to a page of
The Web Site of Spiritual Teacher, codependence
counselor, grief therapist, author, Robert Burney
and Joy to You & Me Enterprises
Go to Home Page
Robert is the author of the Joyously inspirational
The Dance of Wounded Souls
book ordering info
|In February 2004 as I was putting together some of my articles
that had been originally published on Suite101 for an E-Book, I rediscovered
several that I had written for a series on inner child healing that I like
a lot and added them to Joy2MeU. This article was part of that series,
but I didn't add it at that time because it was similar to two I already
had on the site and I just included a link to this aticle on Suite101. In
September 2009 I discovered that my articles are no longer available on Suite101,
so I added this as a page on my site.
Emotional Incest Issues
By Robert Burney
"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
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."
(All quotes in this color are from
Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls)
I witnessed a scene a few years back that was graphic proof
that the best thing any of us can for our loved ones is to focus on our
own healing. At a CoDA meeting one day a little four-year old boy,
who had been going to twelve step meetings with his mother for two years,
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
There are several facets of that scene that are remarkable because of their
rarity in our society. One was that the adult had a safe place to
share and express her feelings. The second was much rarer, a child
with some semblance of healthy boundaries between self and parent.
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.
Some people in the field refer 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.
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. The child feels
responsible for it because they suffer the consequences - rather it is through
outbursts from the parents or being shut out emotionally by the parents.
Often a parent who has a passive, traditionally codependent defense system
will be married to a parent that has an aggressive, counterdependent defense
system. (As I say in my book, traditionally in this society men were
taught be John Wayne and women to be self sacrificing - but that is a generality,
it is entirely possible that your mother was the John Wayne aggressive type
while your father was the passive one.)
What happens in this dynamic - a very common one - is that the passive
parent allows the aggressive one to abuse him/her and the children in some
way (verbal, emotional, mental, and/or physical.) And then that parent
turns around and makes excuses to the children for allowing that behavior.
A child that grows up hearing abuse being excused with rationalization and
justification, is going to become an adult that will swing between the extremes
of tolerating an abusive relationship or avoiding relationships altogether.
I came from a traditionally dysfunctional family, in that my father was
the emotionally unavailable angry person while my mother was the martyr with
no boundaries. I so hated how my father behaved that I became a martyr
like my mother. I was a martyr because I did not speak my Truth or
set boundaries, avoided confrontations, tried to please the other person
to keep her liking me.
In my first relationship in my codependence recovery, I realized that for
me, setting boundaries in a romantic relationship felt to my inner child
like I was being abusive. The very thing I had sworn to myself I would
never be - like my father. I had to constantly be alert to that child’s
feelings and let that wounded part of me know that it was not only OK to
set boundaries and say no - but that it was not Loving to do otherwise.
I discovered that there was a 4 or 5 year old age of my inner child who
felt overwhelming shame that I could not protect my mother from my father.
I thought that was my job. To make my mother happy.
I thought that I was not worthy of Love because I had been unable to do
my job. So, in my adult life I was attracted to emotionally unavailable
women who were verbally abusive. To my disease, it was better to be
in relationship with someone like my father, than to fail to do my job in
a relationship with someone who was available emotionally.
I had a relationship phobia that for the most part kept me from getting
into relationships because I felt I was defective in my ability to be responsible
for another person happiness.
Until we do some healing of our childhood wounds, it is impossible to really
understand our adult patterns. If we have never experienced ourselves
as independent emotional beings separate from our parents, we can not truly
be present for a relationship in our adult lives.
Emotional incest is a violation and invasion of our emotional boundaries.
It is not sexual abuse, nor is it sexual in nature - although sexual incest
is often accompanied by emotional incest. It can however cause great
damage to our relationship with our own gender and sexuality. Emotional
incest, along with religions that teach that sexuality is shameful and societal
beliefs that one gender is superior to the other, fall into a category that
I call sexuality abuse - because they directly impact our relationship with
our own sexuality and gender.
Our parents were our role models. We learned how to be emotional
beings from their behavior and attitudes. We learned what a man is,
what a woman is, from their example. We cannot undo that programming
without being willing to heal those emotional wounds. We cannot know
who we truly are without separating ourselves on the emotional energetic
level from our parents.
I also have an article I wrote some years ago on this site: Emotional Incest - emotionally devastating child
Another article I published on Suite 101 in November
of 2003 (and since have moved to this site): Emotional Incest = Sexuality