Emotional Incest and The Relationship Avoidant

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.”

To learn more about emotional incest read:

Emotional Incest

Healing From Emotional Incest 

Emotional Incest and the Relationship Avoidant 

18 Responses to “Emotional Incest and The Relationship Avoidant

  • Maria
    11 years ago

    I was an abused child, verbally, physically and sexually by cousins and other adults. I have through my years tried so hard not to repeat what was done to me and I can honestly say that I have not done the things that were done to me.

    However, loving my son the way I do and having been married to a narcissistic controlling abusive man for almost 20 years caused me to view my son as “me and you against the world”. I was educated by my therapist to “free” my son from feeling that at age 27 he is my protector and that I need him to help me financially keep the house and to be protected by him from further physical violence especially since I am now divorcing the narcissistic husband.

    I was not aware that I was doing the same thing to my son as my parents did to me, namely, having my world revolve around my son and being his partner in us against the world instead of allowing him to be a child without the worries of having to protect mommy. It makes me sad that I did the same thing but through prayer and therapy, I am conversing with my son and assuring him that I am an adult and that I will be all right – that he needs to go on with his life and become the man I know he can be.

    I wish I could have seen this much earlier in life, so that he would be secure in who he is and not “resent” me. I spoke with my son about this and we are approaching things differently and he says he understands that he needs to be free and explore and learn who and what he wants to become. Of all things, my son is a child advocate and works in the mental health industry to protect and help children who are themselves abused.

    Thank you for a very well written article.


  • Maria,

    It’s great that you are trying hard to undo the damage you did to your son. Unfortunately, many parents who are causing this kind of damage to their children are unable to ever recognize the harm they have caused and continue to cause more harm until their children break off contact or are relieved from the abuse when the parent dies. Even after the active abuse stops, many such children continue to suffer their whole lives as society is very poor at educating people on this kind of emotional abuse and most people never get the help they need to recover from it.


  • Is it common for emotional incest survivors to have difficulties with touch? From an early age I felt overwhelmed by my mother’s excessive touchy-feeliness and because of that I sort of ended up pretending to be touch-averse to the rest of the world, but that isn’t really the case.

    • Debra Kaplan
      10 years ago


      Yes, Becoming averse to physical touch as an adult is a common result of having experienced an emotionally incestuous relationship by a parent in childhood. Children who grow up overwhelmed and suffocated by a parent’s physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse often result in an individual’s avoidance or relationship as well as closeness to others. This is because early experiences taught you that relationships are an emotional or physical drain or burden. Further you may have learned that relationships are not only unsafe but demanding of you; demands that you no longer are willing to endure. If overt sexual abuse was involved, then also learned to reject closeness; certainly closeness that might have felt safe but became something invasive and exploitive from which to escape. The goal of healing from unresolved emotional incest is to learn and practice boundaries (either internal -listening or speaking- or external (sexual or physical)necessary for self care and protection. Becoming more assertive in establishing self care by speaking your truth and exhibiting boundaries as to who you allow to touch you and how close you allow others to physically come, allows you to feel more in control of your own life/body. Once boundaries are learned and practiced, you can choose to invite or allow physical touch. Touch then becomes a welcomed invite and not an uninvited and rejected invasion by others. Boundaries by Anne Katherine and Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody both speak to self care and boundary setting for healthy relating.

  • Hannah
    10 years ago

    As a young woman of fifteen, my father’s relationship has always been turbuant. When I was younger he would greatly depend on my seemingly never-ending well of sympathy. My mother broke off the connection because she knew it was an unhealthy one for a child to have. When reading this article it was crazy how accurately it described our relationship, for I recall going to fast food joints and as a joke he’d call it a “date”. He’d constantly have a new girlfriend and whenever they’d break up he’d hold me and cry and make it my job to comfort him. I slept in the same bed with him till I was seven, the time when we stopped seeing each other. He tries to email me now, and is fishing for my empathy for him. He says family members are dying, he has christmas gifts for me, etc. Since my mother broke things off his attemts to be a father have been inconsistent and feeble.

