Emotional Incest

The article that I'm posting could have been written by me. I'm stunned that it wasn't because it tells my story almost precisely. There are some differences: I was my mother's confident and personal counselor; it was she who used guilt and rage to control what I did, how I felt, and what I thought. My father was the alcoholic, but just like the young man's mother, he was pretty much wrapped up in his own life. However, we do have similar nicknames given to us: his was "Honeyboy" and my father called me, "Honey". He still does.

I have to say, I feel strange posting this. I'm not only violating my family's "don't talk about family business to anyone outside this house", but there's the larger version of the "don't talk" rule that envelops the African American community. This is sometimes referred to as "don't be putting your business out in the streets", or simply "don't be telling people your business." There's a lot of fear projected in both "don't talk" rules, at least it seems that way to me. Estrangement from family and my community is a frighteningly nightmarish and real possibility to me. But what has the "don't talk" rule done for me? I've named off some of the consequences in a previous blog, but let me reiterate a few more: Food addiction. Love addiction. Morbid obesity and related health problems. Near death. Self-mutilation. Loneliness. Depression so severe that I rarely moved from the couch except to eat or go to the bathroom. Extremely low self-esteem. Anxiety. Under achievement in my chosen profession. Inability to communicate effectively with the opposite sex.

At this point, I'm trying to save my own life. And if I am risking estrangement by openly revealing the sources of pain and grief in my life, I accept that consequence. It's not like I'm unfamiliar with loneliness, and estrangement is better than death. This has been my life, and as much as I love my parents, I have to recognize the reality of what has been guiding my thoughts and behavior. Until now.

I'm also posting an article written by a family therapist that explains the emotional incest syndrome. Here are the URLs for both articles, along with websites for support groups.






When I was 11, three years after I first became overweight, two things happened. My parents' marriage, which had always been tense and harsh, took a turn for the worse. It degenerated into the worst depths of verbal violence. Also my father began to lose his eyesight to diabetes. At about the same time, my maternal grandmother died, and my mother was devastated, retreating into a shell-shocked depression.

Afterward, my mother became an angry, hard-bitten, unfeeling woman. My father responded with rage and constant curses and verbal abuse in an effort to subdue her to his will. Both sides expected the children (I was 11, my brother 14) to take their side, and reacted with anger to any declaration even of neutrality. They fought on the slimmest of reasons and never made up or reconciled, yet made no move towards divorce or separation, or even counselling.

During this period, my father began to lean on me for emotional support. "Honeyboy" was his pet name for me. I effectively played the role of a spouse, emotionally though of course not sexually. I supplied him with his supply of cuddles and hugs. I was the one who listened, at painful length, to all his problems with my mother. If I attempted to remonstrate or mediate, however, anger would rise quickly at me.

This relationship was largely a one-way street. If I ever cried or showed any non-joyful emotion, my father would only get upset, saying if I depressed him further I would shorten his life. The basis for this line of thought was his diabetes, which is known to be worsened by stress. I soon learned to instinctively bury all feelings. If I wanted to cry, I held back tears until I could go somewhere where no one would see or hear me.

The idea of turning to someone else for comfort became alien, weakling and not for heroes. As for expressing anger, disappointment, or frustration, not a chance. Any anger I showed would be punished by an outpouring of fury from my father, and he would cruelly pile guilt on my head, accusing me of being ungrateful for all the sacrifices he made (continuing to work at an unsympathetic employer despite his worsening vision).

His verbal abuses against me were nothing compared to his almost maniacal verbal shotgun blasts against my mother, which started over the tiniest of real or imagined provocations. Any attempt by my brother and I to stop the yelling failed, or only turned it on us.

My mother was jealous of my relationship with my father. Any personality resemblance I showed to him she resented. She disliked, even despised, me for most of my adolescent years. My obesity, my intellectualism, my fashion tastes, my total fear of girls, and all the rest either disgusted or angered her.

She was not one to fly into long, protracted tirades like my father. On the other hand, she showed no sign of gentleness or empathy like he would. He always turned to me for hugs; she would resist or push me away if I tried to hug her. Often she would go for days without smiling or saying anything polite at home (though, oddly, I saw her cheerful and happy at her workplace).

She became a workaholic and for a two-month period when I was 14, an alcoholic. She once nearly injured my brother by throwing an object at him (missing, fortunately) during a drunken rage in which she had accused my father (falsely, as she later admitted) of having had an extramarital affair.

