From “The Emotional Incest Syndrome” by Patricia Love with Jo Robinson.. Exploring the dynamics of covert (emotional or non-sexual but gender-related) incest.
How and why do parents get over involved in the first place?
From pages 73 – 82:
At some point in the recovery process, nearly all of my clients ask the same question: “Why did my parent do this to me?” They've come to realize that much of the pain of their childhoods can be traced to one source – growing up with an Invasive Parent – and they want to know why it happened... Few parents who are guilty of emotional incest realize they are harming their children. In fact, many of them see themselves as devoted, self-sacrificing parents acting in their children's best interests. What they don't realize is that in addition to giving their children love and attention, they are using the relationships to satisfy their own unmet needs. Unconsciously, they're allowing their natural love of their children to swell until it fills the empty spaces in their lives.
Exactly when does a parent's natural affection for a child turn into emotional incest?
It's hard to say, because all parents derive some degree of comfort and satisfaction from their children. Parenting is never a totally thankless task.
Acknowledging the Pleasures of Parenting
One of the hidden joys of parenting is a simple one: increased physical contact. There is no feeling that can compare to that of your newborn lying warm and content in your arms...They baby thrives on physical contact, and so do you...
Another benefit of parenting is increased intimacy...Being a parent has stretched your ability to be intimate, increased your safe harbor from the world, deepened your vital connection with other human beings.
Something else parents gain from their children – and this may seem a bit self-serving – is unconditional love. Children love their parents regardless of what they do. Their need for attachment is so great that they can make a banquet out of crumbs.
Children can also be a source of pride. I am always pleased when people tell me my children are attractive ore well-behaved or talented. Whether I like to admit it or not, there are times when I perceive them as a reflection of my self-worth. This mirroring phenomenon is universal. At any student recital, the spotlight may be on the children, but the faces of the parents are lit up with reflected glory.
Keeping Parental Love within Bounds
When you add to the many pleasures of parenting our inherent drive to nurture our young, the parent-child bond becomes a very strong one indeed. Marriages crumble. Friendships wither. But children are with you for life. This love is so intense, in fact, that it takes offsetting forces to keep it in line. It is only when parents have sources of love and intimacy and other interests in life that their love for their children stays within bounds.
[Following a case study of a career woman who became pregnant, giving up her career to stay home with her child.] I see nothing wrong with Helena's infatuation with Theresa. In fact, it gives me a lot of pleasure to see her so taken with motherhood. The reason I'm not worried is that Helena has a good relationship with her husband, and her husband has a strong interest in in the baby; love moves freely among all three members of the family. Also, Helena has a lot of interests other than parenting... Finally, Helena's background in family therapy gives her a definite advantage: she knows that a strong marriage relationship is the foundation for a healthy family, so she is careful to nurture her marriage as well her child. I doubt that Helena will ever turn to Theresa for emotional support.
A Lack of Love, Information and Role Models
Many parents have a lot fewer resources than my friend Helena. The are single or are trapped in unfulfilling marriages, and the go through their lives feeling lonely and unloved. The intimacy they share with their children may be the one bright spot in their lives...
Furthermore, few parents have much information about healthy family functioning. They aren't clear about the emotional needs of children, and they haven't learned the all-important difference between parenting and partnering. When I lecture on the roles and responsibilities of marriage partners – discussed in detail in chapter 7 – people always pay close attention. They pick up their pens and take notes, because what I am telling them is new information. Somehow, the facts about healthy love relationships have been left out of our curriculum.
A Lack of Self Awareness
Many people become enmeshed with their children because they fail to see their own lives objectively. They don't see to what extent they are siphoning off their energy to their children. Oh, how clearly they see the mistakes other people are making! But when the curtains are drawn around their own living rooms, they suddenly lose perspective. Ways of relating that seem way out of line to others feel normal – even desirable – to them. It they were able to penetrate their denial and see exactly what they are doing, they might make some immediate changes...
After a few sessions Helen was able to see what had eluded her for twelve years: she was completely reliant on Matthew for emotional stability. She had no close friends and few outside interests to minimize her intense bound with her son. Over the years, he had become her sole source of emotional support.
Toward the end of our first year of working together, Helem deepened her insight. She began to see that the ferocity of her mothering was in part an attempt to make up for the loneliness of her own upbringing. During one session she said, “My mother was a distant, cool woman. I wasn't going to make the same mistake with Matthew.” But Helen realized there was more to it than that. Another day she told me, “In a way, I felt as if I were the baby soaking up my own mothering. I didn't feel lonely or abandoned when I was with him. Every moment I spent with Matthew was a convoluted way to mother myself.” What looked to the outside world like devoted parenting was in reality a way to satisfy her own unmet needs for attachment. “I was so blind, so totally blind to what I was doing,” she cried in anguish. “Where were the warning signs?”
Helen was not a bad person. She did not knowingly become overinvolved with her son. She just didn't have enough information or objectivity.
The same could be said for most parents who are over invovled with their children ~~
They wouldn't rely so heavily on a son or a daughter if:
They knew how harmful it was to the child
They had some awareness of what they were doing.
I reassure victims of emotional incest who are just beginning to come to terms with the past that they don't have to think ill of their parents. It's possible to understand what happened to them without apportioning blame. Their parents, like all parents, were doing the best they could given the information they had and the options they saw. The root cause of their over reliance on them was not maliciousness or selfishness, but a simple and understandable desire to parent their children and satisfy unmet needs for love and companionship.