Healing From Emotional Incest

According to his mother, Will always stood out as being the most challenging to parent, the one who struggled to make friends in middle school and the one who she saw as vulnerable to depressive episodes and stress. So it was a difficult time for Will when his parents divorced.  In truth it was a difficult time for the family, but it was during those years that Will and his mother’s close connection was galvanized.

Emotional Incest is devastating largely in part due to the indirect and covert nature of the trauma.

young boyAt that time of the divorce, Will was 16-years old and his older sister, Lisa was about to leave the home to attend college. Lisa’s presence, intermittent as it was during high school, provided Will some protection from life’s stressors, both inside and outside the home.  For their mother, Lisa’s departure meant losing her best friend and emotional support and now served to expose Will to her insecurities about being alone following her divorce.

Their younger brother Ray exhibited escalating hostility in the wake of their parent’s divorce and took to physical fights with Will when their mother was away from the house. Although Ray was younger in age, he towered six inches taller than Will and was a formidable force to reckon with.

sad young manWill did not adjust well to living between two households. When he was at home with his mother and brother he suppressed his feelings. He knew his mother worried about “everything” and he didn’t want to make her life any more troublesome than it already was. He also knew that his mother lost her best friend and helper when Lisa went off to college so in order to help her feel less overwhelmed Will started to deny his own emotional needs. He felt alone and lonely and he soothed that inner emptiness by retreating into his on-line gaming world. There with his virtual friends he carried out online raids and bonded around a virtual mission to escape reality.

The Emotional Elephant In The Room

Will could not control his worsening anxiety and panic attacks that became more intrusive and debilitating. He had become overwhelmed with his new responsibilities that his mother heaped upon him including mowing the lawn, preparing dinner and tending to his younger brother’s homework. In the blink of an eye it seemed that Will lost a father, gained an unwanted step-mother and was called into service as the go-to man of the house and de facto father to his brother, Ray. It wasn’t long before Will found alcohol and later painkillers that he bought at school to manage his panic attacks.

Will was successful at hiding his alcohol use and reliance on prescription pain medication but what he could not eventually hide was the stealing and selling of drugs that he engaged in to supply his mounting addiction.  A blackout in the school parking lot led to Will lose control of his car and crash it into a lamp post. Will spent six weeks in residential treatment to detox and withdraw from his opioid addiction and then gain a sense of how his life had become unmanageable and out of control.

depressed young manFor many years Will kept the cravings for pain medication at bay by using alcohol and marijuana on a rotating basis to help him manage one out-of-control urge from another. He felt triumphant when he turned 34 y/o and celebrated a year of sobriety from pills all the while maintaining the illusion of sobriety with the helping hands of alcohol,  compulsive masturbation and pornography. Unfortunately, he also spent the majority of his life keeping the grip of loneliness at bay. It was that deepening chasm parading as depression that triggered Will to reach out for therapy after his wife served the ultimatum; seek therapy for his addiction to pornography or we’re done. Her threat to leave became the final blow.

While maintaining the illusion of sobriety, Will spent the majority of his life keeping the grip of loneliness at bay.

All his life, Will knew that he was attracted to women, and now, to his wife inparticular. But for reasons that baffled him Will avoided her affection and instead sought sexual and emotional relief in pornography.  He shared with me that throughout his life, he wanted to be in relationships, but as soon as he became emotionally involved with a girl, he became overwhelmed and panicked.

The fact that Will could and would marry was as much a surprise to him as it was to his fiance. She had been pushing Will to get married in spite of his deflection to speak about it whenever she brought up the topic. But his guilt and fear of losing his fiance overrode his need to get out from the under the pressure  of marriage and so he relented; they  were married five months later.

Will:   I was able to get passed all that when I met my wife. She and I clicked, and somehow, I don’t know how, my panic wasn’t as bad. So, when I started pushing her away I was afraid that this pattern surfaced again.  I thought I had kicked it. So, I thought to myself I better marry her before she gets away.

Six months into our work together, Will was able to abstain from alcohol and compulsive masturbation with the help of a sponsor, individual and men’s sex addiction group therapy. During one of our individual sessions, He began to rethink his relationship with his mother as perhaps less than perfect as he believed it to be.

Will:   I remember one night when my mother came to me to vent—like she usually did—about her hard day at work. At first I didn’t mind because that’s what we did, you know that was “our thing.” And, really, in the moment I felt so bad for her because I know she wasn’t happy. After all, it was my father who remarried so quickly and left us to deal with life and she did the best she could. Most mothers wouldn’t be able to do what she did; work to support my brother and I and also tend to us. But anyway, I remember that for some reason I was tired of talking, and I don’t just mean right then and there. I mean, at all! Like, why do I have to do this with her at all!?

