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Recognizing & Coping with Emotional Incest

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

First up in the year’s blog lineup is a topic I got a few requests on, and a dynamic that many people wind up uncovering in therapy. If you’ve ever felt extremely responsible for how your parent feels, up to and including sacrificing yourself or your other family members for their happiness; or if you’ve ever found yourself feeling uncomfortable about something a family member shared or asked of you, this read is for you!

Emotional Incest

The term ‘emotional incest’ itself may be a bit off-putting, but it’s used to describe emotional relationships rather than physical ones, within a family. Another term used to describe the same concept is ‘covert incest’.

These two terms describe an unhealthy family dynamic wherein (most often) a parent relies on a child in the way they might normally rely on a spouse or partner for emotional support or advice. While most of the information available focuses on parent-child relationships where this unhealthy relationship dynamic can occur, it can happen within any familial relationship.

To help illuminate more of this concept, example time!

Imagine that you’re a 15-year-old kid living with your single parent. Your parent does all the “right” things, like making sure you have all your physical needs met, and they clearly love you, but things can feel a bit uncomfortable sometimes because your parent says things like, “I don’t need to date, I’ve got you! You’re my everything!”

This same parent vents to you about their workday or aggravating parts of adulthood (like, say, insurance or how to file taxes, or dynamics in their dating life if they have one) and then asks what you think they should do. You might feel some sadness or guilt that they’ve got adult stressors (whichever kind is bothering them), and then consequently, you bust your booty trying to make their life easier. You lose out on time with friends or extra curriculars because you’re so worried that you’re all the parent needs, how much they clearly need you….and on and on.

The dynamic here is clearly off, right? When do you get to talk about your day? When does your parent ask about your stressors at school? You’re the person that needs to be learning coping skills for the world they’ll be launching into as an adult in a few short years. You’re who needs the support and guidance. You’re the kid.

Imagine you’re that same kid and you grow up and you’re deciding where to go to school or move to find work. Your parent has no issue telling you what you should do but based on how it’ll affect them. “You can’t go off and leave me!” Out of guilt, maybe you decide to make choices based on that input, even though it isn’t what is best for you or what you really want.

Imagine you’re that same kid and you’re all grown up, you stayed close to your parent geographically because, hello – they told you how they couldn’t make it without you, they call every day to chat about their work life or dating relationships and to seek your advice, or whatever. After each call you get off the phone depleted, wondering what you can do to help. But now you’ve met a nice person you’d like to marry or move in and share life with. You take them to meet your parent, you take them on dates, they take you on trips. Your parent starts to get angry because you’re not as available. You can’t take your parent’s calls while you’re on a cruise with your new love. The parent may now lash out openly with guilt trips or flat-out rejection of choices you’re making. The relationship you’ve worked so hard to preserve with your parent may crumble.

I’ll pause there because, there’s another less commonly addressed example, that deserves a mention.

While the parent-child EI is addressed in many blogs and articles, a less commonly addressed angle is via a sibling relationship.

Maybe growing up in a large family came with a lot of stressors for your parents who were always busy bees. During that time, you were still a kid, and so were your siblings. Over time, you guys learned that your parents couldn’t necessarily be counted on to show up emotionally (or even physically), and that’s when you or your sibling learned that all you could count on was one another. This is a great coping skill for a lot of kids in various family situations, but once you’re out and grown, you may find it hard to pick a girl to date that your sister doesn’t hate or make feel uncomfortable at every family function – or maybe no one your sister ever brings home is good enough by your standards and you let her know all about it.

Siblings relying on one another to fill holes left by parents or becoming dependent on one another to fill in emotional support that might normally be filled by friendships or romantic relationships, might be a form of EI.

If you’ve been into working on your mental health, reading about ways to help yourself out, or if you’ve been on my blog at all your mind is probably going, “These are boundary issues!” And, yep! They are. Blurred boundaries are a big issue in EI.

So, what causes EI?

EI is usually caused when circumstances or events damage the relationship with parent(s). Life is full of stress, and when a family is hit with even the “normal” stresses, EI can become a means of coping.

