The Impact of Enmeshment

The Impact of Enmeshment

Show: Behind Closed Doors
Hosts: Dr. Kate Balestrieri and Lauren Dummit
Special Guest: Dr. Ken Adam
Topic: The Impact of Enmeshment & Covert Incest on Adult Relationships Transcript

Announcer: This show furnished by Triune Therapy Group.

Kate: Good evening Los Angeles welcome to Behind Closed Doors heard every Saturday at 6 p.m. right here on talk radio 790KABC. I’m Dr. Kate Balestrieri.

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Dummit. Marriage and Family Therapist.

Kate: And together we’re the co-founders of Triune Therapy Group, a psychotherapy practice based in Los Angeles that focuses on the treatment of trauma, addiction, sex and relationship issues. Behind Closed Doors is a show about sex, relationships, mental health, addiction, staying healthy, and other related current events. And today we’re going to be focusing on The Impact of Enmeshment on Adult Relationships.
This is a really important topic because often in the treatment of trauma and the recognition of trauma, people will come into our sessions and they’ll say: “Well, I’ve never had any trauma in my life. Everything was great, I had a great childhood, and everything was hunky-dory. My parents are my best friends.”
And as we start to really peel back some of the layers of that onion, people start to recognize kind of the quiet ways in which their relationships with their parents might have been negatively impacting their current adult relationships.

Lauren: It seems also that sometimes that little t trauma can be so much more insidious because it really affects who they are to the core instead of it being an event that happened to them. It affects how one views their sense of self in the world, their self-esteem, their relationship with other people and so it really affects them to the core. It seems much harder to recover from or heal from.

Kate: It does and so Lauren, you bring up a really interesting construct this idea of the little T trauma. So how do you differentiate a little T trauma versus a big T trauma?

Lauren: I guess the way I differentiate it and explain it to people is, big T trauma is something that most people would view as a trauma and something like being held at gunpoint or having been raped or been in a tsunami. And little T trauma being usually relational trauma and our family of origin in which the environment was less than nurturing and our needs weren’t met.
So it could just be a relational dynamic that either felt emotionally abusive or physically abusive or it might have felt good at the time. But it didn’t allow for our healthy development of sense of self and esteem and boundaries.

Kate: I really think about little T traumas as little innocuous things that even in the moment, we might not be able to put our finger on and say: “Well gosh, that didn’t feel right.”
But over time, the accumulation of impact from all of these death by a thousand little pokes really takes its toll on how we construct our identities, how we engage socially and romantically in relationships. What our relationship is with food, with sex, with money.
It has long-standing implications for just how we interact in the world.

Lauren: Even the way we perceive things and then whether we’re able to kind of modulate our thoughts and feelings and behaviors around our reactions to things. But even for example, someone who is falsely empowered in their family and that might not have felt like a wound that might have felt really good. However, that really impairs one’s ability to function in a healthy way in other relationships.

Kate: What do you mean when you say falsely empowered Lauren?

Lauren: Well for example: if I use a male, let’s say he was maybe like the star of the football team and the parent like he could do no wrong and so he was put on a pedestal by his parents and really that was about the parents need to fill the esteem. And so in a sense, like they’re using him to feel better about themselves or like reliving their lives through him. But he develops a sense of being better than everyone else and going one up.

Kate: And often in families where there is some kind of false empowerment situation, the children who are falsely empowered don’t suffer the kinds of consequences that allow them to really engage in reality in a way that’s sustainable as they matriculate out of their families of origin and move into the real world.
So they might show up in the workforce prepared for their first job and be really hard-pressed when they get constructive feedback about what they could be doing differently or how they could show up more effectively in their job. And they’ve never really had people give them that kind of feedback, if their families or teachers or whomever has been falsely empowering them or praising them without any kind of balance.

Lauren: Also sometimes with false empowerment, they are not told “no” very often. And so they might have a real problem with frustration, tolerance when it comes to other people setting boundaries with them.

Kate: Which can create a sense of entitlement. I’ve never been told no before or infrequently and so I don’t understand why you wouldn’t go along with this when everyone else has. So it really creates a sense of distorted reality for a lot of people.

