I remember the moment my life changed.
I was lying in a puddle of tears on the floor of a rehab center. I wasn’t there for drugs or alcohol. I was there for something much more shameful, at least to me: cheating on my girlfriend. I checked in as a sex addict. But that’s not what I checked out as.
“When your mom is emotionally dependent on you and has intimate discussions with you that she should be having with her spouse, there’s a name for that,” the Nurse Ratched-like therapist said, hovering over me like a prizefighter sizing up a dazed opponent. “It’s called emotional incest.”
In twenty-plus years of journalism, I’d never heard that phrase before. And it knocked me out. Incest?
I grew up in what I thought was a completely normal home, with a boring, middle-class Mom and Dad who never divorced. They may not have exactly loved each other, but they seemed to always love and support my brother and me. And they were never physically or sexually abusive. Emotional incest?
That diagnosis—as horrific as it sounds—would turn out to be the open window leading to a life I never thought possible for a reputed commitment-phobe like me: an intimate marriage, a newborn son, and a lot of laughter and joy instead of frustration and resentment. As for the normal, boring home I was raised in? It turned out to be anything but that after the therapist was through with me. It was just easy to think I was raised in an ordinary way because I’d never experienced anything different.
It’s normal for your mother to complain to you about her sex life with your father, right?
It’s normal to give your mother hand massages so you can go to bed later, right?
It’s normal for mothers to say as you do, “You’re so much better than your dad at this,” right?
This is what they call emotional, or covert, incest: It's when a parent makes a child a surrogate intimate partner. The result is that when the child grows up, a close relationship with a partner of the same sex as the emotionally needy parent feels not like intimacy but like smothering. Often, these relationships disintegrate into ambivalence or resentment, typically climaxing in an affair—which serves as a psychological release valve from the emotional pressure.
I don’t believe that my mother did this on purpose. All people are imperfect, thus so too are all parents. So all of us were raised imperfectly and we all have unique sets of baggage. (Including the ego-protecting baggage that may have made you think, “Not me,” as you read the previous sentence.) It may manifest as commitment struggles for me, friendships with toxic people for someone else, a need to always be right for another person. But the challenge is that we are too close to ourselves to see that baggage clearly. It’s like trying to touch your left elbow with your left hand.
And, tragically, as the psychotherapist James Hollis puts it in Under Saturn's Shadow: “What we do not know, controls us.” All my life, I was raised to go to the dentist for a check-up every six months to make sure my teeth and gums remained healthy; see a doctor once a year to make sure nothing was wrong with the rest of my body; and do something physical every day to stay in good shape. Meanwhile, I was obligated to go to school and try to get into a good college to support my intellectual growth.
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But in forty years of life, there wasn’t one moment where anyone suggested that finding a doctor or institution to work on my emotional health was just as important. As long as I didn’t suffer from extreme depression, anxiety, or anything noticeably debilitating, therapy didn’t seem necessary.
It took something I couldn’t deny, like breaking the heart of the woman I supposedly loved, to get me to look at my emotional and psychological health. And until that moment in the therapy room, I actually had no idea why I was having so much trouble with relationships. It seems so obvious, almost clichéd, in retrospect: I was still in a relationship with my mother.
But just having this knowledge wasn’t enough to change. Even when we intellectually know that a belief isn’t serving us, we still cling to it emotionally. So I went through a long course of different therapies afterward. And if they didn’t actually save my life, they definitely gave me back my life. Without them, I very well could have continued unhappily accumulating broken relationships and hearts, persisting until the day I died, thinking that if I could just find the right person, everything would be okay.
So I write this not as a passionate therapist, but as a grateful patient who cobbled together his own treatment program after a lot of research: As a culture, we need to take our psychological and emotional health as seriously as we take our physical and intellectual health. And unfortunately, the imprints that dampen—and sometimes destroy—our lives don’t just begin long before our formal education, but by ignoring their importance, our society and its institutions help create them.
Fast forward a few years in time and deep therapy. I am better. Life is better. And I’m ready to bring another being into the world. My wife and I are at the hospital. Our son is born with a slight temperature, so he’s taken into the neonatal intensive-care unit of UCLA to be examined for two days, as is protocol. Roughly an hour after his birth, as the doctor pulls out a long needle and prepares to stick it into my son’s spinal canal—a procedure that’s painful even to an adult—I ask if this invasive procedure is absolutely necessary. “Don’t worry,” the doctor says, sensing my concern. “He won’t remember it.”
A few weeks later, after a botched circumcision, I’m in the office of a pediatrician, who’s holding the area around the penile wound with forceps and attempting to cauterize it with a hot electric needle while my infant son screams in pain. “Don’t worry,” the pediatrician consoles me. “He won’t remember it.”
And this is how we come into the world: our physical well-being is looked after, but not our psychological well-being. The fact that babies won’t remember what happens is exactly why we need to take great care with their psyche. If they actually knew what was happening, these situations would be less traumatic. But in my son’s case, because he doesn’t, all that’s happened is that he’s been painfully squeezed out of the only world he’s ever known—one of connection and union—and into a world that mostly involves disconnection, overwhelm, and pain.
The message: It’s not safe out here. So of course my child won’t remember being stabbed in the back immediately after birth, but his nervous system will.
After receiving my diagnosis, I didn’t rush into treatment. I denied it for a long time. I even met with a leading geneticist researching monogamy, Hasse Walum, hoping he’d disagree and say that infidelity was just in my nature: specifically, according to research, the lack of a gene coding for a long vasopressin receptor. But he didn’t hand me the get-out-of-therapy-free card I was hoping for.
Though we’re born with certain predispositions and resiliencies, he explained that our nature is even more plastic than we realize: “We haven’t found anything that’s completely genetic," he says. "Not even these really hurtful diseases like autism and schizophrenia, or things like intelligence. There’s still some sort of environmental factor involved. So you get to change things.”
The question then remains: How do we change things? I don’t believe that the answer is therapy as it currently exists. On one hand, there are doctors liberally prescribing medications to not just adults but children. (One in thirteen children take psychiatric drugs, according to an analysis of the National Health Interview Survey.) On the other, there are countless therapists charging $200 an hour for a weekly empathic conversation—with no end in sight. And critics often say that techniques from psychoanalysis to EMDR (which uses eye movements, sounds, and sensations as routes into the brain) haven’t been proven. But just because we aren’t treating the mind well doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be treated.
For my psyche, what happened to be effective was a combination of things: occasional three-to-five day trauma-healing workshops supported by a mixture of weekly group therapy, non-talk therapy (most of it working on feelings rather than thoughts), and mental tools to use at home when I regressed into old beliefs and behaviors.
But I’m lucky. I had a book advance to spend on these things. One weekend workshop was $2500; group therapy was $250 a month; and the innovative therapies were on average $175 a session. Insurance wouldn’t cover any of this. And herein lies the institutional problem: Emotional healing is a rich person’s game.
So as scientists spend hundreds of millions of dollars working to cure cancer and extend the human life, while the government spreads health care to millions more Americans, who will work just as passionately and thoroughly to heal our inner life? Because what use is living another century if you just keep accumulating more and more baggage, until you’re so weighed down by your own history—or your denial of it—that you can barely move?
Neil Strauss is a seven-time New York Times-bestselling author. His book The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, is now out in paperback.
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