Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Emotional Incest & Identity, or How Divorce Can Undo An Adult Child Completely

The collection of posts I've written thus far are mostly concepts that I've already worked through, even if I still need those thoughts to be heard. They were  composed fairly rapidly. It's no coincidence then, that the therapist I saw a week ago (and again today) held up a new idea, and I haven't completed a post since. I'm digesting.

I have a good friend that I've known since we were 15, who always said when we were teenagers that I gave the best relationship advice of anybody she knew, even though I'd never been in a relationship. She said that to me again recently.

I'm realizing now, that idea that at the time I'd never been in a relationship, that's not entirely true. By the time I was 12, I felt strongly that I understood each of my parents better than they understood each other. Maybe I have a long way to go in working though this, or maybe it is just the facts; it sure feels like the truth. Both my parents used me as a confidant to the extent that an acquaintance of my mother's, not knowing that she was also using me in the same way, remarked that it looked like my dad made me "the other woman" in my parents' relationship.

And this is called Emotional Incest.

Rightly so, because now I'm seeing how much it has in common with Sexual Incest. I was being told all sorts of stuff I shouldn't have been told. And I was given opportunities to contribute insight in meaningful ways. My intelligence was complemented. I had such good perspective, wise beyond my years. I was really helping my parents' relationship. Kudos to me, because in the face of complete breeches of parent-child boundaries, I could be such a helper. I probably got more approval from my parents in and around those conversations than at any other time. In fact, I could count on receiving parental approval that way, even and maybe especially when I was being made aware of what a disappointment I was to my parents in most every other facet of my life.  

My ability to give my parents those insights, to be their shoulders to cry on, to be allowed to witness to their marriage in such an intimate way, to prop them up - my self concept really developed around those ideas. My emotional barometer rose and fell with the state of my parents' relationship. In discussions with my dad, I saw my mother as frigid and unsympathetic, while he was passionate and unfulfilled. Conversely when talking to my mom, she was the victim (though sometimes a martyr as well) and my dad was sick with narcissism and sex addiction. And all of that was true, I think. It's just that different parts of the truth "mattered" more than others depending on who I talked to; meanwhile, my sense of self was forming around all this.

One of the things I've read about children who are abused in this way is that we don't have a strong sense of self. And that's absolutely true about me. I've always been very impressionable. When there is discord in the lives of those around me, it's extremely difficult for me to stay level myself. And I have often felt that I can sort of change to fit in in lots of different environments. That's an asset when you're drawn to theatre. Maybe that's exactly why I''m drawn to theatre. Who knows.

Growing up, I surrounded myself with strong personalities because I wanted to be seen as one. And I think I fooled everyone, including myself.

Another attribute of children of emotional incest is that very often, they'll report that there wasn't any specific loss in their childhoods - they don't feel robbed of anything, their innocence for example, because they still process their parental burdens as some sort of honor, or as being so integral to their esteem or identity that they can't frame it as abuse. I sat in a therapist's office yesterday and said that myself: that I don't mourn my childhood because there was a lot of good, despite the difficulties in my parents' marriage.

I caught myself several hours later though; I know there was a loss.

And the loss was me.


If any of this sounds familiar to you, google Emotional Incest. There's quite a bit written on it. I am suddenly feeling like there is a path out of this vortex, in no small part because what felt like chaos in my life has a name and an order to it, when for most of my life I knew of neither. And if you have children, daughters particularly, you'll want to read this excellent blog post on the subject:

Princesses, Princes, Daughters and Dads: Against Emotional Incest


  1. Wow--what an awesome post. Thank you so much for this!! It's extremely valuable to me and I know to others.

  2. its like you took the thoughts from my head and wrote it in a blog post..