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When a loved-one has traits of Borderline Personality

Monday, October 4, 2010

Your parents: Have you been a victim emotional incest?

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What is emotional incest?

According to, emotional, or covert, incest is an overclose bond between a parent and a child without normal boundaries, but without sexual contact.  Conversely, overt incest involves sexual contact.

Patricia Love, PhD defines emotional incest as "a style of parenting in which parents turn to their children, not to their partners, for emotional support. To the casual observer, the parents may appear loving and devoted. They may spend a great deal of time with their children and lavish them with praise and material gifts. But in the final analysis, their love is not a nurturing, giving love--it's an unconscious ploy to satisfy their own unmet needs."

The BPD factor: Parents with BPD tend to be emotionally immature, have poor boundaries, and think in black and white terms (child = good; spouse = bad). Non parents, faced with a spouse who through his or her disorder may not be functioning as an equal and satisfying partner, may also turn to a child for support. The resulting family situation is one that is at risk for emotional incest.

What are the characteristics of an emotionally incestuous parent-child bond?
  1. The parent is using the child extensively to satisfy needs that are beyond the child's ability and role and that should be satisfied by other adults--intimacy, companionship, romantic stimulation, advice, problem solving, ego fulfillment, and/or emotional release. 
  2. The parent is ignoring many of the child's needs, e.g., for protection, nurturing, guidance, structure, affection, affirmation, or discipline. Instead of the parent meeting the needs of the child, the child is meeting the needs of the parent.
Many parents and children are close; closeness is often healthy and desirable. The key determinant of whether the parenting role has become invasive is that a healthy parent "takes care of a child's needs [in an age-appropriate way] without making the child feel responsible for his/her needs." Parents often slip into the "invasive" role without any intention to harm their children, but the impact is nonetheless harmful.

What are the effects of a parent's reliance on a child?

According to Dr. Love, "Being a parent's primary source of support is a heavy burden for young children. Forced to suppress their own needs, they struggle to satisfy the needs of the adults. Because of this role reversal, they are rarely given adequate protection, guidance, or discipline, and they are exposed to experiences well beyond their years. In adolescence and adulthood, they are likely to be plagued by one or more of the following difficulties: depression, chronic low-level anxiety, problems with self-esteem and love relationships, overly loose or rigid personal boundaries, some form of sexual dysfunction, eating disorders and drug or alcohol addiction."

What about other family members?

Emotional incest affects all members of a family.   Love provides a "role call":
  • The Invasive Parent--is enmeshed with a child in order to meet his/her needs that are not being met in an adult relationship
  • The Chosen Child--is enmeshed with the invasive parent; often treated as "all good" and favored, but own needs to develop as an individual, to make mistakes and learn, to receive structure and discipline, etc. are actually neglected. Chosen children can also be treated as scapegoats, used "not just for emotional support but for the release of anger and tension."
  • The Left-Out Spouse--spouse of invasive parent, is often shut out of exclusive parent-child bond; may turn to workaholism, alcohol, affairs, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with an unhappy life at home
  • The Left-Out Child(ren)--a non-favored child, may be neglected or receive less of the family's resources; may bond with the left out spouse
  • Spouse of the Chosen Child--when the chosen child grows up and marries, his/her spouse may find him/herself engaged in a rather disturbing triangle with the chosen child and invasive parent

Where can I find out more?

See the Book Review for The Emotional Incest Syndrome, by Patricia Love, PhD on Share your experiences by adding a comment.

Author: BlackandWhite

Write comments
  1. Children who suffer with emotional incest need immediate help from authorities. Such issue can be considered as an abuse to their rights.

  2. I happen to be the partner of a victim of Emotional Incest and it hasn't been easy. What's worse is that his family has serious issues with enmeshment. There are five women in his family who continue to play head games on him and he has had a very difficult time escaping it and living a normal life. His mother and his sister are the worst offenders and it's absolutely shameful. To watch the way they use and manipulate him is horrific. His sister has inspired two breakups before me and is trying to work her magic once again. I'm not so sure living through this hasn't had an adverse effect on me as well. At this point, I'm so entangled I just want to help him - but really, he needs to help himself. I know it's been hard on our relationship. Personally, I don't have any desire to even be around his family anymore - they are downright unpleasant, manipulative, controlling and destructive. How does one tell people like this to back off and stop imposing on another person's life? He's afraid, I'm spent and they're relentless. HELP!

