Emotional Incest

The Seductive Fantasy of Being Special

Alysa was 32 years old and struggling with commitment when she decided to seek counseling. It was in one of our early sessions that I asked about her family and in particular, about her parent’s marriage.

“My parents had a good marriage—not great, but…you know—good. I know there were times that my dad wasn’t happy, but you don’t stay together if you’re not happy!”

“Really? What makes you so sure?” I asked.

“Look — I saw my parent’s marriage. I know that it wasn’t perfect. What marriage or relationship is? My mother didn’t always appreciate him, but I understood what he was really all about. There were times that he probably wanted to leave. We would talk about it because I’m the one who saw how exasperating his marriage could be. I gave him a perspective on things that no one else did. At times, he was so lonely. But, he felt so much better after we spoke. We had that special bond between us. My older brother and younger sister didn’t get him, but I did. They were too busy being kids.”

How Alysa viewed her father and his adulation was cloaked in a seductive fantasy of his love and adoration; a fantasy that would be a therapeutic challenge to explore and delicately reframe. Alysa was already experiencing long standing consequences of privilege. She just wasn’t yet aware. Alysa doubted her many partners’ attributes despite verbalizing her love for them. She often stated that she felt suffocated by showered affection, but nonetheless chose to date. She become involved with men and on two separate occasions became engaged, only to then suddenly break off the engagements.

What is Emotional Incest and Covert Sexual Abuse?

In working with Alysa and other clients like her, I know that the seduction of being “the special one” is a hard, delusional nut to crack. The challenge lays in breaking through the denial and illusion that the parent’s love and attention is destructive and emotionally demanding of the child.

In an otherwise healthy parent child relationship, the child is not required to meet the needs of the parent. Nor is there an inappropriate outlet of sexual charged emotion toward a child. It is a long held belief that without direct sexual contact no harm is done.

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”.

By contrast, 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.

Even within a seemingly functional family where there is not the obvious presence of addictions this otherwise inverted parent-child dynamic evolves. In a stressed marriage or a single family dynamic, the parent begins to burden the child by emotionally soliciting the child for his or her unmet relational needs. In this way an inappropriate discussion of adult concerns are shared with a child.

As the marriage and/or family dynamic continues to unravel, the dependency upon the child increases. This already breached boundary between parental caregiver, nurturer, and protector is crossed and the child becomes the defacto caregiver, nurturer and protector of the parent.

What ensues is the adult’s engagement of the child in order to meet the adult’s emotional needs; a role that the child is not capable of fulfilling yet might feel special or privileged in so doing. Clearly in this dynamic the child is covertly, emotionally abandoned by the parent(s) and being robbed of her or his childhood. Herein lays the inherent difference between overt and covert sexual abuse.

The “privilege” or exclusivity in being overtly, sexually abused carries an instinctive sense of danger, fear and shame that is not present with covert sexual abuse or emotional incest. In Alysa’s case, at the age of 32, she was not aware of or outwardly burdened by being her father’s intimate other. This imbued family role of confidant still held self perceived prestige and power.

Adverse Outcomes from Emotional Incest

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)
  • 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

Alysa expressed guilt, confusion and anger about honoring her own wants and needs in her current relationship. Her inability to validate her own self in lieu of putting her boyfriend first was disorienting and confusing. Of particular difficulty was her inability to identify what those needs were. This was the result of having learned to disavow her own self while being emotionally present for her father during his marital crises.

The Way Out

As with most individuals struggling with unresolved emotional incest, Alysa’s therapy began with several key issues in her therapy:

  • 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)


Working through unresolved abuse, and journeying from wounded child to healthy adult does not have to occur in isolation if one is already involved in a committed relationship. Nor, is it necessarily accomplished in individual therapy sessions, alone. Much support can be gained by working with the issues as they arise while in relationship. Further, the sharing of one’s experiences can be mutually healing within the context of a 12-step support group or among other healthy interactions.

Seen through the lens of Alysa’s journey, an abused individual can attain emancipation and self empowerment with patience, perseverance, and self awareness.