Lauren: Yes, absolutely. And I would say that’s one of the biggest products of having little T trauma, is really a distortion of reality.

Kate: And it shapes the way you see yourself, the way you see other people, the world in general. And really alters your sense of safety and your paradigm for protection and safety and efficacy.

Lauren: One of the ways I often describe it too is that when we grow up in a family like that, we learn to adapt. And the ways we learn to adapt are often extreme but those adaptations we carry into our adult relationships and they become the dysfunction of our adult relationships.

Kate: Right. And so that is sort of the crux of what we’re going to be talking about today, how are these little T traumas, specifically, enmeshment as defined as a little T trauma. How does that shape the way we show up as adults and the way we engage in our romantic relationships?
So interestingly, I have to give a shout out to one of my very best friends Mariah. Because without her, I wouldn’t even have been exposed to this concept. But in our very first year of grad school she came into class one day and if anyone knows Mariah and I personally were sort of an odd couple because she’s about five feet tall and covered in tattoos and I look a lot different than that. [Laughing]

Lauren: You look polished.

Kate: Thank you. But we were sort of an odd couple in grad school and we had a lot of fun together. But one day, she came into class and she threw this book down in front of me and it was it was a dramatic throw down. She’s like: “You need to go home tonight and read this book immediately.”
And I was like: “Whoa, what is going on? This is so forceful.”
But anyone who knows Mariah, knows she’s the boss so you do what she says. And Mariah was like: “No seriously.” She’s like: “I read this book yesterday.”
I don’t even remember how she was exposed to it but she’s like: “You need to go home and read it tonight.”
So I looked at the book and it was called Silently Seduced. And I’m like: “What am I reading?”
So I went home that night, because again Mariah is the boss, and I read that book cover-to-cover. And the book is about covert incest which is another way to describe emotional enmeshment and I have to tell you that book changed my life. And reading it in that moment, for me was a very pivotal point. Where I started redefining the way I looked at my family relationships, the way I started looking at patients’ trauma, and how they were showing up and I thought: “Why aren’t we talking about this more?”

Lauren: It’s such an interesting concept. I feel whenever I explain it to someone they call me back saying: “What was that name of that thing you were talking about?”
And I was laughing as you were giving that description of Mariah because that is exactly the description of my reactions from female partners that I work with. When they’re talking about their partner and I say: “Well, you might want to have them read this.”
And they read it and then that’s their reaction about wanting their partner to read it.

Kate: Yes, like everyone.

Lauren: And I just want to clarify it’s not just for speaking about men. Both men and women, both mothers and daughters, it can go across all lines. But that’s just the typical reaction that I’ve had from the women I work with.

Kate: That’s so true. So we’re really excited to bring Dr. Ken Adams on the show in a few minutes to talk more about his book Silently Seduced and this concept of enmeshment. And just really to me, this is such a big honor because Dr. Adam’s work has been so profound in the work that we do treating sexual dysfunctions, sexual addiction and all different kinds of trauma related issues that people are coming to see us for at Triune Therapy Group. And so this is going to be an interesting episode.

Lauren: It is. I’m so excited to have Dr. Ken on.

Kate: It’s going to be great. So before we jump into that, I’m curious Lauren, do you have any really good examples in the media of shows that depict enmeshment? I can think of a couple but I wonder if you have.

Lauren: Yes I do. There’s one in particular and I don’t remember the name of it. Oh god. it’s so funny. I can’t remember it offhand. What is one you’re thinking of?

Kate: The one that comes to mind for me is called Everybody Loves Raymond. This show does such a great job depicting enmeshment and really showing how insidious it is.
Because you see Marie Barone interacting with her sons and you see both of them roll their eyes often but also jump at the chance to show up for their mom and to help her with whatever she needs. And you can see the competition between Marie Barone and Ray’s wife and it’s interesting, I can’t even remember Ray’s wife’s name, which speaks to the level of enmeshment and how she’s kind of parsed out.
But it’s an interesting show because it really does demonstrate kind of the blurriness of this false empowerment that you’re talking about and how insidious of parents in enmeshed relationships can be with their children. And how it really can impede on a partner’s ability to show up for their partner.

