Children are warned not to talk to strangers, but this focus is misguided. It puts the burden on (potential) child victims, and it is not ‘‘odd-looking’’ strangers who are most likely to molest children, but their teachers, coaches, priests, doctors, neighbors—and relatives. Children are not warned about their fathers, mothers, stepparents, siblings, foster parents, or mothers’ boyfriends, but they should be.
This research paper addresses the consequences of overt parental incest. Resources are provided regarding covert and sibling abuse.
I. Incestuous Abuse
II. Incest Subverts Development
III. The Secret
IV. Guilt, Shame, and Self-Esteem
V. Power, Control, and Boundaries
VI. Anger, Depression, and Suicide
VIII. Masking Pain
IX. The Body
I. Incestuous Abuse
Sexual abuse is not primarily about sex, but about power, conquest, and boundaries. Its traumatic impact increases in children, who are fragile and undeveloped. Because incest, which survivors have adapted to describe abuse based on emotional rather than blood bonds, combines all aspects of child abuse, it is arguably the most damaging trauma of all. Custodial or domestic incest increases that destructive power exponentially, due to children’s absolute dependence and abusers’ absolute authority.
For children, their family is their source of physical and emotional survival. From their parents comes their identity and sense of self-worth. To a child, caregivers and parents’ partners often feel parental. They are older, bigger, in charge of everything— everyone older or bigger has more power than the child.
If a parent or other caregiver is sexually violating a child, it happens no matter what the child says, whether he or she cries or screams. Often, it hurts, though it may sometimes feel good—or special— confusing feelings the child does not understand or want to have. The abused child is cautioned never to tell, threatened, and warned that he or she will be blamed or not believed. In exchange for parental hugs and attention, is this the price the child must pay?
Not all survivors of incest will be affected in the same way; ‘‘nature’’ interplays with ‘‘nurture,’’ and other relationships have an impact. The consequences of such a childhood do not fall into any neat categories. However, incest changes all survivors from whom they might have been. Blume (1997) calls this legacy ‘‘post-incest syndrome.’’ It is not a scientifically established syndrome, per se. It is articulated in her ‘‘Incest Survivor’s Aftereffects Checklist’’ and discussed further in her book Secret Survivors.
II. Incest Subverts Development
Love puts aside the parent’s needs to attend to those of the child. Incest, however, is a supremely selfish act. Where love nourishes, incest takes. Incest creates emotional abandonment by sabotaging the caregiver role. To be violated by those who are supposed to love them best teaches children that they are not worth loving.
Unconditional love is given without strings. It teaches children that they are valued, with no expectations. Incest, however, teaches children that they must earn ‘‘love.’’ Nonpossessive love allows children to be their own persons, to own their own lives. Incest victims, however, learn that they are extensions of abusers. Even their bodies do not belong to them. This destroys victims’ ability to develop physical or emotional boundaries (where one person ends and someone else begins). Survivors frequently do not understand that all relationships have boundaries, where those boundaries should be, or how to establish them.
Validation supports children’s feelings, rights, and values, affirming their existence. By allowing children to feel heard and acknowledged and to develop reality testing, validation helps them understand and accept themselves. Incest negates all of this, silencing survivors’ voices.
Mastery is impact. It teaches children that what they do matters. Incest teaches children to be victims. Powerlessness leads to ‘‘learned helplessness’’— paralysis, crippling passivity, and resignation.
Children molested in what should have been their safe havens must somehow build a life. What follows is a discussion of the aftereffects they face as adults—not ‘‘problems’’ to be ‘‘overcome,’’ but survivors’ inventive attempts to cope and to address needs they do not know how to meet in any other way.
III. The Secret
The only control most victims can exert over their intolerable reality is cognitive control. Incest becomes the secret that survivors keep even from themselves. They may be extremely private or verbally hypervigilant, monitoring every word, rigidly controlling every thought. They may feel an urge to tell but sense that no one would listen, or they may be terrified of anyone finding out. They may lie.