    1. How are you doing now? I have a sister that does that with her daughter. Sister helped break up daughter's marriage & much, much more. It is sad.

    2. He has to emotionally detach himself from them not going to see them at all for 5 years just a phone call every 6 months and lisa he needs emotional support so use your family as a replacement go see them regularly an deny his going to see his parents unless there's a death in his immediate family

  3. I have been there with my ex as well. There is only one way for him to get out of this entaglement -- with Gods help through worship, relationship and prayer. Otherwise -- he will become victim to human nature and deceit as his family and corruption comes next.

  4. I've read Silently Seduced and even confronted my Mom about doing this to me as a child. She felt as if it was the most disgusting and false accusation ever. And immediately told me that I'm exactly like my father and have learned to hate her from him. Now I just set everything as a boundary whenever I interact with her. I would rather her feel emotionally detached from me than be emotionally detached from myself. But, you can definitely forgive, heal, and move on to healthy relationships.

  5. I am a victim of emotional incest.. I'm a 22yr old girl. I completely identify with this! I was sexually abused by my father from the age of 12 on-wards. I have only recently managed to gain the strength to report it all to the police. My dad manipulated me against my whole family including my own mum, so he could have me all to himself- to fulfill his needs. I am taking him to court now, but i'm so scared they won't have enough evidence to prosecute him :(

  6. I have just realised -having read Sophie Hannah's novel 'Kind Of Cruel'-that I too,was the recipient of my father's emotional incest,which became overt when he made sexual advances to me in my 16th year.
    This compounded the depression which first manifested when I was 13.
    He would play me off against my mother-who used me as a family scapegoat and bullied me whenever an opportunity presented itself.She was unpredictable and veered between kindness and a cold,sniping spite.
    She told me years later that she blamed me for ganging up on her with my father.
    When i told her about the incest,she poured scorn on me.
    30 years later,my brother also made sexual advances ,prompting a mental and physical breakdown.
    When I told my mother about this episode,she told me to get out of the house,effectively rendering me homeless:I had to go and lodge with a neighbour.
    To this day,my 2 sisters will not,and cannot, deal with this;both parents are dead and we are left with a outwardly respectable,well educated,but entirely dysfunctional family.

  7. I am struggling with a parent who doesn't have boundaries and doesn't have the ability to see me as an individual. My life is hell and I try to make it work everyday. I find myself depressed and lonely quite a bit.

  8. The "chosen child" and "left-out child" describes the dynamic between me, my sister and my BPD mother perfectly. I was the "chosen child" and the burden was enormous. My sister, as the "left-out child" was deeply resentful and jealous. I have recently tried to open a conversation about this with her, but she doesn't want to "trash mom" and it's very easy to do that after all the pain we went through. Still, I think we need to talk about this in order to heal. Any suggestions?

  9. I have struggled with this my whole life as well. I am a 35 year old female and both of my parents vie for me as the 'chosen child.' I've had several broken relationships in the past and always ran back to them. One Christmas recently, I caught them in a lie, which was designed to end the relationship I was in at the moment. It almost did, but with love and support from my partner, I have learned to understand what a loving relationship is truly like and that I am not responsible for the feelings of everyone around me. I am not currently in active contact with either of them and the distance gives me room to breathe. I have set boundaries that they ignore repeatedly. I have confronted them repeatedly about this, but they always demur responsibility for their own actions. They blame their parents, or each other, and then want me to pity them for how they were abused, especially by each other. Physical boundaries become necessary when emotional ones are insufficient. Distance and therapy have helped me learn to trust myself and surround myself with people who care about me and show me in loving ways. I was helpless in the abuse as a child, but now I have the ability and right to walk away, so I have. It is always an option. As their child, I will always love them, but I will not continue to sacrifice my life on the altar of their pain.