Lauren: As you were saying that, I just thought of this series that I just finished Sharp Object. Is that right? Sharp Objects. [They both saying it simultaneously] and of course there’s some other things going on there. But even the mother with the daughter that complies, her goal is to enmesh her daughters.

Kate: Absolutely. And when we think about enmeshment, and we’ll talk with Dr. Adams about this a little bit more, but ultimately parents are not maliciously trying to hijack their children’s development or their children’s relational needs. But really they’re working out their own unfinished business and trying to really get their own emotional needs met. And so it becomes a very tricky dynamic to parse out because parents often will show up in this enmeshed way but under the guise of: “I love my children so much and I want to be a part of their lives.” And be so intimately involved in every aspect of it.
It’s difficult for children to negotiate what feels like a privilege and what feels like an obligation sometimes in this case.

Lauren: And I know also generationally for example, my parents came from a generation where like children were to be seen and not heard. And so there was more of a hands-off approach and so they wanted to do something differently. They wanted to be more involved so there’s many reasons why it happens. And a lot of times parents aren’t to be blamed, they’re doing the best they can with what they have.

Kate: Exactly.

Lauren: But you see the generational differences play out too.

Kate: We definitely do and cultural. But more about that when we come back from our break. If you have any questions about this topic you can call us an Triune Therapy Group 3-1-0-9-3-3-4-0-8-8 or message us on social media @Triune Therapy Group. When we come back more on The Impact of Enmeshment on Adult Relationships with respected clinician Dr. Ken Adams.

Kate: Welcome back, you’re listening to Behind Closed Doors I’m Dr. Kate Balestrieri.

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Dummit, Marriage and Family Therapist.

Kate: And today we’re talking about The Impact of Enmeshment on Adult Relationships with internationally known and respected clinician Dr. Ken Adams. Who is also the author of the books: Silently Seduced and When He’s Married To Mom.
Dr. Adams thank you so much for joining us today. This is such an honor to have you on our show.

Dr. Adams: It’s nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

Kate: So if you could tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your area of expertise.

Dr. Adams: Well I’m a licensed psychologist from Michigan. The offices are in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Royal Oak, Michigan. I do a lot of work nationally, as you mentioned, they have some books, chapters, articles on the topic of enmeshment, covert incest, and sexual addiction. So it’s been an area of study for mine for some time and I probably know more than I even thought I ever would about enmeshment. So I’m happy to share with you what we can in the time we have together.

Kate: Oh, that’s awesome, thank you. So how would you define covert incest or as you call it the silent seduction?

Dr. Adams: Yes, I’m glad you asked. Because listening to your opening I know you both were using both the term covert incest and enmeshment. And I was thinking that might be a little confusing. So let’s start with your first question and that is covert incest.
So when we think about incest we think about sexual relations between people who are too close to marry; father/daughter ,mother/son, so forth. And we think of overt sexual contact and we think of how much damage that does. But there also is a form of sexual violation or intrusion that can happen with somebody without overt sexual touch.
For example, think about witnessing appearance affair. Affairs over the course of a lifetime. Maybe nobody had sexually violated you, but if you witness your parents and affairs we have lots of documented cases that say your sexuality is negatively impacted and traumatized by the witnessing of the parent’s infidelity. So your sexuality can be damaged, abused without direct sexual touch.

Kate: Absolutely.

Dr. Adams: In that vein, when a parent and child who have a normal love affair, we don’t want to trespass upon sweet normal love that exists between mothers and sons and daughters and fathers and that’s where the budding ability romance begins. Before your first crush, your boyfriend or girlfriend in school, your first one is your parents. I need to tell everybody. [Kate and Lauren chuckles] I think if children can be allowed to have their feelings and to grow up to be separate from their parents no damage is done. In fact, that first love affair becomes the template for moving outside the parental relationship and finding their own romance. Often times, marrying parts of that early parent-child love affair.
But when the parent uses the adoration, the affection, the connection from the child to fill their own loneliness, their own frustrated romantic or sexualized needs without overt touch, they may intrude on the child’s development and his or her sexuality now becomes a source of conflict: “I want to be close to mommy but she wants too much from me.”
“I want to be close to Daddy but he wants me to dress up like his girlfriend. I don’t want to do that.”
So now the daughter and the son are in conflict with their own normal sexual unfolding. And so that doesn’t go away by the passage of time, if there’s too much of that intrusion and demand that the parents say: “You take care of me.”
I hear stories all the time from men and women from all around the world. I’ve had workshops for men and women. I have a whole new website called It’s amazing to see what’s emerging out of that.

