Codependence and Emotional Incest

"Consider a scenario where mother is crying in her bedroom and her three year old toddles into the room. To the child, it looks as if mom is dying. The child is terrified and says, "I love you mommy!" Mom looks at her child. Her eyes fill with love and her face breaks into a smile. She says, 'Oh honey, I love you so much. You are my wonderful little boy/girl. Come here and give mommy a hug. You make mommy feel so good.'

A touching scene? No. Emotional abuse! The child has just received the message that he/she has the power to save mommy's life. That the child has power over, and therefore responsibility for, mommy's feelings. This is emotional abuse, and sets up an emotionally incestuous relationship in which the child feels responsible for the parent's emotional needs.

A healthy parent would explain to the child that it is all right for mommy to cry, that it is healthy and good for people to cry when they feel sad or hurt. An emotionally healthy parent would "role model" for the child that it is okay to have the full range of emotions, all the feelings - sadness and hurt, anger and fear, Joy and happiness, etc."

One of the most pervasive, traumatic, and damaging dynamics that occurs in families in this dysfunctional, emotionally dishonest society is emotional incest. It is rampant in our society but there is still very little written or discussed about it.

Emotional incest occurs when a child feels responsible for a parents emotional well-being. This happens because the parents do not know how to have healthy boundaries. It can occur with one or both parents, same sex or opposite sex. It occurs because the parents are emotionally dishonest with themselves and cannot get their emotional needs met by their spouse or other adults. John Bradshaw refers to this dynamic as a parent making the child their "surrogate spouse."

This type of abuse can happen in a variety of ways. On one end of the spectrum the parent emotionally "dumps" on the child. This occurs when a parent talks about adult issues and feelings to a child as if they were a peer. Sometimes both parents will dump on a child in a way that puts the child in the middle of disagreements between the parents - with each complaining about the other.

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On the other end of the spectrum is the family where no one talks about their feelings. In this case, though no one is talking about feelings, there are still emotional undercurrents present in the family which the child senses and feels some responsibility for - even if they haven't got a clue as to what the tension, anger, fear, or hurt are all about.

Emotional incest from either parent is devastating to the child's ability to be able to set boundaries and take care of getting their own needs met when they become an adult. This type of abuse, when inflicted by the opposite sex parent, can have a devastating effect on the adult/child's relationship with his/her own sexuality and gender, and their ability to have successful intimate relationships as an adult.

What often happens is that 'Daddy's little princess' or 'Mommy's big boy' becomes an adult who has good friends of the opposite sex that they can be emotionally intimate with but would never think of being sexually involved with (and feel dreadfully betrayed by, when those friends express sexual interest) and are sexually excited by members of the opposite sex whom they don't like and can't trust (they may feel they are desperately 'in love' with such a person but in reality don't really like their personality). This is an unconscious way of not betraying mommy or daddy by having sex with someone that they are emotionally intimate with and truly care about as a person.

Over the last ten years, I have seen many different examples of how emotionally dishonest family dynamics impact children. Ranging from the twelve-year old girl who was much too big to be crawling into mom's lap but would do so every time mom started to cry because that interrupted her mother's emotional process and stopped her crying, to the nine-year old boy who looked me in the eye and said "How am I supposed to start talking about feelings when I haven't my whole life."

Then there is the little boy who by four-years old had been going to twelve-step meetings with his mother for two years. At a CoDA meeting one day, he was sitting on a man's lap only six feet away from where his mother was sharing and crying. He didn't even bother to look up when his mother started crying. The man, who was more concerned than the little boy, said to him, "Your mommy's crying because she feels sad." The little boy looked up, glanced over at his mother and said, "Yea, she's getting better," and went back to playing. He knew that it was okay for mom to cry and that it was not his job to fix her. That little boy, at four years old, already had healthier boundaries than most adults - because his mother was in recovery working on getting healthier herself. The best thing that we can do for any of our loved ones is to focus on our own healing.

And one of the cornerstones of healing is to forgive ourselves for the wounds we suffered and for the wounds we inflicted. We were powerless to behave any differently because of our programming and training, because of our wounds. Just as our parents were powerless, and their parents before them, etc. etc.

One of the traps of Codependence Recovery is that as we gain awareness of our behavioral patterns and emotional dishonesty we judge and shame ourselves for what we are learning. That is the disease talking. That "critical parent" voice in our head is the disease talking to us. We need to stop buying into that negative, shaming energy and start Loving ourselves so that we can change our patterns and become emotionally honest.

There is hope. We are breaking the cycles of generations of emotional dishonesty and abuse. We now have the tools and knowledge we need to heal our wounds and change the human condition. We are Spiritual Beings having a human experience. We are perfect in our Spiritual essence. We are perfectly where we are supposed to be on our Spiritual path, and we will never be able to do human perfectly. We are Unconditionally Loved and we are going to get to go Home.

next: The Concept of Empowerment

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 28). Codependence and Emotional Incest, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: August 6, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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