Daddy’s Girl and Mummy’s World: The Story of Covert Emotional Incest

Once upon a time there was a little girl, her daddy called her his little princess.  Daddy took his little princess everywhere with him, he was so proud of his daughter and people loved to see her riding beside her daddy in the car.

Once upon a time there was a little boy whose mummy thought he was the best boy in the world. Mummy and her boy had slept together in the same bed since he was a baby.  Daddy slept in the spare room so that mummy and her little boy could get plenty of rest.

This isn’t an easy blog to write and I am sure it isn’t going to be an easy blog to read for many of you but it needs writing and I think it needs reading too.  So much of my therapeutic work these days is with adults who were alienated as children and much of that work is with spouseified children who were married to mummy or daddy.  This work makes me realise how common this family dysfunction is and how hidden it is too. It also makes me realise how difficult it is as a subject to contemplate.  Because after all, who wants to talk about incest even in a blog about parental alienation?

The very word incest triggers the reaction which is biologically instilled in us and which protects us (or should) from inappropriate feelings about our biological relations.  Incest, the word and the thought makes us feel – well – it makes us feel ‘icky’ as some would say. That is because that feeling is the taboo which our upbringing should support when the time comes that we are sexually developed.

I am not going to go into theories about how our sexuality develops and thus how the incest taboo kicks in because that is a psycho-sexual lecture all of its own.  Suffice to say that by the time we reach our teens, relating to mummy or daddy as if they are the centre of the universe should be a long distant memory.  Being daddy’s little princess and mommy’s world is something that all children can be for a time but if it persists, if it crosses the boundaries of normal human relationship and particularly if it is encouraged, nurtured and defended by the parent, it becomes not only dysfunctional, it becomes abuse.

I am not talking sexual abuse here although incest in the form of sexual abuse is of course,  the physical violation of boundaries through inappropriate sexualised behaviours of an adult towards a child as well as the corruption of the child’s understanding of safety and control over their own self and soul. What I am talking about here is the covert emotional incest which accompanies the broken attachment hierarchy and which places the child of a marriage or relationship in the wrong place in relation to one of the parents.

I hear it many times over and it is very common amongst only children. The cross coalition which Minuchin speaks of has been apparent in my work for well over a decade in therapy with families affected by parental alienation and in children who are now adults who are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the psychologically split state of mind.  The phenomenon is common in only children and oldest children and it is this placement in the family line which appears to be very vulnerable to this attachment disruption.

The child who is married to mummy or daddy is in a particularly precarious position in terms of their enmeshment with that parent, which suffocates their capacity to think and feel for themselves.  These are the child who, Ferenzi (1933) told us will subjugate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor.  It is this aspect of traumatic injury which I believe leads children to the state of mind in which they will cruelly and without any sense of empathy or shame, reject their parent as a method of dealing with the impossibility of being psychologically married to mummy or daddy.

Shame and its management is actually a large part of what is going on for alienated children.  Placed in a position where their primary sense of attachment has been threatened by the corruption of their place in the trans-generational family line, these children must find a way to manage the normal feelings of guilt and shame which come with the permission they are given to ‘murder’ their own parent.  The psychological murder of this parent, which is encouraged by the unhealthy parent who has bound them into pathological alignment, would ordinarily cause a child enormous grief, shame and trauma.  No child in the world would wish to murder their own parent but this is the inevitable outcome of the binding of the child who is vulnerable, dependent and without a sovereign sense of self.

As a normal part of development, all children fantasise at some point about being married to mummy or daddy.  In the healthy  interactions in the family however, children eventually resolve the impossibility of this and are pushed out into the world by their recognition of the primary relationship between the parents.

In alienation cases where the child has been recruited into a coalition with a parent which has at its basis a covert emotionally incestuous intent, this pushing out never happens, which means that when the time has come and gone for the child to psychologically leave, it is the healthier parent who has been evicted and not the child.