Kate: It’s a fantastic website.

Dr. Adams: People from multiple cultures and say: “This is me.”
“I’ve been trying to let go of my mother or father all my life and all I do is feel guilty.”
“I have to take care of them.”
“They cook me dinner.”
I have stories of people having a romantic dinner with their parents. No overt sexual touch has ever occurred, yet they report a similar set of symptoms. We see an overt of sexual abuse survivors. So there is a long-winded answer to covert incest.
And you mentioned enmeshment sort of almost synonymous. And it’s a little different. In that, enmeshment is a broader label describing that the way that people relate. Enmeshment means there’s too much closeness between family members, too much demand for loyalty so that might or might not cross a sexual incestuous boundary. In other words, somebody can be an emotional caretaker of a parent and be enmeshed with them and not be a very bachelor sized boyfriend or girlfriend. So there’s some differences. There may be more than we want to parse out in a radio show but families that are enmeshed, demand loyalty, absolute loyalty to the system, added cost to the adult child’s own independence thriving romantically and otherwise. High degree of dependency between members, time together is maximized when it involves the child and the parents, of course, because this can happen between siblings and so forth. The child feels obligated to come to the aid of the parent, to be their loyal lover. So I think of the term loyal lover when you ask about covert incest or enmeshment. I think about the phrase the loyal beloved man or woman who’re like: “We will not leave you mommy, we will not leave you dad.”
And what happens though is they don’t get a romantic life fully for themselves. And partners and spouses of these men and women are almost always second fiddle. I cannot tell you and I’ve had this conversation recently. A session with a man whose wife is just wrecked because of these demands. And you called it little T and I know exactly which you’re referencing but to me it’s a major trauma. It isn’t the kind of trauma that we think about being beaten or sexually assaulted. They have their own track record of consequences that are well-established.
But I have to tell you if you grow up into a system that demands absolute loyalty to the parent at a cost to your own independent strivings, you will have significant consequences. It’ll be very difficult to feel free to engage in your own passion and your own interest.

Lauren: I have someone that I work with that it’s really handicapped this person in all areas of their life. They are unable to date, they cannot hold a job. Their primary function in this world is to take care of mom. They’re well past the age where that’s appropriate I mean, that’s not ever appropriate but considering they’re middle-aged and the fact that they’re not able to have their own life, it’s so sad.

Dr. Adams: Yes, I can imagine a listener saying: “Well what do I do with my aging parent?” So you’re saying, and I concur in spirit, it’s never appropriate to be the loyal lover of our parents. And a lot of times people will resist facing this topic because what they hear it as, is that we’re proposing amputation of the relationship and that’s not the case at all. Although, as you mentioned earlier, parents are not trying to deliberately intrude on their life. They’re out of control with their own needy dependencies. Which doesn’t excuse it but it does remind us that most parents are not malicious in their holding onto entrapping, engulfing, and smothering your children and adult children.
But what has to shift is the contractual demand that, I have to be loyal to you mommy or daddy. So I end the contractual demand from you that I must respond at your beck and call. That is what gets amputated or divorced. Now that’s an internal decision and it has an external representation. Then you have to decide okay, well how often are you going to see your parents? How often will you take a phone call? What will be the topics that you’ll be allowed to discuss? And so what happens is the adult moves into his or her own romantic involvements, their own career choices, as primary commitments and the parents drop down the list of priorities.
And for men and women in these enmeshed entangled or covertly incestuous relationships, it’s very difficult for them to do that because they feel so guilty. They feel so obligated. It’s like pulling teeth to move them away from that sense of an obligation. And you also mentioned something earlier about this sort of entitled position. And we sometimes see that with these men and women. They’re given a privileged position in the system. They become the prince or princess in that system with special anointed parts to their role which makes siblings very jealous, by the way.

