Emotional incest, also known as covert incest or enmeshment, is a concept used to describe a type of unhealthy emotional relationship that can occur within families, particularly between a parent and child. It involves an inappropriate blurring of boundaries where a parent, typically the opposite-sex parent, relies on their child for emotional support and companionship that should be provided by another adult.

In emotional incest, the parent may treat the child as a surrogate partner, confidant, or emotional outlet, sharing intimate details about their own life, feelings, and problems that are not age-appropriate or healthy for the child to handle. The child may be expected to meet the emotional needs of the parent, such as providing comfort, validation, or reassurance, which can burden the child with responsibilities that exceed their developmental capabilities.

This dynamic can be detrimental to the child’s emotional well-being and can interfere with their ability to establish healthy boundaries, develop a sense of self, and form appropriate relationships outside the family. The child may experience confusion, guilt, anxiety, and a distorted understanding of relationships and intimacy.

Exploring the psychological implications of Emotional Incest.

Emotional incest can be a deeply harmful behaviour in which a parent enmeshes their child in a constricting hold, treating them as a replacement for a romantic partner or spouse. The individual in question appears to be projecting their emotional needs onto a child, blurring the boundaries between adult and child roles. This behaviour may stem from unresolved emotional issues and a lack of appropriate coping mechanisms. The child’s excessive responsibility could be a result of different factors, including the absence of a significant other, emotional underdevelopment, or the lingering effects of previous traumatic experiences.

The utilisation of the term “incest” serves to accentuate the parent’s infringement upon emotional boundaries, evoking a disconcerting resemblance to the boundary violations inherent in sexual incest. It’s important to note that emotional incest does not involve overt sexual abuse, but it can still cause significant emotional harm and disrupt healthy family dynamics. Therapy or counseling can be beneficial for individuals who have experienced emotional incest, helping them to establish healthy boundaries, process their emotions, and develop healthy relationships.

Research on emotional incest is relatively limited compared to other areas of interpersonal relationships and family dynamics. Due to its complex and often covert nature, studying emotional incest presents challenges in terms of identifying and measuring its effects. However, researchers have made some progress in exploring this phenomenon and its impact on individuals.

  1. Identification and Definition: Research has focused on refining the definition and conceptualization of emotional incest. Early studies by Kenneth Adams, a psychologist who coined the term “covert incest,” helped raise awareness about the issue. Researchers have since worked to distinguish emotional incest from healthy parent-child relationships and identify its specific characteristics and consequences.
  2. Psychological and Emotional Impact: Studies have examined the psychological and emotional impact of emotional incest on individuals. Research suggests that those who experience emotional incest may develop difficulties in establishing healthy boundaries, forming intimate relationships, and developing a strong sense of self. They may also experience anxiety, depression, guilt, and relationship challenges in adulthood.
  3. Interpersonal Relationships: Research has explored the influence of emotional incest on individuals’ subsequent relationships. Studies have shown that those who have experienced emotional incest may struggle with trust, intimacy, and emotional vulnerability. They may have difficulty differentiating between appropriate and inappropriate emotional boundaries, leading to challenges in forming healthy relationships with peers, romantic partners, or their own children.
  4. Gender Differences: Some research has explored gender differences in the experience and impact of emotional incest. While emotional incest can occur between parents and children of any gender combination, studies have suggested that it may be more prevalent between opposite-sex parents and their children. Additionally, societal gender norms and expectations can influence the dynamics and consequences of emotional incest differently for males and females.
  5. Therapeutic Interventions: Researchers have also investigated therapeutic interventions to help individuals who have experienced emotional incest. Psychotherapy, particularly trauma-focused therapy and approaches focusing on boundary setting and healthy relationships, has shown promise in helping individuals heal from the effects of emotional incest and develop healthier patterns of relating to others.

It’s worth noting that due to the sensitive nature of emotional incest and the ethical challenges of studying it, research in this area is still evolving. More studies are needed to deepen our understanding of emotional incest, its long-term consequences, and effective interventions to support those affected by it.

