah Taylor

    I love the way you think and write. It’s so damn edifying.

  • http://storiesforthehomeschoolheart.wordpress.com theresathomas

    I’m sorry you experienced such a painful childhood. You’ve gone through lots. I just want to tell you what you probably already know- it wasn’t normal. Your father was wrong.! You are right to distance yourself from his warped thinking. As a child you must have been terribly confused by all this. I would have been too-wow. I’m so sorry you had to experience that.

    That being said, (and please take this in the right way- I mean this sincerely) I do think that maybe you are equating faith in God and even religion with the terrible parenting and yes even *evil* you experienced in your early life. What you experienced was your father’s version of *religion*, not Truth as it exists objectively, outside human institutions. God loves you infinitely and is a way better parent and Father than anyone here. I want you to know (you might already, but I want to say it in case you don’t :) ) that God is not like an earthly father- even the best earthly father, and that it is very sad that your earthly father so poorly represented what a real loving father was meant to be. It sounds like he was a terrible role model who did not properly reflect what he should have- he did not demonstrate love at all.

    I know many people who have risen above difficult upbringing and especially absent or bad fathers. Kudos to you for evaluating your early life experiences in the light of rational thinking and recognizing the dysfunction. Some people don’t rise beyond that and you clearly have.

    I would invite you to visit an alternative perspective- mine. :) I was raised in a home of 13 children, where my father was loving and kind, and we were traditional Catholics. Dad protected his girls in a good way, realistically explaining the pitfalls in the world, but also pointing out the positive. He recognized goodness in the man that was to become my husband- even before I did :)! I share this because I want you to know this reality exists and you can find it.

    We are raising our family in a traditional way. My husband and I both love our Catholic faith, our traditional lifestyle, our family. I enjoy putting my husband and his needs above my own because he is so kind to me- and he puts my needs above his. This may seem weird to someone in your particular situation and I offer it not to “brag” or seem above or anything like that. I just want you to know that there exists loving relationships in big traditional families that are not based on power, control and fear. There are some wonderful, kind, fun, even truly holy (!) men in this world (granted they can be hard to find :) ) – who will love you for who you are, to whom you can bare your heart and dreams and soul, and who will love you unconditionally and respect you. It sounds like you have found someone special. My prayers for you are much happiness and love- <3

    I also invite you to pop in my blog any time. You are always welcome- to see my different point of view- I wish you love and peace in your journey-


    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      Hi Theresa,
      I have indeed been extremely fortunate to have found such a man whom I trust and love, and who returns my respect. I write not to relive the past endlessly, but to thoughtfully pick apart the harmful doctrines in the kinds of churches I grew up in, so that other women can recognize them.
      My blog isn’t anti-Christian at all. It’s hard to pin down what the “Christian patriarchy movement” is (Kathryn Joyce coined the term in her book Quiverfull), but it’s not a denomination or religion itself. It’s a cultural movement within evangelical Protestant Christianity. I recommend looking at Quivering Daughters and Darcy’s Heart-Stirrings to clarify what makes the things I write about different from Christianity as a whole. The problem isn’t God, or large families, or even traditional living; it’s the authoritarian culture that turns all of those things into coercions.

      • http://storiesforthehomeschoolheart.wordpress.com theresathomas

        You seem like you have a very good soul and open heart <3 Best of luck!

      • http://storiesforthehomeschoolheart.wordpress.com theresathomas

        Oops. I replied only having read your first sentence. (silly shortened WordPress notification :) ) Anyway, Thank you for the links. I will check them out :) I think it’s totally understandable that you hate the idea of authority after the huge abuse of power that occurred to you when you were a helpless child. I don’t blame you for not wanting anyone to wield power over you. I agree we all need freedom. In my own Catholic faith I believe God gives us free will but beckons us to see certain Truths- I believe following His authority (not to be confused with manmade authority- those of fallible human beings) will bring the most happiness and contentment in life. My view on the Ten Commandments, for example, as that in following them we will find the most happiness- they are not there to thwart us or restrict us but provide protection for us.

        In reading your entry on divorce- I can easily see how you would bristle at anyone who thought that divorce should not be an option. Clearly your life is better without your father and he mistreated you and your mother severely. I would say that the love between a man and woman in marriage SHOULD be so devoted and true that divorce would not be considered at all- the love would be unselfish and forgiving- no hateful or power-bearing actions or words. (obviously not a reality through no fault of some people married to abusive spouses) Can you see what I am trying to say? Divorce was a necessary option for your safety and protection- but the ideal obviously is lifelong marriage and devotion that is full of love – Do you see what I’m trying to say?

        Anyway, I’ll read the links you posted- am interested in understanding where you’re coming from- God bless- gotta run- busy morning! ;)

        • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

          Yes, I understand and agree. The ideal of marriage is a lifetime commitment, and of course that’s what my boyfriend and I have planned (when we can finally afford a wedding!). Really, we already have such a commitment despite the fact we haven’t yet said the vows before other people. I don’t expect us to get divorced; we’re both careful to respect each other and allow room for both of us to grow. Above all, we talk. All the time, about everything.

          The problem was that people were so terrified of divorce in my church and had made it into such an evil thing itself that it was not an option for my mother to get out of an abusive relationship. I think it’s a bit too simple to make divorce the problem: the problem is either abuse, or the death of love in a relationship, or the faithlessness of one or both partners. Divorce is just the stamp that gets placed on a broken relationship after it’s already been destroyed. It seems to me the people that say “God hates divorce” as though it’s the legal documents that are the problem are missing the point entirely. From my perspective, what God hates is the way people hurt each other in their relationships. People can do that kind of damage without ever getting divorced.

  • http://storiesforthehomeschoolheart.wordpress.com theresathomas

    “what God hates is the way people hurt each other in their relationships. People can do that kind of damage without ever getting divorced.”

    Agree- :) Your comments make a lot of sense. I’m so happy you found the right guy, one who is NOT like your biological father. :) I wish you the best- a long and happy marriage!

    I checked out those links. I think I understand where you are coming from now. It is not within my realm of experience so forgive me. I’m coming at these issues from an entirely different angle- but I appreciate your perspective and am glad you are willing to discuss. That over-authoritarian view is alarming- based on the links you provided. Such an abuse of power. Very sad. :( I’m glad there are some resources for people to escape that mindset.

    If you ever want to talk about the issues- birth control, abortion, divorce, that kind of thing with someone like me- (out of curiosity or real wondering where someone like I am coming from) I’d love to do that too. I’m really glad I stumbled on your blog and it’s nice to talk to you and learn what someone with your experiences is thinking. You have a real opportunity to help others in tragic situations because you lived through one yourself.

    What PhD degree are you seeking ? (didn’t I read that here on your blog that you were working towards one? ) I’ve just got a Bachelor’s (English writing, minors in business and history) but am thinking about going back once the youngest is a teen or so- maybe I’ll be too old then, though. lol.

    Well, now I really DO have to go- I’ve spent too much time here this morning- :)

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  • Chris

    I’m so sorry. I’m glad things worked out for you.