My client sitting before me was quick to dispel his relationship as being the root cause for his anxiety.
“I know that my anxiety began when I started my relationship but blaming the relationship or my girlfriend would be so cliché, no? We met online and we began this long and slow process of getting to know each other. I know that I get really anxious in a relationship so I wasn’t going to jump into anything too quickly.”
“I’m glad to see that you’ve given this some thought. Taking your time sounds prudent.”
“Now that I have what I’ve always been looking for—a close and committed loving relationship—I want out. I’m suffocating and my girlfriend is making demands of me; demands that I’m not prepared to meet.”
Adam was correct and he certainly was on to something as he acknowledged that the relationship only acted as summoner for his angst. Nonetheless, as a result of being in a relationship Adam was experiencing heightened [emotional and relational] distress and anxiety. Adam would soon discover that the issue of emotional incest or covert sexual abuse was and is at the foundation for his longstanding sense of suffocation; that which he experiences when in romantic relationships. However, that awareness was not yet on our therapeutic horizon and still beyond the realm of his understanding.
There are many areas of relational distress that warrant close scrutiny and certainly many more relational issues that bring individuals and couples to seek therapy. Being in a relationship is a fast, and at times, furious way to identify our relational strengths and shortcoming. While living alone on a mountain top (with or without our favorite pet) can be the surest bet to shield oneself from the inherent angst and ire that accompanies any relationship, we are social creatures at our core and at some point we might need to come down from the mountain in pursuit of companionship.
It’s Lonely At the Top
According to some studies we as a population are getting lonelier all the time perhaps due in part to the internet which has allowed many individuals to feel connected without experiencing the emotional or collateral damage of real emotions. Nonetheless, the decision (or indecision as it may be) to let someone in becomes a step taken toward potential connection. Along with the potential for connection come the conscious and unconscious responses that accompany us from our earlier relational experiences beginning with and subsequent to our caregivers.
One area of focus that often escapes detection and close scrutiny is the issue of emotional incest and/or covert sexual abuse. Yet, as pervasive as emotional incest is, the topic goes undetected as a core antecedent for many clients’ relational issues.
“The obvious signs of Emotional Incest are obscured. It is like the air in the room—it’s here but you can’t see it. Not until one shines a light can we see what is invisible yet so very present and all around us. – Debra L. Kaplan”
Covert sexual abuse or emotional incest involves the indirect yet sexualized, emotional abuse of a child or dependent. While no physical boundaries have been crossed and no direct sexual contact has been perpetrated, the parent or parents willingly enlist the emotional support of the child in healing his/her own unmet adult needs. In turn, the child becomes the confidant or emotional spouse of a same- sex or opposite sex parent. Strong over-identification by a parent of the child in the way of adulation, over affection and special attention is a subtle twist on the dynamic and as we can begin to see, no less destructive.
Symptoms of Sexual Covert Abuse
By contrast, overt sexual abuse speaks to the direct sexual contact and exploitation of a dependent person/victim by caregivers or authority figures. A child, in these circumstances often feels trapped and used. Depending on the nature of the abuse and by whom the abuse was perpetrated, a child often feels shame and fear; perhaps having been directly solicited for the interaction or singled out and “groomed.”
Covert sexual abuse is devastating largely in part due to the indirect and insidious nature of the abuse. Caving to emotional demands that are too burdensome, the abused may experience some or all of the following symptoms as a result:
- Codependent behavior (inappropriate boundaries or no boundaries at all)
- Guilt about practicing self-care especially when the offending parent is concerned (an unrealistic sense of obligation to that parent)
- Over identification with their own child—thereby unwittingly recreating the same dynamic
- Difficulties related to sexual identity or gender
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Love/hate relationship with offending parent
- Difficulty in maintaining relationships due to abused individual’s idealization and devaluation of others and an inappropriate expectations placed on partners
- Compulsivity that can include sex, substances, alcohol, work, food
- Patterns of triangulation (indirect communication) in work, family or romantic relationships
- Issues related to sex addiction/avoidance or love addiction/avoidance
My work with Adam regarding his struggles in his relationship took some detours back to his family-of-origin.