  10. I can relate to a lot that has been shared. Growing up in an adopted family, my adoptive father seldom put on pants at night when he walked around the house. He was usually in a shirt and his underwear. When I was in the bathroom getting ready for school, he would knock on the door, expecting to come in. He has his own bathroom, but wanted to throw his underwear in the hamper in our bathroom. He often pulled me into private conversations with him, where he would bear false witness against my mother.There was no differentiation between girls and boys, or humans and animals. I am truly suffering from depression, I have just become acquainted with the term Emotional Incest. I plan to do a lot more reading on the subject and a lot more sharing. God bless you all and please lift me in prayer, as well.

  11. I'm a 39 year old male, a survivor of emotional incest, and a witness to emotional abuse. My father, a rageaholic, would repeated yell at my mother. She would not defend herself during verbal conflicts. One word would come out, and she's cut herself short. She used me as a confidante, telling me adult things: that my father would tune her out; that one of my relatives was an accidental birth; that my father probably only married her for sex; that she was attracted to a mutual friend of theirs; that my dad had been unfaithful. She even groped my behind once. This was mostly before I was ten years old (except for the groping -- I was in my late teens). To survive living with my mother after the divorce (at ten), I shut down my individuation and became my mother's friend. To the outside world, I "played possum", avoiding life's challenges and social development. Today, I am unemployed and tired of living. I wish there was hope for me, but I'm 39 and strongly doubt I'll recover enough to enjoy life and enter healthy relationships -- either friends or a long term companion.
    I need help learning to get help. For far too long, I've felt ashamed of myself and guilty that my mother's misery wasn't happening to me. Any advice or suggestions you can offer would be appreciated more than I can say. Thank you.

  12. My Husband is a victim of emotional incest, it's been a hard road to follow.I tried to explain to my Husband over the years what was going on, he was ashamed and disgusted by the thought of it.
    Here is some of his mothers traits
    -cried uncontrollably at the announcement of our marriage.
    -complete hysterics over every one of our child's births.
    -constant begging my husband to divorce me
    -constant asking him to move in with her
    -she compared herself to me regarding looks,weight,etc..(competed)
    When he finally, 20 years later told her that his Wife will always be first and number one priority in his life and if she cant understand that she will have to leave,she went off on a rampage.
    -false police reports
    -mailed photos of our children to us with scribble all over them.
    -abusive unsigned letters in mail
    -cruel smear campaign
    -told relatives that "she just prays I die" as she wept uncontrollably.
    I hadn't had contact with her in years, my Husband stopped all contact with her a year ago, she stalks him/the family constantly.
    It's now getting frighting.

  13. I was the chosen child in my family. I'm 38 now and have never managed to have a decent adult relationship with a woman. My mother acts like she owns me and every time I tell them to back off I get accused of not loving them. Both myself and my brother (the left-out child) have struggled with depression throughout our lives and both have addictions, his are alcohol and cigarettes, mine is porn.

    What finally started to alert me to the problem and finally started to turn my life around is when I did one simple mental exercise. I imagined what it would be like if I had just heard that my mother had died. I tried to really put myself in that moment and make it as real as possible to see how I would feel. The wave of relief that came over me was incredible. I felt free for the first time in my life, like I could be exactly who I wanted to be, I could relax and not have to worry about anything. It was a "oh, thank god she's gone" moment.

    Now my relationship with my mother is deteriorating fast but I feel much better. I honestly don't think she can be reformed and she will be kept at arm's length from now on as I rebuild my life.

  14. Seems to me that this blaming parents for every anxiety or insecurity is a ridiculous trend. Whilst extreme parental influenced can damage children, anybody who is a parent will also have their own personality and human frailties. Rather than accept their own human imperfections many people who claim emotional incest are coming from a platform of unrealistic expectations about what it is to be human. Rather than accept themselves they are denying normal feelings of anxiety and other emotions as being normal. Then instead of taking responsibility for the way they conduct themselves in thought and behaviour they blame their parents, causing great distress and pain as parents find themselves rejected for no greater sin than loving their child. Grow up people and stop blaming everyone else. It is ok to have emotions and insecurities and that is all part of being human.

