Sanctuary for the Abused

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Covert Incest

When Parents Make Their Children Partners

Covert incest occurs when a child plays the role of a surrogate husband or wife to a lonely, needy parent. The parent's need for companionship is met through the child. The child is bound to the parent by excessive feelings of responsibility for the welfare of the parent. As adults, these children struggle with commitment, intimacy and expressions of healthy sexuality.

There is no physical, sexual contact in this form of incest. Yet, inherent in the relationship is an archetype of feelings and dynamics more comparable to young love than a nurturing parent-child alliance. They become psychological or emotional lovers.

Many books and movies depict these children as heroes and saviors. Surrogate partnerships are romanticized by the culture and seen as a noble journey. Mom's little man, daddy's little girl, the golden boy and princess are a few of the names given to this role. However, there is a tremendous tragedy that befalls these children: the demand for loyalty to the lonely and needy parent overwhelms the child and becomes the major organizing experience in the development of the child's life.

It has also been labeled emotional or psychological incest, but these labels mislead by implying an absence of sexual damage. In fact, the developing sexuality is the major casualty of covert incest. Sexuality is the battlefield where the demand for loyalty to the parent and, the wishes of the developing self, clash.

Feelings of entrapment and guilt weave themselves into the developing sexuality. Erotic urges toward a love object other than the parent are experienced as disloyal. Forced to declare loyalty to the needy parent, the developing sexuality is shrouded in feelings of overstimulation, danger, engulfment, rage, ambivalence and shame. In order to survive and function, the child splits-off their sexuality from the developing self.

Many problems arise from the feeling of disloyalty caused by covert incest. Common consequences include:

* difficulty with attaching and separating in relationships
* avoiding relationships
* difficulty making commitments
* premature ending of relationships
* sexual addiction or compulsivity
* sexual dysfunction
* confusion regarding sexual orientation
* absence of sexual feelings or desires
* difficulty identifying personal needs
* being loyal in situations or relationships which are chronically difficult, neglectful or traumatic
* difficulty ending relationships.

Sexually addicted families and other dysfunctional families create a vacuum in functioning that leaves a child vulnerable to being in the role of a surrogate spouse to a lonely, needy parent. Covert incest is an important link in understanding the generational patterns of sexual addiction and incest occurring in families.

For more information on covert incest, refer to the book Silently Seduced: When Parents Make their Children Partners, Understanding Covert Incest, by Kenneth M. Adams, Ph.D., Health Commuications, Deerfield Beach, FL (1991).


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shared by Barbara at 12:50 AM



I'm just starting to research and understand this phenomena, and your post was very helpful - thank you. I also love the image of Rhoda and Christine Penmark from "The Bad Seed" at the top!

9:21 PM  

I'm in the beginning stages of a divorce in which my wife & her mother are guilty of: covertly emotional, psychological & sexual abuse. They have text & email evidence they're successfully using against me to make me look unstable. I have temporary supervised visitation with my 8 yr old son who desperately needs me & the judge after only the preliminary hearing seems to already be siding with them! I'm no angel & I made some mistakes during our marriage but nothing close to what my wife & mother-in-law have done to totally emasculate, cause severe self loathing, no self esteem at all in the boys they abused & a host of other things & I don't know how to prove this or approach this in court. Can anyone help me out? These power mad people must be brought to justice, but how do I prove it to a judge? Any help is greatly appreciated. Eric

8:23 PM  

Google "parental alienation" and read everything - take it all to your lawyer, they need to step up for you and handle bringing this forward in court.

And be SURE to keep a log, diary and copies of any emails, texts, calls, etc with date/time and all the details. This will be vital in court.

12:28 AM  

Thank you for your site and the valuable work you do to open the doors to awareness. My life is committed to doing all I can do to be a voice for other incest victims and survivors. I lived with my sociopathic stepfather who raped me at a young age producing my child. The fear, desperation, lonliness, and shame that I felt was unimaginable. The horrifying pain in learning that my mother not only knew but even had a role in my abuse was unbearable. Today, I am a public speaker sharing my story to give other victims and survivors a voice and hope. My memoir, Thirty Years of Silence tells my story from a survivor's perspective, a look into the world of a victim and is available in ebook format-Kindle and Nook.
Many blessings to you,
Elise McGhee

5:15 PM  

Can anyone who has experienced emotional abuse/covert incest advise me ? My daughter of nearly 15 is in this sort of relationship with her father, social services are involved due to my daughters internet use, she no longer accesses these websites and is considered to be at risk of sexual exploitation. The relationship has been extremely and continues to be very difficult for her, the school have been very supportive and she is seeing a therapist. I have known the relatioship has been detremental for her for a long time, she has not seen her father for periods of time and she comes alive, it is like he drains the life force from her. At times she has realisations, but the nature of the relationship is so familiar to her. Should I try to stop my daughter having contact with her father? or does she need to work things through in her own time, it is very difficult to witness the affects of this abusive relationship. I have not handled things well , i didn't really know what was occuring , but i now understand better the dynamics, how can i support my daughter in her independence? Her father has still not reached this with his own parents, i am at a loss as to what to do. Any advice much appreciated, thankyou, mandy

9:37 PM  

As an adult survivor of emotinal incest, I wish my Mom had done more to protect me. It's hard to say how that would have occurred. I was determined on spending as much time with my Dad as possible. If she were to have taken that away, I would have resented her even more than I already did at the time. It's the ultimate Catch 22, and now that I'm a Mom, it seems so cruel that I would place blame on her; she obviously did a great thing by divorcing him. I suppose the thing your daughter needs the most help with is creating healthy boundaries. Believe me, one day she will see her Father for who he truly is, and in those moments she'll remember that her Mom did the best she could to protect her. It's hard to say what that looks like; wether it's inspecting his living conditions, or supervised visits, perhaps with other relatives present that know of your concern, maybe just day visits and not overnights. My Mom and Dad did not communicate with each other, but if you do, maybe you can talk it over with him? I am so sorry for what you are going through. You are very courageous to listen to your gut and voice your concern. I hope things improve.

11:17 PM  

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