Lauren: And sometimes even their spouse.
Dr. Adams: Of course, and the spouse. So we do see some of that entitlement you spoke of but most of the time we see people who have really lost themselves and tend to be caretakers. We all define caretakers and subservient to other people’s wishes. They don’t seem to be able to make commitments too easily, particularly romantically. But not just limited to romance, they may not be able to figure out what movie they want to go to because they weren’t permitted to say: “No, this is what I want.”

Kate: Well it really seems like a stunted sense of identity development. If someone is only allowed to show up in the mold that their parent needs, they really lose the ability to define what they like and what they know and what they believe to be true. Because they have to sit into the reality that’s given to them for fear of losing the relationship.

Lauren: And when there’s a lack of boundary between where I end and you begin, then it’s really confusing to differentiate a sense of self from that of the parent.

Kate: We have to take a quick break right here Dr. Adams, so when we come back let’s talk more about that and more about The Impact of Covert Incest and Enmeshment on Adult Relationships.
So if you’re listening in right now follow us on Instagram and Facebook @Triune Therapy Group and message us with your questions. You can also call us for a twenty minute consultation at 3-1-0-9-3-3-4-0-8-8. Stay with us, we’ll be right back.

Kate: Welcome back you’re listening to talk radio 790KABC. This is Behind Closed Doors and I’m Dr. Kate Balestrieri.

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Dummit, Marriage and Family Therapist.

Kate: And together were the co-founders of Triune Therapy Group, a practice in Los Angeles focusing on the treatment of trauma, addiction, sex and relationship issues.
If you’re just tuning in today, we’re discussing The Impact of Covert Incest and Enmeshment on Adult Relationships with author Dr. Ken Adams. He wrote the books: Silently Seduced and When He’s Married To Mom. Which both focus on the impact of covert incest on adult functioning.
So Dr. Adams when we left off we were talking about the function of boundaries and when there’s a boundary-lessness within the parent-child dyad, the impacts on the development of that child’s sense of self.

Dr. Adams: And you guys did a nice job at sort of clarifying that. What I was going to add is that what happens in that dyad parents and child, when the parent is demanding that the child organized around the parental needs of loneliness and anxiety and depression whatever else they’re dealing with, the child over time they lose track of their needs. So eloquently put and the parent’s needs become their needs and they cannot differentiate their needs from the parents’ needs. Even to with the point where the parent gets sick, the kid gets sick.
I saw this in school for big children when I was first entered the field I was working with kids. And these kids who couldn’t go to school and it was an anxiety about separation. So by the time they become adults they’ve lost track of what I need. In fact, if you ask: “Them where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know where I want to go for dinner. Where do you want to go? Where you want to go is where I want to go.”

Kate: I think that’s a really great indication that someone has suffered covert incest or enmeshment in their relationships is that level of acute deference to their partner and indecisiveness.
Dr. Adams: Yes of course you can get that identity formation through other forms of distress relational stress as you know. And the thing I would add to that, to your definition, that is we do need to see evidence either past occurrence of the adults’ relationship with their parents as over-involved dependent enmeshment caretaking in which they have learned to sacrifice themselves. And what happens to a potential romantic partner, if you at first blush when you meet a man or woman who’s been trained by their mother or father to tune into them, they’re very attuned to you. It’s very seductive and it may not be overly seductive but it could be. In addition, it’s very seductive that somebody would be so tuned in to me. They want to go to dinner where I want to go, they want to do what I want to do.
What happens over time though, is you begin to notice they begin to pull away and they enter what we call an ambivalence about being close to somebody. An ambivalence attachment style. And so the person that you thought was the answer to your long hope for a dream of love, who was so attentive to you, really now is going to pull away from you because they feel engulfed by you and you had no intention to engulf them. But they have emerged with your need in such a way that they now feel smothered by you. And they can flip on the switch and they can move by being in love with you, to wanting little to do with you in a day’s time because of feeling engulfed.
So the spouse of the partner of an enmeshed man or woman, pays the price by being the wrong person who gets rejected.