  15. What you wrote is not true. A small child does not know that she is lured by the mother, who says that she is my friend. She behaved as my friend instead of mother, poured all her insecurities, issues, my father's complaints, her in-law issues, money issues on me daily. Whenever i approached her with my fears ( I was suffering from constant unknown fears). She would not like my friendships with any male friends. She even banned me from attending the school that my friends went. She enrolled me at a school in a different city. I had severe anxiety issues since childhood, suffered severe depression since twenty. I had no friends. I had to constantly please her for her love, praise her beauty, bring the top grades, say how good a cook she is. She would not allow me to even think she has any faults. I was not allowed to bring on any complains. So much that I would not talk of my abdomen pains, pain while peeing. This was due to another condition where the menses could not come out as the orifice is blocked. I suffered one year day and night monthly and finally due to severe pain I started rolling on the floor at that time i was admitted to the hospital, the doctor scolded her for not caring enough to see the pain and said if i was admitted a little late, my uterus could have blown out due to such amount of accumulated blood. She does not like my husband, even wished that I divorce him, but i stood up to this, i told her i will live my own life, she did not take it nicely, but now i am feeling good less depressed, going on with prayer meditation.

  16. I was the chosen child too, and sadly being the chosen child is the worst position.

    The best way to describe this is that I feel that my mom has taken me hostage and demands a ransom of emotional needs, if I don't meet those needs she will get depressed and kill herself.

    But now there is tremendous hope for me, as I have question a lot of things that is happening to me. And simply put I am sick and tired of not feeling in control of my life, I was on the verge of suicide because I felt like I had no control of my life.

    But now I have the most powerful weapon in my arsenal: ignoring. I have learned that no one can stop you from ignoring the neediness of other people. And now I feel like I am free once again, I am looking forward to living on my own and finally seperating from my parents, it does not mean that I don't love them. But it means that it is a crime of life to hold your child hostage to fulfill your needs. It is a vicious cycle of the family system.

  17. I am 48, and was my mother's chosen one. i was her emotional caregiver, secret confidant, and girlfriend. altho' the incest wasnt sexual there were many sexual overtones, often showering or bathing together from birth until around 16. I would give her what i later learned was a sensual backrub with lotion every friday evening. she educated me and my younger brother on sexuality at ages 6 and 4 complete with books and detailed information about intercourse. she told me many details about her sexual relationship with my dad including information about his genitalia and her orgasms.. i was told how my father was neglectful of her financially, and on and on. i believed all this was normal. i didnt have an identity of my own. i filtered everything thru' her perspective even as an adult, causing many failed relationships. she died last winter and i was present at her death, now i am learning that what she did wasn't normal, that i dont understand boundaries and have never established my own identity, i feel lost and confused alot but i am beginning to learn what was untrue that i learned as a child and am trying to sort out reality from the fantasy my core family provided. i feel duped and inadequate, i loved her, and i thought she loved me but i get that she was not, trying to separate love from enmeshment. profound emotional damage, neglect and misinformation. who am i? she was my mother, i was her daughter, but we were one identity, now she's gone, i understand now she was undiagnosed bpd.
    now i am searching for a therapist but i dont know what specialty to look for, if anyone can share a direction for what kind of guide i should look for or a direction of support i can begin with i'd appreciate it. thats all for now, my dad is another long story, and still living. thanks for reading.

  18. Spankney, I am 48 also, and your posting reminded me so much of growing up with my mother. The backrubs, the details about her sexual relationship with my father and other men after their divorce, the sexual education at a much too young age. I was the scapegoat and my twin sister the chosen child, and it remains that way to this day. The only way I could survive emotionally was to stop all contact with both of them. It's been 4 years since I spoke to my sister and a year since I had contact with my mother. They are still completely enmeshed and aligned against me. I live across the country from them and am grateful for the distance.

    My mother leaned on me for emotional support when I was young, left me to parent myself when I was sick (which was often), complained about my emotionally abusive alcoholic father, dragged me and my sister into their fights, and then couldn't wait to be rid of us when she discovered men after her divorce. When I was 15, she forced me to pay for my sister's school clothes with the money I earned from a very physically demanding summer job. My sister didn't work and never paid me back. When I was 16, my mother said she didn't want to be a mother anymore, but by the time I was 30 and she was living nearby again, she expected to be able to lean on me and use me once more as a surrogate spouse. When I moved away several months later, she became furious, screaming at me on the phone for 2 years and wreaking family havoc. Since then, DH and I have been the victims of smear campaigns (she claims he hacked into her computer and stole files), and all blame for any family disagreement or dysfunction has been dumped on me. She has never once apologized or taken responsibility for any discord. She and my sister are never wrong. I finally had to escape them for my mental health and have never been happier.

