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Divorce, Children And Emotional Incest

A recent piece in First Things highlights what ought to be obvious: children are the most vulnerable party in a divorce.  And yet, for several decades now the discussion of sex and marriage in the West has focused almost entirely on the desires of adults.  Nathaniel Peters’ article [1] reviews the experience of children of divorce from the more articulate and reflective perspective of an adult, and poignantly states how devastating the demise of one’s parent’s relationship can be:  “After all, I was the product, quite literally, of their love and commitment.  I came into being out of their union…and now they were choosing to destroy the very communion that made me.”  The article rightly points out how the articulation of this existential crisis which inevitably arises at some level, is impossible for a child or teenager to put into words.

Society’s Current Misfocus

Too often these days, children are not given the primacy of focus that is their need, and their right, when parents struggle in a marriage.  Some have used the term “Emotional Incest” to describe what happens when a spouse is absent (through divorce, when a parent is widowed, or even in an intact marriage where spouses are emotionally estranged from one another) and the remaining parent relies too heavily on a child for emotional support.  In such cases [2], “[w]hile no physical boundaries [are] crossed and no direct sexual contact [is] perpetrated, the parent or parents willingly enlist the emotional support of the child in healing his/her own unmet adult needs.  In turn, the child becomes the confidant or emotional spouse of [the] parent.”  Parents who have not been raised to be sacrificial and giving of themselves are particularly at risk for engaging in such behavior.

While the term is provocative and can be easily misunderstood, the process it describes is real and guarding against it is important.  In relating to a child as a surrogate spouse, parents are, perhaps unwittingly, emotionally abusing their children.  As Licensed Clinical Social Worker Susan Pease Gadoua writes [3]:

Those who are using their children to get their emotional needs met may believe that the new arrangement is a good one because they believe everyone benefits.  They get their needs met and, as they see it, their children benefit because they get to feel useful and loved.  The adults may not realize that there are many more negative impacts on children who are parentified than positive.

When these children are compelled to spend time with a parent rather than friends (and the parent prefers to be with the child rather than pursue adult friendships), or the child hears more about the marriage than the parent tells adult confidants, the kids end up with a huge burden.  This burden quickly outstrips their developmental capacity to cope, and they inevitably suffer.

Children in such a predicament might respond to the idea of voicing their own wants or needs with some sentiments such as “I don’t want to hurt Mommy” or “Daddy needs me.” They then live their lives in a perpetual denial of their own pain and needs.  Typically, parents are not intentionally placing this burden on their children, yet they are so focused on their own pain and anger that they lose sight of the needs and struggles of their children.  And while much of the literature [4] on “parentification [5]” describes these parents as having personality disorders, it is important to realize that one need not have a serious psychological problem to fall into the trap of relying too heavily on one’s child during times of stress.

Some Proposed Solutions From The Church

In his First Things article, Peters suggests that pastors need to develop pastoral care plans for children of divorce, help them identify their wounds, and know that from a faith perspective their woundedness is never the final word.  He further suggests that these children need to observe healthy models of marriage to know that it is possible for families to remain whole and flourish.

From a natural, scientific perspective, the same holds true.  Children of divorce are at higher risk [6] for psychological, emotional or relational problems by virtue of the trauma of their family dissolution.  While there are developmental variations in that the pain, and the problems differ if a child is 5, 10 or 18 at the time of the divorce, there are nevertheless consequences all along the way.  These children need to process through the meaning of the events for themselves and their future.  While counseling is indicated for some, all who are affected need to have connections and relationships which allow them to feel affirmed, valued and understood.

Children need the time and space to grieve an absent (or less frequently seen) parent, and need the adults in their lives to guide them in this process, not expect emotional support from them.  As difficult as a loss can be for an adult, it is at these times when our children really, REALLY need us to be the adults, providing them with the support they need to grow through the loss, staying closely connected but with appropriate boundaries, being a shoulder for them to cry on, while holding back our own tears and fears.