Emotional Incest

Dear Reader,

I want to start with a definition of emotional incest because I think it will be a new term for some people. Incest implies a sexual relationship and this is not so much about sex but about emotions. I don’t want to call this abuse because I don’t think anything my Mother did was born out of malice. Emotional Incest happens when a relationship between a parent and child becomes inappropriate, in that the child plays the role of a surrogate “partner” which leaves the child feeling emotionally in charge of the parent, something which is inappropriate for the child’s age and life experience.

To explain further. Emotional incest happens when a relationship between parent and child (I.E my Mother and I) becomes like that of two spouses (Her expectancy for me to be some kind of emotional rock) but given the immaturity of the child (I.E Me, as this has happened for a long time.) this relationship ends up being one sided, with the child feeling emotionally responsible for the well-being. of the parent (My inability to tell my mother anything about my mental health due to worrying how she will be affected by this.)

As the eldest of my Mother’s children, I don’t think my brother experienced this as much, or maybe he did. But he was able to disregard it and move on with his life. Whereas I am still greatly affected by it.

My Dad is a very closed of person emotionally. I have only ever seen my Dad cry twice. Once when he turned 40 and had drank more alcohol than anyone ever should. and when my Grandad died. (he was also drunk when he cried about this.) My Dad hesitates when he asks me “are you ok” because my Dad isn’t like those Dad’s on TV or in films. he’s not a hugger, I don’t even remember him telling me he loved me, ever! I mean, I know he does. He doesn’t have to say it. but, that’s because I understand. I am just as closed off emotionally as he is, well. Maybe not so much. my Dad has anger problems. He has never hurt anyone, but he gets incredibly angry incredibly quick about things. Not at my brother and I anymore, now we are adults he doesn’t have to tell us to stop fighting. But mostly with his computer. When something doesn’t do what he wants. He gets absolutely enraged. and smashes things around. And the problem is so do I. Because I, like him, either learnt that environmentally or maybe it’s genetic. being able to become that angry so quickly and then become so calm again (like we can) to me feels like a symptom of bipolar disorder. But that is a whole other story and this is not the time for that.

I don’t blame my mother for feeling alone emotionally. My parents hardly spoke until they got jobs working in the same place which gave them something to both talk about that they both understood and bought them closer together. Before my parents worked together my mum stayed at home. She didn’t have a job for 13 years. she stayed at home to look after my brother and I. My dad worked for my uncle, he worked in a environment that was very much like a male locker room. Lots of men trying to outdo each other. My Dad is not that kind of person. My dad weighs 11 stone. With my Dad not being one of those “manly” men, naturally the only person my Dad got along with in the place he worked was a woman. The only woman who worked there. My mum was convinced they were having an affair. (they weren’t) But because my mum is a very emotionally damaged person, I knew of her fears. She wasn’t afraid to discuss those fears on a Sunday afternoon after they had both had a drink. at this point I was maybe 8 years old.

My Mum is the 4th of 5 children to my grandparents. She was the last to leave home, the last to find a partner, the last to get married and the last to have children. There isn’t a huge age gap between me and my cousins. I think 12 years is the biggest gap. so 14 between my brother (the youngest grandchild) and my cousin (the eldest.) (there are 14 grandchildren though) It must have been difficult to still be at home when all of your siblings, especially your younger (by I think 7 years) has already moved on to become an “adult” I don’t know what happened in my Mum’s past to make her so afraid of things emotionally but I suspect it is something to do with feeling left behind by all of her siblings. Because I believe my Mother is autistic, and that big a change must have been very difficult for her.

So fast forward to my birth, my Mother was 32 when she gave birth to me, my Dad was 29. I don’t remember exactly when it started, but I have always been very conscious of my mother’s emotions.

When I was 10 years old I started my period, I was so terrified of telling my mother because I didn’t want to upset her. Because of that I tried to deal with it myself. of course, I didn’t do a very good job of this and she found out. She cried. I cried. and we never spoke of it again.

I spoke recently about the time I had a severe chest infection and could hardly walk. Part of the reason I chose to go to school was because even though I knew how sick I was. I didn’t want to worry my Mother.

the list of things like this goes on. I never told my Mother I was bullied, I never told my Mother about my depression, my Aspergers, my anxiety, I never told her about anything that has really affected me because I am still far too worried about her emotional well-being. More so now my Grandma has died.

Like I said, my Dad is not an emotional person, I have never seen him hug my Mum. my Mum cries all the time. and everyone just pretends it’s not happening.

My mum used me as an emotional surrogate for a long time. She would guilt trip me into, not staying at friends houses when I was a child because I think she was scared that I might not come back. I see this fear as being very similar to that of the fear she had about my dad and his female co-worker. But she couldn’t stop my dad going to work, instead she stopped me from doing things where I may “cheat” on her. I say “cheat” in loose way here, I mean emotionally cheat. Maybe I would like someone else’s family better? She guilt tripped me into doing this for a long time, up until I was maybe 20. She never did it to my brother. I remember when my brother was young maybe 7 or 8 he was allowed to go to a classmate’s birthday party. My parents had never met that child’s parents. I was absolutely horrified that it was ok for him to go to parties but not me!