    DH's support has been so helpful, though he's been vilified as a criminal and loser. He's a mild-mannered, kind person who makes a very good living and has a normal, nice family. I'm glad you're discovering life after your mother -- I wish you the best of luck. Therapy saved my life and showed me many years ago that something was seriously wrong with both of my parents and sister. The enmeshment is frightening. I was involved in it myself for a long time, talking about everyone else behind their back. It was something I learned, but refuse to do any longer. If my mother doesn't have NPD I'd be shocked -- she has so many characteristics of the disorder. There's nothing I can do to help her, I can only maintain distance and enjoy the wonderfully peaceful life I've built away from my very screwed up family of origin.

    I highly recommend the book The Emotional Incest Syndrome by Patricia Love. The only thing I take issue with is that the author says that invasive parents did the best they could with what they knew at the time. Mine didn't. They are malignant, vengeful people who tried to ruin my life and prevent me from living independently of them. Thank God it didn't work.

  19. @Ms Alma,
    I am doing fine i suppose, I am still employeed, for now, I did find a therapist who teaches me Mindfulness therapy, and I am very responsive so far. only been to see him once for free "good fit" visit. he was late. Then I chose to give it one chance the following week. I told him I was doubtful that he could help, and was expecting zero relief or progress. It sounded like some "new age" kind of "naturopathic" and imaginary placebo-type of crap. I said I expected to be taken advantage of and tricked into some fake "therapy" and I had zero trust, less than that as he was late, but I gave it one appointment.
    I am so thankful that I didn't just walk away. I had one hour with him doing this stuff with him and feel real changes and improving clarity, gained understanding, reduced confusion and internal dialogue which is interfering with my work, and overall body relaxation and "opening" as opposed to being shut off or blocked and braced against my feelings and emotions that are pent up from decades of repression. However I do see that this method lasts only for a few days, and then the wave of emotional junk builds and buries me again, only now its all pissed off.. I mean that the door there has now been unsealed and the pressure builds naturally as i am still shoving my negative emotions in that box or what ever that place is where I put shit I cant deal with. old coping that helped me survive my childhood and some of my adulthood, but now is not effective or needed. He will teach me new ways to cope with stress and how to process intense emotions instead of what I've been doing. I was doing great from wed thru' sat altho' sat was difficult and discouraging, but sunday I had a meltdown panic attack and had to leave work early, very humiliating. Great shame with this lack of control. I see him again wed.
    I am reading a psychologists instruction manual written to train them on how to help women who have suffered my specific "type of abuse". It is a recent publication and has been a perfect resource of valuable information and direction for me. I would love to learn your story of what your experience has been like in the indirect perspective you have. :) if you feel ok about it you can email me thank you for your inquiry. ~spankney~

  20. My bf of four years is dealing with the fallout of covert incest/maternal enmeshment. This is something that is done to you, without your consent, as a child. SEEK THERAPY from a therapist experienced with dealing with family problems like this. One comment said prayer is the only way to heal. Pray if you're inclined, but seek real treatment to find strategies to cope and heal.
    You can get better and go on to have healthy relationships--you've already taken the first step by realizing how your enmeshed parent treated you isn't normal or healthy. It's ok to set boundaries for your own health! Don't answer every call; tell your parent you can only talk at a certain time. If you live at home, move out. It's scary but you can do it. Try to make friends and build a support network through shared interests (try or attend support groups.

