Content Warning: This article uses the term emotional incest, discusses childhood emotional abuse, and harmful parental relationships.
The first time my therapist mentioned the term emotional incest, I was taken aback. The term alone elicits a gut level reaction. She wrote down the book information for me to look up when I was ready.
I wasn’t ready for quite some time.
Even after I found the courage to start reading and researching, EI was hard for me to wrap my brain around. The term can feel too difficult, too intense, too raw, but I have found that it is the most accurate term for the kind of abuse I experienced.
The term EI is not meant to make light or devalue the experience of actual victims of incest. EI speaks to the invasive emotional abuse between a parent and a child that stunts their sense of identity and prevents them from receiving care. They are neglected or unprotected, often exposed to adult interactions and expectations way too young.
Dr. Patricia Love writes in her book, The Emotional Incest Syndrome, that EI is when parents turn to their children, not their partners or other adults, for emotional support. The parent may appear loving and devoted, but the love they provide is lacking nurturing. This kind of love is often an unconscious tactic to comfort their own needs that are not being met.
There are four major parental relationships formed under the umbrella of EI; the Romanizing parent, the Neglectful parent, the Sexualized parent and the Abusive/Critical parent. A Romanticizing parent turns to a child for the care and emotional intimacy they should be receiving from another adult in a loving relationship. The child is expected to be a substitute spouse or the best friend. A child of a Neglectful parent often becomes a “parentified child” who has to step up into an adult role, taking care of the parent, themselves and possibly siblings, performing duties and taking on responsibilities much too early. The Sexualizing parent walks a tightrope of emotional abuse and sexual incest. This type of EI is seen usually when a parent of the opposite sex, puts the child on a pedestal and becomes fixated on them in damaging ways. The child usually isn’t sexually abused, but the parent crosses boundaries that walk a fine line.
The Abusive/Critical parent vacillates between attention and abuse. They might expect you to be around all the time to care for them, but that care is never good enough for their hypercritical expectations. The child can never win. The Abusive/Critical parent can also be the other parent involved in the family who feels resentful of the relationship the child has with the other adult. One parent can be loving and lenient, while the other is abusive and critical.
When looking at the signs of enmeshment, children can primarily fall into one of these categories, or they might have experience with more than one type within their relationship with the parent. You might experience a mix of all of these categories.
Children involved in EI, despite what type listed above, struggle to provide this support, while learning to suppress their own needs. Dr. Patricia Love tells us, “This emotional invasion bears heavy consequences as these children grow into adults and can often experience depression, anxiety, issues with self-esteem and relationships, eating disorders, perfectionism, alcohol, drug addiction and sexual dysfunction.”
EI often features a “chosen child” where the parent and child are too close or enmeshed. Children don’t have the tools to handle that level of emotional invasion and responsibility. The parent has all the power and control. The child relies on the parent, and the need to feel connected is what makes this enmeshment so dangerous.
When a child becomes a surrogate spouse or best friend the lines of the relationship become blurry. The situation becomes even worse when the child cannot meet the emotional needs of the parent and the pendulum swings from attention to anger.
As in my case.
I experienced a combination of a Romanticizing and Abusive/Critical parent. You are treated special one minute and shamed the next. It teaches the child that their feelings and needs are not a priority and their main job is to appease the adult. Even worse, the child’s emotional needs are rarely acknowledged or met.
Parentification and codependency can be very similar, and overlap in many ways, but what stands out for me and makes EI different is the extreme emotional invasion of the abuse.
Children in parentified environments are usually broken into two categories, either a Golden Child or a Scapegoat. In EI relationships, the Golden child and Scapegoat are often one and the same. Children who experience parentication, often suffer from the same devastating consequences, but the term EI is more resonant to me for the form of abuse I experienced. This is a very personal distinction based on years of work with a therapist. I cannot tell someone else how to feel, and for some, the term parentification might be a better fit. However, no one else experienced my abuse and it is my right to find my own comfort within these psychological terms.
I have a complicated relationship with my mother, as most daughters do, but it isn’t what initially brought me to therapy. As I worked with my therapist on my issues, other deeper issues came to light. In most aspects, I had a wonderful childhood, but that is often the case when EI comes into play. As much as I appreciated the closeness I felt to her most of the time, the coin would flip without warning and I couldn’t say or do anything right.
It is incredibly disorienting for the child as they try to navigate the world of adult issues and feelings.
The child vacillates between feelings of being special and feeling of inadequacy, especially when the parent lashes out when their needs aren’t being met. The child often develops a need to be perfect in other areas of life to compensate for the guilt of letting down their parent at home.
I also was incredibly close to my father, but he was away over half the year, every year for business most of my childhood. My mother was very resentful of him being away and felt like a single parent most of the time, even though he was providing for us. His absence pushed her to rely on me for support and companionship. Yet, as a child, I could not fill that void.
When I finally started reading Dr. Patricia Love’s book on EI, I was surprised to find comfort in its pages. It described my childhood experiences with such accuracy, I felt like the author had observed the entire thing.
