BY JEN MAKIN, CMHC
The word “incest” often spooks people, as it should. Worst case scenarios crawl through one’s mind. The word incest pertains to sexual inappropriate conduct and touch by an individuals’ family member.
Today, we are discussing emotional incest, also called covert incest.
Covert incest is part of codependency. Where incest deals inappropriate sexual closeness, covert incest is inappropriate emotional closeness with loved ones.
One kind of emotional incest I hear about frequently from my chair is between an adult child and a parent. This emotional closeness between adult child and parent is emotionally incestual.
When an adult child is married, this could look like the mother or father discussing inappropriate information about either of their marriages or personal lives with one another. For instance, an adult son discussing his wife and the marital relationship to his mother. This could also mean that the mother and son discuss things that should be kept within the bounds of a healthy relationship, like a marriage, and not discussed between son and mother.
WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE
Mom: Why are you buying that car?
Adult Son: It is what Jenny (my wife) wants.
Mom: Why would she want that? The gas mileage stinks.
Son: Don’t ask me, it’s just what she wants.
Mom: I would never, ever buy that type of car.
In this scenario, the adult son feels conflicted that he has to choose between the needs of his mother and his wife. In a healthy relationship, both members of the committed relationship leave the nest and cleave to one another. Or, leave and cleave!
This can be confusing for any adult child to feel that they have to please anyone, let alone their parents’ needs after getting married. This happens all too often.
Another form of emotional incest comes in the form of the parent leaning heavily on the child, whether a minor or adult, too much for support. This often occurs when the parent doesn’t have the emotional support they need within a marriage relationship, or the parent is single or overall has poor boundaries due to mental health challenges.
WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE
Dad: Your mom is driving me crazy.
Adult Son: What is going on?
Dad: She’s out spending all my hard earned money again!
Son: Have you talked to her?
Dad: What do you think, Junior?
Son: Probably but wh…
Dad: Every week I deal with this. Every week!
This puts undue stress on the son’s overall health and wellness. The son should be able to have his own relationship with both parents, separately. And how close he is with another parent should not include punishment.
IN THE MIDDLE
It can be so damaging to a child of any age to be put in the middle of any parental relationship. It literally harms who the child is, including their future.
“Can you believe what your dad is doing? Let him know I’m not talking to him!”
“Your mom is ridiculous! She can be so rude.”
“You don’t have to answer your dad when he’s acting like that.”
The problem is, just like with incest, where your body is harmed in ways that are harmful by someone who is a loved one, emotional incest is where your spirit is harmed. You betray yourself by not setting boundaries.
Here’s the kicker: when someone commits emotional incest, they are not concerned with boundaries. They care about their needs being met, about having their ego stroked and more than anything: being right.
The message is: they are right, their spouse is wrong and if you don’t agree, you don’t love them. How backwards is that?
What are some of the symptoms of INCEST?
Inability to understand boundaries or right from wrong
Loss of sense of self
Acting out behaviors: self-harm, addiction, angry outbursts
Feelings of worthlessness
Feelings of rejection due to needs not being met appropriately
Misunderstanding of sexual behaviors, experiences or use of our bodies
Feelings of deep betrayal and shame
What are some symptoms of EMOTIONAL INCEST?
Struggle with boundaries with others, including other loved ones and friends
Lose self in the world of loved one
Protection of individual harming through emotional incest, at all costs
Put own needs last, emotionally incestual loved one’s needs first
Feeling like you have to run to the loved one, every time
Always there and ready to drop everything
Feel deep shame if
As you can see, these symptoms are very similar. As a result of emotional incest, individuals experience very similar symptoms to incest. This can be very confusing when comorbid (or other disorders such as depression and anxiety) exist.
An individual may be seeking treatment, or therapy, for depression at first and then, with the support of a competent therapist, unpack the reality that they are experiencing emotional incest with a family member. It can be jarring to get the news but it’s important to get educated about the realities and impact of emotional incest.
WHAT TO DO
Good idea: shift your boundaries to create safety
Not the Best Idea: directly confront the person who is causing the emotional incest
Nine times out of ten, this work is an inside job. In rare cases, you can go directly to the person and say, “I read an article and I think we are too close … “ This kind of feedback may be received well at first, but may backfire when you attempt to put firmer boundaries in place.
Identify how your body feels when you are interacting directly or indirectly with this person. Be honest with yourself.
Some things you may notice are:
Fuzzy mind |Static mind
Thought snatching (where you stay safe by thinking the same as the person)
Watery eyes | Crying
Once the feelings are identified, create safety by setting a personal boundary. This could be a physical or emotional boundary.
Taking space could look like:
Going for a walk
Listening to music
Taking a shower or bath
Talking to a safe loved one
The abuse is not your fault, but it is your responsibility to honestly identify it and create safety for yourself..
Find your voice and never lose it.