But its not just about guilt tripping and trying to make me stay at home. I think my mum knows to an extent shes won that battle. After all, I am still at home.

Whenever I mention being ill she always says, “well go to the doctors then!” in an accusatory tone. Like she’s angry that I may be ill. I have never really understood why she would be angry that I was ill until I realised that once again it’s probably because If I was really ill she would not be able to rely on me to be her emotional surrogate. My Dad wouldn’t be there for her, my brother wouldn’t. I can’t be there if I am the one who is sick. But I realised her trick of yelling “well go to the doctors then” a few years back. and it annoyed me so now instead of sympathy I throw it back at her. In the last two months, my mother has told me. “I think I have skin cancer, look at this mole under my eye” (I couldn’t see anything.) I told her to stop being silly or go to the doctors. so she shut up. Just yesterday she said, “Sometimes it hurts me when I move my arm like this” as she moved her arm above her head. I said to her “maybe you should go to the doctors. maybe you have trapped a nerve.” she said “I think I might I have a tumor.” I told her to stop being silly. and once again. go to the doctors.

my mother was horrified when I got a boyfriend, I think she became jealous. She did not want me to spend time with him. she got very angry when I told her I wanted to spend the night at his house and guilt tripped me. She guilt tripped me in to taking the contraceptive pill. She has never truly been happy with me having a boyfriend.

But, the problem with all of this is that this emotional incest has affected my relationships outside of the one with my mother. Being emotionally responsible for someone who should be emotionally responsbile for you is a truly exhausting task. And has made me pretty terrified of commitment purely because I have spent 20 or so years dealing with the emotions of a relationship.

As Always,

The Elephant in the Room

7 thoughts on “Emotional Incest

  1. Dear EIRT, I too have been witness to and victim of emotional incest, as the daughter of an alcoholic, and as the granddaughter of a woman with a personality disorder. If you have a moment, read my most recent post about my Mom. It will give you a glimpse into my life a bit more than I can provide here. Once again, thank you for candidness. It is so nice to know that others experience the same emotional “junk” as me. Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Relationships with parents can be precarious, especially if jealousy is involved which i think is the case here.

    When parents have a background in being repressed in terms of being allowed to grow up when indeed they do break the cord and have families of their own they repeat the same patterns unconsiously I think at first, but when they see that emotional bullying works it becomes the norm.

    I see this with a woman i know she keeps her daughter(32) as a child making her believe she cannot manage on her own, the daughter has somewhat given up, however the mother has a companion for life, and a verbal punchbag for her endless complaints, I’ve noticed with her “what about me” is her mantra.

    Emotional incest is exactly the right word,, the suppression of your own emotions is having it’s effect on you, as is the caretaking of your mother, it’s a vicious cycle and one that will be hard to break, as they play on your guilt which leaves you impotent with anger and resentment.

    Maybe it’s time to fly the nest!


  3. For many of my teen and early 20s years, I was in an emotionally incestuous relationship with my mom, as you have defined it. She was unable to share w/my dad, and she was so lonely. Even tho’ undiagnosed, I am certain she suffered MDD in my middle and high school years. They were tumultuous family times.
    I didn’t realize, until in therapy for my depression, how completely inappropriate her actions were. And I sure didn’t know what to do at the time – she needed me to be her confidant, no matter how wrong it was. But it put a strain on our relationship. I love her deeply, and admire the way she “came through” those years, but the damage to our communication meant that for years, I couldn’t tell her how I was feeling or the hell I was going through, for worry that she wouldn’t be able to handle it.
    I don’t think she will ever know the hurt she caused me. I’m not sure it’s worth it to even try to explain. My therapist has helped me some, the rest I try to ignore. Occasionally, it still really hurts, and as much as I want to and maybe need to, I can’t tell her the worst of my depression experiences. I still see her as too fragile to handle what I would like to share.


  4. I never realized that other people had this problem too. Thank you for this post, it opened my eyes a lot.

    There is no question in my mind that my relationship with my mother was inappropriate. She depended on me for everything. I was her caretaker emotionally and after i got married she tried to get me to support her financially as well.

    She was quite ill a lot so i had to take care of her physically even when i was a young child.

    I cut all ties with her about 10 years ago, but the trauma will never go away, despite talk therapy and meds.


  5. Wow, I had never heard this term before! In so much of what you say, I find similarities. I do feel like I’m the caretaker of my mother instead of the other way around. .” Being emotionally responsible for someone who should be emotionally responsible for you is a truly exhausting task.” I couldn’t relate to that sentence more, I didn’t realize that other people felt this way. My mom and I fought a lot when I started hanging around with my bff and her family. I think she was threatened that I would trade her in or something…


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