In a previous post, “How Parentification Disrupts Your Development and Holds You Back as an Adult”, I mentioned that I’d discuss emotional incest, which falls under the umbrella of parentification. Or at least in my view it’s a part of parentification.

(Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.)

When I looked up the clinical definition of emotional incest, it turns out that the childhood experiences I had had in mind fall under both covert incest and emotional incest. As a child, I was a victim of the latter by my now-no-longer-practicing Amish birth father and the former by both birth parents.

As a reminder, parentification, as defined by Jennifer A. Engelhardt in a paper “The Developmental Implications of Parentification: Effects on Childhood Attachment” for Teachers College, Columbia University’s Graduate Student Journal of Psychology in the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, is:

"Parentification refers to the process through which children are assigned the role of an adult, taking on both emotional and functional responsibilities that typically are performed by the parent. The parent, in turn, takes the dependent position of the child in the parent-child relationship. Although a small degree of parentification can be beneficial to child development, this process can become pathological when . . . 

. . . the tasks become too burdensome or when the child feels obligated to take on the role of adult."

2 Types of Nonphysical Incest: Covert and Emotional

According to the American Psychological Association, emotional incest is “a form of child sexual abuse consisting of nonphysical sexualized interactions between a parent figure and a child. Emotional incest may involve the caregiver commenting on the child’s sexual attractiveness, drawing attention to the caregiver’s own arousal to the child or the size or shape of the child’s secondary sexual characteristics (e.g., breasts, pubic hair), or implying that the child is sexually active (e.g., calling the child a slut). Also called covert incest.”

Covert incest, according to the American Psychological Association, is “a form of emotional abuse in which a parent turns to his or her child as a surrogate partner, seeking from the child the emotional support that would more appropriately be provided by the person’s spouse or another adult.”

If emotional incest can also be called covert incest, why is there a separate definition for covert incest and one that doesn’t include their (the APA’s) definition of emotional incest?

The way I read it, the APA is trying to distinguish between nonphysical sexualized versus nonphysical nonsexualized emotional interactions. From that point of view, emotional incest shouldn’t be called covert incest.

To make things even more confusing, emotional incest is also called “spousification“, “enmeshment“, or “enmeshed parent-child relationship, all terms that could also be called “covert incest” depending on the specific scenario taking place.

Super exhausting! But my point in spelling all of this out is so you’re aware of the interchangeability of these terms and can determine whether a therapist you’re considering going to actually knows what they’re talking about.

Origins of Emotional Incest (Beware of Adams!)

Emotional incest is a concept developed by US psychologist Kenneth M. Adams, who, based on his website, appears to now use the terms enmeshment and covert incest instead. Adams’ book, Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners, and the writing on his website appear to be secular at first glance, but after looking up the people on his team, I get major red flags. One of them, Erin Wysong, is on the board of a religious organization for addiction/recovery and that does not bode well for anyone who wants to get unbiased scientific help from Wysong or anyone else on Adams’ team, including Adams himself.

In my experience of over a decade of intense therapy seeking help from a wide range of traditional to alternative modalities, therapists who were actively religious seriously harmed me. In several cases the re-traumatization from licensed therapists was so bad that it drove me further to the edge of suicide, the exact opposite of what professional therapists are trained to do. I write in detail about these experiences and call out the therapists by name in my memoir Amish Girl in Manhattan.

So, I will always urgently recommend that you do not see a therapist who is religious or demonstrates a conflict of interest.

For example, being active in or supportive of any so-called therapy program or organization that’s funded by a religion, except in rare cases (e.g., some but not all Unitarian Universalist services), is a clear conflict of interest for a licensed therapist. By definition, ethical professional therapy must be secular but the field is rife with therapists who violate professional ethics and shove their religious beliefs down your throat, gaslight you, or negatively manipulate you in other ways when you are at your most vulnerable. You are easy prey for them.

Adams is repeatedly referenced in academic papers, research studies, and articles on emotional incest (e.g., this dissertation by a Master of Clinical Social Work candidate at the University of Cape Town), so it’s even more important for me to point out the religious red flags I’m seeing on his website.

31 Signs of Emotional Incest

In The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life, authors Dr. Patricia Love and Jo Robinson list signs of emotional incest in children, teens, and adults:

For children and teens, signs include:

  • Feelings of guilt or unworthiness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feeling responsible for a parent’s feelings
  • Difficulty making and sustaining friendships
  • Isolation from others
  • Conflict or strain with siblings and/or the other parent
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Perfectionism

In addition to the above, signs in adults include:

  • Being a people-pleaser
  • Lack of self-identity
  • Fear of rejection
  • Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships
  • Fear of getting close to others
  • Putting the needs of others before one’s own
  • A strong desire to succeed
  • Finding a partner that is similar to one’s parent
  • Eating disorders
  • Drug or alcohol addiction
  • Sexual dysfunction issues

Dr. Love is a licensed professional counselor and former professor, but as explained in the section above regarding Adams, the mental health field is plagued with religiously biased therapists who end up harming clients because of said bias. One of the Amazon reviews for this book is definitely a red flag:

“The only thing I did not like about the book was it talked about ways to “make amends” in the back. Yes, with some parents it is possible to form a new healthy relationship, but some people you just can’t reach. I don’t know if she mentions the no contact option in the back of the book but for some children they will end up having to cut ties completely with said person because not all people are capable of respecting your boundaries.”

This reviewer is so spot on!

Any therapist who suggests you should or urges you to make amends with your abusive parents is re-victimizing you.

