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Emotional Incest: How To Recognize This Form Of Covert Sexual Abuse

Last updated on February 28, 2020

People often think sexual abuse is overt and easy to identify. In truth, covert sexual abuse—also known as emotional incest or covert incest—occurs just as often as overt sexual abuse. And it is equally devastating.

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What is emotional incest?

Overt sexual trauma is exactly what it sounds like: "hands-on" sex abuse. Covert sexual abuse is more subtle. First written about by psychologist Ken Adams, Ph.D., covert sexual abuse is the surreptitious, indirect, sexualized use or abuse of a child by a parent, stepparent, or any other long-term caregiver. It's commonly referred to as emotional incest or convert incest because it involves indirect (not hands-on) sexuality—sexuality that is implied or suggested rather than physically acted out.

With emotional incest, the child is used by the adult for emotional fulfillment. In other words, the child is forced to support the abusive adult by serving as a trusted confidante or an "emotional spouse." Although there is no direct sexual touch, these emotional enmeshment relationships have a sexualized undertone, with the parent expressing overly graphic interest in the child's physical development and sexual characteristics or betraying the child's boundaries through invasions of privacy, sexualized conversations, and the like.

Signs of covert or emotional incest.

Sometimes covert incest victims feel special and privileged but also creeped-out by the attention they are given. In therapy, they will say things like:

  1. My mother would take me to the movies with her a lot. Not kid movies, either. Date movies for adults. She would always tell me she had the most handsome date there, and she would want me to hold her hand during the show.
  2. My father was constantly telling me how much prettier I was than my sisters or my friends. He talked about how nice my breasts were and how I had a "perky little butt." He told me I should be proud of how I looked and that I probably drove all the boys at school a little nuts.
  3. My mom always sat a little too close to me, and she talked about my body a lot, especially when I was a teenager.
  4. My dad would tell me about my mother and how she was frigid. He would tell me that all he wanted was a bit of physical affection, but she wouldn't give that to him. He talked a lot about his "needs."
  5. I had no privacy. If I was in my room or in the bathroom, my mother would be right outside the door, listening to what I was doing and talking to me, asking if I was OK or if I needed anything.
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With covert incest, even though there is no overt sexual touch, the relationship feels "icky" to the child—too close for comfort. The lack of boundaries creates an incestuous feeling, and the child feels used and trapped, exactly as they would feel in the case of overt incest.

Typically, covert incest occurs when a child's parents have distanced themselves from one another physically and emotionally. (Often, this is caused by an addiction in one or both of the adults.) This distancing causes one of the parents to focus on the child, seeking solace and emotional fulfillment by turning the child into a surrogate spouse.

Meanwhile, the child's developmental needs are ignored and, as a result, emotional growth, especially in the area of healthy sexual and romantic attachment, is stunted.

Effects of emotional incest.

Interestingly, most covert incest survivors resist the idea that they were sexually abused, no matter how icky their relationship to the abuser felt (and still feels). Mostly this is because they weren't actually touched in a sexual way by the perpetrator.

Nevertheless, these relationships are without a doubt sexualized, and the victims learn over time that their value is based not on who they are but on whether they can successfully please/amuse/soothe the abuser.

And yes, this is the exact same life lesson that victims of overt incest learn—my needs don't matter; what you want matters. I am nothing more than an emotional/sexual object for other people to use in whatever way they want.

Unsurprisingly, cover incest survivors typically display the same adult-life symptoms and consequences as victims of overt sex abuse:

  • Difficulty maintaining healthy long-term intimacy
  • Deep shame and pervasive feelings of inadequacy
  • Codependency
  • Dissociation
  • Difficulties with self-care (emotional and/or physical)
  • Love/hate relationships, especially with the offending parent but also with others
  • Inappropriate bonding with their own child (intergenerational abuse)
  • Addiction
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Unfortunately, as pervasive and damaging as emotional incest is, it frequently goes unrecognized in treatment settings, primarily because people don't understand what it is or how damaging it can be. This lack of understanding appears with not only survivors but therapists, who sometimes seem to think that if there is no physical sexual contact, then no harm has been done.

It is only when we dig beneath the surface that we see the connections between covertly incestuous behaviors and later-life problems.

This article adapted from Sex Addiction 101 by Robert Weiss, copyright HCI Books, 2016.
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