Lauren: Yeah and a lot of times what I see is that the person that is enmeshed ends up having a lot of anger towards the partner even though the partner might not have done anything.

Dr. Adams: Exactly, precisely. And this links back to, let’s make it back to this developmental task that you guys started talking about. I’m a parent and I know this I have a teenager in my life. And the last full job of a parent before they fade into the background- as a consultant in their adult child’s life, loving them from a distance and being involved as needed and has wanted- is the last developmental job for the parent is to suffer and take the loss of the departure of their son or daughter. They must absorb the grief and many parents spend a better part of that kid’s lifetime not permitting that loss to happen. And it’s a parental responsibility to live through the grief of losing their child to the world and a romantic involvement. And to lose that love affair that was so central in the family or parents life.
That is a parental responsibility, it is not the child’s responsibility to help the parent through that.

Lauren: Yeah, and it can be so devastating especially in these enmeshed relationships when the child has been their everything. We know people call an empty nest syndrome but you can really see some intense suffering when they’ve made the child their everything.

Kate: Well oftentimes in our work at Triune Therapy Group, we see people coming in and they’re really stuck in Dr. Ken what you call a loyalty bind, between their new love interest and their parents. When they’ve been involved in covertly incestuous dynamics with their parents. And what it looks like is coming in and talking about how: “Gosh, my mom hates my girlfriend or hates my wife and they don’t get along and everything that they do is contentious.”
And there’s so much covert competition here, that shows up and the enmeshed child feels so torn between living the life that they are choosing for themselves and living the life that is foreclosed upon them by their parents unmet needs.

Dr. Adams: Exactly, well-put. You did a nice job of defining that and that would be exactly what I referenced a moment ago, is the parent failed to live and absorb the grease from their departure and now is in competition with the love interest of their son or daughter.

Lauren: Yeah, we do see that a lot.

Dr. Adams: Rather than celebrating. So I would add on to the grieving has to be followed by the celebration.

Lauren: Another thing I see in opposition to that is not always the covert competition in that sense. But where for example, let’s say the female child, grown child, finds a partner well then the mother has to love him just as much. And then she’s texting and calling and acting as if it’s her own son who she’s also trying to enmesh.

Kate: It’s interesting. I wonder what your thoughts are about the same sex enmeshment between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons and how does that show up and impact adult relationship similarly or differently?

Dr. Adams: Yeah, good question. So assuming heterosexuality which changes us a little bit. So if there’s a gay man enmeshed with his mother, there won’t be as much overt incestuous stickiness that we might find because his orientation is near towards the same gender but he will still find the mother intrusive and violating.
We’ll see with women and their mothers more eating disorders. A lot more caretaking, emotional caretaking, and some lack of understanding that really isn’t entirely in their best interest. Because I think culturally here in our culture, but others as well, I think women are reinforced much more than men to parent their parents and take care of their parents. So women sort of have a double whammy there. They have to and the men are not pushing the women into therapy for this.

Kate: They benefit.

Dr. Adams: Yes exactly. They can go off on their own. But we’ll see women pushing their men into therapy. So when there’s a mother-daughter enmeshed relationship we see excessive caretaking. But the spouse of the enmeshed woman, whether she’s enmeshed with her mother or father, still feels second fiddle. There’ll be some with the mother and with the daughter and father there’s probably a more inappropriate sexual energy that the spouse of partner may react to.

Kate: I agree with that I also see with a lot of mother enmeshed women, a real recoil around sexuality and some competition between mothers and daughters and the enmeshment shows up in a way that really prohibits the full sexual expression of the growing adult child. Because they’re afraid of usurping moms status as the primary sex symbol in the home or in the community. And a lot of those women learn to attenuate or make themselves small so as not to outshine mom or really become a threat to her.

Dr. Adams: Well put, exactly. Because that’s unfortunate because she needs the mother’s blessing to be her own lover. And also I think that what happens and what you just described is the daughter internalizes the mother’s mistrust, anger or even disgust with men. She will internalize that in her own identity and wonder why she can’t have a successful relationship.

Lauren: Yeah and I also see a lot of these women having really a lot of–they’re very avoidant of other women and friendships. They’re great friends with people that live long distance and the people that want to spend time with them they find very annoying and demanding.

