Covert Incest

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Covert incest differs from overt incest in that the incestuous relationship between parent and child is not one of physical sexual abuse but rather one of emotional sexual abuse. Most childhood victims of covert incest are even unaware that they have been incested by a parent, usually by the opposite-sex parent, and many feel their abuse, when finally and fully recognized, is not as legitimate as the abuse suffered by childhood victims of overt incest. But the effects of unrecognized or undiagnosed covert incest are only too real and take a toll on the emotional well-being and intimate relationships of the adult survivor. Like victims of overt incest, victims of covert incest need to recognize what happened to them as children and feel their feelings about their parental relationships so that they too can begin the process of healing.

What is covert incest? Covert incest happens when a parent, usually an opposite-sex parent, makes the child a surrogate partner or spouse, most often when bonds of sexuality and intimacy have been or are breaking down between the child's parents themselves.

The child, feeling loved and put into a privileged position by the opposite- sex parent, becomes a confidant and advisor, an object of intense affection, passion - and preoccupation by that parent. Appropriate boundaries between parent and child are blurred or obliterated and the child does not realize that he or she is living to meet the needs of the parent rather than his or her own. The parent develops a dependency on the child and the opposite-sex parent's relationship with the child increasingly becomes more possessive, jealous, demanding -- all the time chipping away at the child's personal boundaries. Not unlike the victim of overt incest, the child increasingly feels manipulated, used and preoccupied with the parent's needs, whereas the parent's "love" begins to feel more intrusive than nourishing and more demanding than giving. The parent-child relationship becomes structured to meet the needs of the parent, so the child feels embarrassed to have needs of his or her own. Should the child try to have those needs met, he or she feels at risk of losing the parent.

As the covertly incested children become adults they tend to discount their own needs in order to continue to fulfill their opposite-sex parent's needs - at the price of their own intimacy and relationship needs. No matter the age of the adult, unless they can break through the denial, appropriate boundaries remain broken and the covert incest continues. The adult man continues to be "Mom's Special Boy", the adult female "Daddy's Little Princess." The adult child usually explains away this continuing incestuous attachment by admitting the opposite-sex parent can be overprotective and overbearing, but what a small price to pay for someone who has loved them so much all their lives and cared so deeply about their needs. Yet there is little that is loving or caring about a relationship in which a parent refuses to recognize a child's right to autonomy or the right to separate from the parent. The parent's excess love robs the child of the ability to feel truly nurtured and loved as an independent person.

The same-sex parent is usually complicit in the incestuous relationship between the child and the opposite-sex parent. If a boy is being covertly incested by his mother, often the father steps out of the way so the incest can occur - as the sexual and emotional bond between his wife and himself stops functioning in a healthy way. The boy unconsciously feels abandoned by his father and his sense of his own manhood is undermined. Though truly believing both parents are looking out for his needs, underneath is a seething guilt and bitterness and even rage for both parents who have, if not been true partners with each other, been silent partners in instigating and continuing the seductive pattern of covert incest.