When the parental role is reversed and a 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." Read Josh's story to help you understand how this can occur.
Josh grew up in an addictive and sexualized family. His father was a workaholic and addicted to pornography and sex. He kept pornography in the magazine rack in the living room, and when Josh eventually got engaged to be married, his father advised him to “sow some oats” before marriage to be sure his fiancée was the right one for him.
Josh’s mother was addicted to food and was quite immodest in the home. And Josh’s younger brother also struggled with addictions since his teen years.
Josh’s father had an anger issue. No one ever knew when the explosion was coming. Within a minute or two, it was over for his dad—but not for Josh. He internalized the fear and shame he felt and became very anxious as a child. He still struggles with this anxiety today, especially when he feels he doesn’t measure up.
Early in Josh’s childhood, for as far back as he can remember, he felt sorry for his mother. He could tell she was unhappy, and he would try to find ways to help her around the house so she would feel better. He would mop the floors, dust, bake, and do anything else that might help. He felt a need to protect her. When his father and mother argued, he would get between them, always taking his mother’s side and telling his father, “Stop it! Quit yelling!” She would frequently praise Josh for what he did for her, and it made him feel loved and special.
Over time, Josh’s mother started to open up more to him and share her feelings with him—often about her relationship with his father. These secret confidences built a close bond between Josh and her. As she confided in him about various things, he felt good that he could be there for her. However, by the time he was in high school, and especially after he left home, her neediness started to feel “yucky” (not a very technical term but a powerful descriptor). He wanted to tell her to stop confiding in him, but he was afraid he would hurt her feelings. Then he would have to comfort her even more.
With Josh’s dad distant and angry, and mom too close and needy, Josh had no one to meet his needs. So early on he learned to comfort himself through masturbation. With his family history, it was almost impossible to avoid a generational pull toward an addiction of some kind.
Now at thirty-five years old, Josh is experiencing greater anxiety and occasional panic attacks—something he never experienced before.
After Josh married, the connection between him and his mother continued. He rationalized that nothing was wrong with it—he was simply honoring his mother, as the Scriptures said he should. It wasn’t long, how ever, before his wife became upset and hurt. “Your mother is more important to you than I am. Who are you married to? Her or me?”
The issues between Josh and his wife were even more costly, because Josh was not only parentally inverted but also enmeshed with his mother. As her substitute mate, he was unable to “leave his mother and cleave to his wife.” Unhealed parental inversion and enmeshment will war against the one-flesh marriage designed by God. When the husband and wife are able to rest in each other’s heart, then they as a couple can more easily rest in the Father’s heart.
Neither Josh nor his wife realized that there was another person in their marriage—his mother. Josh’s unhealthy intimacy with her in the past was creating a block in the present to healthy intimacy between Josh and his wife and in his relationship with God.
Emotional incest (substitute mate) exists when a parent relies on a child for emotional support. The child—often of the opposite sex but not necessarily— becomes a confidant and a source of comfort for the parent. This comfort can, at times, also include an increase in physical touch (holding) and, in some cases, actually sleeping together. However, it does not have to advance to being physical or sexual to cause significant damage to the child. As you read in Josh’s story, he started feeling sorry for his mother since she was unhappy in her marriage. He started to take on her burden, which was not his to carry. His mother started to share more with him— particularly regarding her husband (Josh’s father)—things that were inappropriate for him to hear. There is confusion and an internal conflict in the child that develops at a deep and often unconscious level. These symptoms include:
core fear and anxiety
being frequently tired but finding it hard to “rest on the inside”
feeling a need to keep things in order and in control, which prevents others from having a voice and contributing
having trouble connecting with one’s own feelings and sometimes the feelings of others
having difficulty trusting others and God—often feeling and acting on the need to step in, especially when a mistake has been made or a problem needs to be fixed
If you would like to understand more about Emotional Incest, Substitute Mate, and Parental Inversion and how this can be healed, go to The Missing Commandment: Love Yourself (New Expanded Edition), pages 76-79 and 208-215.
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