Friday, December 30, 2011
There are an increasing number of psychology articles and books
dealing with covert incest, otherwise known as emotional incest. This form of
incest is described as a relationship where a parent turns a child into a
partner or confidante that is inappropriate to the child's age and life
experience. Or to put it another way, when a child is manipulated into the role
of a surrogate wife or husband by a needy parent.
While some refer to this as covert incest, others refer to it as emotional
But is there a difference between covert and emotional incest? And does either term represent a distinct and
relevant diagnosis - one that creates long-term psychological damage? Those who call it covert incest say labeling
it emotional incest is inadequate because "this label misleads by implying
an absence of sexual damage" (Adams, 1991). However, anything I've ever
read on emotional incest refers to the sexual as well as emotional impairments
created by this relationship. My
impression is that there isn't any significant difference. And when it comes to long-term psychological
damage, I find current theories provocative but over-generalized and unsubstantiated.
Some of the more popular books - "Silently Seduced",
"Sexual Addiction and Covert Incest", and especially "The
Emotional Incest Syndrome - What to Do When a Parent's Love Rules Your Life",
make articulate arguments for a long list of emotional and sexual impairments.
But when you are told that as a result of covert/emotional incest a child
can become either over or under sexualized, insecure or narcissistic (part of
the same personality type anyway), develop a love/hate relationship with the
offending parent, become compulsive or addictive (again part of the same
personality type), or guilty and confused over personal needs, then you have
covered just about all the bases of possible dysfunctional results and the term
becomes a catchall, watered down diagnosis.
Then there is the matter of definition; using a child to meet a
parent's own unmet emotional need. What child has not been used to meet
a parent's own unmet emotional needs? The reason to have children in the first
place usually fulfills unmet emotional (or in earlier times financial) needs.
I realize that it is the degree of use involved, and that it is
specifically using the child "as a partner", but that still covers
too much blurred emotional territory in the average family unit. That is
because parents - like everyone else - are flawed human beings. And their
boundaries, except in the most rigid of environments, falter, resulting in
their children periodically being used, manipulated, leaned on, guilted or
shamed into situations which challenge their sovereignty and emotional health.
Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to quantify what is the amount of
misuse of roles after which long-term damage occurs. Children come into
the world with different temperaments and genetic variation. What might
destroy one child can make another stronger. When an action never makes
one stronger, as in the case of sexual incest, then you have a clearer
Having said all this, I am not dismissing "covert/emotional
incest" altogether. I am however, questioning it as a separate diagnosis
from emotional abuse. And I am also questioning how to treat it.
Emotional Abuse creates trauma and distrust. It undermines a
person's self esteem and ability to enter into and maintain intimate
relationships. When you have been hurt and betrayed by those who were
closest to you, those who were supposed to protect you and teach you how to
function in the world, then you become emotionally handicapped in so many ways.
Instead of creating more provocative diagnoses, let's look at each individual
and deal with their specific pain and their specific deficits. Let's
refrain from continually categorizing people's pain. When we do that, we
miss their humanity, their specialness, and possibly their particular strategy
for strengthening self-agency.