Dr. Adams: Yes I think that you touched upon that Kate, they’re sort of the competitiveness there and so a daughter enmeshed with her mother will not own her own sexuality and will be jealous or competitive with women and have taken some ownership of it. And so often times, and we have women in group, if there’s a little competition or sometimes a lot because oftentimes the mother – let me get the phrases right- the mother enmeshed daughter loses her man to the father enmeshed daughter who is the seductress. Now, the seductress goes too far when she’s over-identifying.

Kate: We have to take a quick break but when we come back more on The Impact of Covert Incest and Enmeshment on Adult Relationships with author Dr. Ken Adams.
And you can follow us on Instagram and Facebook and message us with your questions or call us at 3-1-0-9-3-3-4-0-8-8 for a 20 minute consultation. Stay with us, we’ll be right back.

Kate: Welcome back. You’re listening to talk radio 790KABC. If you’ve just tuned in, you’re listening to Behind Closed Doors I’m Dr. Kate Balestrieri.

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Dummit, Marriage and Family Therapist.

Kate: And together we’re the cofounders of Triune Therapy Group, a psychotherapy practice in Los Angeles that treats trauma, addiction, sex, and relationship issues.
Feel free to message us on Instagram or Facebook @Triune Therapy Group with your questions or give us a call at Triune Therapy Group at 3-1-0-9-3-3-4-0-8-8 with any questions that you might have about today’s show We’re here with special guest Dr. Ken Adams, author of Silently Seduced and When He’s Married To Mom, discussing The Impact of Covert Incest and Enmeshment on Adult Relationships.
Dr. Adams thanks so much again for joining us on today’s episode. This has been so interesting to hear your take on this.

Dr. Adams: Well we left off if you don’t mind picking up because it’s a good part of the topic to bring home to your listeners, is the issue of sexuality. We were speaking about the differences between a woman who has been her father’s sexualized girlfriend, again no overt touch, but the role of taking care of his lonely frustrating self, dressing up for him perhaps as he prances her around town versus the woman who is enmeshed with her mother. Taking care of her lonely frustrated mother who is angry at her husband and absorbs her mother’s frustration and distrust of men.
And these women often are we were talking about the competitiveness and I was saying that we were commenting accurately, that the woman enmeshed with her mother loses track of her own sexuality. And I was commenting as we ended that the woman on the other end with her father over identifies with the seductress role and it cost to other parts of her and winds up indeed attracting relationships of being drawn to relationships because of her own identification to men that repeat the very thing that she found so disruptive or even disgusting with her father. We see it and we see that with men and their mothers. If they were sexualized or they played the role of surrogate husband or the sexualized boyfriend, they’ll become a seducer or have sexual addiction compulsivity problems.
Many years ago, now I still remember this, which I was working with the man- this is what got me started on the topic, I wrote my first article after this case, my first professional article, many years ago now- but this man was seeing prostitutes compulsively. And at the time I was early in my therapy field and I didn’t realize that you don’t tell people, clients, don’t give them advice and suggest what they do because most people don’t really do what you tell them to do. So he said: “Well, what should I do?”
I said: “You should stop living with your mother immediately.”
To my surprise, because he was a grown man who had lost two marriages had a long-term prostitution pornography addiction in order for addiction and to my surprise he moved out that weekend and taking care of his mother at the age of 45 or 50 I think whatever it was. And what I witnessed in the subsequent therapy sessions was an immediate decrease in his compulsivity, immediate. And I said: “Oh, there’s a connection between taking care of mom and the way he experiences his sexuality.”
So the sexual story for these men and women gets thwarted. Sometimes sex is used as an escape. So I want to have sex that doesn’t involve commitment. Affairs, prostitution, pornography, short term relationships because once I get too involved I begin to feel engulfed and so forth.

Kate: Right. And that’s what I think is one of the biggest phenomena that we see in our work at Triune Therapy Group. Is that people will come in and say: “I don’t understand when I’m out there dating or when I was courting my partner, the sex was on fire. We were great, we were super compatible.”
And then when they start to inch toward any kinds of commitment benchmarks; moving in together, having the conversation about exclusivity, getting engaged, getting married, having children, that seems to be a trigger for people to get more avoidant in their sexuality with their primary partner. When they’ve had histories of covert incest and they start to feel really entrapped and engulfed and overwhelmed by the need that they perceive being placed on them from their partner.

