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Covert/Emotional Incest – How Real Is It?

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 incest.

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? Some who call it covert incest say labeling it emotional incest is inadequate because that implies an absence of sexual damage. 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 needs”. 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 diagnosis.

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.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

December 29, 2011

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