There's nothing that compares to the love a mother has for her son. But what happens when a mother's love — often described as being "unconditional" and "unbreakable" — begins to feel like too much? Allow me to introduce you to the term "emotional incest."
If you've ever felt like you were in a weird love triangle between you, your partner, and their mother, there's a chance you know exactly what emotional incest is. Just as it sounds, emotional incest is what happens when "a parent becomes too emotionally reliant on their child, almost treating them like a stand-in partner or therapist," says clinical psychologist Lisa Lawless, PhD, CEO of Holistic Wisdom.
Although the term is censored on TikTok, the concept has been quickly gaining popularity on the social media app. In one TikTok that has reached over 815,000 page views, a content creator describes emotional incest as being "really gross." In the viral video, she states, "Your mother-in-law is not supposed to treat you like you're the side chick who's trying to take her man away."
While this kind of love is often excused as being normal or a reflection of a mother's limitless bounds to her child, Dr. Lawless says emotional incest can be extremely harmful, often coming from a place of poor boundaries and a lack of emotional support.
Below, Dr. Lawless explains more on emotional incest and what to do if you feel like you're competing for your partner with their mother.
What Is Emotional Incest?
Also referred to as "covert incest," emotional incest is what happens when a parent becomes too emotionally attached to their child, often treating them like a significant other or therapist, says Dr. Lawless. "It's like the child steps into shoes they're not meant to fill by becoming a listening ear for adult problems or even substituting for an absent spouse," she adds.
Most often, this sort of relationship occurs when a parent turns to their child for support during vulnerable or lonely moments, when they should be consulting another adult instead. This creates an unhealthy dynamic between the parent and child, as "such weighty expectations can cloud a child's sense of self, making it hard for them to draw healthy boundaries later in life," says Dr. Lawless.
Although it may seem harmless, Dr. Lawless says this sort of dynamic can rob a child of their childhood and "stunt their emotional growth and independence." She adds, "It pushes kids into roles they aren't ready for. When parents blur these boundaries, they risk blocking their path to becoming confident, emotionally healthy adults."
Because of this attachment, when a girlfriend or significant other begins dating a mother's child, she may feel threatened by this relationship, leading to what feels like a "competition" of love. In response to the TikTok video mentioned before, one commenter stated, "[My partner's mother] was very nice when we first started dating, but once things got serious, it's like a switch flipped and she was soooo cold to me!" Another said, "His mother would rather have him live with her than with me and his kids."
It's important to remember, however, that emotional incest is by no means intentional; most parents who engage in this behaviour do it from a place of love. "However, it creates unhealthy dynamics that are harmful in the long run. By understanding and identifying these signs, parents can shift these patterns, paving the way for healthier, more balanced relationships for everyone involved," says Dr. Lawless.
What to Do If You Feel Like You're Competing With Your Partner's Mother
The best thing you can do with your partner is communicate how you're feeling, says Dr. Lawless. Remember that your partner may not be aware of how unhealthy the relationship is — after all, it is their mother – so it's best to use "I" statements to describe how you feel. You can say something like, "I feel like your mom has a hard time respecting our time together," or, "I feel like my boundaries aren't being respected by your mother, what do you think?"
Once you're on the same page with your partner, have a conversation with their mother together. "Both of you need to chat with the parent and let them know, 'Hey, our relationship's space is sacred,' emphasising the importance of your relationship's autonomy," says Dr. Lawless. This may mean setting specific boundaries or hashing out any drama that has become built up over time. (In some cases, it may even mean putting a pause on the relationship with your partner's mother or going no contact until your boundaries can be respected, says Dr. Lawless.)
If your partner regularly talks to their mother about your relationship problems, it may also be a good idea to try out couples therapy instead. This allows an unbiased third party to provide tools and strategies to your relationship problems versus getting your partner's mother involved in your relationship problems.
Ultimately, you cannot control how your partner's mother acts. And though it may feel like your MIL has some major beef with you for no reason, keep in mind that she may be feeling threatened for a myriad of reasons, many of which could have nothing to do with you.
But by acknowledging this dynamic with both your partner and their mother, hopefully it can lead to a healthier relationship for everyone involved.