May 9, 2017

Surrogate Spouse: Another Form of Abuse

This week, I'm excited to introduce you to Adena Bank Lees. Not only is she a survivor of abuse, but she's a dear colleague and advocate for survivors. In this post, Adena defines and shares about her experience with Covert Emotional Incest.


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“I can’t talk to your mother like this…you father doesn’t understand me the way you do. You are such a good listener. I always feel so much better when I talk to you. How do you know so much, you are so young?” 


These were common statements made by my parents as I was growing up.

How did I feel in response to these statements?

I felt special, privileged, and chosen. I was trusted with very adult information and I could keep such secrets. Powerful? Yes, I felt powerful also. My parents told me I could MAKE them feel better.

So, then why did I, at the same time, feel helpless and like a failure?

Because I couldn’t fix or change either my mother or father and I definitely couldn’t fix or save their marriage. I tried, believe me I tried. It never happened. I felt torn between the two of them. I didn’t know how to be loyal to both. I was just a kid. I felt confused and overwhelmed with a knot in my stomach most of the time.

This is totally inappropriate to ask of a child but I thought I could handle it. I knew it was my job.

I can tell you all this today. It took me until I was in my late 20’s-early 30’s to have the words and awareness of this dynamic and how it negatively impacted me.

What I am describing here is called Covert Emotional Incest.

CEI happens when a parent or caregiver uses their child as a substitute spouse or confidant. 


Parents/caregivers are supposed to be there to meet their children’s needs, children are not there to meet their parents or caregivers needs. With CEI this is turned upside down.

Why do we call it incest and put the sexual spin on it? Because the spousal role is a sexual role whether there is physical sex happening or not. Sexual energy and sexual messages are implicitly communicated through the spousal or confidant role. No actual physical sexual contact is made. This can be and usually is crazy-making for the child.

Covert Emotional Incest survivors have very similar behaviors, feelings and

beliefs as those who have been overtly or physically sexually abused. Things like difficulty in establishing and maintaining healthy intimate relationships (both sexual and otherwise), not trusting your own reality/intuition, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse are common.

There is a way out. There is a solution. The first step is to have a name and context for what happened to you. Being aware of this provides the foundation for the next step which is to ask for help.

By asking for and receiving help in many forms and modalities, I have gone from the role of victim to the role of survivor, to today, identifying as a thriver with a covert emotional incest history. The abuse no longer defines who I am. I do respect, however, its impact on me and that it is a crucial part of my story.

There is much more to say about Covert Emotional Incest, both the components of it and the healing process from it. More will be discussed in next week’s blog entry. For now, know this: Covert Emotional Incest is enough for someone to experience the aftermath of what has been described above.



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Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, LISAC, BCETS, CP, is an internationally recognized speaker, author, trainer and consultant, providing a fresh and important look at addiction treatment, traumatic stress and recovery. She has been providing premiere clinical and consulting services for over 25 years. Adena is a licensed clinical social worker, licensed independent substance abuse counselor, board certified expert in traumatic stress, and a certified psychodramatist. She is the author of “The 12 Healing Steps for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse; A Practical Guide” and is currently penning an educational memoir on covert emotional incest due out in late 2017. Most importantly, Adena is a thriver, enjoying travel, hiking in the Arizona desert, and filling her days with laughter.

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