Are You a Victim (or a Perpetrator) of Covert Incest?

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“Covert incest, also known as emotional incest (and sometimes as psychic incest), is the surreptitious, indirect, sexualized emotional use/abuse of a child by a parent, step-parent, or any other long-term caregiver.”
— Robert Weiss, Sex Addiction 101

In contrast to overt sexual abuse, which involves hands-on sexual contact, covert abuse involves less direct forms of sexuality—sexuality that is emotionally implied or suggested rather than overtly acted out. In this way, a child is used for emotional fulfillment, forced to support the adult by serving as a trusted confidante and/or an “emotional spouse.” Though there may be little to no direct sexual activity, these overly enmeshed relationships have a sexualized undertone, with the parent expressing overly graphic verbal interest in the child’s physical development and sexual characteristics and/or betraying the child’s boundaries through voyeurism, exhibitionism, sexualized conversations, and inappropriate sharing of intimate stories and/or images.

Covert incest often occurs when the parents have distanced themselves from one another both physically and emotionally, or when one (or both) of the parents is addicted to a substance or a behavior. When dysfunctional parent couples distance themselves from each other, one of the parents may focus on the child, seeking adult emotional fulfillment by using the child as a surrogate partner. Or the parent may tie his or her self-esteem to the success of the child. Either way, the child’s developmental needs tend to be ignored, and emotional growth (especially in the area of healthy sexual and romantic attachment) can be profoundly stunted. Amazingly, the perpetrating adult is usually completely unaware of the emotional damage he or she is creating.

Interestingly, most covert incest survivors initially resist the notion that they have been sexually abused because they were never actually touched in a sexual way by the perpetrator. Nevertheless, these relationships are indeed sexualized. Stated simply, a child in these circumstances is sexualized and treated as an adult partner, and therefore the child is deprived of healthy attachment bonds, stable emotional growth, and many other basics of childhood development. In lieu of healthy development, the child is taught that his or her value is based not on who he or she is as a person, but on how much he or she can please, amuse, and/or bond with the caretaker.

Over time, covert incest survivors typically react and respond in the same ways as survivors of overt (hands-on) sexual abuse, with some or all of the following adult-life symptoms and consequences:

  • Addiction and/or compulsivity
  • Difficulty developing and maintaining long-term intimacy
  • Enmeshment
  • Shame and feelings of inadequacy
  • Dissociation
  • Difficulties with self-care (emotional and/or physical)
  • Love/hate relationships, especially with the offending parent but also with others
  • Inappropriate bonding with their own child (intergenerational abuse)

As pervasive and damaging as covert incest is, it frequently goes unrecognized in treatment settings. As therapist Debra Kaplan writes, “The obvious signs are obscured from plain view. It is like the air in the room–it’s here, but you can’t see it.” Thus, it is only when we dig beneath the surface that we tend to see the connections between early-life covertly incestuous abuse and adult-life intimacy and addiction issues, including sexual addiction.