Too Close For Comfort; Understanding the Pain of Emotional Incest

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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Linda felt so special being her father’s confidant. She was daddy’s little princess. When her parents separated her father would pick her up on visitation day and proudly display her to the patrons at the local bar. It was there she would meet daddy’s girlfriends. Only she knew who he liked best and what he really thought of them. She was always there to offer him comfort when one of his lady friends let him down. She was his number one. When mom would grill her about her day with daddy she never revealed where they had actually been and who she had met. It was their secret.

When she reached puberty Linda was ‘boy crazy’. Teachers were concerned about her hyper-sexuality and provocative behaviors. When the gym teacher discovered Linda dispensing sexual favors to a group of boys in the locker room, intervention ensued. The school guidance counselor contacted Linda’s mom and arranged a referral to a psychologist for family therapy.

Ian felt both gratified and icky when he would ritualistically massage his mother’s legs and back. The stimulation he felt when she sighed with pleasure and affirmed how only he could please her was frightening, but also satisfying. “Unlike your pathetic father,” she would add. By ten years old Ian was privy to all the unsavory details of his father’s impotence and his mother’s revulsion. Sometimes she would even crawl into bed with Ian and cry maudlin tears over some marital crisis she was contending with. Mommy’s little man always knew how to make her feel better.

By the time Ian entered adulthood his sexual anorexia coupled with episodic porn binges brought him into treatment. Although he was a very successful architect, he was unable to sustain a loving committed relationship.

Through the therapy process Ian and Linda identified the source of their brokenness. They were both victims of covert incest.

Covert incest, also known as emotional incest, is a violation of trust and an abuse of power between a child and a trusted authority figure. The child is groomed to abdicate their inherent needs for love and care while assuming a romantic and parental role with their caregivers. This perverse reversal of roles and enmeshed dynamic is presented to the child as a badge of honor.

Kenneth M. Adams, Psychologist and author of Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners / Understanding Covert Incest wrote, “An important difference between overt and covert incest is that, while the overt victim feels abused, the covert victim feels idealized and privileged. Yet underneath the thin mask of feeling special and privileged rests the same trauma of the overt victim: rage, anger, shame and guilt.”

Indeed, like victims of overt incest, covert incest victims are plagued with intimacy disorders, mood disorders, dissociative disorders and complex trauma. As a survivor myself I am well acquainted with this struggle.

I remember that moment when I had a jarring epiphany. I was working in a comprehensive day treatment program for addiction recovery. Many of the women on my caseload were survivors of sex trafficking and presented with horrifying histories of childhood sexual abuse. Many of the men I treated had similar histories as well. So, with the intention of adequately understanding and treating the ravages of sexual abuse trauma I enrolled in some continuing ed courses.

During a specific training an overhead projector delineated on a huge screen sundry signs of covert incest. There was my life laid out before me.

Throughout my childhood I frequented bars as a child with my father. The eroticized sexual energy of these taverns infiltrated my psyche, as did the provocative exchanges my father engaged in with sundry women. His collection of porn and hardcore victorian ‘literature’ distracted me from unbearable loneliness. I was perusing these magazines and books by the time I was six.

Unexpectedly, in that moment it all made sense. My father’s cavalier nudity was suddenly inconsistent with what I held to be normal. My reckless sexual behavior, the compulsive masturbation, the self hatred, the objectification, the eating disorders, the drug and alcohol abuse. It was a piece of the puzzle that somehow eluded me up until that moment. Just like any overt incest survivor, I felt like damaged goods.

All this was compounded by the boundary distortions that ensued with my schizophrenic mother. I vacillated between protecting her and hating her, desperately trying to break free while feeling tremendously over identified with her tragic plight. My needs became inconsequential as I catered to the insatiable demands of both my parents.

The betrayal of exploitation and carrying the enormous weight of responsibility for impaired incompetent parents results in an attachment template characterized by power-submissive dynamics.

Subjugation to the needs of others irrespective of the harm incurred, becomes a habituated relational pattern. Hence, intimacy is never safe. Longings for love clash with simultaneous fears of engulfment and abandonment. Glorification of pathological caretaking obfuscates the difference between authentic generosity and a conditioned sense of obligation motivated by survival fears.

The survivor of covert incest is challenged to dismantle a maladaptive relational imprint, while piecing together an emotionally anchored cohesive narrative of all she’s been through. Through this process boundaries, conditions and standards can be named and reclaimed.

Through this process, Patricia Love explains, (The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life) The past will no longer feel like a lode of radioactive ore contaminating the present, and you will be able to respond appropriately to present-day events. You will feel angry when someone infringes on your territory, but you won’t overreact. You will feel sad when something bad happens to you, but you won’t sink into despair. You will feel joy when you have a good day, and your happiness won’t be clouded with guilt. You, too, will have succeeded in making history, history.”

It is here that the survivor of covert incest takes back the inherent right to exist for herself. It is here that she can begin to actualize relationships that offer reciprocity and mutuality, that recognize her worth.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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