Princesses, princes, daughters and dads: against emotional incest

Our daughter Heloise Cerys Raquel (often abbreviated as HCRS) is almost nine months old, and continues to amaze and delight her parents. She’s standing and crawling now, and making ever more comprehensible noises. She’s a happy baby, prone to shrieks of delight and an enthusiastic wind-milling of arms when she sees a returning parent or other beloved care-giver. We have a nanny to help out some of the time, but most of the care is done in carefully orchestrated shifts shared among my wife, her mother, and me. (My mother-in-law moved in with us after we moved from Pasadena to West Los Angeles at the beginning of summer, and that has been a special blessing for all.)

In August, I posted “She’s got you wrapped around her finger”: fathers, daughters, and a variation on the myth of male weakness in which I noted the extraordinary number of folks who expressed to me their certainty that I would treat Heloise as a princess whose whims I could not help but indulge. I’d like to touch on another aspect of the father-daughter relationship I’ve noted.

Becoming a parent for the first time in one’s forties has myriad advantages, not least that one has had the opportunity to watch a great many of one’s peers “do it all first.” (I have two high school friends of mine who are already grandparents, mirabile dictu.) And I’ve seen, a time or nine, an unhealthy triangulation occur with dads, moms, and their daughters. While the dangers of physical incest and abuse are real, there’s a kind of emotionally incestuous dynamic I’ve witnessed between fathers and daughters, one in which dads seek from their daughters the validation and affirmation that they feel they are entitled to, but are not receiving from their wives.

Little children adore their parents. Really, it’s a lovely thing to come home each day and be welcomed, as I invariably am, with gales of excited laughter and delight. (I’m the primary care giver for much of the weekend and most late afternoons and evenings; my wife handles the mornings, my mother-in-law and the nanny work splendidly in the gaps.) My daughter’s love is an impressive thing to feel, especially as she’s gotten better recently at wrapping herself around my neck and squeezing me tight. No matter what has transpired during the day, no matter what I’ve said or done (or failed to say or do), Heloise seems to adore me. It’s a wonderful thing, and I eat it up with wonder and gratitude and delight. I’m told that her devotion will only grow more intense; many little girls begin to bond more intensely with their fathers in their second and third years of life, presuming that a dad is around. One looks forward to this.

Of course, spouses aren’t the same as children. My wife loves me, a fact of which I blessedly have no doubt. But she most certainly doesn’t have me a on pedestal, doesn’t think I’m flawless, and doesn’t greet me with shrieks of joy everytime I walk into the house. Eira engages with me as a partner, and she challenges me and pushes me and asks me for things; I do the same for her. In a good marriage, iron sharpens iron, and the more friction in the sharpening process, the greater and more enduring the heat. Anyone who’s met my wife knows that she’s a tall, strong force of nature. (This is a woman who can dress down Israeli soldiers on patrol and make them blush apologetically. If you know the men and women of the IDF, you’ll know how astounding that is.) She loves me and she encourages me as I do her, but she doesn’t conceal her displeasure when she’s unhappy, and she doesn’t come rushing to me like something out of a Marabel Morgan book when I enter the house.

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen men play their daughters against their wives, mistakenly believing that the way in which their daughters see them (as heroic and perfect) is the way that their spouses ought to as well. If a man hasn’t done his “work”, he may find himself looking at his daughter, gazing up at him with adoration, and he may start (resentfully) to contrast his girl’s fierce and uncomplicated devotion with the somewhat less enthusiastic reception he may be getting from his overworked and exhausted wife. In most cases, this doesn’t mean the papa will turn to his daughter sexually, though it surely, tragically, maddeningly does happen more often than we like to think about. But he may find himself relying more and more on the affirmation he gets from his adoring baby girl.

A wife’s affection needs to be earned anew each day; it requires a husband (I’m writing this, of course, from a heterosexist perspective) who can pull his weight in housework and childcare and the emotional maintenance of the family. Marriage is, as we are invariably reminded, hard work. Getting a small child to adore you is not anywhere near so difficult. Many husbands do tend to think that merely being married (or living together) entitles one to expressions of devotion from one’s partner. They buy into a myth about men and women, one that suggests that it’s a woman’s job to soothe, to affirm, to encourage, and to manage her husband’s emotions. Think of the execrable bestseller by Dr. Laura, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands. Dr. Laura often suggests that if a woman doesn’t validate “her man” well enough, then she’s to blame if he looks for that validation somewhere else. Men have needs, Dr. Laura insists, and the greatest need they have isn’t for sex, but for a woman’s affirmation and admiration. If they aren’t getting that from their wives, they will invariably find it from another woman.

