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Inspiring Success on the Road to Recovery

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Covert Emotional Incest: The Hidden Sexual Abuse

By Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, LISAC, BCETS, CP

"Your dad doesn’t understand me the way you do.” “You’re such a good listener.” “I can’t talk to your mother like this.” “I always feel so much better when I talk to you."


  • Have you ever been hugged too tight or the hug was held too long?
  • Did you grow up feeling responsible to meet your parent(s) needs?
  • Have you ever felt you had to choose between your parent, your spouse or significant other?


If you said yes to any of the above, you may be a victim of Covert Emotional Incest.

What is Covert Emotional Incest (CEI)?

Covert Emotional Incest (CEI) is an elusive, emotional form of sexual abuse that occurs in the family system without there necessarily being direct genital contact. It is incestuous due to the undercurrent of sexual energy between a parent/caregiver and a child. It is characterized by the following: (1) triangulation (2) breach of the intergenerational boundary; (3) surrogate, substitute spouse or confidant role; (4) objectification. *

What do these concepts mean in plain English?

First, it is important to understand that the family operates as a system. This means each person in the family plays an interactive role and all impact one another. A metaphor often used to represent a family system is that of a child’s mobile hanging overhead. When the child reaches up and pulls on one of the parts, it causes the mobile to go out of balance. Stress in a family is like a child pulling on one of the pieces of the mobile; it too creates an imbalance. What we know about systems is that they strive for homeostasis, another word for balance. Marital problems, addiction, serious medical/mental health issues, and being a single parent, are just a few examples of these stressors. Without asking for outside help, the family relies on itself and adapts but its balance is precarious.

Healthy families have what is called an intergenerational boundary in place. This boundary is a flexible, invisible structure or energy field that defines the power differential between the parent/caregiver and child. This structure dictates the natural consequences of behaviors and deter-mines the appropriate interaction with the child on both spoken and unspoken levels. In essence, this means the parent is responsible to meet the child’s needs, not vice versa. The child has a voice in the family, yet does not have the final say regarding decisions that affect the family.

If the intergenerational boundary is rigid, the child has no say in the workings of the family.

If it is diffused or absent, it is often the case the child ends up meeting the parent’s needs as well as making adult decisions. In addition, the child can end up emotionally hijacking the household.

Part of constructing the intergenerational boundary is having parents or caregivers participate as a ‘unified executive committee’ to maintain the framework that ensures the child’s safety and wellbeing. One example is the child not being able to play one parent against the other. When there is only one parent, she/he ideally enlists assistance and support from external sources (peers and professionals) in order to sustain and enforce this boundary.

Triangulation

One adaptation to the imbalance in a family system is a dynamic called triangulation. This is a set up for CEI. Triangulation happens when major caregivers, not possessing the skills necessary to deal directly with each other, use their child as an intermediary and/or confidant. In CEI, this manifests as the child meeting the parent or caregiver’s individual emotional and/or romantic needs, namely, the surrogate spouse role. This role is a sexual role, communicating sexual energy whether there is physical sex happening or not.

It sexualizes the child, creating distorted beliefs and painful behavior in regards to sex and relationships. The system has therefore employed triangulation to ‘balance’ and function, incorporating destructive and abusive behavior patterns. The child often feels “special” and “privileged”, getting lots of attention and being trusted to keep secrets for the parent.

Objectification

Objectification is another component of CEI. The child is used, not having their feelings or needs considered. Using a person as an instrument for one’s own sexual pleasure (sexual objectification), may occur as well. Again, this may happen in a hug that is too tight or held for too long, bathing with or washing a child with mal intent and/or past the age of appropriateness, comments about the child’s body, voyeuring, watching pornography with the child, and so on.

A Few Client examples

Johnny is an eight-year-old boy who’s father just passed away. His mother calls him “my little man” and starts relying on him to soothe and comfort her. She encourages him to sleep in bed with her because she is lonely. Many adults attending the funeral approach Johnny, giving their condolences telling him, “You are the man of the house now, take care of your mother and your sisters.” Johnny was proud, yet overwhelmed and confused. As a 38 year-old married man, his wife keeps accusing him of “having an affair” with his mother. He finds himself torn between two women.