    I too, like Zane, have a dislike for people touching me and often feel as though I have a gaping hole in my chest that can never be filled. I have become near obese in an attempt to fill said hole, but I am regaining my health and eating right. I find it hard to fathom the thought that people would even love me at times, but with encouragement from my mother and friends I am beginning to blossom and find the world a happy place to be in. This coud also be attributed that my father stopped trying to make contact.

    The thing is, my father phone recently. He’s homeless and wants to change and improve our relationship. What should I do?

  • Calendula McBeanblossom
    10 years ago

    I was raised in a situation similar as described. Father was silently supportive, but emotionally unavailable, was mother was/is enmeshed, intrusive, belittling when I had an opinion, critical when I acted without consulting her, and gives long diatribes of unsolicited advice, when if not employed, she begins a hammering campaign. I was/am over-advised how to dress, behave, speak, think, etc. until I purposely rebelled and helped myself to mature into an adult, albeit a latebloomer. I have difficultly with being told what to do and how to do it…not good in a job situation. And, in romantic dealings, have had three significant others: one was emotionally unavailable, one was NPD controlling, and the last was sexually abusive/punishing if I didn’t “serve” him.

    My greatest misgiving is that our society BLAMES THE VICTIM!! They tell us that we should be glad that someone cared when we were children, and that someone sacrificed for us. What they HEAR is a selfish, spoiled grown child who wishes to walk all over their parents with not much as a “thank you.” THEY DON”T GET IT. We have had our thoughts and feelings bulldozed by an over bearing parent. We have been infantilized and marginalized, and not allowed to choose our own path in life. We have repeatedly, REPEATEDLY asked our parent(s) to not behave this way, and to see us as the competent adults that we are, only to be “shooshed”. And to add insult to injury, random aquaintances and coworkers cannot understand how we can be such ungrateful “brats” who do not appreciate our parents’ efforts! So, AGAIN, we learn to simply shut up and endure.

    • Debra Kaplan
      10 years ago


      Many others like yourself have shared with me and on other venues that they too have experienced society’s pushback regarding the covert sexual abuse. Given how subtle and insidious the dynamic is, it is hard for those on the outside to fully understand not to mention, see, what is happening. And, yes, society often does lash out at the abused versus the abuser. With individuals such as yourself, others on the outside will conotinue to hear about emotional incest and the destruction that this exacts on children and young adults.

      Thank you for reaching out and I encourage you to stay committed to your path. Healing your past and speaking your truth today with those that are trustworthy will help you stay in your reality and your truth.


  • My abuse started as an infant. My father shoves odd objects in my anus as a infant. How do I deal with or heal something my body remembers but my conscious pushes away

    • Debra Kaplan
      9 years ago

      al b:

      What you are referring to is outright sexual abuse which was psychologically and potentially physically damaging. A form of therapy called, Eye Movement, Desensitization and Reprocessing helps heal the body memories that, as you reference, are stored in the body but blocked by our cognitive defenses. Similar forms of therapy such as Somatic Experiencing and Neurofeedback could be helpful, as well. These are considered experiential modalities (not cognitive talk therapy) and work to heal stored sensations in the body from past trauma.

      I would encourage you to read “The Body Keeps The Score: Memory & the Evolving Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress” by Bessel van der Kolk, MD. He wrote this work in 1994 and while it paved the way for additional writing and research, it remains a classic and highly praised publication on the topic of trauma and body memories.


  • Michał
    9 years ago

    I am covert incest survivor. My mom suffocate me with her “love” from the beginning. I always feel responsible for her need in some ways. Now I understand that this was incest, and that I was used by her. My family push me to forgot, to live, leave that behind. My father was alcoholic and/or absent. I was replacement. I try my best, in return i must endure all the pain world give me alone. Always feel guilty and ashamed. She keep me close, but for her anxiety. She never care for what I really feel or need. And she of course play offended when I speak the truth. She tells me that her “unconditional love” to me endure everything. I was abandoned, neglect and abused by her, as well as by my father, who just care about himself and drunk himself or went on long routs abroad.