Some survivors employ classic defenses, such as suppression (pushing away thoughts) and denial; some minimize or rationalize their abuse. Incest material is also forgotten. This has been called ‘‘repressed memory’’; it is really ‘‘traumatic dissociation.’’
Dissociation is commonly explained as people not remembering driving because they were distracted. In traumatic dissociation (also called ‘‘traumatic forgetting’’), people block out emotionally significant events, separating traumatic material from consciousness. Survivors may dissociate locations, abusers, some or the entire trauma, or a period of childhood. Concomitantly, some create fantasy worlds or identities; for example, women see male identities as invulnerable.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder (MPD), is an extreme form of dissociation. The severely traumatized child’s consciousness divides into parts, called ‘‘alters,’’ with different names, ages, genders, or other characteristics. In times of stress, an alter will take control over consciousness. A five-year-old alter may hide in fear, a rageful part may come out and hit a wall. This generally results in ‘‘lost time’’ for the ‘‘host’’ (front person for the system), who, without treatment, usually cannot control and may not even be aware of ‘‘switching.’’
Alters are symbolic personifications of the aftereffects of post-incest syndrome, separated from each other by dissociation. Recovery includes communication, cooperation, and the eventual sharing of dissociated information, bringing it to consciousness.
There are different levels of traumatic dissociation, and different degrees of ‘‘dysfunction’’ in DID. Multiples, who lack a cohesive ego, may experience cognitive distortions, abilities that come and go unpredictably, and radical emotional or behavioral shifts. Internal communication, when ‘‘heard’’ as thought, is often confused with ‘‘hearing voices,’’ a diagnostic criterion for psychosis. (Other misdiagnoses include bipolar disorder, also called manic depression.)
Alters can have different handwritings, brain wave patterns, eyeglass prescriptions, and blood pressure or blood sugar levels. Some have illnesses or allergies that others do not. Still, many multiples spend years struggling to find appropriate help. Some never do. DID is a remarkable and creative process that literally saves survivors’ sanity, though they still pay a price.
Many features of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the common diagnosis for survivors of incest and other traumas, are dissociative. Flashbacks are intrusive recollections of trauma material, triggered by a person or event or sensory stimuli (e.g., scents, sounds, foods). They occur as nightmares/ terrors, sensory flashes (brief images or feelings), and detailed, intense scenes, experienced as if they were currently happening. Flashbacks may feel and appear like, and are often misdiagnosed as, hallucinations. Dissociative survivors also experience strong, unexplained negative reactions to certain people, places, or things; ‘‘derealization’’ (a feeling of unreality); shock or shutdown in crisis; hypervigilance, or strong startle responses; and ‘‘hysterical’’ pain, numbness, and even paralysis.
Some parents participate in, or cooperate with, outside groups of abusers who intentionally create dissociative disorders in victims. Although this entire phenomenon has been called ‘‘ritual abuse’’ (RA), that term describes only the acts of groups associated with ritualized belief systems; other groups are also involved, for whom one label is ‘‘mind control’’ (MC). RA/MC employs sexual assaults along with pain stimuli (including cutting and electric shocks), confinement, sensory assaults, and mental manipulation. When joined with posthypnotic suggestion, this creates ‘‘programs’’ used to control victims’ perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors for hedonistic, illicit, and political-influence purposes.
Parents are often programmed to abuse their children. The line between victims and perpetrators is very complicated. All are generally unaware of their involvement unless recovery brings dissociated material to consciousness. RA/MC creates absurd delusions, as well as the belief that others control their thoughts. RA/MC survivors often appear to meet the diagnostic criteria for psychosis; this ‘‘mental illness’’ is seen as organic and unrelated to family pathology. On the outside, daily life in such families appears ‘‘normal.’’
In the 1990s, a challenge to the validity of ‘‘repressed memories,’’ DID, and RA/MC attained great acceptance. It was spearheaded by a group comprising people accused and convicted of child sexual abuse (all claiming to be innocent victims), their spouses, and a professional advisory board. They argued that sexual trauma was never forgotten; ‘‘overzealous’’ therapists were accused of ‘‘brainwashing’’ their clients, inducing a ‘‘false memory syndrome’’ (FMS).