  21. I can relate to a lot of what people have said, but feel tremendous guilt at the same time. I'm 30 (female), grew up as an only child, was my mother's confidante and emotional support. My father was an alcoholic, physically and psychologically abusive toward my mother, and psychologically abusive toward me. My mom told me things at a very young age that were completely inappropriate: her relationship w/my father, instances of him hitting her, her suspicions about him doing drugs or having an affair, her thoughts of wanting to kill herself. She used to not close the door when she went to the bathroom, walked around half naked. I'd tell her it was inappropriate but she'd say I was being overly sensitive, that she grew up with it being normal to undress in front of female family members. She did, still does, ask me things about my body that make me uncomfortable, like questions about my menstrual cycle that are completely irrelevant, questions about my sex life. She'll act innocent when I tell her I don't want to discuss these things, then get angry and accuse me of not wanting to share anything w/her. Once as a teen, she called me a whore (so loud the whole neighborhood prob heard) b/c I snuck out to be w/a male friend. I've told her she set a bad tone for me ever wanting to discuss sex, and she just says "aren't you ever going to get over that!" She was and still is loving toward me at the same time, so it's really confusing! I've moved thousands of miles away from them to get the distance I needed. This past year, I finally got my depression under control and am finally happy w/my love life and have a normal relationship w/a man that respects me and is emotionally available. But this means less free time to talk to my mother, and that I "need" her less (yes, I'm guilty of calling my mom after a nasty breakup). If I don't need her, it's like she thinks I don't love her. I don't know what to believe sometimes. I want to have a normal daughter-mother relationship where we talk normally, but whenever I'm busy or happy, she goes into crazy mode and doesn't stop calling/emailing/texting to the point where I just want to hide from her. She constantly tries to make me feel guilty for living far away, still confides in me as though I'm a friend - which I guess I am old enough to be now? - yet I still feel like some of the things she tells me aren't appropriate to tell a daughter, like how she was "really, seriously" suicidal recently. I feel cold and heartless saying that I don't want to hear this, especially b/c I also suffer from depression and I've been there. But I don't think she means it most of the time, if ever, and sometimes talks about suicide manipulatively. She also spontaneously develops physical ailments during times when I'm apparently upsetting her, and usually these are instances when I'm calling her bluff or asking her to respect my boundaries. It's almost as if she cannot emotionally stand taking any kind of criticism, so she "develops" chest pain/trouble breathing/headaches, etc. When I ask her for normal adult things like to respect my space, she takes it as a criticism, similarly "develops" physical symptoms. Just today I asked her to please respect my space by not calling me 3x's a day, that I want to talk to her but not when she does stuff like that. Well, she acted completely surprised, accused me of "not liking her" (usually she accuses me of "hating her" so today wasn't as bad), and basically, the phone call ended with her telling me she doesn't want me to be sorry some day after she is dead (she is in her late 50s and in great health), breaking into tears, and then telling me she had to go and hanging up on me. Is my mom be BPD? Why do I hate myself for entertaining this idea when I am clearly suffering?

  22. Anon Sept 13 - Yes, she is BPD. I'm same age, same exact story, just finding it out completely. Taking me years not to feel as much guilt. I can totally relate to everything and it seems like the only answer is more distance since they often give ultimatums. All or nothing, her way or the highway. It's already lose-lose so you can't lose any more for gaining your own life back.

  23. My partner is a victim of covert incest and I'm horrified at the damage it has done to him. He is literally the most damaged and non functional man who is stuck being a boy that I have ever met. He is 35 and still living at home while his mother cooks for him, literally walks into his suite while she is serving him his favorite meals, drinks and desserts, goes through his drawers while doing all his laundry, changing his bed and confiding in him as a husband with all her emotional needs and disappointments from the real husband. My partner is literally her sexualized surrogate husband and I can see it in her manner that she not only favors him as a golden boy but that she fixates on him and wants all of his intimacy. I'm sick to my stomach because while my partner rages against her he also idolizes her. It's all sick and distorted.......makes me feel helpless and utterly perverted inside this sick and twisted triangulation. I say this because his mother wants to make me her best friend. In her scheming benevolence she has determined that my partner loves me so much that she knows that she doesn't have a chance so then she has to make me her new best friend in order to continue having a hold on him.
    I recognized this when I saw their dynamic upon visiting him and his family. They are so sickly dysfunctional that they are functional. As for me I was also a victim of my father being daddy's golden girl only my dad was raped as a child so he had to neglect me at the same time and never show me any affection. I guess that is what saved my life. I moved out at a young age and learned normal coping skills, something my partner is completely incapable of.
    My partner is literally his mother's captive and has told me that unless I pull him out of that situation he doesn't have the strength to ever leave. I'm so angry at his mother for not only crippling him but for rendering him literally useless as a man. He is trapped as an emotionally underdeveloped boy who is terrified to not only grow up but to love, commit and be free and happy.

    I'm in agony over it all and sick.