Working with these families shows me that there is a trans-generational pattern at play in which the parent who is pathologically binding the child is often seen to be pathologically bound in a cross generational coalition with one of their own parents.  Thus, the daddy who has psychologically married his daughter, will be seen to be psychologically married to his mother and on examination it is likely that she too will have been somehow psychologically married to her own father.  These psychological maladjustments, seen across time are subtle but powerful and when they are present they compel a repulsion of anyone who does not fit the pattern.

These are the family configurations seen in the phenomenon I call growing up in a world without windows and a house without doors.  This family pattern is inward looking, avoids scrutiny from the outside world and within there are none of the normal health boundaries between the generations  which are seen in other functional families.

The avoidance of scrutiny appears to be largely because there is a secrecy to these families which is organised around the  covert emotional incest which is taking place.  Often presenting in high up places where rigid rules apply (think heads of institutions and other such positions of power), these families appear on the outside to be perfect. On the inside however, the familial relationships are tangled like balls of wool across the generations.  Children growing up in these families are party to everything which goes on in the family and are hyper vigilant in terms of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the core players (the elders) who are the link to the past from which this dysfunction flows.  These children are often regarded as unworldly by others, they are little adults who often present as wise counsellors, they are the children whose unconscious childhood lives have been taken from them, often before they were born. They are watchful and protective of the family narrative which is that they are perfect and everyone else is not.

What is curious about these families is that they appear to recruit into them vulnerable people who can be manipulated. Which is why rejected parents in this particular alienation scenario end up being there in the first place. Something in the background of the parents who become part of this family configuration means that they are easy to manipulate and therefore easy to push out of the family circle when the time comes.

Being married to mummy or daddy takes a huge toll on these children.  When we meet them it is apparent that they are very much slaves to the will of the parent and to the generations before them.  Liberating them from this psychological drama is therefore an urgent task.

The story of covert emotional incest is a trans-generational narrative which appears in some (not all) cases of parental alienation.  It shows itself through the child’s automatic reflexive support of one parent (who can appear mild mannered and benign hiding the behaviours which are controlling and aggressive) and the cruelty displayed towards the other.  Children who assume the shape of partner to a parent and who willingly fill the space where the other parent should be have been recruited into an emotionally incestuous position in which their needs are discarded in favour of meeting the parental demands.

This is a deeply discomforting scenario to watch and uncovering it and building a route out for the child is extremely difficult because by the time we reach these children they are already psychologically married to a parent and that has been normalised.  Working to help them to recognise the damage that has been done is about stripping back the psychologically split state of mind and exposing the damage at the heart of the family.  Doing this work without leading the child into counter rejection is difficult and there are stages of work which requires us to receive the child’s full discharge of rage which comes on exposure of the secret.  Add into this the pathology of the parent, often still psychologically married to their own parent as well as their child and the elemental force which is triggered as the family attempts to cover up the shame by projecting blame outwards can be overwhelming.

In Britain at least, the cult of being married to mum or dad is institutionalised and is linked to centuries of child abuse which is only now beginning to be exposed and healed.  Alice Miller in her writings about children and the manner in which their lives are sacrificed to those of their parents, has illuminated so much of this dynamic.  It is often to her that I return when I try to work out how this has happened in plain sight for so long.

Parental alienation is so much more than a dispute about contact between children and parents after family separation.  Down in the darkest places it is about inter generational stories and those bodies are only just being brought up to the light and the air so that we can more deeply understand them.

For those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see, having the courage to examine that which we have long looked away from, is the first step in building healthier foundations for future generations of children to depend upon.

Ferenzi, S. (1933) The Passions of Adults and their Influence on the Sexual and Character Development of Children.’ Published in Int. Z. f. Psa.

