Emotional Incest: The Covert Abuse in the Relationship

Few intimacy problems raise more questions and confused looks than Emotional Incest.  Why? Because the power and influence of Emotional Incest significantly impacts healthy intimacy with covert yet destructive forces. These forces may underlie the more overt issues that couples argue about; Money, sex, children, or time with family. Such is the covert nature of Emotional Incest.

The power and influence of Emotional Incest significantly impacts healthy intimacy with covert yet destructive forces.

I was speaking with Julie and Mark, a new client couple who had just shared with me their most recent argument, the one that led them to seek help. Julie, the wife, called after their quarrel became her last straw and proverbial line in the sand. She had delivered her ultimatum to Mark, “We either go to therapy together to resolve this problem or I’ll have no choice but to rethink our marriage.”

Julie’s hurt and frustration was the result of Mark’s ongoing unwillingness to take Julie’s side when there was a disagreement with Mark’s mother. Until now Mark often dismissed Julie as being too sensitive and not understanding of how his mother might feel left out. This argument was identical to their many other arguments. “Be it a new day or year, the reasons or the circumstances and most of our arguments involve his mother in the same way—I don’t get it! It always ends with me seething in anger because Mark is not willing to support me.” Apparently, that argument or one like it had ensued countless times, but on this particular occasion Julie swore that she would no longer sit idly by and watch as she and their marriage “dissolved into thin air.”

Addressing Childhood Wounds

Julie and Mark struggled because of Mark’s unrealized injury due to emotional enmeshment with his mother. He was the oldest in his family of four brothers. His father spent long days working to support the family, but longer nights drinking at the local bar. In the face of his father’s enduring absence from the family Mark was helpless to change it.  Mark watched his mother cry at night and knew her pain. He stepped in to help her as any caring and loving child might feel compelled to do. But that natural desire to help his mother in distress became injurious overtime as Mark became the adult spouse and man of the house. Over time Mark became increasingly anxious, depressed and overwhelmed in his adult role.

The Hidden Injury of Emotional Incest

When couples struggle with relationship conflicts and intimacy issues that are the result of Emotional Incest, there is frustration and hurt created by the concealed nature of the abuse.  Due to the covert nature of the injury, the child does not understand how they were and are negatively impacted by their implied role of being special.  Most importantly, this cycle has a seeming no-way-out-repeat akin to being stuck in the carnival funhouse without an exit out to the light.

Emotional incest (also known as covert sexual abuse) is the indirect yet sexualized 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 consciously or unconsciously enlist the child’s emotional support to heal their unmet adult emotional needs.  A child’s healthy development is impacted and in those cases there is a sexualized, romanticized dynamic in the role of surrogate partner. This is the inversion of what should happen in a healthy parent-child relationship.  As a result, the child is made the confidant or emotional spouse of a parent creating in the child an overwhelming and stealthy sense of fear, emotional obligation and guilt. Unfortunately, this false esteem instills in the child a sense of being special or the Hero child as it is often referred to.  Think – Mother’s Little Man and Daddy’s Little Princess.  Watch video on Emotional Incest:

When the Bow Breaks

This lofty bubble of false esteem is destined to burst when the now adult child becomes involved in a romantic or marital relationship. Children need to develop an emotional and physical sense of autonomy and independence from the emotional ties to a parent.  Healthy relationships need to be nurtured with emotional connection and necessary support, but in the presence of emotional incest these indentured bonds are dominating and there develops a one-or-the-other dilemma.  The covert injury resurfaces when the adult child (who is still operating with a core need to rescue the parent) now has a partner to support.

Let’s revisit our couple, Mark and Julie. Mark was stuck in the dilemma to either defend his mother despite his intensifying feelings of fear, obligation and guilt or defend his wife.  Since Mark felt obligated to take his mother’s side, Julie was abandoned in the marriage.  So continued this no-win cycle of emotional enmeshment; support partner or parent but both cannot be appeased in this dilemma. As was the case for Mark, the adult child emotionally withdraws from both relationships and oftentimes the only perceived option to alleviate this strain is to self-medicate with compulsions and addictions. Mark later revealed in our initial session that he was trying to cope with this stress by escaping into alcohol and pornography.  Julie agreed that she was concerned about Mark’s nightly drinking but she was unaware of his pornography use and hurt by this disclosure. Our work together as well as their work in individual therapy began to address the wounds and betrayal in the marriage.

How Couples Can Heal From Emotional Incest

In an earlier article, Healing From Emotional Incest, I list steps to take to restore a healthy balance of boundaries with partners and loved ones.  Key elements of this work involve:

  • Maintaining and committing to abstinence from using medicating behaviors and processes. This will begin a healing process to identify and feel the unacknowledged underlying emotions.  If appropriate, attend 12 Step programs to support with with the unmanageability of compulsive or addictive behaviors.
  • Examining the neglect and abandonment in childhood as well as in adulthood.
  • Acknowledging feelings of abandonment as a result of the emotional incest.
  • Working toward individuation and separation by learning how to reparent the self (Inner child work).
  • Working in individual and couple therapy to identify the family-of-origin dynamics of the emotional enmeshment.
  • Developing a marriage or relationship contract of how future interactions will be handled with the involved family member.
  • Learning and practicing boundary setting with the involved parent.  In the case of a deceased parent work with a therapist who can help facilitate empty chair work or another experientially based modality for grief and loss. The dynamics of emotional incest may be played out in a marriage despite the passing of the involved family member.  In these cases, it is best to have a therapist help you make sense of the underlying forces at work.


Contact Debra L. Kaplan today if you or someone you know needs help.