Parents/caregivers need to be held accountable for their actions and compensate their child victim for losses suffered as a result of said parent/caregiver’s crime, not the other way around. It is not the now-adult child’s responsibility to coddle the parent—a repeat of what they likely were forced to do as a child—by initiating making amends, forgiving and forgetting, and otherwise letting the “helpless” parent off the hook.

In contrast, the book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Dr. Lindsay Gibson, a licensed clinical psychologist, appears to be firmly on the side of the child and for calling out parent/caregiver’s abuse. Gibson was also an Assistant Adjunct Professor for the College of William and Mary and Old Dominion University, teaching doctoral student classes in Clinical Psychology.

Here are some signs, according to Gibson, that indicate that you suffered from emotionally abusive parent(s)/caregiver(s) as a child:

  • Felt unseen or unknown by a parent/caregiver as a child
  • Feel emotional loneliness as an adult
  • Often feel alone as an adult
  • Lost touch with your true self in order to take on a family role as a child
  • Have subconscious fantasies about how other people should act in order for you to heal from past neglect
  • Engage in a lot of self-reflection and personal growth
  • Are highly perceptive and sensitive
  • Tend to feel apologetic for needing help
  • Do most of the emotional work in relationships
  • Think about what other people want first
  • Have an inability or hesitancy to trust your instincts

Safe, Ethical, Professional Therapists for Help with Emotional Incest, Religious Trauma, and Other Mental Health Needs

To get help from secular (i.e., non-religious), evidence-based licensed therapists or mental health clinicians, go to the Secular Therapy Project. As of this writing, you can find vetted therapists in almost every state, Canada, Europe, South America, South Africa, and Australia. And thanks to one of the positives coming from the Covid pandemic, getting much-needed help from qualified professionals is now no longer a geographic or transportation issue. Seeing a licensed therapist virtually who was the best fit for me wasn’t even a possibility when I needed their help the most.

The Secular Therapy Project directory, launched in 2012, was created in response to the difficulty of identifying non-religious therapists. I wish that that resource had been available to me when I first started seeking help for my childhood traumas. What’s the icing on the cake about the Secular Therapy Project is that their team come from religious backgrounds, many of them fundamentalist, so they’re uniquely and acutely aware of how to identify genuinely secular therapists and weed out the covertly religious ones.

According to Dr. Darrel Ray, who founded the project, “secular therapists don’t advertise that they are humanist or atheist because that might alienate the churches and ministers who often make referrals to them. It might also drive off religious clients. Too many people have told me that they simply cannot find a therapist in their community who is not religious. On the other hand, I know that there are thousands of secular therapists, so how do we get these clients together with therapists.”

If you’re questioning religion or have been told that secular equals atheist, get help from a secular therapist, not from a religious organization, program, minister, or counselor. It’s impossible for them to work in your best interest, because their income or business depends on keeping you inside religion.

The chances that you will get the help you need from a secular therapist, especially one who was raised in a fundamentalist or conservative religion and is no longer practicing, are far greater because secular therapists don’t have a religious agenda and will give you the opportunity you need to figure out what’s truly best for you.

Books for Help with Your Mental Health, Sexuality, Religion, and God

If seeing a therapist is still too frightening for you, I totally empathize.

It took me until my late 20s because of the stigma around mental health from my Amish religious upbringing. I was taught that getting help for nonphysical issues meant that I was broken, inadequate, not whole, somehow less than human, inferior, rebelling against God and the Amish Church, not being submissive enough, not being obedient, and worthless, etc.

Reading reputable books and other literature that de-shamed my mental health needs slowly built up my courage to finally get professional mental health help.

I recommend that you read Dr. Ray’s books, The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture, which explores in simple language questions such as “How does guilt play into religious infection? Why is sexual control so important to so many religions? What causes the anxiety and neuroticism around death and dying?” and Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality, which shows in simple language “how much religion has influenced your sexuality, who you marry, the pleasure you get or don’t get from sex, and what you can do about it”.

The reason that I emphasize that Dr. Ray’s books use simple language is because, as Dr. Ray points out, big-name authors on these topics, like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, are “less accessible to those who have little knowledge of philosophy, biology or religious history. Of the thousands of religious books and hundreds of sociology and anthropology books, few if any explain the methods religion uses to infect and control people and cultures. The God Virus and Sex and God, explain in common, understandable terms, religion and its consequences on individuals and society.”

For a book featuring women’s voices on leaving religion, I recommend Karen L. Garst’s Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life Without Religion. Here is the synopsis of the book:

“Women have made great strides toward equal rights over the past hundred years, especially in the West. But when considering the ongoing fight over reproductive rights and equal pay—and the prevalence of sexual violence and domestic abuse—it is clear that a significant gap still exists. With scripture often cited as justification for the marginalization of women, it is time to acknowledge that one of the final barriers to full equality for women is religion.

“Much has been written about the great strides humankind has made in knocking down many long-held religious beliefs, whether related to the age of the earth or the origin of the species. But religion’s negative impact on women has been less studied and discussed. This book is a step toward changing that.

“Twenty-two women from a variety of backgrounds and Judeo-Christian traditions share their personal stories about how they came to abandon organized religion, and how they discovered life after moving away from religious and supernatural beliefs. Their words serve both as a celebration of all who have taken similar steps under the weight of thousands of years of religious history—and as a source of inspiration for those individuals, especially women, who have deep doubts about their own belief traditions but who don’t yet know how to embrace life without falling back on religion.”

I could not agree more with the sentiments expressed in that synopsis.

Watch the Video (coming soon)

Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.

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To education and children’s rights,
Executive Director, Amish Heritage Foundation –
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