WTF Is Emotional Incest? Therapists Explain.
rē-evaluating boundaries with family.
We’ve all met the type of person who still needs to cut the (metaphorical) umbilical cord with a parent… But sometimes, this trait can be toxic, arising from an insidious form of childhood abuse called emotional incest. The dysfunctional parent-child dynamic is characterized by blurred boundaries and parentification, making it difficult to set boundaries with family and interfering in romantic relationships long into adulthood.
First, it is important to remember that mental health traits and behaviors exist on a spectrum. There are moments when we all express less than our ideal selves, acting in ways that do not reflect our core personalities. It is when these behaviors exist at a person’s baseline, consistently expressed and interfering in their relationships, that it could indicate traumatic conditioning requiring inner-work and personal growth.
Below, two licensed Clinical Social Workers provide a better understanding of the dark side of momma’s boys, daddy’s girls, and everything in between, pointing us in the direction of healing.
What is emotional incest?
“Emotional incest is when [the adult] relies heavily on a child to provide them with the emotional support that another adult would ideally be giving them,” Alyssa “Lia” Mancao, LCSW, AKA @alyssamariewellness, tells rē•spin. “This looks like a parent sharing inappropriate emotional content with their child and expecting [them] to be there for them psychologically, as an adult would.” At its core, the dynamic prioritizes the parent’s emotional needs over those of the child, who takes on the role of a confidante or caregiver to the adult.
Mancao notes that this behavior is often due to parental loneliness — perhaps due to a disconnect or tension with their partner — causing them to inappropriately seek attention from their child that should come from a peer or partner. It might look like a mother complaining to her son about the state of her marriage with his father or step-father, or causing him to feel responsible for the emotional needs of one of his siblings — even as adults. (“Your sister/brother needs you,” the parent might say, covertly encouraging them to “rescue” his/her/their sibling.) Over time, the child learns to equate his/her worth with these acts of helpfulness and selflessness at the expense of learning to identify or advocate for his/her own needs. In time, the survivor learns to conflate — or supersede — their own needs entirely with those of the parent at great detriment to their entangled identities.
The impact of emotional incest from childhood to adulthood.
Also known as parentification, enmeshment, and covert incest, the effects of this relational dynamic impact the child’s self-esteem over the long-term, impacting subsequent relationships to come. Mancao explains that as a child, hearing their parent’s adult problems causes them to feel responsible for their parent’s emotional health — something that is stressful and damaging to the developing psyche and priming them to believe that their needs are unimportant — because their developmental blueprint for relational dynamics has been shaped in this way. It is common for the survivor to enter into codependent relationships (within which their needs are sacrificed), and to feel inappropriate amounts of guilt when they are unable to be there for others.
“Symptoms demonstrated by adult survivors of emotional incest include frequent guilt, low self-esteem, overperforming in relationships, ‘rescuing’ their loved ones from emotional turmoil, difficulties setting boundaries, difficulty advocating for themselves, and difficulty identifying a sense of self outside of the relationship,” Mancao says. It is important for adult survivors of emotional incest to cultivate self-awareness, do inner-work to resolve lingering childhood trauma, and to rē-learn boundaries; otherwise, their developmental blueprint for emotional attachment will play out dysfunctionally in relationships as adults.
The Signs Within Romantic Relationships
“I do see emotional incest [from] childhood impact adult relationships,” Mancao says, adding that it is often the romantic partner’s concerns and observations that lead to the realization this form of abuse occurred — and often is still occurring. “Emotional incest doesn’t end in childhood,” she says. “They will continue to utilize their child for emotional support [into adulthood], ultimately impacting the adult child’s romantic relationship.” Not only are they more likely to put their partner’s needs ahead of their own, but they might continue to put their family members’ needs ahead of their own at the expense of their partner’s.
Experientially, you might find that your partner’s family of origin plays an overly intrusive role in your life due to their lack of boundaries and/or your partner’s inability to set them. “[A sign you are dating a male survivor of emotional incest] is basically dating a momma’s boy,” says Belinda Fello, LCSW. “It is when the guy (or girl) you’re dating has no boundaries with his/her mom or parents. One red flag is when you start feeling confused — like, are you competing with their parent [or family member] for love? Or are you competing for the [parent or family’s] love? Or both?! Ultimately, the parents have no boundaries and your partner does not enforce them because of the parent’s failure to do so during childhood.”
Fello explains that some common experiences might include your partner worrying about what his/her parents think, pressuring you to act a certain way in their presence. “It might be like your partner always putting his parent(s) first, basically forgetting about your needs, and expecting you to cater to them, too,” she continues. “You may start feeling last on the list and anxious when the parent comes around,” Fello notes that you might also find yourself worrying about earning the parent’s approval, or even feeling like you’re the third wheel when they are around. In extreme cases, you might chronically be left to spend holidays — even your birthday — alone so that your partner can take part in family events or plans year after year, with seemingly no understanding of including you and yours 50/50.
Because relational dynamics impact the entire family system’s status quo, It is also common for the family of origin to ardently resist the imposition of new boundaries. Your partner will likely struggle to set and enforce them, especially when they are in denial or lacking in self-awareness. “[In this case] it is common for them to become defensive and protective of their relationship with their parent, citing closeness and loyalty,” Mancao says. She recommends making observations (not suggestions), making plenty of “I” statements to take responsibility for your feelings, until your partner is able to admit there is a problem.
rē-member: Learned Behaviors Can Be Unlearned
There is hope for change as long as there is awareness and insight. “People are typically motivated to address issues when they observe the negative impact the dynamic is having on their life and relationships,” she says. “With insight, motivation, and the right therapeutic relationships and/or support system, an individual can develop the skills and boundaries to better relate to themselves and others.” The bulk of the work is unlearning the association between self-worth and self-sacrifice that has been ingrained since childhood. She recommends self-help books addressing codependency and enmeshment, individual therapy, couple’s therapy, and in some cases, family therapy.
Remember that diagnoses need not be used to pathologize a person or stick them into a fatalistic category. Think of a diagnosis more as an organizational tool to describe clusters of symptoms, aiding in the treatment and allowing clinicians to bill insurance. Thanks to discoveries in fields like neuroplasticity, we also know that the brain can continue to change across the entire life course; thus, even if a person exhibits these undesirable behaviors and underlying beliefs, they can absolutely work on them, grow, and evolve into healthier states of being