Women who retracted their incest disclosures (‘‘recanters’’) and accused parents presented wrenching (albeit ‘‘anecdotal,’’ not validated scientifically) stories of ‘‘false accusations’’ that ruined their lives. Many legal and therapeutic professionals, and society at large, came to question the validity of incest disclosures. Accused abusers were acquitted, convictions (already rare) overturned. Therapists were charged with ‘‘memory implantation’’ in high visibility civil cases, though most did not go to court but were settled by therapists’ insurance companies, for millions of dollars. Many therapists and facilities discontinued services to survivors.
Memory—both constant and recovered—is always vulnerable to numerous factors. Not all details of recalled abuse are literally true. Does science support the condemnation of dissociation, recovered trauma memories, and the therapists who work with them? Or, as some suggest, are FMS proponents a political advocacy group, based on unscientific concepts?
Research has found no difference in reliability between constant and recovered trauma memories. While peripheral details may not always be remembered accurately, the essence of the core event will be. Some degree of traumatic amnesia following not only incest, but wars, natural disasters, and the Holocaust, has been found in roughly seventy studies. In thirty studies, about a third of subjects experienced total amnesia for childhood sexual abuse. No research to date has successfully demonstrated that trauma memories can be implanted.
The FMS position is that retractions are always true, and initial incest disclosures, always false. Yet retracting is a self-protective, comforting, predictable stage of recovery. At some point, many survivors claim they ‘‘made it all up.’’ It should be noted that RA/MC perpetrators also intentionally reactivate victims’ dissociative denial.
Are ‘‘recovered memories’’ valid? Not all abuse memories should be taken literally, but this does not invalidate the core reality of the claim. Programming, for instance, includes illusions of untrue or impossible events, which, when ‘‘remembered,’’ support attacks on the veracity of RA/MC reports. Of course, studies depending on ‘‘self-reporting’’ are vulnerable to criticism. However, corroboration rates of 50 to over 70 percent for ‘‘recovered’’ incest memories have been established in twenty studies. Additional validation for survivors’ memories is shown in their aftereffects, especially flashbacks, which replicate specifics of their disclosures. RA/MC survivors, for instance, may have aversions to such things as blood, pins, bugs, feces, raw meat, telephone ring tones, candles, chants or repeated words, boxes and coffins, holidays, or certain dates.
Every ‘‘false memory’’ claim should be evaluated on its own merits. As Ross Cheit (2005) demonstrates, public representations of these cases have not been accurate. Additional research on this topic has been done by Jim Hopper (2006a, 2006b), and in the scholarship of Brown, Scheflin, and Hammond (1998).
Inept or unscrupulous therapists can absolutely lead clients to develop untrue beliefs about their pasts; but are most therapists who accept the validity of DID, ‘‘recovered’’ memories, and RA/MC incompetent, or worse? Despite FMS advocates’ criticism of ‘‘recovered memory therapy,’’ experienced trauma therapists do not make memories the focus of incest treatment. They understand that memories are only one step in a complicated recovery process. They know that for either therapists or survivors to pursue memories aggressively would be reckless, because incest survivors remember when they are ready.
It might be helpful to discover what experience the scientists associated with the FMS movement have had with incest survivors. How many have they worked with clinically? How many have they interviewed? Experienced trauma therapists understand that remembering often begins with the least traumatizing event or abuser. Memories may change over time and details may shift; identities are clarified, faces appear from the shadows, and new, more painful abuse experiences come to awareness. This is not an FMS, but the normal process of trauma memories unfolding.
It may not be necessary to uncover all details or events of an abuse history. Still, it is important for trauma survivors to identify the fact of their trauma. Not recognizing the logical roots behind problematic behaviors or feelings often makes survivors feel crazy. Dissociated trauma memories—especially those related to programming—can strip survivors of their freedom.
PTSD, dissociation, and DID are reasonable reactions to extreme situations. They are not just psychological; they involve measurable neurological and other physiological changes. Many patients in psychiatric hospitals are incest survivors; they do not always belong there. What Denise Gelinas (1983) calls the ‘‘disguised presentation’’ of incest requires that therapists need to be aware of the prevalence of incest/RA/MC, their indicators and associated features, and the mechanism that hides them.