To read more about Emotional Incest, click here  Emotional Incest and the Relationship Avoidant

18 Responses to “Emotional Incest

  • Leigh
    11 years ago

    This article opened my eyes to something that I’ve had a blind spot to for decades. It’s inspired me to do more research. Thanks

  • Brenda
    11 years ago

    Hi, I have just ended a 2 1/2 yr relationship with a wonderful, loving, christian man that has had this relationship with his 34 year old daughter for years. I guess I am just needing affirmation that I have done the right thing. She seems to be the driving force in this relationship, asking her dad not to be involved with anyone. She likes it when it is only the two of them. He really does treat her more like his wife than his daughter. He divored his wife when she was 2 because of drugs and alcohol. They were affluent people in the community. I pointed this out to him after I realized they were in an emotional incest relationship. He doesn’t deny it but won’t seek help. He wants to have me around,says he loves me, but can’t divorce his spouse/daughter to have a normal relationship with me. I am a nurse and also have a great friend that is a counselor. She has helped me recognize the very abnormal incidents and given me recommendations to encourage him to make changes. He still emails me, ( I haven’t responded yet)but I can’t get back into this relationship til he gets help.

  • Rachel
    11 years ago

    I stumbled accross this entry on your website and was stunned by it. I don’t fully understand what you mean by the “sexualized” nature of a parent using a child to meet adult emotional needs, but the rest could be taken right out my own life. At 29, I’m in a battle with myself to summon up the courage and the wherewithall to separate from my mother, who has inappropriately involved me in her life since I was a little child. I’m a youngest child, daughter among many sons, and apparently the perfect confidant. Like “Alysa,” I’ve been dragged into my parents marriage most of my life, (a war zone if ever there was one) but I have never wanted to be there. I’ve always felt abandoned by my mother, but couldn’t see why, because she’s always been there. I just always wanted certain boundaries, and now–belatedly–I’m putting them up myself. I do love my Mom.

  • Chantel
    11 years ago

    @Rachel. The term of “sexualized nature” is referring to a sexual undercurrent. My covert incest had to deal a lot with sex in general along with my father “dumping” on me. I have been scarred beyond belief from this and have been getting help since I was 16 or so.

    In my case, my father would tell me how he was so lonely and how my mother would never touch him (sexually) and how he never was able to have sex anymore. How he NEEDED sex to be happy and normal and how it drove him mad. He would ask me if I thought was wrong with him for my mother to not want to touch him…. Uuuugh… I was only 8 or so may a year younnger may a year older….

    I am not saying ALL counts of covert incest are based so much on sexual feelings but mine was. My father was sexually frustrated (along with many other things, God only knows…) and he used me as an outlet. Not physically but emotional to relieve his sexual feeling and frustrations. He would tell me the terrible things my mother had done (our family’s {mother’s} dirty little secrets) to him and to us as a family but mostly to him. Things that caused me to hate my mother! He poisoned me against her.

    I would be so awful to her. Downright mean and nasty to her. Everything she would do to try and get close to me I would tear it down. I wouldn’t give her a chance. How could she hurt my daddy like that? She would ask me why I acted the way I did towrds her. I couldn’t tell her it was from father had told me. I had to protect him at all costs!…

  • Sabra Burns
    11 years ago

    I just found this site. It’s very compelling and comforting. Now I’m trying to find material about emotional incest and its effect on the child who is left out of it,…

  • Breanne
    11 years ago

    This article has helped me. I always knew I had some sort of co-dependent relationship with my mother, but I realize where it came from. She lost her job, became severely depressed and alcoholic. My dad couldn’t handle it, so he went out to the bars all the time and told my sister and I to take care of her. After a few suicide attempts, I knew I had to stick by her in her room every night because my father told me to. I don’t understand about the sexualized part of that relationship, and there is no emotional/sexual dysfunction in my current relationship. I just have no sense of self esteem, and feel a complete sense of responsibility and guilt towards my mother. I know I should go to counseling to deal with it. Maybe I should, now that I know what is affecting me and my relationship with my mother.

  • Becky
    11 years ago

    My relationship with my brother was very close. Our father divorced our mother when my brother was four and I was two. He started a new family and the only thing we got from him was child support checks. His kids didn’t know we existed until they were in high school. Our mother was having a long term affair with her married boss and would miss our birthdays to be with him. I think he told her that he wouldn’t leave his wife until we were adults and out of the house, because she made a point to tell us that we had to move out when we turned 18. Consequently, when my brother and I needed affection or praise, we turned to each other for it. I had some bad experiences with friends turning on me, so I thought he was the only person I could really trust. After he graduated from high school and moved out of the house, the loneliness became unbearable and I came to live with him in his studio apartment. I ended up going to community college full time at 16 and using the credits towards high school graduation while my brother paid my tuition by working full time. It was just the two of us. I was 19 when my brother and I separated because it had gotten to the point where if we didn’t separate, we were going to start sleeping with each other. I moved away after I got my associate degree and transferred to a four-year public college and my brother enlisted in the Navy. We haven’t seen each other since then, though we send emails from time to time. I’ve never really been in a healthy relationship and I miss the comfort I had with my brother. Sometimes I wonder how things would have gone if we had crossed that line and some nights I wish we did, even though I know it probably would have ended badly. We did love each other though. We really did, but our relationship stunted our emotional growth and neither of us recovered from it.