Who is he really married to? At eight, was he a man? Did he have what it takes to take care of his mother and siblings? What does “take care of mother” mean anyway? Johnny’s childhood was stolen from him. He was a husband long before he was an adult.

Ann is a seasoned professional who describes, “watching myself from the ceiling” while making love with her partner. She longs to be in her body so she can experience the sensations and feelings of connection with her beloved. Ann grew up in a family where her father made peep holes in every room of their house so he could watch his wife and daughters — whenever he wanted to. “But I wasn’t sexually abused by my father. He molested my two sisters, but he never touched me.”

As I was defining and explaining CEI, Ann began to cry, exclaiming, “Oh my goodness! This makes sense! I am not crazy! Being a victim of Covert Emotional Incest is enough for me to have this sexual problem!”

Elana, a 41 year-old woman with 10 years of sobriety and abstinence in 12-Step programs, tells the story of how she was covertly emotionally incested by both of her parents. Since she was a teenager, she felt like she was having an affair with her father. “When Dad and I were out by ourselves, people would come up to us and ask if I was his wife. We laughed. We thought that was cute and funny.”

Upon the return home, Elana experienced the jealousy of her mother. Mother was angry with her, and short and curt with her father. Elana also relayed her mother’s keen focus on her body, consistently commenting on her weight by telling her she would only get a boyfriend if she were thin; that her body was her way to lure a man. Elana received the message that in order for her to have power, worth and be loved, she needed to be sexually attractive to a man. And, of course, in order to do that, she needed to be, what her mother defined as thin. It was not a surprise that Elana had developed anorexia and bulimia and used substances to medicate painful feelings.

Core Symptoms

Those who are victims of CEI often have great difficulty in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. They are often stuck in the caretaker, fixer, and mediator roles, which do not allow for meaningful intimacy (in-to-me-see) nor a productive sense of self.

Beliefs such as “Who I am and what I do is never enough”, and “I do not have the right to have needs,” combine with the codependent roles above, dictating interaction with others. Faulty boundaries, such as the struggle to say “no” and experiencing extreme guilt when saying “no”, create opportunity for violation and abuse. Sexual difficulties are common, often leading to compulsivity or shut down and denial of desire. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress symptoms develop, interfering in the ability to have self-esteem and practice good self care.

The abuse of alcohol and other drugs medicate painful feelings as well as foster a false sense of belonging and self-worth. If the only power you believe you have is in determining what goes in and out of your body, doesn’t it make sense that restricting, overeating and the binge-purge cycle take place? Being underweight or overweight are frequently attempts at protection from sexual attention/advances. Disorderd eating may also be means of expressing rage toward caregivers for feeling trapped in the CEI dynamic. Spiritual struggles abound, with emptiness and disconnection, as well as anger and conflict with or about God/Higher Power.


Key Elements of Healing

The most important element of healing is the awareness of Covert Emotional Incest and validation that it is real and hurtful. This includes being cognizant of negative consequences and the fact that it was not your fault. It is parallel to the first step of 12-Step programs; You have to have a name for what you are dealing with (e.g. alcoholism), know it is a legitimate concern (it is a disease), accept your powerlessness over it and the unmanageability it causes in your life (it is not your fault and you have had negative consequences because of it).

Asking for professional help is the next step. You cannot heal from CEI, or addiction for that matter, by yourself. You already know this. Help is out there and there is no shame in asking for it. Asking is actually a strength. Your best bet is the combination of professional and peer support. This is akin to the second and third steps of the program. “I can’t, HP can, I think I’ll let HP.”

