The Trauma Recovery Institute


Covert sexual abuse is also referred to as covert or emotional incest. This happens when a parent gets his/her needs met through the child, this dynamic may or may not include actual sexual molestation or intercourse but innate in the dynamic there is leek of sexual energy from parent to child into the space and relationship between parent and child, the child is seduced into becoming the surrogate husband or wife to the opposite sex parent in order to compensate for the physically or emotionally absent mother or father. As this is not a choice for the child it is extremely abusive for the child and extremely difficult to both recognize and work with later on as an adult. The child experiences this as a helplessness, as an overwhelming responsibility, a loss of autonomy, a loss of self as self is merged with the opposite sex parent in order to meet their needs and the child’s wish to do this is stimulated and encoded in the seduction from the parent. In this dynamic on a conscious level, the child feels special, significant, wanted, needed, important and so it’s a powerful cocktail meeting the human needs of the child but in an abusive way thus setting up an abusive imago that will be reenacted in adult relationships and will be transferred into the therapeutic relationship. An adult coming from a childhood of covert incest will share similar characteristics to those of adults of childhood sexual abuse and due to their attachment blueprint with the opposite sex parent will have a difficulty with acknowledging, recognizing, setting and asserting boundaries due to their overwhelming feeling of responsibility for the other’s emotional state including the therapist. For therapy to be successful with victims of childhood convert incest, it is important to maintain a sense of separateness with client due to the pattern of neuronal activity to merge with the other in an intimate relationship loosing oneself in an effort to please the other. Discussion of therapeutic framework and boundaries is extremely important. It is also important to resist the seduction of validation, idealization and admiration from the client within therapy. In the therapy room the transference will be a lot more seductive and subtle and therefore difficult to recognize, here it is extremely important to pay attention to the frame of the therapy and the countertransference information and affect.
Due to the covert and subtle nature of this dynamic clients who have a history of childhood convert incest will often be very unaware of their abusive attachment with their opposite sex parent and the resulting relational imago. These clients may appear very high functioning with little outwardly signs of any abuse history. However it is very important that we as therapists have an awareness of this kind of abusive relationship that is very prevalent in our society today. Given the awareness, attitude and positive regard we have for our clients who have suffered sexual abuse, covert incest is much more prevalent due to the culture of our family systems where generally there is at least one absent parent due to work, illness, addiction or an inability to connect emotionally which we refer to as proximal abandonment. Many people who become participants of tantric counseling, Tantra massage, bodywork and other modalities will come to such a place as a result of a set of symptoms such as sexual dysfunction, lack of intimacy, body shame, lack of libido and difficulties with orgasm, relationships, and sex etc., this symptomology is an expression of the previously dissociated sexual trauma in the form of overt sexual abuse and importantly convert incest. The client seeks out to resolve their dysfunctional relational imago through other relationships including the therapeutic relationship.
It is also important to note that very often it is adult survivors of covert incest that become therapists and healers, as it seems like a natural progression from healing the parent’s wounds and being ever present for their needs that a therapist can continue to do for their clients. This is unconscious but a powerful driver in how we work as therapists and healers.

When we are abused in families, we learn to protect ourselves with ego defenses.

We repress our feelings; we deny what’s going on; we displace our rage onto our lovers, spouses or our friends;

we create illusions of love and connectedness; we idealize and minimize;

we dissociate so that we no longer feel anything at all; we turn numb.

– John Bradshaw


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