There is a term that I encountered in therapy recently, and it isn’t a term that some folks care much for. Even though your mind may immediately go to a very dark place at the sight of one of the words, there is so much truth to it that I honestly can’t think of a more fitting word to use in this situation. What I am speaking of is called emotional incest. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but when my therapist introduced me to the notion, I nearly fell over with the clarity that it forced upon me.
Emotional incest typically occurs when a parent looks to a child for emotional support that they may not otherwise be getting, either because they have an emotionally unavailable partner or they might be single. The child is treated as though they are in an adult relationship, not a physical one, but they are asked to handle adult emotions and conversations, which often puts them in a position of responsibility for their parent’s feelings and/or behavior. What I’ve learned is that this can seriously impact a child’s development and the effects can stick with us through adulthood. It shows up in our relationships and how we view ourselves, not to mention a slew of other ways.
I went into therapy almost exactly one-year ago ready to start working through the impact on my life from my father’s addictions and death, my grandfather’s sexual abuse, and my ex-husband’s emotional abuse. What I didn’t expect was to uncover the depth of the wounds that I was suffering as a result of my mother’s behavior. Let me preface this by saying that none of this makes her a bad person, no one is bad in this situation, she had no idea that what she was doing was inappropriate and damaging. But, it was. You see, mom put a lot on my shoulders growing up – a lot that she should have turned to another adult for, but instead, she turned me into her support system.
Mom would often tell me she couldn’t make it without me because I picked her up when she was feeling down and emotional, which was frequent. Because of this, I often felt I had no choice but to fix things for her, and she positioned me to believe that I was the only one who could do it. When she was sad and lonely because of my father’s mistreatment, it was me she leaned on. Eventually, the emotional support became even more demanding. There were countless moves throughout my childhood as a result of my dad’s inability to find contentment in any job or city. It wasn’t long before it all started to be too much for mom and she would just fall apart, seemingly unable to function. So, I took on the task of making everything better by packing up the house (I was a pro, at this point), calling the movers and reassuring her that she would be fine. Sometimes I would be pushed to the point of needing to shout my motivational mantras just to get her moving. These specific instances started around age 11 and continued for a number of years. That’s right – an 11-year old child handling household moves across country all while providing emotional support to one parent and dodging another who was drunk, high and volatile.
Then came the over sharing. My mother chose to share details of dad’s sexual behaviors and some of her suspicions and worries with me. I can’t even pinpoint when this started to happen exactly, because it’s been with me for as long as I can remember, but my most vivid recollections happened between the ages of 9-12. This is when mom told me about dad’s bag of dirty magazines and his fondness for writing vile things on the pictures. I apologize if I am doing a bit of over sharing here myself, because this one is disgusting, but she also explained to me why there were always crumpled up tissues left in places around the house, particularly in the spare bedrooms that dad always turned into his home office. The details were horrific to me at the time, and they aren’t much less so now. There was also the time when she told me that she suspected he might be homosexual because on the few occasions when he wanted to actually have sex with her he only wanted to “do it from behind.” I was so young that it only confused me, I didn’t even fully understand what sex was, let alone any particular form of it.
As bad as all of that was, I’ll never forget the day when mom took me to buy my first training bra. My excitement over this new stage in my life quickly turned to fear and embarrassment as mom sat me down to give a warning about my father. She went on to explain that he wrote about cheerleaders in his dirty magazines, so she thought he must have a thing for young girls. She gave cautious instruction that he might try something with me now that I was starting to develop. Mom specifically told me to be careful around dad now. This was her way of protecting me – put the responsibility on the 12-year old child to be on the lookout for dad who now might be a molester. Even as I write this, my anger is strong.
While I’ve always felt like mom did too much sharing with me, it wasn’t until I learned of emotional incest that I was able to fully recognize that this was an actual thing. There was a name for what happened to me with her, there is something that identifies my experiences and it made me start to really look at them more closely. I’m still working through how much this impacts me, it’s a struggle to accept sometimes, but it has opened my eyes to so much. It explains why I’ve felt so uncomfortable around her for so many years, but also why I have this overwhelming need to make sure she is taken care of. I still feel the sense of responsibility for her emotions and well-being to this day. I still feel like I am the only one that she has to turn to.
Before this discovery, I didn’t have a clue that mom’s actions had also been a major factor in my anxiety, perfectionism, boundary issues, overwhelming self-doubt…where do I stop? Despite how fresh all of this is, just being able to give it a name has been a tremendous step forward. The work from here won’t be easy, but I do feel like I’ve finally had a massive break through, and that has been a long time coming.
I have so much more to say on this subject, and I’m sure that it will come up from time to time, but there is a great article that dives into this material over at Huffington Post called The Quiet Wound. I recommend taking a look if this subject is of any interest to you as it touches on the ways this situation is not only impactful, but also on the work that can be done to help heal.