The B Word — Boundaries 

Developing healthy boundaries is another key element of healing. What is a boundary? How do you set one? A boundary is a border or limit that is permeable and flexible. You, yourself, are responsible for setting and enforcing a boundary. This includes monitoring you own motives. The motive for a boundary MUST be self-care. Otherwise, it may be an attempt to threaten, control, get revenge, or manipulate the other person. It will thereby disrupt the relationship and cause more problems and pain. A healthy boundary says, “I choose me” versus allowing others to determine who you are and what you need. When beginning to set boundaries, you are at risk to be seen as the ‘bad guy’. Tolerating this role is a must. Get support. Guilt may arise when you set a boundary. Guilt is a withdrawal symptom from the surrogate-spouse, mediator, caretaker, and other codependent roles.

The formula for setting a boundary is as follows:

Tell the person how their behavior impacts you: “When you say/do this (specific thing in this specific way), I feel (emotions).” E.g., “When you complain to me about Dad, I feel angry and sad.”
“If you continue to do/say (specific behavior), I will (take an action), to take care of myself.” E.g., “If you continue to complain to me about Dad, I will hang up the phone and call you back within twenty-four hours.”

NOTE: A feeling is NOT, “I feel like ...” or “I feel that...” 
These are thoughts, not feelings. With a feeling, you say, “I feel angry, sad, hurt, etc.” 
For the best results, make your boundary SMART (Crapuchettes, 2005)
Specific: “I am going to take a time-out and hang up the phone.” 
Measurable: “I am going to hang up the phone for and get back to you within twenty-four hours. 
Attainable: The action is possible and you are willing to follow it through. 
Realistic: Can you do this exactly as you say? 
Timely: The response is as close to the even as possible.

Cultivating your spiritual life relieves you of a core emptiness caused by being objectified and identified with the surrogate spouse role. It allows you to fully experience yourself, as well as be in meaningful relationships with others.

I define forgiveness as “a process of letting go and understanding that is a gift to one’s self,” is the last key element to discuss here. It is necessary to dispel the myths about forgiveness. Forgiveness is NOT a one time event, condoning, forgetting, letting the perpetrator “off the hook”, absolving him/her of sin, nor superficially saying, “I forgive you”, without the emotional work indicated.

Forgiveness IS allowing yourself to feel feelings, acknowledge losses, make the decision to not languish in the past, and gain perspective that CEI has probably been multgenerational. In my view, forgiveness IS the grieving and healing process from CEI. It is a gift to yourself because you have a right to be free of the burdens of victimization.

For Parents in Recovery

Taking responsibility for your own behavior and needs is the best thing you can do for your children. Asking for and receiving the help you need from peers and professionals to stay sober, deal with “outside issues”, and be spiritually fit are essentials for effective parenting. Strive to meet your children’s needs by being aware of your own, checking your motives and listening to their very precious voices. Modeling is the most powerful form of learning. It is what you DO that matters, not so much what you say. Akin to early recovery, looking for those who “have what you want”, and “sticking with the winners”, your children need the same ideal so they can “have what they want” and be “a winner” in their own lives.

Knowing that Covert Emotional Incest is enough to have the struggles you have is of prime importance to your moving from the victim to survivor role and then into really living and enjoying your life. As you have probably heard before, you do not have to just survive any longer. You have the right to and can thrive! Thriving and living “happy, joyous and free” is there for the taking. May you be bold, go and reach for it!

Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, LISAC, BCETS, CP is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer and consultant, providing a fresh and important look at addiction treatment, traumatic stress and recovery. She is the author of the educational memoir, Covert Emotional Incest: The Hidden Sexual Abuse, A Story of Hope and Healing. For more information about CEI and Adena’s work, visit www.adenabanklees.com. Her book is available there and at www.amazon.com



* I have coined the term Covert Emotional Incest. This is an expanded view of Dr. Ken Adams’, term “Covert Incest”, Dr. Pat Love’s,“Emotional Incest,” and Pia Mellody’s “Emotional Sexual Abuse.” It takes into account that the child is treated as an object, their needs and feelings unacknowledged. It happens in many families, yet is relatively unnamed, rarely spoken about or recognized.