23 Comments

  1. Yes, yes and yes. Reading this post sent shivers up my spine. Amongst the complex web of our families story of parental alienation is emotional incest. During my marriage, we had enormous problems with my Mother in law. To keep it short she was unhinged, had no idea of boundaries and was toxic. My husband was both terrified and loathed her but also tethered to her demands and wants, he still wanted her approval. She was complex. We had marital therapy about her and I was recommended two books to read both by the Author and psychotherapist Kenneth Adams. One of his books is called ‘married to your Mum’ the other ‘silently seduced: when parents make their children partners”.
    It was when reading the last chapter of ‘Married to Mum’ on how not to emotionally cross boundaries with your own children that I recognised behaviours that my then husband was doing with our eldest daughter but I dismissed it. What’s more hilarious was I got him to read the book and he found it helpful to understand his polarise emotions about his Mother and the impact she had on our children. What was really scary at the time of the birth of our first daughter was that his Mother tried to take over our children. She wanted them to call her ‘Ma’, the same name my husband called her. I know grandparents can be called ‘ma’ and ‘pa’ but she insisted that her name was ‘ma’ but her husband would be called ‘Grandpa’. She then would refer to me as ‘Mother’ it was bizarre. She then did all sorts of inappropriate things to many to list but the basis was that she was desperate for my children to love her and she pushed and pushed but she also made constant competitive comments to me as their Mother. She ranted that only she could name our children, she wanted to move next door and look after them, she wanted to set up their education fund, it was highly intrusive. My focus was so much on trying to maintain boundaries around her that I dismissed my husband’s own enmeshing behaviours with our eldest daughter. Once the marriage fell apart, it rose very very fast to the forefront. My daughter who I only see sporadically despite court orders says things to me like ‘you are a stealer, you stole Daddies money from his business, Daddy is letting me take over his work when I am older and you are stealing from us’. I assume she is referring to the property settlement and child support which he isn’t paying. The fact that she knows these details as an 11-year-old is disturbing.
    Karen, you are spot on when you say its intergenerational. So when throughout our marriage my husband was coercive and controlling I kept justifying his behaviour because of his family background and I felt sorry for him thinking he was just overly insecure person and I blamed myself for not showing him enough love to make him feel secure but then at the end of the marriage showing him my love meant, isolation from family, friends, a job, inclusion in financial decisions, coercive sex and so on and on. When the marriage ended he transferred his insecure need for love to my eldest daughter. I can also see that he holds onto her like its life and death for him. So being in the court system this last 12 months has made him even more desperate to keep a hold. Like you said Karen, it’s not high conflict divorce but one parents panicked response to the other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow!!!! What a story and I can see my story in some of this. I hadn’t seen the “son being married to his mother” portion until reading Karen’s and this piece. My ex-mother-in-law certainly controlled the family and still does I assume. She was always so negative to her son ( my ex-husband) but in divorce I see how he has responded to her and needed her money as well as her approval. Now I will look at my children and see how this fits for them. I was told that my oldest daughter seemed uncomfortably close to her father in public by other people after the divorce. Maybe this is what was happening. Interesting all of this. This is all so psychological!! I have written a book for children and am looking for a publisher. It explains Parental Alienation in simple terms. Thank you to everyone for sharing and to Karen for helping us to see what has happened.

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  2. Excellent article. Speaking from personal experience, I would also add that a similar dynamic can operate between mother and daughter, and in these days of single sex marriage, ‘why not?’

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    1. “a similar dynamic can operate between mother and daughter,”

      Well, my xW was fully enmeshed with my daughters, and after more than 20 years with me finally found her wings as a lesbian.

      Fiction has nothing over real life…

      This post has the chills running up and down my spine – Karen, thanks for another cold wake-up.

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  3. Well Karen, you have just written about my husband, my only surviving child (daughter) and me. You couldn’t have been more accurate. I’ve started writing more comments on here but deleted the lot, I don’t know what to say except that what you’ve written hasn’t come as a surprise. I’d known in deep down since my daughter was still at Primary school and there were times I felt very uncomfortable about him ………..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Willow – I too wrote more, with examples, but then deleted.
      Just getting on with life now.
      If change comes, it will come now because the child (adult now) wants it in some way.
      We concentrate on living our own lives as healthily as we can, for each other and for our other children.