IV. Guilt, Shame, and Self-Esteem
Secrets create, and are reinforced by, fear and shame. Sexual abuse nearly always involves shame. Incest becomes part of child victims’ identity formation. Survivors often blame themselves for causing or allowing their victimization, especially when it happens more than once, as incest usually does. Guilt is preferable to powerlessness, and both are easier than acknowledging betrayal by someone loved and needed by the child. Survivors wear their abusers’ shame, taking it on as their own.
Male survivors feel shamed by their sexual subjugation in a different way than women, who, ironically, ‘‘accept’’ the possibility of sexual abuse as a fact of life. Some survivors overcompensate by trying to be perfect. Of course, any such effort is bound to fail. Even the most outwardly perfect survivors can still feel soiled and spoiled inside. Some survivors feel marked. They may feel like damaged goods—as if there is something putrid and disgusting inside them. They may believe they are worthless. When belief becomes behavior, an indescribably destructive self-fulfilling prophecy begins.
Survivors are often unable to ask for anything. Many manifest ‘‘high appreciation’’—totally disproportionate gratitude. Others have a sense of entitlement; they have been through this awful thing, and now someone, everyone, or the entire world owes them. Some develop a twisted sense of ‘‘specialness’’ for being ‘‘chosen.’’
Having learned that attention can be dangerous, survivors often try to be invisible or inaudible. They are silent when they laugh and soft-spoken, especially when needing to be heard. They sit in back corners of classrooms and walk with their heads down. Paradoxically, those who exploit or hurt the weak are drawn to these self-protective signals, often with horrendous consequences for already damaged survivors.
Conversely, for some survivors, all that is left is to be ‘‘perfectly bad.’’ Some survivors adopt the most alienating lifestyles; some constantly provoke others with hostility and anger. Jails and prisons are full of survivors of incest as well as other kinds of childhood abuse.
V. Power, Control, and Boundaries
Power and control aftereffects are highly influenced by socialization. Women survivors, more likely to surrender to the belief that others are able—and entitled—to control them, often become passive. They cannot say no without experiencing abstract terror. They know that there is enormous danger in doing so, even if they cannot recall what it is and even if it no longer exists. On the other hand, just as women are not socialized to have power, it is more difficult for males to deal with being violated and powerless, because they are not supposed to be weak or submissive.
Survivors are often afraid of losing control—in general (which equals ‘‘going crazy’’), of the secret, and of their feelings (‘‘If I start to cry, I will never stop’’). They may develop obsessive compulsive disorders, which are quite out of control in themselves, but provide survivors with the distorted illusion that they are in charge of something. Phobias (especially of containment or entrapment) provide a substitute focus for what survivors do not, or cannot, face.
To cope with having no courage, survivors often develop impenetrable emotional shells. Women may reveal all kinds of personal information, which others misperceive as vulnerability; others never reveal a thing. Some survivors are extremely protective of their boundaries, while others are seemingly indifferent to them. Some (mostly women) are exquisitely sensitive to other people’s boundaries; others are invasive. Some are in a person’s personal space when they talk to someone; others need be very far away. Some feel more secure socializing in another’s home, because they can leave; others may require that people visit them on their turf, where they are in command. Some become socially phobic.
Some—mostly, but not always, males—become controlling, aggressive, or physically abusive. Being powerless as children may drive them to seek power at the expense of others in their adult lives. Incest may also create uncharacteristically aggressive women and passive men. However, the assumption that most of those who are abused become abusers is inaccurate.
VI. Anger, Depression, and Suicide
Survivors have certainly earned the right to anger, an inevitable product of victimization. The feeling itself is not a problem, but what they do with it may be. Incest, like all child abuse, robs victims of the ability to properly manage anger. Some survivors harbor resentment, even rage, throughout their entire lives. Socialization leads women to suppress or deny their anger, which may result in depression; males are more likely to act it out.
