Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Adustments that the Rest of the Family Makes: Keeping the Dysfunctional Family in Balance

From “The Emotional Incest Syndrome” by Patricia Love with Jo Robinson.

How Emotional Incest Affects Family Members:

From pages 56 – 72:

In this continuing drama, the actions of one family member elicit reactions from everyone else, and every plot development has implications for the entire group.

In enmeshed families such as the ones I've been describing, the interplay between individuals is greatly exaggerated... “the drama where everyone loses.”

  • Blood Ties

  • Invasive Parent

  • Left Out Child

  • Left Out Spouse

  • Shadow Parent

  • Spouse of the Chosen Child

  • Inlaws

Blood Ties

[Describes a research project demonstrating measurable levels and Free Fatty Acids in the blood regarding how children absorb family tension. Salvador Minuchin's study demonstrated that the enmeshed child's physiology became altered as evidenced by the FFA response, coinciding with child's sustained and persistent anxiety level as well. Children without enmeshment did not demonstrate any physiologic response.]

The Invasive Parent

Viewed from the outside, the Invasive Parent – the one enmeshed with the child – appears to be in an enviable position. As we've seen, the parent gets many of his needs met by the Chosen Child who – unlike a spouse – rarely makes demands, criticizes, or challenges the parent to “relate.” The child merely accepts what is given. If Daddy is a little self-centered or irritable or hits the bottle once too often – so be it. That's the way Daddy is. The child has no basis for comparison.

An Invasive Parent who is married also gets to enjoy the convenience of having a spouse. Even though there is some unresolved tension in the marriage – otherwise the parent would not turn to the child – there is a semblance of a relationship. For example, the couple may have sexual relations, share household and parenting responsibilities, and have occasional moments of intimacy. When there is more substance to the marriage, the Invasive Parent appears to be sitting in the catbird seat. He or she basks in the adoration and companionship of a child and reaps many of the rewards of being married as well...

At first, it may look like this man has the best of both worlds. But it must be remembered that he, like all parents who are overly bonded with a child, initially turned to his daughter because of a lack of more suitable companionship. After his divorce from his first wife, he turned to his daughter to help ease his pain and loneliness. And even though living with his daughter seemed to satisfy his needs, it was not fully rewarding to him, or he would not have remarried. Like allparents who are enmeshed with a child, he had an unsatisfied desire, whether conscious or unconscious, for a more encompassing union with another adult. But when he acted on this desire and married for the second time, he had to contend with his wife's jealously. He was being forced to choose between the two people he loved most in the world. He was sitting in the hot seat, not the catbird seat!...

Besides juggling competing claims from the spouse and the child, the Invasive Parent ultimately faces a greater trial – the loss of the child, for in all but the most ingrained parent-child relationships, there comes a time when the child moves away from the parent. It can happen abruptly or it can happen over time, but either way, the loss is often heartbreaking.

The Left Out Child

It's a fact of life that parents don't respond to their children equally. They may love each other and each one of the, but they invariably find themselves drawn to one child more than the other. In some families, this natural attraction is nto moderated by compassion or fairness but is acted out as favoritism...Added to these blatant signs of favoritism were tens of thousands of subtle, daily interractions that said to the Left-Out Child: “You are not a priority in my life. You are not as important to me as your brother or sister.”

...It is difficult to maintain your self-esteem when you grow up in a family in which you don't feel prized or valued, where the laurels always go to someone else. When a sibling gets all the attention, you ache for your share of love. You want your special gifts to be celebrated and your weaknesses to be met with compassion... The Left Out Child's goal in life is straightforward: toseek a place in the sun... Some excluded children try to cater to the whims of the parent. They become highly attuned to the parent's needs and mirror the parent's interests. Many years later, they are often the ones who volunetter to take care of the aging mother or father, trying to return to the well in search of life-giving love.