During the nights that Will and his mother had their emotional heart-to-hearts, it was Will who provided comfort and emotional support. Covertly, yet ever present was his mother’s need to hear that Will was okay to lessen her guilt and fear about the divorce and the impact on Will. Laced into their emotional connection was his mother’s unhealthy assignment to Will for the adult emotional burden and parental responsibility.

This inverted parent-child dynamic created a pattern of emotional incest and enmeshment by his mother and as a result, Will did all the parenting.  For healthy development children receive love, nurturing and emotional support but in the absence of receiving that which they need, children will unconsciously give it instead; better to give love than to feel the hollow abyss of abandonment and neglect. And so, Will unwittingly obliged this enmeshed dynamic for it was either that or flounder at the edge of existential and emotional death.  As it turned out, prescription pain medication, alcohol and pornography couldn’t fill the abyss already created by his mother’s covert emotional demands from whence there was nothing to give.

Unwittingly, the two stepped into a promoted lifelong pattern of what is known as emotional incest.

What is Emotional Incest?

relationship conflict

In working with Will and other clients like him, I know that the seduction of being “the good son or daughter” is a hard, delusional nut to crack. The challenge lays in breaking through the denial and illusion that the parent’s closeness is actually destructive and an emotional burden placed on the child.

In an otherwise healthy parent-child relationship, it is the role of the parent to nurture the child and meet his needs. The child is not required to meet the emotional or covert sexual needs of the parent. Even within a seemingly functional family where there is not the obvious presence of addictions this inverted parent-child dynamic can evolve.  For example, in a stressed marriage or a single family dynamic a parent may unwittingly begin to burden the child by emotionally soliciting support from the child for his or her unmet relational needs. In this way an inappropriate discussion of adult concerns are shared with a child or the child feels the need to soothe the parent’s distress and therefore suppressing his own needs.

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 de facto 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.

In the case of Will, he was emotionally abandoned by his mother because she did not remain the parent and protector that would have allowed Will to be vulnerable and thus, protected. This inverted parenting dynamic robbed him of his developmental need to be himself.

Emotional Incest is devastating largely in part due to the indirect and insidious nature of the trauma. Caving to emotional demands that are too burdensome, the incested may experience some or all of the following symptoms as a result:

Symptoms of Emotional Incest

  • Codependent behavior (inappropriate boundaries or no boundaries at all in relationships).
  • Guilt about practicing self-care especially when the offending parent is concerned (an unrealistic sense of obligation to that parent).Arguments
  • Difficulties related to sexual identity or gender.
  • Feelings of inadequacy in adult romantic relationships.
  • Love/hate relationship with offending parent.
  • Patterns of triangulation (indirect communication) in work, family or romantic relationships.
  • Inappropriate conflicts about allegiances between parent and partner resulting in siding with parent against partner. (Inordinate amount of expectation to please both parties).
  • Difficulty in maintaining relationships due to idealization and devaluation of others and an inappropriate expectation placed on partners.
  • Compulsive behaviors that can include sex, money, work, substances (drugs), alcohol, and food.Pornography
  • Issues related to sex addiction/sex avoidance or love addiction/love avoidance.

Will experienced tremendous pain in not understand why he felt so empty his whole life. No amount of drugs, alcohol or pornography could fill that void created by the emotional taking of what was not his to give. His inability to validate his own self in lieu of putting his mother first was disorienting and confusing and particularly difficult under the circumstances of being asked to step up into an adult parental role. This was the result of needing to disavow his own self in order to maintain a life connection with the only person able to offer it; his mother.

The Way Out

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

  • After maintaining sobriety from substances and pornography addiction, Will began to get in touch with his core feelings.
  • Identify the family of origin (family in which a person is raised-the adoptive family if they are adopted) and the particular family dynamics involved.
  • Recognize and explore how the patterns of emotional incest between caregivers and incested adult-child play out.
  • Learn boundaries and practice setting boundaries and consequences with the incesting 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).
  • Examine how neglect results in feeling abandoned and what abandonment really is.
  • Acknowledge feelings of abandonment as a result of the emotional incest.
  • Work toward individuation and separation by learning to reparent the self (Inner child work).


Will remained in therapy for several months following his breakthrough about his mother. He realized that It wasn’t overt abuse that he struggled with, rather what he was feeling was the absence of nurturing and protection. The absence of something is harder to find and often invisible in plain sight. The abyss that Will tried to avoid careening into ended up being a journey deep inside himself. He learned that to identify that loneliness and experience the pain of abandonment was the first step in healing the long suffering that he averted with other self-medicating behaviors.

His relationship with his wife later became the focus of reconnection after he learned how to gently disengage from the emotional maternal strings that still controlled him from childhood.

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


To learn more about Emotional Incest read:

Emotional Incest

Emotional Incest  (video)

Emotional Incest and the Relationship Avoidant