Women abused by father-figures may idealize their abuser or men in general. Some survivors may pity their abuser and/or bear more anger at their mothers for not protecting them than at their actual abusers. Mother-blaming and idealization of men are both socially reinforced. Some idealize the nonoffending parent (‘‘the good one’’). Survivors may generalize their anger to all members of the abuser’s gender or ethnic group, or misdirect it from its source to those closest to them, including therapists and other caregivers.
Anger can alert a person that something needs to be changed. Those who cannot interpret this valuable cue or take proper assertive action toward positive changes continue in damaging situations which in turn cause more anger, continued unhappiness, or depression.
Depression is a common, reasonable response to child abuse. Survivors already struggle with so much pain. The powerlessness and hopelessness of their childhoods have taught them despair, and they have many losses to grieve—the loss of their innocence, of their safety, even of their abuser. Their depression can be incapacitating. They may become emotionally paralyzed or cry for no apparent reason. Depression in incest survivors is often misdiagnosed as ‘‘biochemical,’’ especially by psychiatrists who have not thought to ask about abuse experienced by their patients who have not mentioned or remembered it.
Some incest survivors maintain a lifelong ‘‘romance’’ with suicide. Like other aftereffects, this is a paradoxical survival tactic. As long as they always know that they can end their pain if it becomes unbearable, they can put one foot in front of the other and stay alive. Some become ‘‘passively suicidal.’’ Some make real attempts at suicide which may in fact succeed.
Fear is a natural response to abuse at any age, even more so when the victim is a child. Repeated incest creates the sense of constant, imminent danger. The ‘‘fight or flight’’ reaction, an organically functional response to danger, remains always activated, thereby becoming counterproductive.
When the source is not identified, fear can turn to the more generalized state of anxiety. Survivors know the world is not safe, although, frighteningly, they may no longer remember why. They are often particularly fearful at dusk, which foreshadows the darkness that surrounded their abuse. Many cannot sleep alone or without a light. Many survivors develop panic disorders.
Because they know the world is unsafe, some never take any risks at all. Conversely, in acts of defiant overcompensation, some ‘‘dare the fates’’ by pursuing high-risk behaviors. For incest survivors, finding and creating safety in their lives and in the world are primary tasks in recovery.
VIII. Masking Pain
Incest survivors often misuse mood-altering substances or behaviors, such as alcohol, drugs, or sex. Some lose the ability to control this, becoming alcoholics or addicts. It should be noted that incest frequently occurs in families with an alcoholic parent, which predisposes survivors to alcoholism. Children from these families, where other abuses often occur, are called adult children of alcoholics, or ACOAs. They share many of the aftereffects associated with incest.
Many survivors (particularly, but not exclusively, females) develop eating disorders, which deflect or mask pain, provide a false sense of control, and offer a focus for displaced attempts at power. Anorexia provides an indirect way for survivors to rebel against abusive and controlling family members. Female survivors often feel sexually protected by the ways anorexia and bingeing change the body’s size and features.
Many female survivors, and some male survivors, develop self-harming behavior. In recent years ‘‘cutting’’ has become an unfortunate trend, sometimes unrelated to abuse. It serves many purposes, including, paradoxically, comfort. Physical pain can feel more manageable than emotional pain. Hurting one’s own body and seeing the resulting wounds externalize survivors’ self-hatred. Wounds also provide visual representation of inner torment, or an external, physical excuse for denied incest pain. RA survivors are often programmed to self-injure—for instance, as punishment for remembering and telling. Some RArelated self-injuries specifically replicate locations or instruments used in torture. It is important for therapists to discuss not only the covered feeling, but also what body part the survivor hurts and in what way, in order to understand the function that self-injury serves and what abuse act it might represent. Survivors also engage in more ‘‘acceptable’’ mood-altering behaviors, like workaholism (commonly by males) or compulsive ‘‘busyness.’’