If your parent(s) didn’t have great adult friendships or other relationships, they may have felt isolated and overwhelmed with all the adulting required and turned to you growing up. If your parents didn’t have great boundaries, emotional coping skills, or good parenting styles modeled for them, these factors can contribute. If your siblings didn’t form close attachments (or you didn’t) with peers and others as you grew up, it may be harder to connect with those outside the family. In families where abuse or neglect are present, isolation is usually a factor. Without isolation, abuse and neglect are difficult to keep hidden, so if there was abuse or neglect in your home, this can lay the groundwork for EI in any family relationship.

There are also cultural factors involved. What we may later feel uncomfortable with or through much googling determine was an EI involvement with a parent or sibling may stem from cultural norms. In some families, it is completely normal to expect elder children to take on adult responsibilities in providing financially and emotionally for parents and siblings, although the effects may have still landed you combing the internet for answers.

(Side note that I’ll be covering “parentification” and “infantilizing”, which are aspects of narcissistic abuse in upcoming blogs this year – these two things may ring bells as you learn about EI, but EI does not necessarily indicate a narcissistic relationship.)

The effects of EI can be detrimental.

The parent-child relationship can be seriously damaged. For parents seeking out emotional support and intimacy with their child, they may lose the desire to pursue appropriate friendships and romantic relationships. Kids just aren’t capable of providing the support and care that other adult relationships can, and they don’t fully understand all the parts of adulting. The adult is negatively impacted because they may pull back or stop trying to have appropriate adult relationships.

The kids who grow up experiencing EI have the far worse end of the metaphorical stick. EI is a form of emotional abuse, and after growing up in that kind of relationship (with a parent or a sibling) you may experience:

· Trouble feeling like or being your own person

· Issues with being independent in general

· Difficulty making friendships of your own outside your family

· Problems with making healthy romantic attachments

· Feelings of loneliness, guilt, and shame

· Porous boundaries or extreme difficulty setting and reinforcing boundaries (which makes relationships really hard to manage, and can lead to emotional roller coaster rides for you)

· A higher tendency toward anxiety or depression

As you reflect on childhood experiences, you may find that at some points in time parents or a sibling has relied on you too much to meet needs, but it’s important to note that this is common in times of high stress for families. If you only experienced some of this occasionally, that may be a result of your family navigating a high stress time.

With this all laid out, you may feel like some of it sounds like experiences you’ve had or have, and you may realize that some present adult relationships you have struggle because of those earlier experiences. If that’s the case, the next question is, how do I fix it?

If you’re an adult recovering from or just identifying that you may have experienced EI (or are even still experiencing its effects in a parent or sibling relationship), there are some really powerful things you can do to begin to heal.

Gaining understanding and validation from a therapist as you detail and outline your family’s dynamics can be incredibly helpful. A therapist can help you gain additional insight and connect important dots. While blogs and books and articles are great helpers, they don’t know your specific and unique experiences, and a therapist will learn those things and be very helpful.

Acknowledging the unhealthy dynamic you’d like to shift is a great start. Try asking yourself, “Are there points I feel guilty in this relationship at present? Are there times I’m upset in this relationship and hide my feelings? Do I tolerate intrusions/comments/behavior in this relationship because I feel obligated to?”

Explore your boundaries! Then set some and learn healthy ways to do it! A therapist can help go in-depth with this, but there are some great resources out there. My personal favorite is Nedra Glover Tawwab’s Set Boundaries, Find Peace. (I’ll be spending some time on boundary setting and communication on the blog during this year as well, so stay tuned!)

Invest time in creating a great support system of friends outside your family. Depending on your present social and geographic situations, healthy friend and support relationships may seem a distant dream. Take a look around at resources in your community for meeting people. Look for support groups, even! Take that friendly coworker that always invites you to lunch up on their offer next time instead of opting for lunch at your desk. There are connections waiting that may surprise you.

Last, healing the parts of you that are or were hurt by EI is essential. Journal about your experiences. What did your inner child think and feel about those experiences? Close your eyes, go inside, and ask that younger version of you, “What do you need?” Journal on that.

*Remember! While I am a therapist, I’m not your therapist, and nothing here is meant to constitute advice of any kind. Always use your best judgment and seek out expert and personalized help.

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