In large families where one of the children is clearly favored, it is often possible to see a number of these coping mechanisms being played out. One Left-Out Child may be a people pleaser, another an overachiever, another a criminal, a fourth a member of a religious cult. Outside observers wonder how the same two parents could produce such diverse offspring. What they don't see is that the children are trying to solve the same family problem – parental favoritism – and that they are following one of the unwritten laws of family dynamics: choose a coping mechanism not preemted by other siblings.

The Left Out Spouse

Of all the members in the enmeshed family, the Left-Out Spouse, the one relegated to the far outpost of the love triangle, is the most commonly misunderstood. Displaced by a son or daughter, the spouse may feel violently jealous. He or she may have a hard time justifying this anger, however, because there is rarely any one incident between the Invasive Parent and the Chosen Child that is blatantly wrong: the relationship in inappropriate only when viewed as a whole and only when viewed against the backdrop of healthy family dynamics. When the Left-Out Spouse reacts to an isolated incident, the whole thing seems blown out of proportion.

The Shadow Parent

I use the term Shadow Parent to refer not to a discrete role in the family but to a personality type: passive, detached, and noninterfering. Either the Invasive Parent or the Left-Out Spouse can be a Shadow Parent. When the Invasive Parent has a passive personality (as in the example of Cinderella's father), the Chosen Child will have little protection from the scorn of the Left-Out Spouse... If the Left-Out Spouse has a passive personality, there will not be much resistance to the parent-child alliance; a potentially corrective force in the family will be missing.

The Spouse of the Chosen Child

When the Chosen Child grows up and marries, another person stumbles into the quagmire – the spouse of the Chosen Child. I have a lot of sympathy for a person who marries one of us Chosen Children, because we can be “larger than life.” Our joys and problems appear boundless and overrun the concerns of our spouses, and our crazy mixture of high and low self-esteem can drive them to distraction...

If the Chosen Child was allied with a Critical/Abusive Parent, different marital problems can arise. The feelings of inadequacy and low-self esteem that characterize the Scapegoat Child can be difficult for a partner to deal with. The partner may feel the constant need to shore up the Chosen Child's ego and counteract the early years of abuse and neglect. This is a futile task, however, unless the Chosen Child is willing to examine those old parent-child issues. It takes a concerted effort to erase early messages from a parent.

Another spouse who earns my sympathy is the one who marries a Chosen Child who has reacted against an Invasive Parent by developing an impenetrable barrier to intimacy. Although the barrier was erected to keep out the overbearing parent, it also shuts out the marriage partner.


If a Chosen Child grows up without fully breaking away from the Invasive Parent, the spouse of the Chosen Child has an additional obstacle to overcome: in-law problems. It is not uncommon for the Invasive Parent to dictate how the newlyweds should run their household, to require frequent phone calls or visits, to encourage financial ties between the families, to insist that the couple live nearby – ideally, in the same house – and to dictate the terms of all family gatherings. These demands are a clear violation of the autonomy of the younger couple. If, in later years, the Invasive Parent moves in with the family of the Chosen Child – which often happens – in-law problems occur daily, if not hourly.

The spouse of the Chosen Child appears to have only two ways to handle the invasive in-law: (1) give in to the demands and become an additional source of support, or (2) treat the Invasive Parent as an intruder, a foreign body to be rejected. If the spouse chooses the first option and joins the ranks, the couple will be absorbed into the family and have little personal freedom. Whenever they step out of line, there will be a price to pay. If the spouse chooses the second option and resists the Invasive Parent – watch out: the temperature will rise. Adding an outsider to the boiling pot turns the family into a pressure cooker.

Sometimes the Chosen Child secretly encourages the battles between the spouse and the Invasive Parent, because on some level, the emancipation feels long overdue. But even so, the parent will rarely blame the Chosen Child for the fracas – it's the son-in-law or the daughter-in-law who's considered the outlaw...

Excerpt from
Dr. Patricia Love's

The Emotional Incest Syndrome:
What to Do When a Parent's Love Rule's Your Life
Bantam Books, 1990