When the parental role is reversed and the child becomes responsible for the cares and needs of the parent or the marriage, it creates a profound wound in the child. This is often termed "Parental Inversion." A more serious form of this occurs when the child becomes the emotional (and sometimes physical) support, confidant and comforter for the parent. This is referred to as "Emotional Incest" or "Substitute Mate."
One of our clients told his story of emotional incest through a letter he wrote to his mother. (This was not to give to her but to use as an exercise to help him process the pain, grieve the impact of the unhealthy relationship, then forgive and heal). We share his letter here with his permission, in hopes that his story may help others in their healing journey. (For the reader’s information, his name is Jason, which means “healer”).
Did you even realize the pain you piled on me? With every glass of wine you drank, you heaped shame on me. Wine was an escape for you but a prison for me. (Later in life I learned to use wine to escape from life just like you).
I can still hear you saying, “Jason, be a good boy and run down to the garage and get me a bottle of wine.” Even then I knew I was digging my own grave. It would have been easier on me to get you a stick and have you beat me with it. As I handed you the bottle, I prepared myself for the waterfall of emotional vomit you would project on to me later in your drunkenness. Each tear molded me into a vessel to meet your needs.
After several glasses of wine, you would flee upstairs to your room. I waited downstairs. I was a scared little boy who desperately wanted to help--to fix my family. I did not know what to do. But soon, with guilt and shame, I would climb the stairs. Eleven of them. Agonizing with each one. I hated them. I hated the wine. I hated you. Eleven steps…each going up, but leading me down into a pit that would take me twenty-three years to even realize I was in. Twenty-three years.
I knocked on your bedroom door, hoping you would turn me away, but you never did. You poured your heart out to me and called me your “healer.” With that one label, you set me up for failure. How could you tell me I was the “healer” of our family? This was God’s job. You gave me power over your marriage and forced me to take dad's ring and put it on my own hand. You filled a bag with your pain, tied it around my neck, and dropped me in the raging ocean of your emotions. I was 12 years old!!! You would never have let me date at 12, yet you married me!
Mom, you destroyed me emotionally—the beloved son that God entrusted to you. You raped my heart and I was just a little guy. I was filled with fear and shame, and I had a “case” of reasons to never trust another woman. My heart became frozen to emotions. I lost so many relationships with both women and men. I lost something too--the chance to have a healthy mother-son bond.
God was angry with the way you treated me—for the brokenness it caused me, for the destructive choices I made—but He never stopped loving us. Did you not see Him crying for me or you? He grieved when you asked me to go get the wine. He grieved when you drank. He grieved what it cost your marriage with dad. God grieved when I walked upstairs to meet your needs that I was never meant to meet. He grieved when I fell into the same addiction as you. What I hated the most, I fell into myself. Ironic, isn’t it?
He wants to heal us both, but you must find your own healing. I cannot help you. What you broke in me, God will heal. I will follow Him. I want to be like Him, to follow in His footsteps. I know He will help me to forgive you and also forgive myself.
Only now as I grieve the losses can I begin to count the true cost of that simple bottle of “Two-Buck Chuck.”
If you would like to understand more about Parental Inversion as well as Emotional Incest/Substitute Mate, go to The Missing Commandment: Love Yourself (New Expanded Edition), pages 76-79 and 208-215.
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BOOKS AND MEDIA: The Expanded Edition of "The Missing Commandment: Love Yourself" and our devotional/instructional book, "Loving God, Loving Myself," is available at jerryanddenisebasel.com and Amazon.com.
COUNSELING MINISTRY: If you or anyone you know is in need of finding a safe place for emotional and/or spiritual healing and restoration, please contact us at The Father's Heart Intensive Christian Counseling Ministry. Check out our web site at fathersheart.com or email us directly at email@example.com. We are located in the North Georgia Mountains in a retreat-like setting and counsel individuals or couples for periods of two to five-days in length.