They could not communicate directly without fighting, so they used my brother and I as messengers. One parent would tell us to tell the other something. We would do so, and the comment would often enrage the other parent, who would deliver a furious tirade, not directed at us but we were the grieved audience. And so on. It was endless, relentless.

Worse was that they strictly forbade me from telling anyone about it. It was to be a family secret, and I was not to disgrace the family by revealing. I kept friends away from our house.

I was never permitted to say or mention what I felt. One morning when I was 16 as I was eating breakfast my mother started to complain about something my father had done. Normally I restrained from saying anything, but this one time I erupted in rage at being the listening post again, and swore at her. She burst into tears and called me a faithless traitor of a son. Remembering that I was not permitted to be angry, I went to apologize but she took a knife and threatened to stab me if I came to embrace her. I went to school with that image in mind. Eventually I got her to accept an apology but she never really forgave me. It took me six years to realize she should have been apologizing to me.

That year, I was awarded first place in a public speaking contest. My mother, on the way home, suggested we play a little practical joke on my father, telling him at first I hadn't won. When he found out (after only a few minutes) that I had, he congratulated me, then proceeded to yell at me for the next three hours, calling me a shameless, cruel, vindictive, selfish, and mean-spirited brute.

The only way I could survive was either to run away from home or to believe everything my parents said about me. I chose the latter. I hated myself and it showed at school, where I was by far the brightest student around, always the top of the class, but also the most socially isolated, walking the halls with a dour, unsmiling, unapproachable appearance. I had no friends, never went to dances or social events, and never dated. I had no life outside the family.

When I was 17, a similar morning incident occurred, but my restraint held until I left the house, when it collapsed and I fell on the sidewalk on the way to school, crying hysterically in broad daylight. I spent the day wandering the streets in a daze.

I think I would have given a million dollars if my mother had said "I love you", or hugged me, or given even the slightest sign of affection during those terrible teen years. She rarely said anything positive or nurturing about me; I was socially maladjusted, greedy, lazy, selfish, and undependable in her eyes. I was a bad son, just like my father.

I would have given a second million if my father had ever stopped using guilt as a weapon to make me do his will. If I didn't make him a cup of tea when he wanted it, I was reminded of his blindness and struggles to provide for the family, and my duty as a son.

When the time came to go to university, my marks were high enough to go anywhere I liked. My father said that if I left home, he would not die within six months without the emotional support I provided, as well as the physical needs I took care of. He needed me to protect him, he said, from his wife's "savagery". The one campus near our hometown was about average, but inferior to other schools that accepted me. My father refused to provide any financial support if I left home, and told me repeatedly our income was too high for me to receive government aid. I stayed at home.

My father, nearly blind, retired two years ago; a year later my mother finally moved out. She remained hostile to me until very early this year, when she took the drug Prozac, and improved somewhat. My brother and I continued to live with my father.

And there I am now. I have accepted a job in a major city about 130 km away, after graduation. My father did not oppose my taking the job, but he has long wanted to move to the big city. He will expect me to take him in. I can refuse, indeed I want to refuse, but a powerful blow of guilt and shame will be laid upon me, and I fear I will crumble under it as I did for so long.

Oasis, June 6, 1996.

Emotional Incest

By Robert Burney M.A.
"Consider a scenario where mother is crying in her bedroom and her three year old toddles into the room. To the child it looks as if mom is dying. The child is terrified and says, "I love you mommy!" Mom looks at her child. Her eyes fill with love, and her face breaks into a smile. She says, 'Oh honey, I love you so much. You are my wonderful little boy/girl. Come here and give mommy a hug. You make mommy feel so good.'

A touching scene? No. Emotional abuse! The child has just received the message that he/she has the power to save mommy's life. That the child has power over, and therefore responsibility for, mommy's feelings. This is emotional abuse, and sets up an emotionally incestuous relationship in which the child feels responsible for the parent's emotional needs.

A healthy parent would explain to the child that it is all right for mommy to cry, that it is healthy and good for people to cry when they feel sad or hurt. An emotionally healthy parent would "role model" for the child that it is okay to have the full range of emotions, all the feelings - sadness and hurt, anger and fear, Joy and happiness, etc."

