Covert incest (also known as emotional incest or psychic incest) is a relationship between a parent and child that puts a child in the place of fulfilling adult emotional roles. It is a term strictly describing interactions between a parent and child that are exclusive from sexual abuse, as they typically do not include the type of physical contact that would be considered child sexual abuse. These relationships are considered to be harmful,[according to whom?] placing the child in a position of an inappropriate emotional role.
Covert incest refers to a form of emotional abuse in which the relationship between a parent and a child is inappropriately sexualized without actual sexual contact. Substance abuse is thought[by whom?] to be associated with covert incest. The effects of covert incest are thought to mimic actual incest though to a lesser degree, and Kenneth Adams, who originated the concept, describes the victims as having anger or guilt towards parents and issues with self-esteem, addiction and sexual and emotional intimacy.
Covert incest was defined in the 1980s as an emotionally abusive relationship between a parent (or stepparent) and child that does not involve incest or sexual intercourse, though it involves similar interpersonal dynamics as a relationship between sexual partners. It has also been described as a parent responding to a child's love with adult sexuality. Problems between parents often facilitate covert incest; as the parents distance themselves from each other both physically and emotionally, one parent may begin focusing on their child. The child becomes the surrogate partner and source of emotional support for the parent. The abusing parent may also be afraid or unable to meet their needs through a relationship with another adult. Alcoholism and other substance addictions are also associated with the occurrence of covert incest.
Covert incest occurs when a parent is unable or unwilling to maintain a relationship with another adult and forces the emotional role of a spouse onto their child instead. The child's needs are ignored and instead the relationship exists solely to meet the needs of the parent and the adult may not be aware of the issues created by their actions.
Jungian analyst and author Marion Woodman describes psychic incest as "unboundaried bonding" in which the parent or parents use the child as a mirror to support their needs, rather than mirroring the child in support of the child's emotional development. Woodman considers psychic incest to damage the internal experience of the "parental complexes," described in Jungian analysis as a combination of actual interaction with the parents and the innate mother and father archetypes; according to Woodman, when these are damaged due to covert incest, an affected individual can experience distress in their personal relationships and sexual relationships in particular.
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