Typically, covert sexual abuse, defined in my previous post, occurs when a child’s parents have distanced themselves from one another physically and emotionally. (Often, this is caused by an addiction or mental illness in one or both of the adults.) This distancing causes one of the parents to focus on the child, seeking solace and emotional fulfillment by turning the child into a surrogate partner. Meanwhile, the child’s developmental needs are ignored and, as a result, emotional growth, especially in the area of healthy sexual and romantic attachment, is stunted.
Interestingly, most covert incest survivors resist the idea that they were sexually abused, no matter how “icky” their relationship to the abuser felt (and still feels). Mostly this is because they weren’t actually touched in a sexual way by the perpetrator. Nevertheless, these relationships are without doubt sexualized, and from this sexualization the victims learn that their value is based not on who they are but on whether they can successfully please/soothe/satisfy the abuser. And yes, this is the exact same life lesson that victims of overt incest learn: My needs don’t matter; what you want matters; I am nothing more than an emotional/sexual object for other people to use in whatever way they want.
Unsurprisingly, covert incest survivors typically display the same adult-life symptoms and consequences as victims of overt sexual abuse.
- Difficulty developing and maintaining healthy long-term intimacy.
- Deep shame and pervasive feelings of inadequacy.
- Difficulties with self-care (emotional and/or physical).
- Love/hate relationships, especially with the offending parent but also with others.
- Inappropriate bonding with their own child (intergenerational abuse).
- Addiction – especially sex/porn addiction.
Unfortunately, as pervasive and damaging as covert incest is, it frequently goes unrecognized in treatment settings, primarily because people don’t understand what it is or how damaging it can be. This lack of understanding appears with not only survivors, but therapists, who sometimes seem to think that if there is no physical sexual contact, then no harm has been done. It is only when we dig beneath the surface that we see the connections between covertly incestuous behaviors and later-life problems (such as sex and porn addiction).
To learn more about covert sexual abuse and other variations of enmeshment, check out this excellent webinar hosted by enmeshment expert Jonathon Taylor.