Today I learnt of this term “emotional incest.” I looked it up on Quora to see if it was relevant to blog about – and I saw some questions about whether this “really” was incest because incest is necessarily sexual in nature.
I don’t know and I don’t want to get into that debate. But I’ll tell you why this idea is powerful for me. Recently, at The Health Collective, I wrote about the mother-son dynamic in India, which I now believe is better and more succinctly defined as emotional incest. Briefly, a wife that is emotionally unfulfilled by her husband, who is still wrapped up in his mother, becomes inappropriately reliant on her son, rendering him incapable of intimacy with his wife, thereby keeping us in an infinite seeming loop of inter-generational emotional incest.
What does that look like in practice? It seems harmless enough. A parent asking her child for advice on finances, for reassurance that everything will be okay, for an ear when the in-laws seem relentlessly hostile. But for a growing child, the parent is meant to provide the container, and the parent is meant to find their container in their spouse or friends.
If a parent makes their child a quasi-partner without sexual contact; that would be emotional incest. And that would not let the child grow up with him or herself front and centre of their world. It would not let the child grow up with a strong sense of who he or she truly is. Which would mean an emotionally fragile child that grows up looking to fix other people, put them first, numb themselves, get into physically and sexually abusive relationships – keep looking for themselves and their self-esteem everywhere except the place they lost it. Right under their noses, at home. As to why the word “incest” is powerful for me – it’s as though it is claiming my experience and making its forbidden horror tangible, even to me. The “chee chee” inherent in the word makes me feel that my sense of outrage at having been used as an emotional dumpster that could conveniently be scapegoated as the black sheep of the family has been valid.
The “chee chee” inherent in the word makes me empathize with the depth of my pain, even as it helps me make sense of why no one understood, not even me. The word incest transfers a charge, a bodily sense of violation that would speak for my experience more strongly than “mother-son attachment in a communitarian India.”
I can hear the “this is India not America” brigade gathering itself so let me clarify that as always, I locate my observations in an absolutely flawed patriarchal structure where women are expected to do the impossible. I further accept that our notions of individuality and community are different from Western cultures from which the majority of our diagnostic language emerges.
I have one permanent retort to this argument, which is – “What economy are you raising your kids to function in?” That’s right. A global economy. That’s why you sent us to the best English language schools. And that’s the economy we need to function in, which means that is the global culture we need to function in.
And in that culture, we are required to have boundaries and a strong sense of self. We can have none of these if you pick and choose when what culture applies as per your convenience. It cannot be – go win that debate and speak up in class and get a patent in your name AND beta, will everything be okay? I don’t feel like your dad’s side will ever appreciate me, I’m worried about your brother, on loop.
I’m all for the philosophy “both, and” – i.e. transcending binary or dualistic thinking. But here I point to a practical reality. We learn who we are, whether we are fundamentally good or bad, lovable or not, deserving of respect or not in our first 6 years of life on Earth. If at that time, we learn to put our emotionally incestuous parent before us, it’s going to take a long time to acknowledge what happened, learn what our own emotional landscape is, then begin to speak up and voice our own thoughts and feelings.
So people looking to have kids, here’s my checklist for you to avoid your kid writing about emotional incest 20 years down the line –
- Are you happy? Content? Do you know the difference?
- Can you regulate your own emotions? Can you self-soothe, i.e. make yourself feel better when you’re in a mood?
- Do you have a handle on your temper?
- Do you know what triangulation is? Do you promise to be conscious of it when it happens and stop right that minute? Your kid is not your marriage counsellor.
- Are your communication skills top-notch? Can you say “no” with kindness and without guilt?
- Are you and your partner a team? Do you feel the need to go outside your partnership and discuss your issues with other people rather than each other?
Book an appointment with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. More on psychotherapy with me here.