One of the most pervasive, traumatic, and damaging dynamics that occurs in families in this dysfunctional, emotionally dishonest society is emotional incest. It is rampant in our society but there is still very little written or discussed about it.

Emotional incest occurs when a child feels responsible for a parents emotional well-being. This happens because the parents do not know how to have healthy boundaries. It can occur with one or both parents, same sex or opposite sex. It occurs because the parents are emotionally dishonest with themselves and cannot get their emotional needs met by their spouse or other adults. John Bradshaw refers to this dynamic as a parent making the child their "surrogate spouse."

This type of abuse can happen in a variety of ways. On one end of the spectrum the parent emotionally "dumps" on the child. This occurs when a parent talks about adult issues and feelings to a child as if they were a peer. Sometimes both parents will dump on a child in a way that puts the child in the middle of disagreements between the parents - with each complaining about the other.

On the other end of the spectrum is the family where no one talks about their feelings. In this case, though no one is talking about feelings, there are still emotional undercurrents present in the family which the child senses and feels some responsibility for - even if they haven't got a clue as to what the tension, anger, fear, or hurt are all about.

Emotional incest from either parent is devastating to the child's ability to be able to set boundaries and take care of getting their own needs met when they become an adult. This type of abuse, when inflicted by the opposite sex parent, can have a devastating effect on the adult/child's relationship with his/her own sexuality and gender, and their ability to have successful intimate relationships as an adult.

What often happens is that 'Daddy's little princess' or 'Mommy's big boy' becomes an adult who has good friends of the opposite sex that they can be emotionally intimate with but would never think of being sexually involved with (and feel dreadfully betrayed by, when those friends express sexual interest) and are sexually excited by members of the opposite sex whom they don't like and can't trust (they may feel they are desperately 'in love' with such a person but in reality don't really like their personality). This is an unconscious way of not betraying mommy or daddy by having sex with someone that they are emotionally intimate with and truly care about as a person.

Over the last ten years I have seen many different examples of how emotionally dishonest family dynamics impact children. Ranging from the twelve-year old girl who was much too big to be crawling into mom's lap but would do so every time mom started to cry because that interrupted her mother's emotional process and stopped her crying, to the nine-year old boy who looked me in the eye and said "How am I supposed to start talking about feelings when I haven't my whole life."

Then there is the little boy who by four-years old had been going to twelve-step meetings with his mother for two years. At a CoDA meeting one day he was sitting on a man's lap only six feet away from where his mother was sharing and crying. He didn't even bother to look up when his mother started crying. The man, who was more concerned than the little boy, said to him, "Your mommy's crying because she feels sad." The little boy looked up, glanced over at his mother and said, "Yea, she's getting better," and went back to playing. He knew that it was okay for mom to cry and that it was not his job to fix her. That little boy, at four years old, already had healthier boundaries than most adults - because his mother was in recovery working on getting healthier herself. The best thing that we can do for any of our loved ones is to focus on our own healing.

And one of the cornerstones of healing is to forgive ourselves for the wounds we suffered and for the wounds we inflicted. We were powerless to behave any differently because of our programing and training, because of our wounds. Just as our parents were powerless, and their parents before them, etc. etc.

One of the traps of Codependence Recovery is that as we gain awareness of our behavioral patterns and emotional dishonesty we judge and shame ourselves for what we are learning. That is the disease talking. That "critical parent" voice in our head is the disease talking to us. We need to stop buying into that negative, shaming energy and start Loving ourselves so that we can change our patterns and become emotionally honest.

There is hope. We are breaking the cycles of generations of emotional dishonesty and abuse. We now have the tools and knowledge we need to heal our wounds and change the human condition. We are Spiritual Beings having a human experience. We are perfect in our Spiritual essence. We are perfectly where we are supposed to be on our Spiritual path, and we will never be able to do human perfectly. We are Unconditionally Loved and we are going to get to go Home.

Sacred Spiral with tail pointing to right signifying 'going toward.'Emotional DefensesSacred Spiral with tail pointing to right signifying 'going toward.'
I wrote an updated version of this article in 2000 as part of an series of articles on inner child healing on the Suite 101 Directory Inner Child Healing - Part Six, Emotional Incest - and then published another article on Suite 101 in November of 2003 (and since have moved to this site): Emotional Incest = Sexuality Abuse
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