Most survivors must learn to experience, identify, tolerate, and express their feelings, and, especially, to self-soothe. Those who have made the choice of using substances or engaging in other behaviors to cover their feelings need to make a different choice. If they are no longer in control of how or when they use alcohol or drugs or engage in certain behaviors, or if they feel incapable of stopping, addictions have developed. Real emotional health is not possible until a foundation of abstinence and recovery has been achieved, although incest may need to be addressed along the way.
IX. The Body
The body stores trauma’s memories, feelings, and consequences. Survivors often feel betrayed by their bodies, which, to them, represent pain and powerlessness. For women, who also must cope with the risk of later sexual assault and negative, exploitive social messages about their bodies, incest sets a horrendous stage.
Survivors often have swallowing or gagging sensitivities. For many, even those not subjected to oral rape, water hitting the face stimulates suffocation feelings. Survivors also may ignore basic hygiene. This can serve a protective purpose, in their view, by keeping sexual interest at bay. Conversely, they may develop compulsive cleanliness. They may bathe in scalding water. Having become very self-conscious about bodily functions, survivors may have extreme needs for privacy or be unable to use public bathrooms. They may avoid mirrors. This connects with their problems of self-esteem or physical self-image and may also relate to DID (the face they ‘‘see’’ in the mirror may not be ‘‘theirs’’).
For some survivors, wearing heavy clothing feels safe, and baring any part of their body feels like exposure. Women survivors often ‘‘plain’’ themselves down. They may hide their faces behind unstyled hair or hide their bodies under baggy, formless clothes such as turtlenecks in summer. Many fail to remove clothing even where it would be appropriate—at the beach, for instance—or they may become flashy, exposing their bodies in very revealing clothes at inappropriate times.
Survivors can disown their bodies. They may miss or ignore their bodies’ signals and needs. This can be dangerous, because a number of medical problems have been associated with an incest history, such as gastrointestinal disorders, thyroid dysfunctions, headaches, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and various gynecological problems, including unexplained pelvic pain, particularly during intercourse, and spontaneous vaginal infections. Incest histories also may underlie many cases of postpartum depression.
Survivors often ‘‘somaticize,’’ displacing feelings into physical symptoms for which they repeatedly seek medical attention. Alternately, they may have strong aversions to doctors, especially dentists and obstetricians/gynecologists, and hospitals. This generally relates to invasive touch. For some it results from RA abuses involving medical personnel, procedures, or facilities.
Associated with neither affection nor comfort, touch can feel very unsafe for survivors. Literally, it can hurt. It can trigger flashbacks, especially when it is a surprise. Grabbing a survivor playfully from behind may earn the hugger an elbow in the ribs. It is advisable never to touch incest survivors without their permission.
Incest has been called premature sexuality. It is sexuality imposed on children who are neither emotionally nor physically prepared for it. Sex becomes an obligation, often shrouded in pain and fear. It can feel dirty and threatening. It can be difficult for the incest survivor to reconcile sex with love.
Women incest survivors often equate sex with rape; all sexual interest or pursuits feel like a violation. Many can say no only by ‘‘shutting down’’—getting numb, or dissociating. Some avoid sex entirely, while some are compulsively oversexualized and consequently labeled ‘‘provocative,’’ ‘‘seductive,’’ or ‘‘promiscuous’’ according to social biases. They may be sexual with everyone they know and may inappropriately sexualize all of their meaningful relationships, except the ones they should. They often cry after orgasms.
Some incest survivors confuse sex and anger. Many overlap affection, sex, dominance, and aggression. Some use sex to achieve power. For men, this more often means dominating or violating others. Women, often sexually revictimized later in life, may attempt to ‘‘take power over’’ revictimization by ‘‘choosing’’ to work in the sex industry, dissociating themselves sexually so that it ‘‘doesn’t matter,’’ or tolerating unwanted sex for personal or professional gain.
Survivors of either gender may have strong aversions to, or need for, particular acts. Breath or touch on certain parts of their bodies or certain sex acts may trigger flashbacks. Some survivors can never be the aggressor, and some must always be. Involvement in sadomasochism (S/M) is associated with an incest history, as are real, hurtful rape fantasies.