Men’s capacity to self-soothe is just as great as women’s, and women’s need for affirmation is just as great as men’s. That ought to be a given. But Dr. Laura does speak for a great many people who have bought into this delusionary understanding of what it is that men are entitled to. And men who do believe that they are being deprived of what is rightfully theirs may indeed go elsewhere. And disastrously, for fathers of daughters, that “elsewhere” may be to their little girl. Again, that doesn’t mean physical incest in every, or even most, instances. What it means is that a great many dads (and it wasn’t until I became a father to a baby girl myself that I realized how common this was) start to rely more and more on the simple intensity of their daughter’s love rather than doing the much more difficult work to remain connected with their wives. I’m certainly not saying every father of a daughter does this, but it is common — and if you ask the mothers of daughters, as I have, you’ll hear plenty of anecdotes about this.

Princess culture is huge for little girls, as surely anyone who spends time around children between three and eight knows. I’m convinced that some of this phenomenon is fed by fathers’ longing for validation. After all, princesses need princes; giving your daughter her princess fantasy is a way for a man to feed his own longing to feel like a handsome prince, indispensable and heroic and good. The gulf between the “handsome prince” in his daughter’s eyes and the loved but decidedly imperfect man in his wife’s eyes grows greater and greater. All the more reason to do what more than one man I know has done, and spend one’s family time basking in a daughter’s affection — and then, after the kids have gone to bed, spending time compulsively staring at internet pornography. And of course, there’s almost no time spent actually engaging, face-to-face and eye-to-eye, with one’s wife.

This doesn’t mean that we won’t let Heloise dress up as a princess if she wants to. (For her first Halloween, we think she’s going to be a chinchilla.) But it does mean that as devoted to my amazing, lovely, grace-filled daughter as I am, I’m very clear that in our relationship, validation needs to be a one-way street. Plenty of daughters grow up with a sense that they are somehow responsible for taking care of their fathers emotionally, for being the good and understanding woman in his life (as opposed to the mother/wife figure, who is invariably cast as judgmental and cold.) To do this to a daughter is child abuse, and I am determined not only not to do it myself, but to be bolder at calling out other fathers of daughters when I see the signs of what can only be called emotional incest.

HCRS may or may not choose to be a princess as she gets a bit older. But in her little games, I will not play the part of the prince. I’m a father, and that is something utterly and wonderfully different. And if I need validation, I need to go and get it from my equal, my peer, and my partner — the one who will make me earn that validation, as she should.

25 thoughts on “Princesses, princes, daughters and dads: against emotional incest

  1. This is one of the most profound, important and timely posts I have read in a long while. Thank you so much for writing it, Hugo! I wish to God more fathers took their time to think about these things. I’m especially grateful for the following statement: “Plenty of daughters grow up with a sense that they are somehow responsible for taking care of their fathers emotionally, for being the good and understanding woman in his life (as opposed to the mother/wife figure, who is invariably cast as judgmental and cold.) To do this to a daughter is child abuse.”

    This happens extremely often and always leaads to very unhealthy results.

    Thank you once again for a beautiful post!!

  2. You’ve opened up a good topic. Emotional (covert) incest needs more awareness in our culture. Remember that moms do this too, whether with their boys or their girls, looking to their child for the emotional validation they’re not getting from their spouse. I think it’s an all too common narcissistic tendency. As you say, we have to do our work.

  3. I really wish you had known my dad, and called him out. Great post, glad to hear HCRS is doing so well, my friend has a daughter who is almost the same age, and they’re at similar stages, adorable.

  4. Dead on post Hugo. I am also wondering about how this is even bigger than just Princess-Daddy and how this plays out with both boy and girl children and the fact “daddy” gets to be the fun one and “mommy” is the nag. What I find so profound and insightful is this enlisting of children against the mother isn’t just annoying and irritating. It’s a violation. Well done!

  5. This is a really beautiful and insightful post, Hugo. As a survivor of covert incest, you hit the topics right on.


  6. There’s one key piece of this that you’re leaving out(perhaps intentianally)and that’s how the kid who’s played may end up feeling towards either of their parents. Sometimes that results in the player’s desired outcome and the kid favors that parent. But sometimes the kid can resent that parent for doing the pitting. In my case both of my parents played me against each other and for a time I hated each of them for it. But when my mom did it, it felt way more invasive and uncomfortable…..simply because of the gender aspect. I’m sure you know the cliche’ of the Jewish mother saying, ‘you’re just like your father’. It was like that…..and it sucked.