“I had a great life growing up. What I experienced is nothing like the stories you read. I wasn’t abused and it wasn’t traumatic. I was loved and I was given everything that I needed but I wasn’t spoiled. I had no problems in school.”
One simple question seemed to shift Adam’s utopian perspective into view.
“What did you do to gain your parent’s approval?”
“If I did a good job at school or got good grades at school my dad was happy. Other than that I didn’t get much more from him because he was busy working. My mother on the other hand—all I had to do was breathe and she fawned over me. I’m the first born so I guess I got a lot of attention from her.”
With that statement, Adam stared straight ahead and took a deep exhale as if someone pulled his plug and let his air out.
“Growing up I didn’t have to do anything to get her approval. She loved me for who I was. But that became difficult when I started dating as I got older. Not because she didn’t like the women I dated—she loved them! But, I started feeling uncomfortable.”
“Can you say more about that discomfort?”
“Yeh… (Long silence)I, um…um,(his eyes became soft and teary) I guess I felt like I do now—suffocated and panicked like the air in the room is being sucked out. I felt claustrophobic in a relationship even when there wasn’t a problem. I was open enough to speak to my girlfriends about it, like I’m doing now, but I guess, in a way I didn’t like all the attention. I used to bail on the relationship and on my girlfriends.”
“It sounds to me like the attention is too much for you to handle. You said that you were feeling then, as you do now. What was it like to have a fawning mom—your description of your mom?”
“It felt great until I started dating and that’s when it didn’t feel so good. Like I said, she loved all the girls I dated so this isn’t about my mom. You’re probably going to tell me that I’m ungrateful for having such a good upbringing and that I’m really spoiled and just screwed up!”
Looking In to See Out
Adam’s pain was palpable. He was struggling to understand how in the face of a healthy and wonderful upbringing such distress and dysfunction could occur. Even within a seemingly functional family-of-origin, where there is not the obvious presence of addictions, an inverted parent-child dynamic can evolve as had become the case in Adam’s family.
In a stressed marriage or a single family dynamic, a parent begins to burden the child by emotionally soliciting the child for his or her unmet relational needs. In a marriage struggling under the weight of an emotionally unavailable spouse an unspoken allegiance by a child of a parent begins to take place. In Adam’s family, his father was emotionally unavailable and distant from his wife and his family. It goes without saying that his father was emotionally disconnected from himself.
Less obvious and perhaps equally destructive is the over identification of the child by the parent that becomes overwhelming and suffocating to the child. However covert and less obvious the adoration may feel as the child matures and pulls away—as healthy development and individuation dictates— the guilt and fear of a betrayal of the parent by the child begins to summon a deeper more anxiety driven dynamic.
Coming Down From the Mountain
Adam’s journey from a child with an overly adoring mother to an adult man with a loving and adoring partner brought his anxiety to full expression. Having had such adoration from his mother was for Adam both problematic and a blessing. Had he not experienced such love and connection, he would not have had the ability to connect and therefore, venture out into the world wanting to bring someone into his inner emotional space. Connection was not modeled for him in his parent’s marriage and his father was distant and unable to talking about emotions. What became problematic was the depth to which his mother’s love and attention robbed him of his ability to be his autonomous, developing self.
As an adult, romantic relationships can quickly activate those underlying feelings and seem more like a suffocating trap than a chosen loving connection. A seemingly all-in partner starts back tracking (at times right into the horizon) due to conscious or unconscious fear of engulfment.
Resolving Emotional Incest and Covert Sexual Abuse
As with most individuals struggling with unresolved emotional incest, Adam’s therapy began with several key issues:
- Identify the family of origin and the particular family dynamics involved
- Recognize any patterns of emotional incest between caregivers and the abused individual
- Learn to set boundaries with that parent. In the case of a deceased caregiver work with a therapist who can help facilitate empty chair work or another experientially based modality for grief and loss
- Acknowledge any feelings of abandonment as a result of the emotional incest
- Work toward individuation and separation by learning to reparent the self (Inner child work)
Adam, like so many clients, had come seeking help for this very issue related to emotional incest, but didn’t know it. As I often point out, “The obvious signs are obscured from plain view. It is like the air in the room—it’s here but you can’t see it. Not until one shines a light can we see what is invisible yet so very present and all around us.”