The information made me sad and angry, but it was also enlightening. It shed light on my inability to say no or have healthy boundaries with the people in my life. I felt a new awareness of my lack of trust, even in my closest friendships. It gave me insight into the deep guilt I felt around disappointing my mom and why I drove myself crazy trying to be the best at everything. It helped me to understand my ambivalence around confronting the negative things that had happened to me, because of denial and drive to keep my family dynamic intact.
Paul Dunion discusses the importance of healing the quiet wound by talking about what happened and the implications of having to grow up too fast.
My healing began with the book and the ability to dissect the subject with my therapist. She helped me allow feelings to resurface and experience them without judgement or fear. I felt disillusioned, depressed and infuriated. I also felt seen and had a new profound understanding of why I had struggled with certain issues since childhood. Dr. Patricia Love writes about the hidden messages a chosen child receives, “You never cause trouble, but don’t rock the boat. You’re such an easy-going child, make sure you don’t feel anger, sorrow or pain. You are so special, just be what I want you to be.”
These hidden messages permeated my life and fueled the roller coaster of my self-esteem. My value was so wrapped up in making my mom (and others) happy and being perfect. I tried to keep all my feelings hidden, but I was like a volcano. I would stuff all of it down, until a tiny spark would lead to an explosion.
I would be seen as a confidant while my father was away, a best friend and a perfect child. I tried hard to navigate her changing moods and anticipate her needs. But I would jump through all her hoops and still make mistakes somehow. I could never do it right. I never knew when I would be praised or torn down. She would be so angry and tell me terrible things in her outrage. I can’t even write them down, after all these years.
She would criticize me for wearing sweatshirts all the time and complain that no boys would ever like a girl like me. Then when I would dress more feminine and try to go out with friends, I was called a whore and told I was a disgrace to our family.
I am fiercely independent, strong-willed and vocal of my opinions. If I feel wronged, I will fight back. She would push and invade and I would try to stop it, but there was no escaping her enmeshment. She would use her deep knowledge of my emotional landscape to build me up and tear me down. There were no locked doors or physical boundaries respected. If I walked away, I would be followed and literally and figuratively pushed against a corner until I relented. I was knocked down often. The back and forth of love and abuse was dizzying sometimes.
I would listen to the criticism and verbal and emotional abuse for so long, then snap, taking the bait and fighting back. It could go on for hours or days. As I got older, I learned to apologize for my invisible wrongs so the fight would end. But in all honesty, the fight never really ended. It could be brought up again at any time.
Unraveling all the layers of EI helped me understand why I avoided romantic relationships and intimacy for so long.
It also explained why I chose partners who were emotionally unavailable. It explained my rabid perfectionism and need to be in good graces with all authority figures. I finally understood why my value was tied to my accomplishments and being seen as good.
At first, I didn’t know how to hold the good parts of my childhood in one hand and the pain of enmeshment in the other. I wasn’t sure I could ever heal. It took years of hard work, but learning how to establish and negotiate healthy boundaries has made all the difference. I also had to learn how to let go of my attachment to being special and perfect.
I had to learn it was okay to feel my feelings. Expressing my needs and having them met are important parts of trusting, healthy relationships.
I received a lot of pushback when I insisted on boundaries of any kind. I was accused of being secretive. I was shamed about being selfish and cruel. I was told I was a terrible daughter and didn’t love her anymore. Why was I so different? It hurt and made me feel alone and afraid. However, I wasn’t alone. I had a therapist who could be an impartial ally and friends who worked with me on having reciprocal mutually satisfying relationships. Making peace with my parents and being realistic about their loving qualities, while accepting their negative traits helps me to heal as well. Being consistent in my boundaries and renegotiating them as needed were the next crucial steps to my recovery. Realizing I am no longer powerless in the situation also makes a big difference. I am not a child anymore who needs this relationship to survive. I can also choose to end the relationship, if I ever feel I need to. There is power in that.
I want to be a mom someday, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about becoming a parent. Will I do this to one of my children? I don’t intend to, obviously, but to keep it in check I plan to continue to work with a therapist. I won’t be a perfect parent either, despite my good intentions, but I can be conscious of my short-comings and work hard to rely on the healthy adults in my life to meet my emotional needs. I can continue to reconcile my past and work to maintain and improve my current relationships.
Dr. Patricia Love reminds us, “You can’t undo how your parents related to you in the past, but you can change the way you relate to them now.”
After insisting on boundaries and changing how accessible I am to my mother and family, there have been some positive changes. It is never perfect and I am still accused of being different and secretive from time to time. I try to be honest and ask my mother to grow and change with me. Sometimes she agrees and sometimes she doesn’t. However, we she doesn’t, I know how to protect myself and provide the radical self care required to continue my healing from EI. The changes in our relationship are subtle, but over time those changes add up to a healthier dynamic. Hopefully, we can continue to build a healthier relationship, but if we can’t I will survive that too.[Feature Image: Black and white image of person with medium length hair bending over and holding their hands to their face. Pexels.com]