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Why Covert Incest Isn't What You Think It Is

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I often write about “covert incest” in my articles and I often get pushback to the term itself. I’m not a psychologist nor an expert in developmental trauma. I defer to my own therapists and experts, like Dr. Kenneth Adams, who coined the term to put vocabulary to lived experiences like mine. I am, however, a survivor of both “incest” and “covert incest” and when I write about the subject, I speak from the authority of my lived experience of both. I do so to illuminate the ways in which they can both be life-destroying and to give others who have also experienced this type of abuse a sense of relief at knowing they are not alone. It is never my intention to take anything away from the experience of incest or to minimize it. Both are horrible and both deserve to be addressed with compassion.

• What is PTSD?

Covert Incest, as defined by Dr. Kenneth Adams in his seminal work “Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners, Understanding Covert Incest” is: “when a child becomes the object of a parent’s affection, love, passion, and preoccupation. The parent, motivated by the loneliness and emptiness created by a chronically troubled marriage or relationship, makes the child a surrogate partner. The boundary between caring and incestuous love is crossed when the child exists to meet the needs of the parent rather than the child.” 

I recall reading his book early on in my therapy journey and finally feeling as though there was a term to define what I experienced growing up with a mother who struggled with her own undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues. As a child, I knew something wasn’t right with what I was experiencing, but nobody else around me seemed to notice. I grew up listening to my mother lament about her boyfriends, tell me about sleeping with a cousin whom we saw regularly and whose wife I was extremely fond of, constantly commenting on my body and the ways in which things like my pubic hair or nipples were different or “weird,” being objectified by her for the purpose of gaining the attention of men, and generally treating me like my body and mind belonged to her. Her favorite running phrase was that it was her right to see me naked because I came out of her body. If that made you shudder and think “ew,” it should.

My mother was constantly praised for having such a mature child, an old soul — one who was self-sufficient, high-achieving and ready to jump into action whenever called upon to take care of something even if it wasn’t age-appropriate. I have numerous cards I saved from my childhood where I wrote to my mother “I love you even if you are crazy.” In hindsight, I realize these things weren’t OK at all. My entire childhood was stolen from me because my mother wasn’t capable of caring for me, and as an adult I’m now recognizing how much this upbringing has affected me psychologically.

The common thread between “incest” and “covert incest” is the way it makes the child feel. Both are violations of the adult-child power structure. Both create a sense of confusion and mistrust of others. Both force children to experience things they are not mature enough to experience. And ultimately, both create a sense of confusion, disgust, self-loathing and self-doubt that destroys a child’s sense of self and creates ambivalence toward human connection that pervades into adulthood.

I think I comprehended my “incest” before I could accept the “covert incest” mostly out of some kind of perverse sense of loyalty to my mother that created immobilizing guilt within me at even the thought that she could have done something hurtful to me. Children rely on their mothers to keep them alive. “Covert incest” turns this dynamic upside down, creating intense fear and anxiety within a child. If mom can’t love me, who will? What is it about me that makes me unlovable? What did I do to deserve this? So when offered a way of feeling useful and desired, the child quickly and willingly adapts to meeting the needs of the parent in order to feel loved and wanted. The underlying motivation: shame. 

I could take the last two sentences of the previous paragraph and insert it into a discussion regarding how a child is so easily convinced to engage in sexual activity with a relative. Incest involves this exact feeling of underlying shame and of wanting to be loved and cared for, regardless of how that need is met. In some ways, they go hand in hand. One could argue that the “covertly incestuous” relationship with my mother directly led to my being vulnerable to being sexually exploited. Certainly, her preoccupation with her own needs made her unavailable to protect me from becoming a victim of incestuous sexual abuse. A perfect storm, if you will.

From the perspective of healing these wounds, both have involved recognizing that neither was my fault and that the blame lies solely with the perpetrators of the abuse. I have had to reclaim my sense of power and agency over my self both physically and emotionally. And I’ve had to disentangle my worth from the action of meeting the needs of others, which has been the greatest challenge of all. I have great difficulty accepting that I have needs that matter and that it’s necessary to get these needs met by caring others within my life. I combat my fear of being a burden, of feeling selfish for asking others to be there for me. Asking fills me with shame and stokes my fears of abandonment because I am convinced I’ll be too much for anyone to deal with.

Understanding where these behaviors and feelings come from is the first step in healing from them. Reprogramming how I feel and disentangling my survival instincts from my functional and capable adult self takes a lot of time, hard work and the empathy of a caring mental health professional. It also requires my willingness to take the risk of allowing others into my life and of pushing myself to trust them by asking them to be there for me. This kind of healing is a Herculean undertaking. Anyone with the mental and emotional fortitude to engage in it deserves not only respect but the space to fully acknowledge and speak their truth without judgment. All of my fellow survivors of this kind of abuse have my utmost admiration and empathy. You deserve to be free of the shame and to live a life filled with love and safe reciprocal connection with others who deserve to be in your life.

Photo by Issara Willenskomer on Unsplash

Originally published: August 14, 2020
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