    • Debra Kaplan
      9 years ago


      Certainly, these are the unfortunate events that play out in emotional incest dynamics. Getting some support for yourself is important to process the emotions that you are feeling.

  • I met a man nearly two years ago who is charming, articulate, sexy and extremely bright. We met at a party soon after my divorce. I just went to have fun; I did not expect to meet someone that evening who would so dramatically change the interior fabric of my life.Yet he chose me to reach out to for my “positive energy” and my lack of having “an agenda”. I got physical with him quickly. It was a lovely experience. He engaged me with his drama, the drama of his survival, his dreams, his flirtatious ways, the exciting new events he introduced me to, and his ability to talk for hours. It hit me hard. I came to appreciate him, as perhaps I have with no other man in my life. (He’s 61, I’m almost 57)….

    So the dude is a permanent bachelor. He is able to talk about the pain relationships have caused him over the years. He has flocks of women friends. Women literally reach out to him all the time. I have seen it happen repeatedly. I did not reach out to him on first meeting, although I found him attractive. Instead he hunted me down. I would have actually avoided him, thinking that I was not the kind of woman who would hold his interest….

    Nine months ago, he moved halfway across the country to follow his dream of living on the water where he could sail and develop his business in a do-or-die last ditch attempt to achieve financial security before he gets too old. Did I mention he has nothing in the way of money?. He got me to do some part-time work for him from my location. We have spent hundreds of hours on the phone. I went to visit, and we had a fabulous, romantic, adventurous time. Our relationship has brought out all the flirty, sexy woman in me to a new level.

    He was apparently the chosen one in his family of four boys and two girls. I have seen childhood pictures that show how he was the one to engage others, to shine a bright light, to have all the women members of his family flocked around him….the one to stand up to his alcoholic father, the one to take his mother shopping. He is a hero in so many ways.

    He is a recovered alcoholic, a beautiful man of great talent. He has overcome his past rage addiction, some of his self-righteousness, he has some humility, and a huge ego. He feels that he has been unsuccessful, that he has sabotaged his success, and he struggles mightily to over come it. He has been precious to me. He called me “soft”, he told me he was proud to be with me, he called me the bomb for my work. My experience of him is us figuring things out together….

    From my own long-term therapy I recognize that he suffers the pain of his attachment to his mother. I have overcome to a degree the emotional incest of growing up in the environment I did, which parallels his experience in some ways.

    The long-distance nature of our present relationship is not tenable for much longer…its hard to be without him so much time. I don’t know if I’m his friend, his lover, his little mascot, his co-worker or all those things. I don’t know if he’s my daddy, my sweetie, my teacher, or what….He has encouraged me to study and get licensure in the same business as him, which I am working towards in my spare time. I told him how much I love working with him, and he appreciates my work too. It would be a huge step for me to sell my small home, leave the environment I know, the people and network of friends and places I have built up over the years, and go live in the jeweled town he now calls home. I think he’s not capable of a commitment, but he means so much to me, he has been such an inspiration, and we have moments of incredible closeness. I am just moved beyond words. He would be happy to have me there. Perhaps especially if I got my own apartment… and my own job until his business is built up. He told me early and rather often how he couldn’t marry me, because he is afraid he would “be mean” to me, that he is afraid of commitment….I wonder how much of his identity is built on being a ladies man? I feel frequent twinges of nervousness regarding this. On the other hand, I have enough happiness with him, that I would not push to be married.

    This relationship has caused me deep joy and some pain. I read the Kenneth Adams book and got new insight. I want to share it with him.