Although commonly believed to do so, incest does not cause homosexuality. Survivors may have an aversion to, or a need to act out with, the gender that abused them, but homosexuality is an emotional-sexual ‘‘orientation.’’ Rape has nothing to do with who people love. Incest may lead some bisexual survivors to skew their future choices, but if there were no same-sex attraction to begin with, incest would not create it in its victims. However, incest does frequently make male victims of male abusers wonder if they might be gay, which, as a result of homophobia, can be very painful.
Survivors need to reappropriate their sexuality. After ‘‘reclaiming their virginity’’ by asserting abstinence while they separate sex from all of its negative associations, they can experience healthy sexual development on their own terms.
Incest deeply affects survivors’ social interactions, parenting (including childbirth), and, particularly, intimate attachments. Space allows only a brief discussion of aftereffects in committed relationships (explored further in Secret Survivors).
Survivors often re-create the dynamics of the abuse ‘‘relationship.’’ However, it was not a relationship, as it was not reciprocal. Beginning in adolescence, female survivors often become involved with much older or more powerful people. This is also an exaggeration of a social norm. They may choose caretakers who exercise control over them. Such ‘‘teacher-student’’ power imbalances give survivors no room to grow.
Incest decimates trust. Having learned that they must ‘‘produce to be loved,’’ survivors rarely expect to be taken care of without paying a huge price in return. What appears to be ‘‘safe’’ does not feel safe because it encourages them to let their guard down. Still, many survivors are desperate to satiate emotional hunger while simultaneously fearing intimacy, which is seen as having the power to destroy them. Barriers to intimacy arising from unhealthy relationships may meet conflicted survivors’ self-protective needs. They become involved with partners who are unavailable, abusive, or unstable, or engage in ‘‘pursuer-withdrawer’’ arrangements, in which one partner retreats in fear of suffocation and the other engulfs his/her partner out of a desperate fear of abandonment.
Many survivors cannot reconcile the contradiction of incest. Their inability to hold in one consciousness two opposite views of a needed caregiver—both ‘‘loving’’ and ‘‘hurtful’’—may lead them to ‘‘split’’ good and bad qualities as being mutually exclusive in people. They may elevate friends, lovers, or therapists into idealized, perfect caretakers who represent the fulfillment of their fantasies. Those who ‘‘fail’’ them, as will inevitably happen somewhere by someone, will then be dismissed as being entirely bad, whereas formerly they were seen as being entirely good. Often misdiagnosed as symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) or other personality disorders (deep pathologies seen as very difficult to treat), such incest-based relational patterns are often logical reactions that can be explored and healed in therapy.
Intimate relationships with unhealed or still healing survivors can be extremely complicated for both partners. Survivors may be incredibly sacrificing or self-involved. Emotional and sexual intimacy often trigger memories of past abuse, leaving survivors traumatized and partners feeling (or being) neglected or even blamed. When survivors abandon sexual activity, partners often feel cheated or resentful.
Before survivors can have satisfying lives, let alone successful intimacies, they must develop healthy relationships with themselves, learning to recognize, balance, and meet their own needs. Their recovery comes first. This journey is totally out of their partners’ control, as it should be.
As a consequence of all these factors, partners of survivors are ‘‘secondary victims’’ of incest. Partners may need additional support to examine their own needs, pain, behaviors, choices, and histories. Incest survivors often find each other.
Incest runs in families. Women survivors are often drawn to men who are perpetrators. Denial or dissociation may contribute to their not ‘‘seeing’’ what is happening when their own or other children are molested. That does not mean that they will necessarily fail to support their children if incest is disclosed. On the other hand, some survivors have a kind of sixth sense about perpetrators. Many are hypervigilant about abuse, and some become activists. They may not be able to change their pasts, but they have finally found their voices and are working to change the future for other survivors. This is an urgent task.
It has been said that there is no courage without fear. Incest survivors—especially those who were not believed or helped if they told—experience the world as a terrifying place. It takes enormous courage just to live their lives. No matter how weak, self-destructive, or helpless incest aftereffects make them appear, it is important to acknowledge that incest survivors are really strong. Their mere survival is a victory. It should be honored.
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