  • Anonymous
    11 years ago

    My brother suggested I might like this blog. He was entirely right.
    This post truly made my day. You cann’t imagine simply how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  • Anonymous
    10 years ago

    My mom just told me that my husband has emotional incest problem. I did not know there was such thing!!!

  • Anonymous
    10 years ago

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    It seems too complicated and extremely huge for me. I am having a look ahead on your next publish.

  • Anonymous
    10 years ago

    I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.Too cool!

  • Anonymous
    10 years ago

    Everything is very open with a precise description of the challenges.
    It was definitely informative. Your site is useful.
    Many thanks for sharing!

  • Terry Sawyer
    10 years ago

    This is an excellent blog. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

  • sexuality couselling melbourne
    10 years ago

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  • Barbara
    10 years ago

    This is a fantastic article and all makes sense to me now. I have a 36 yo girlfriend. We have been together off and on for six years. She has a 10 yo son that she won’t give up sleeping with and I couldn’t understand why. Now I know. She herslef slept with her parents until she was 14. She has been in and out of unhealthy relationships since she ws 16. She told me that she won’t stop sleeping with him until he is ready to sleep by himself. Needless to say, we don’t live together and if I stay the night at her house I sleep in a seperate room. The only time we sleep in the same bed is if he is at his Grandparent’s house for the weekend. This has put a strain on our relationship and I ask myself why I stay in it. Her son is very jealous and posessive. He does not like for me to be anywhere near her if he is around. He is always twirling her hair, touching, kissing or throwing his leg over hers. He is very embarassing in public. He constantly hangs on her, kisses her or lays on her. He is very much a Mamma’s boy and is afraid of his own shadow. At home he will not do anything by himself. He makes life hell if I am there at his bedtime. If he happens to fall asleep in her bed then wakes up and finds that she is talking to me, he throws a fit and starts crying like a two year old. I can’t get her to see what she is doing to him and how it’s going to affect him in the future. She sees nothing wrong with what she is doing and sees it as a normal way to raise a child. And yes she does discuss grown up issues with him. Needles to say, he has total control over her. If you ask me, it’s sad what she is doing to this child to satisfy her own emotional needs.

    • Debra Kaplan
      10 years ago

      I appreciate you reaching out and addressing that which is such a struggle for you. As you see, these patterns of behavior often begin in one’s own childhood and tend to be intergenerational if left untreated. The trajectory of the son’s behavior will likely include an unwillingness to individuate (which has already begun), relatioal, emotional and/or sexual problems, anxiety and depression, addiction, guilt, shame about self, and a narcissistic presentation since he has been falsely empowered as a child. Children in these cases do not understand nor know how to create and maintain boundaries across the lifespan. The confusion lies in feeling special and not understanding the depth of the burden’s placed on them in the dynamic. The healthiest thing you can do for yourself in this situation is to create your own boundary around what you are willing to allow for yourself. Understanding your motivation for reasons that you stay in the relationship will help you in your own self exploration. Reading books on boundaries and Co-dependency might help understand your role in the dynamic.

      Debra L. Kaplan

  • Barbara
    10 years ago

    Thank You. I appreciate your response. Her blind thought is that nothing sexual has developed on his side so it’s okay. I have seen him thrust his pelvis into her backside. He has laid on top of hi mother and has has started grinding. When he did this she made him get off the couch and got onto him for it. He loves to wrestle with his mother in bed and they do their pillow talk. I do get jealous and it does creep me out. I just can’t get thru to this woman what she is doing to her son. She thinks it’s perfectly normal. He refuses to let her out of his sight even for a minute. It is very frustratinfg for me and I am at my wits end. She is an intelligent woman but she just eats it up that he is so affectionate and dependent on her. Another sad part to this is that her 60 yo mother is a retired guidance counsler and she even sleeps with boy when she stays the night over there. And yes, I feeel like an enabler since I have tolerate d it for so long but I don’t have asay since I am not considered family.

  • anonymous
    9 years ago

    Emotional incest. That is the term I have been looking for today. I had been searching the internet for information regarding sexual abuse that I may have been blocking out as a child, but this makes perfect sense of the issue. She was abused herself as a child though.