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  4. The common cultural misconception that you need to be friends with your children doesn’t help here as it can hide this maladjustment in plain site.

    Have you any experience of homosexual versions of this?

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  5. Again Karen your writing echoes our experience.
    I’m sure if you were to also write about the links with Munchausens by proxy it would feel like our story too.

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    1. Karen – just listened to Esther Rantzen (Desert Island Discs) – set me wondering about what info/training/links FSC has or could have with ChildLine, given they almost certainly take calls from alienated children? I know they are an offshoot of the NSPCC – had a look around their message boards and there certainly is lots of emotional abuse referenced. Just a thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The weather today is foul, just been out for lunch with a friend and walked my cairn, Charlie in sleet, hail and biting winds, I’m frozen ………. now I just have to tell “you” this story ………….

    Just over a year before I left my husband and daughter, her live in partner’s dad and step mum came up from down south and we met them for the first time – we were invited out to the pub for a meal. Of course my husband had to sit next to daughter while I sat opposite them and spent most of the evening chatting away to partner’s dad who was really nice. It was a lovely evening.

    At the end of the evening we walked out of the pub door into the large car park (we were going to walk back to daughter’s house together). Daughter strode on ahead thereby breaking away from the main group. My husband instantly strode ahead to be with her, draped his arm round her shoulders and leaned in close to whisper in her ear, not just whisper but keep on whispering as the two of them walked. He carried on draping himself round her but she didn’t look at him.

    The rest of us, me, her partner (now her husband – I wasn’t invited to the wedding and only found out about it by chance) and his dad & step mum trailed along in a group behind the two of them. Three thoughts went through my head …………..

    1. How rude of her to stalk ahead instead of staying with the group
    2. How ******* creepy my husband was – he made my skin crawl on that walk back………
    3. Why the heck didn’t anyone else notice how ODD it all was let alone how creepy he was?!!

    Every photo I see of him and her on the internet when they are away together racing (yes, I look on the racing sites for photos of her) he has his arm draped round her. She’s married and she’s 38, but he’s still draping himself over her.

    (I strongly suspect/know that he was enmeshed with his mother who committed suicide not long after we got married having told me that blood is thicker than water – hence his desperate need for my daughter because she is HIS blood.)

    Very, very sad.

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    1. Willow,
      I did think of you when reading this article. I think your hunch is right that he has enmeshed with your daughter because she is blood, and so he could exploit your daughters want to be loved and in turn gets his own emotional needs met. It’s not fair. If it was sexual abuse you could lay charges but it’s emotional and so you can do nothing.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I often feel that you have been sitting on my shoulder watching my experience of life through the eyes of an alienated parent…you put is so succinctly Karen and it really is as subtle as you are intimating – so many can’t see what is happening as they are wearing rose coloured glasses! Each time you write I see another piece of the story recognised and falling into place!

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  8. “In Britain at least, the cult of being married to mum or dad is institutionalised….”

    You know, I’ve been getting into the ‘Shetland’ TV series where D.I. Perez is a widower with a teenage daughter
    at college……I am going to be totally gutted if I cannae watch that now without seeing signs of covert emotional
    incest and spousification.

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    1. Jimmy’s daughter is a parentified child Anita – her biological father Duncan is more like her child. Jimmy provides the real parenting in that relationship, he puts boundaries in place whilst Duncan constantly seeks her approval and attention. So if there is any covert emotional incest and parentification it is with Duncan. Sandy is a problem though, he doesn’t know where his boundaries are so he ends up in all sorts of trouble. Tosh is busy trying to be mum in a team full of men but Jimmy keeps her safe. You can tell I like Jimmy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Tosh is busy trying to be mum in a team full of men but Jimmy keeps her safe”

        Do you not reckon that it’s Sgt Billy McCabe who is being the den mother in the team? Sandy’s character was less
        irritating when he was still uniform. I have yet to check out series 5 to spot transplants from Outlander hah!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ay Billy is definitely the mother hen! Tosh is doing her best though to be wise counsellor but watch how jimmy keeps her from taking on too much. I hope jimmy keeps his boundaries in this series I’ve got a lot invested in him!!!