  7. Sadly I learned about emotional incest too late to save a relationship I cared deeply about. This article is well stated and firm, hopefully it will help many others like me who were unable to put into words what was happening in their relationship. In my case, I was called the jealous one, an intruder in the house, not accepting the father/daughter bond. I was told I had the mental disorder and problems and needed help. I am so relieved to have found a name for what I went through as the “other” woman in this unhealthy relationship…..Fortunately for me, I am able to let go of the lost years, and look forward to the future with more caution, but definate relief that I was not the problem, rather it is the vicious generational cycle of abuse that needs to be broken to live free.

  8. I read your post with admiration. I wish more people would have understood this long ago. It would have saved so many useless sufferings.
    But what to do when emotional incest is done since years, the victim in his 30s and married to a woman he tortures every day (that would be me)?
    What should I do when it is useless that I understand the reasons yet I cannot change anything, because whenever I bring out even a hint to the subject of his “holly” mother I get rejected, hurt and threatened? He’s unhappy and immature, makes me unhappy, yet he denies any of my attempts to help while his mother glowing with her success to keep him wrapped around her little finger. She’s a perfect lady, I am not, she was the perfect wife, I am not, she was abandoned by a terrible cheating husband, I am not, so I think you can get the picture…
    All my friends keep telling me the best thing to do is go away and never look back. Should I?

  9. Thank you for your post, I am looking for a friend or friends, who have suffered emotional incest, I am pretty sure I have, well I know I have (see deniing it already!). I have 3 years of councelling, now doing psychoanalysis, i am a member of SAA due to the addictive behaviour I have been left with, I have a great wife, and beautiful fanily but I am struggling and need other people who have experienced what I have to talk to by email. Please drop me a line if you would like to connect, email address is thanks!

  10. I am definitely a victum of emotional incest. I was “daddy’s little girl” and favored over the other 3 children in my family. When I became a teen, my father did everything he could to end any relationship I had with a boy. He would pile the other kids in the car and follow me around. If he followed me to my boyfriend’s house, he would tell my siblings that I was a slut and sleeping with my boyfriend. When I was 19, he asked the man I was dating if I was having sex with him. My boyfriend said yes because he didn’t want to lie. My father told me I had to move out. A few months after I was kicked out, he moved a girl 4 years older than me, also named Laura who even looked a lot like me, into my parents home and started to have an affair with her. IN MY MOTHER’S HOME!!! He ended up leaving my mother and the other 3 children for this girl. They have since married and had 2 children. They named their daughter Laura Elisabeth.

    Many of my friends growing up thought that I had been molested by my father. His affections and obsessions towards me were evidently obvious even to outsiders.

    Recently, my therapist actually said, “Laura, I believe you were a victum of emotional incest and it is a major issue for you.” I came home and cried like a baby! I feel so sick over the pain it caused my mother and the abuse she endured at his hand and even the hand of his second wife. His second wife was in her early twenties at the time, but she was as verbally abusive as he was. The anger I feel is tearing me up!

  11. Thanks for this. You just explained so much about my childhood and adolescence. I don’t know how I missed this last year, and am glad you linked from your Facebook tonight.

    I’m going to need some time to sit with this and process it.

  12. Hugo: I am not sure how much cross-fertilization there is between Women’s Studies and other disciplines, so forgive me if the answer to this is “Well, of course! I am a professional.”

    But are you familiar with Nancy Chodorow’s theory on the reproduction of mothering? The dynamic that she describes, one in which mothers seek emotional fulfillment from their children and not their spouses seems like a form of emotional incest. Are you familiar with this, and if so, what is your take on it?

  13. Yes, I read Chodorow in college, and loved it — and I agree. Of course, I’d add that it is a combination of women’s ability to articulate their wants and men’s unreliability that is at the root of this very real problem.

  14. Sometime when you have nothing else to write about, I would really like to hear how these root-problems grow into what Chodorow describes. I am more than just curious; I have been doing some writing based on Chodorow’s theories because it seems so spot-on. But in discussions of her work and in writings which are based in her theories, the discourse becomes rather ungenerous towards mothers. So, I would like to read another side of the issue at some point. If you or some of your readers could point me in the direction of some articles or write something when you have the time, I would appreciate it.

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