    I don’t even know what questions to ask about our relationship. I just want the best thing for myself, and for him too. The most loving thing….Any hope you see for us as a couple?

    • Debra Kaplan
      9 years ago


      I would certainly encourage you to explore some or all of your concerns and thoughts with a professional. By so doing you can make informed decisions that are not laden with concern and conflict. No hard life decisions come without some positive and negative consequences. However, when we explore the consequences and outcomes with a trust or safe other, we can make those decisions with a clearer state of mind. Good luck to you! Debra

  • Anonymous
    9 years ago

    Hi, I am married to an emotional incest survivor. He doesn’t mind his relationship with his mother. She is very manipulative and sneaky, and she was neglected all her life by her own husband who was too enmeshed with his own single mother. He doesnt seem to mind his relationship with his mother, but is he actually enjoying it?

    • Debra Kaplan
      9 years ago

      Oftentimes, emotional incest survivors feel fear, obligation and guilt when involved with their enmeshed parent. I’m not sure that he enjoys this experience but might feel at peace when he is involved with his mother since this is familiar. By setting boundaries or limits with his mother his own feelings of dis-ease might surface that induce more discomfort than he can tolerate.

  • Anonymous
    9 years ago

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  • Anonymous
    9 years ago

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  • sarah
    9 years ago

    I relate so strongly to all of this. I am a survivor of covert incest with my father as well as being sexually assaulted by one of my father’s friends when I was 11. Although my father never physically sexually abused me he treated me as his surrogate spouse. I’m really not sure about my early years but in my teens I was definitely his confidante. He was an alcoholic and, although I didn’t know it at the time, he had been sexually abused as a young child. His relationship with my mum was faltering, and he told me everything. I was his helpmate, his soulmate. He told me too much, too many secrets about his sex life, his loves and desires, his problems with my mum and drove a wedge between my mum and me. I felt special and disgusted, confused, privileged and impotent all at the same time. There was a sexual undertone to all of this. He had no boundaries, didn’t respect my privacy, kissed me inappropriately. And he didn’t protect me from the lecherous gaze or actions of his friends. Then in when I was in my early twenties he told me that he was sexually attracted to me. And he would constantly regale me with stories of his sexual exploits with women my age, despite me telling him that I didn’t want to know. I now just feel used and angry. I can’t have a relationship with him. I have had to pretty much cut him out of my life because he won’t respect my boundaries. This, along with the sexual assault, which I never disclosed, has affected me profoundly. I was in a psychologically and emotionally abusive marriage for 22 years that was also completely devoid of any intimacy. It left me severely depressed, suicidal and with C-PTSD. I am only now beginning to realise that I confuse sexual intimacy with emotional intimacy. And for me the need for sex is compulsive. I have strong moral boundaries around sex combined with a ridiculously high libido and during my marriage my only outlet for sexual energy was masturbation as my husband was not interested in sex. This became compulsive and riddled with shame. Although I have had therapy with a fabulous psychologist and we have worked on the abusive marriage and the sexual assault it is only recently that the stuff with my dad has come up as I always diminished it. And now I just feel so sad, angry, bitter. I am in a wonderful relationship now with a beautiful, loving man. He has been amazing, and it is only now that i am learning what true intimacy is. That I don’t need to have sex to experience intimacy. But I feel so betrayed by so many men in my life. He knows a lot of my story but I haven’t told him about the history with my dad yet as I am really only beginning to understand it myself and have started to see my therapist again about it. She has been so supportive and has helped me to understand my father’s behaviour as abuse. I am so pleased to find this site, it has helped me draw some threads together about my sexual compulsiveness and my past. The sexual side of things bothers me because I don’t want it to negatively affect my relationship with my partner. I would never cheat on him but I am acutely conscious of not wanting him to feel like I only want him for sex and that scares me. We have talked about my sexuality and he is really affirming and gentle with me. But I still have hang ups about rejection. Anyway, thank you for your site. I rambled on longer than I intended to