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Enmeshed Emotional Incest: The “Innocent” Abuser and “Grateful” Abusee

Like a flash of lightening, it struck me this week that enmeshed emotional (non-physical) incest between a loving parent and their adored child may be the only abuse where the parent can say honestly, from their heart, so-help-them-God that they did not know they were abusing their child. I can say from experience that the child can honestly say that they did not know they were being abused.

But they did. And they were…regardless of whether they knew it or not. And it sucks.

Enmeshed emotional incest  is  predicated on the assumption that if “close” is good, “inseparable” must be better. Right? Right?

Yeah, no.

Having been around the block with enmeshed emotional incest, I know from experience that this closeness taken to extremes may seem nice (with some awkwardness and angst) at the time but looking back you find yourself cringing and filled with resentment, struggling to undo the psychological harm.

It starts out innocently enough. Little children need parents who are devoted to them and sensitive to their needs. That is as it should be.

Then come the teen years when parents traditionally begin to loosen their grip and help their children achieve age appropriate milestones and gain adult independence. While normal parents loosen their grip, emotionally enmeshed incestuous parents double-down and tighten their grip. The relationship goes from “close” to the cringeworthy BFF thing. Now the parent’s needs are trumps. Maturity? Milestones? Independence? Freedom? Ain’t happenin’, Honey. Mama/Dada needs you too much.

Almost the worst part is that the now-grown child doesn’t know what’s really going on and certainly doesn’t know why. All they know is that the person who loves them the most needs them endlessly. In return, they receive love, devotion, being guilted, praised, maybe even money.

Who could resist devoted, almost slavish, love?

Certainly not I.

Here’s a classic example of the love/guilt/angst of enmeshed emotional incest. When I was in my early twenties, my mother peevishly demanded that I stay within eyeshot of her in stores. Flummoxed, I assumed I had somehow failed to make the grade. That mom couldn’t trust me to be alone in a retail establishment, just as she didn’t when I was little and she feared me being kidnapped.

Only later did I find out that I was not the problem at all. In actuality, I was her agoraphobia security blanket. If she could always see me while shopping, she wasn’t afraid of having a panic attack.

In families of multiple children, it’s not unusual for the mother to be enmeshed with one child while her husband is enmeshed with another child. The spouses may be functioning as spouses should in practical, even sexual ways, but their social/relational needs are actually being met by their child-of-choice.

If you’re an only child…congratulations! You’ve won the enmeshed emotional incest jackpot. You’re now the pseudo spouse of both parents. It’s even worse if your family is cultish. Isolated. Friendless. I know because I devoted Tuesdays and Sundays to my father’s social needs and every Saturday and my rare days off from work to my mother’s social needs.

Conspicuous by its absence is…what is it called? Oh, right. “Me time.”

I’d always been close to my mother, preferring her sunny disposition to Dad’s depressions and rages or his I’m-so-funny act in lieu of authentic personality.

So it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I also began to be entangled with my father. Looking back, it all began when I was about twenty-four and decided to learn to play fiddle. Where he had tried to play violin, I succeeded. He took out his jealousy by becoming controlling, making music full of angst for me.

Rather than suffer his attitude during father/daughter jam sessions, I turned the tables and made him play my violin instead. Screech, squawk. Yes, my point exactly.

Unfortunately, it backfired. He started demanding I rush home from work every Tuesday evening to play music with him (“You can eat supper later.”) with an encore basement performance on Sunday afternoons, no matter how exhausted I was from my only “Me Time,” a Sunday morning coffee shop jam session with friends.

Between tunes, Dad would always pat me…and complain about Mom, his wife. I was also struggling under her control of my life and menopausal vagaries. For the first time, Dad and I had something in common. Over time,  I began to feel like Mom was the whole problem. Dad certainly would’ve allowed me more freedom than she did. For the first time, the father I had never particularly liked (and still didn’t) had found a way to bond with me. He was a lot nicer in his fifties, having been humbled and calmed by cancer.

Mom was suspicious. We could hear her quietly opening the basement door or a heat vent to try to eavesdrop on our conversations. Gossip isn’t right but neither is eavesdropping. After our jam session, the interrogation would begin. “Were you talking about me?” she’d ask me, suspiciously.

“No,” I’d say to spare her feelings.

Looking back now, I’m horrified…about everything. The enmeshed emotional incest is so obvious. I’m heartily ashamed of the part I played, my gossip and my lie.

My sole comfort is that I didn’t start the dynamic, I didn’t really realize what was going on and I would’ve been very happy to skip all of those music-gossip-and-paw-at-Lenora sessions with Dad. I was not jealous of Mom. There was no “love triangle.” Not. At. All. If I could turn back the clock and live my twenties differently, I’d avoid the enmeshment in a heaertbeat.

Sometimes people angrily say, “Don’t be such a victim! Don’t blame your parents! Take responsibility.”

Thinking back, with the information and brainwashing at my disposal in my twenties, I would probably do the same things. But this one thing I do take responsibility for. I feel very guilty and regret the gossiping I did in this classic enmeshed emotional incest scenario. Gag!

That’s why I have such a fire in my belly to call out enmeshed emotional incest for the abuse and harm that it is. There’s nothing cute or loving about it. Even though the participants may be happy, or think they’re happy now, it’ll come back to bite ’em on the ass, just like all abuse.

Perhaps the biggest trigger that magnifies the harm of enmeshed emotional incest comes when the adult child/pseudo spouse meets someone wonderful and wants to have a normal romantic relationship with a spouse of their own. Oh the jealousy! Stand back and watch the sparks fly! That’s why I began to realize what had happened to me in my twenties.

But this is much too important of a topic to dive into now. I plan to delve into it next week so have your airsickness bag ready.

Thank you for reading and have good weekend!

Thank you for reading. For happier, more lighthearted fare, please visit my food blog, Reluctant Cook, Cheap Foodie.

Photo by mattchamb16

Enmeshed Emotional Incest: The “Innocent” Abuser and “Grateful” Abusee

Lenora Thompson

For five years, "Narcissism Meets Normalcy" has followed the real-life, ongoing story of freelance writer, Lenora Thompson, and her readers’ healing journey from narcissistic abuse to healing, peace and happiness. In August 2020, Lenora launched a new blog, "Beyond Narcissism…And Getting Happier All the Time" as she and her readers explore the new world of peace and happiness. "Beyond Narcs…Get Happy" is 100% reader supported! To learn more about Lenora, her husband Michael’s heroic fight against Pulmonary Alveolar Proteinosis and to subscribe to her other writings, please visit Thank you!

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APA Reference
Thompson, L. (2020). Enmeshed Emotional Incest: The “Innocent” Abuser and “Grateful” Abusee. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Jan 2020
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