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  9. Great piece Karen, I’ve had it both with my ex husband and his mother and then with my son (her grandson)

    Was strange to read as I thought it was all in my head, seems it’s actually “a thing”!! The world is a funny place and I mean funny peculiar ……not ha ha!!

    Frankie x

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  10. Which is why how we “parent” and the way in which we do it is of vital importance. Very few people have the emotional intelligence, nor the will to overcome bad habits learnt from past generations.
    Emotionally intelligent parenting is not taught in mainstream schools, instead we get the authoritarian dogma constructed around preferential treatment of the battered and delicate female.
    There has been a lot of research in the last century around the family and parenting styles (some of it not so pleasant carried out on identical twins) but the conclusion is that those parents who “coach” their children (rather than bully them or demean them or dismiss them or ignore them), will produce more emotionally healthy children who then grow into healthier adults. Ref: Ginot, Gottman, Faber & Mazlish.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. As a Christian Psychologist…I know it all goes back to not knowing or having God’s guidance found in the Bible. It is simple put… We are to leave our parents and become one with our spouse. The spouse is superior to our parents and our children. The relationship with our spouse is second only to our relationship with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. All others are second…
    God
    Spouse
    Children
    Parents
    It’s that simple.

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  12. Wow! This has really hit home for me. My ex was very reliant on me emotionally throughout our marriage and I knew that would be transferred to my eldest daughter when we separated (my choice), because she was such a caring girl and he was so weak. Then 2 years later, he met with a narcissist and my life has been hell ever since. My ex has fought hammer and nail with me to ‘get residency’ of ONLY ONE of our children (the eldest), firstly using emotional blackmail, abuse and threats toward me, all alongside increasing alienation strategies. Fortunately, initially the court awarded 50/50 care (which is what we already had), and for the last couple of years things have been good. But out of nowhere, it’s raised it’s head again, and I think more so because of the pressure on my daughter from her Dad, and she is now rejecting me again. In the past I read all about ‘hierarchy’ which I could see was happening in the earlier years of our separation, through to alienation. Now having read up on emotional incest, I can see all the links and how they all tie together. The narcissist girlfriend (who sadly I have history with, hence her determination) took it from hierarchy and emotional incest, through to parental alienation. Having knowledge and the ability to offer empathy to my daughter does help. Me certainly, and in time I hope her. It’s just so heartrendingly hard, and sad.

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  13. i just wonder what my kids think about, they look confused to me with no questions asked. Their mother dosnt think of them 1st, mothers actions to my collegues whome iv confided in see a 40yr old chacing boys to house her. And her kids if they fit? Id have my girls full time and ask her for nothing. Im just a skum bag tho, and shes spent 2yrs dropping the hint to them. My divorcing her is in wait for her reply for 50/50 ish time with them but in reality mothers heart is in boys not rearing teenbage girls whome i help her manifest. She think of them as a something, i feel for my daughters from the gut. my ex is scared to delve within that deep. Deeply troubled thanks to her controlling mother and timid father. I seen through the whole thing but forgot to keep my opinions to myself. So now im battling the evils for speaking out. I liked the 90s better.

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  14. Yes this article speaks the truth. At least in my experience. The challenge remains about what to do about it. Our courts, even with the: best judge; best barrister; best phycologist and a ton of money are without utility for the child. My reflections are that had I changed my response to alienating behaviour earlier enough, then a different and better outcome for the child and future generations could have been achieved. Perhaps the answer lies in education of this pattern throughout society and early intervention. If we can bend society in the pursuit of the desires of all types of adult then surely we can do the same to protect the rights of children not to be abused in this way. Education and acceptance of pattern are urgently needed.

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