There is a name for this devastating and increasingly common form of child abuse: Emotional or Covert Incest.
(OOTF) Some days we’re the bug – other days we’re the windshield. Such can be one’s life when they have an emotionally abusive parent with unpredictable mood swings ranging from *idealization to devaluation – sometimes several times during the same day.
“One of the most devastating experiences for children of borderlines is ‘the turn.’ The Turn is a sudden attack, the abrupt withdrawal of love and affection, and razor-sharp words that can pierce the heart as painfully as an arrow. The messages aimed at the children include, ‘I want you out of my life,’ ‘I’d be better off without you,’ and ‘I should never have had you kids.’”
In her book Understanding the Borderline Mother, Lawson defined four role types which BPD is exemplified by the Waif, the Hermit, the Queen, and the Witch. These role types are not mutually exclusive, however, and their defining traits overlap and intermix. While Lawson gave us an eerily accurate description of the frequently changing nature of a Borderline mom, those personae don’t even come close to fully describing their impact upon impressionable children nor do they explain the warped dynamics that develop (and frequently change) between a BPD mother and her children. The following is an attempt to define one typical role a child sometimes finds themselves thrust into by an abusive BPD mom, and the dysfunctional family system that sustains supports and enables her. As many are painfully aware, this is but one of several different roles they may have been forced into by an abusive mom with BPD.
Do these terms of endearment sound familiar?
“Of all my children, I expected the most of you.”
Translation: I’ve selected you to be the one to make my life worth living.
“You’ve never caused me a minute of trouble.”
Translation: Ignore your own needs, I can’t handle them.
“You’re the only one who truly understands me.”
Translation: I would be totally alone if it weren’t for you.
If so, you may have been a “Chosen Child,” seemingly the focus of loving and devoted parents, but in reality, a child walking a psychological tightrope — learning early on to deny your own needs in order to meet the emotional needs of a parent. There is a name for this devastating and increasingly common form of child abuse: Emotional or Covert Incest.
Emotional or covert incest can be defined as the use of a child by a parent -or sibling- to meet adult needs (non-sexual, psychological, emotional or religious.) It is a form of parentification.
Enmeshment occurs when individuals within families fail to develop a healthy and functional identity and ability to survive apart from the family group identity. There is a high degree of emotional fusion and a lack of clear or consistent personal boundaries between members. This fusion interferes with the child’s ability to develop a clear sense of self. It interferes with normal growth and development for children who are raised within an enmeshed family and causes relationship problems as well as various other psychological problems. Covert, emotional incest occurs within enmeshed families and describes the dynamics of enmeshment.
Covert incest typically occurs in families where one parent (the shadow parent) does not actively participate in family affairs, thus setting the stage for the other parent (the invasive parent) to turn to a child for emotional support. The invasive parent in effect makes the child a surrogate spouse who is forced to take on the responsibilities of the shadow parent. The roles are essentially reversed; instead of the parent looking after the child, the child is responsible for the parent’s well being. This is a terrible burden for a child to carry, as a child is incapable of meeting the emotional needs of an adult.
As these children grow into adults, these warped styles of personal interaction and relationship dynamics are often repeated in their relationships, as they’re drawn to what they find familiar. Adults will recreate the unresolved conflicts of their childhood in their adult lives, using the only relationship skills they have and know – however dysfunctional.
There is nothing loving or caring about a close parent-child relationship when it services the needs and feelings of the parent rather than the child. “Feeling close” with parents, particularly the opposite-sex parent, is not the source of comfort the image suggests. It is a relationship in which the individual, both as a child and later as an adult, feels silently seduced by the parent. Feelings of appreciation and gratitude do not prevail in these “close relationships.” Instead, they are a source of confusion, progressive rage.
Typical Reactions in Adult Survivors of Emotional Incest:
Later in life when coming-to-terms with these toxic relationships, adults are often quite vocal with their rage and express relief that they finally understand why at times – they hate with vengeance – the same parent who always “loved them so much.” Other typical reactions are immobilization, or “freezing” like a deer in the headlights or “fleeing” and being incapable of processing the overwhelming truth of their parental relationship. Sometimes when parents realize the actual dysfunctional dynamics within their families, they also begin to understand why their own children struggle in relationships.
Others remain deeply entrenched in denial and will insist there is no harm in their close relationship to their opposite-sex parent. Actually, they claim to feel special and privileged. These children were given a special position by being idealized by the parent. However, there is no privilege in being cheated out of a childhood by being a parent’s surrogate partner. As adults, these individuals, in turn, idealize their parents to cover the pain of the abandoned and victimized child within. To be a parent’s surrogate partner is to be a victim of covert incest.
Characteristics of Emotional/Covert Incest:
Love/Hate Relationship. One often has intense feelings of both love and hate for the opposite-sex parent. On one hand, they feel special and privileged because of the relationship; on the other, they frequently feel they aren’t doing enough for that parent. This results in feelings of guilt which result in rage that is seldom directly expressed.
Emotional Distance from Same-Sex Parent. In contrast to the love/hate relationship with the opposite-sex parent, they feel abandoned by the same-sex parent. This relationship often is competitive and the parent feels like an adversary. Feeling contempt for this parent is common. but a same-sex enmeshment is also possible and common.
Guilt and Confusion over Personal Needs. They feel guilty about their needs and probably never have a difficult time identifying what they are. They generally try to “be strong,” care-take or always “be there” for others as a way of meeting their own needs. Sometimes described as co-dependent.
Feelings of Inadequacy. They are likely to have chronic feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. They believe their worth as a man or a woman is determined by what they can do rather than who they are.
Multiple Relationships. They are likely to have been in and out of many relationships and never felt satisfied. They are always on the lookout for the perfect partner or relationship. Or the perfect JOB if they tend towards workaholism and are a Love Avoidant type. Establishing intimacy is difficult for them.
Difficulty with Contentment. They generally experience ambivalence regarding commitment in relationships and always seem to have one foot in and one foot out of the door, just in case.
Hasty Commitments. They make a quick commitment to a relationship, then realize later it was not a good choice. Feeling too guilty to leave, instead, they try to make it right.
Regret over Past Relationships. They find themselves looking back at a previous relationship and wondering if it could have worked if they had stuck it out.
Sexual Dysfunction. They find themselves feeling sexually shut down or driven and compulsive in the pursuit of sexual highs or conquests. Sex may become addictive.
Compulsions/Addictions. They have other compulsions or addictions. They are driven in the area of work, success, and achievement. They find themselves addicted to food. Either they compulsively overeat, starve themselves or they binge and purge.
Cutting/Self-Injury. Are also related to the same psychological processes underlie these behaviors.
*Idealization often occurs in families that are very religious, especially in those kinds of religious homes that draw very strict boundaries to define acceptable and unacceptable attitudes and behaviors. The high value that is placed on family, and on respect for parents, makes it almost impossible for children to integrate their parents’ failings and weaknesses.
The Ultimate Tragedy:
Another tragedy is a problem of multigenerational nature. The serious dysfunction in a family of origin (FOO) will be absorbed by the children’s families and then their children’s families – a ripple of misery extending farther and farther down through the years. The dependency or dysfunction may change … but it’s there. It’s almost always there, wreaking its damage.
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”~ Bodhipaksa Krishnamurti