The emotional scars inflicted by incestuous relationships.

The effects of emotional incest can deeply impact a child’s emotional and psychological state. The consequences can be quite distressing. The child’s psyche may be entangled in a complex emotional state of confusion and guilt, as they feel responsible for their parent’s emotional state. This can lead to a sense of overwhelming responsibility and a deep sense of shame when they are unable to fulfil these expectations.
The individual may be experiencing difficulties with establishing and maintaining boundaries in their interpersonal connections, potentially due to a lack of exposure to the importance of boundary-setting during their developmental stages.

The child may experience internal turmoil as they struggle to identify and communicate their emotions, due to their conditioning to prioritise their parent’s emotional state over their own. The child’s development of self-identity and independence may be hindered due to their identity being intertwined with the parent’s needs and desires. Let’s consider a real case.

Jane’s upbringing as an only child with a single mother, Sarah, has likely had a significant impact on her psychological development. Jane’s childhood was marked by emotional incest, as her mother, Sarah, relied on her for emotional comfort and companionship due to the lack of a spouse or partner. Jane’s early experience of parental abandonment may have influenced Sarah’s subsequent avoidance of intimate connections. Sarah sought solace in Jane’s companionship to cope with the emotional emptiness caused by her partner’s absence. Sarah revealed to Jane her adult issues, which encompassed financial difficulties, a sense of isolation, and a challenging dynamic with her parents. Jane’s mother relied on her heavily for emotional support and comfort, causing Jane to take on the role of a surrogate spouse. Jane’s maturation led her to acknowledge the maladaptive pattern she shared with her mother. Jane’s interpersonal difficulties stem from her tendency to seek validation from others and her underlying fear of being left alone. Jane struggled with her sense of self-worth, frequently experiencing feelings of inadequacy and undeservingness when it came to receiving love and affection.

The effects of emotional incest can be profound and far-reaching, inflicting enduring psychological harm upon a child and constituting a type of abuse. Similar to other types of mistreatment, it has the potential to create a pathway for:

  1. The psychological well-being of individuals who have experienced emotional incest during childhood may be compromised, leading to the manifestation of mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  2. Individuals who have experienced emotional incest may encounter difficulties in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships in adulthood. They may find themselves repeating the same harmful patterns that they were subjected to during their childhood.
  3. Individuals who have experienced emotional incest may resort to substance abuse as a coping mechanism to alleviate their emotional distress.
  4. The aftermath of emotional incest can lead to a heightened vulnerability to further victimisation. This is because survivors may struggle with establishing healthy boundaries and advocating for their own needs in their adult relationships.

The intricate interplay between Emotional Incest and Codependency: A Psychological Perspective.

The child’s emotional needs become intertwined with the parent’s, leading to a complex interplay of emotional incest and codependency. This can result in the child adopting codependent behaviours as a means of fulfilling the parent’s emotional needs. The observed actions and conduct encapsulate:

The child’s desire for approval may become all-consuming, as they have learned to rely on meeting their parent’s emotional needs in order to receive validation and affirmation from others. The child’s psyche may harbour a profound apprehension of abandonment, leading to the manifestation of possessive and domineering tendencies in their interpersonal connections. The individual’s struggle with intimacy may stem from a lack of exposure to healthy emotional boundaries and a tendency to prioritise the needs of others before their own. This can make it difficult for them to form and sustain meaningful relationships. The child’s self-esteem appears to be quite low, likely due to internalising the belief that their worth is closely linked to their capacity to offer emotional assistance to their parent.

The insidious nature of emotional incest can have profound and enduring consequences on a child’s emotional and psychological state. Through a deep exploration of the intricate interplay between emotional incest and codependency, we can enhance our ability to recognise and confront the profound effects of this form of mistreatment on the psyche, and work towards cultivating more wholesome connections.

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