Lauren: It’s like they’re desperately craving the intimacy but can’t tolerate it.

Dr. Adams: Exactly. So their early romance when the brain is flooded with the chemicals they can kind of bypass what fears they have but once that settles out and you have the different tasks of romanticizing with your partner and moving you to deeper levels of vulnerability keep the eroticism alive between you, now you get exactly what you’re saying: fears of engulfment. The fears of feelings of being trapped and so one of the things that goal is, they shut down sexually.

Kate: And we start to see so much discord in those relationships and it’s really distressing for a lot of people. They don’t understand. They love their partner and they don’t know why they’re shutting down or why they’re reacting in a passive-aggressive way toward their partner. And it really speaks to the bind that they’re in around expressing themselves directly and getting their needs met versus fearing any kind of relational retaliation or fragility in their partner and holding back and feeling guilty.

Lauren: Right. And it goes and they often are attracted to people they’re caretaking and then there’s the guilt of how are they going to care take them if they’re pulling away.

Kate: Right.

Dr. Adams: I’ll give you a little story that kind of underscores what we’re referencing here. I’ve mentioned earlier I do these workshops for men and women and they’re very specific. They’re basically designed to help them emancipate, with no other topic in mind. And on two occasions within a similar period, I had the opportunity to do a consulting session with the couple after the man left the workshop so the partner (the woman in his life) and I chuckled because I wasn’t expecting it.
But in two back-to-back sessions from two different couples we did not know each other the women both said: “I had the best sexual time I’ve ever had in my life.”
And, of course, I told these guys I can’t promise them that when they come into the workshop. But what it told me, that it underscores what we’re referencing here. Is their sexuality is high gear and encumbered with, it came as burden, entrapment, loyalty and now you want me to show up for you, I can’t do it.

Kate: Well one of the sexiest things ever is— excuse me?

Dr. Adams: I say romance becomes burdensome very quickly.

Kate: Absolutely. It moves from being a place of creativity, spontaneity, and liberation and volition to feeling like an obligation. It’s dampening.

Dr. Adams: Exactly. So they takes on the obligatory framework or template we call it that the mother or father left with them. Some of these people come to see that their parents, their natural parents, has been dead for years but they still carry that template inside of them; obligatory, guilt, and responsibility in finding romance burdensome rather than is that creative–

Kate: Well Dr. Ken, how do you suggest people address this issue and really start to heal if one of their primary concerns is staying connected to their family? Oftentimes a lot of what we see is resistance. Is that people think, as you mentioned earlier, they have to sever those relationships completely.
So how do you advise people on how to continue the relationship and liberate themselves concurrently?

Dr. Adams: How do you help yourself when your parent won’t let go? Break free and still love your parent. That’s the assignment because they’re not going to do it, you have to do it. And you still want to find a way to love them. I think awareness, shows like this. I think reading so the books, some of the books are written. There’s some other related not a lot of books out there on the topic but there’s some. I think doing some very specific therapeutic work around it. One of the reasons so it’s making sure the therapist is attuned to that and as I would say to you, to therapists, listeners: be careful that you don’t get in the in-between your client and their parents because they will choose the parent over you.
So you can’t force this emancipation, you have to make an invitation for them to emancipate without amputating.

Kate: That makes a really good point. What would you say to the partners of enmeshed children or covertly incested children? Because they often will give their enmeshed spouse an ultimatum.

Dr. Adams: Yes I know. And that’s difficult to answer because on one hand, I think that you have to be a little deft and diplomatic about how you raise this. But if your enmeshed man or woman in your life refuses to look at it, you really are left with two choices.
If you’re the partner, you either must leave and find your own way or you have to live with and accommodate being in the back seat of that relationship, which I don’t recommend.

Kate and Lauren: Right.

Dr. Adams: Because I think there has to be gentle and persistent awareness to say: “I think this is hurting us and I think it’s also hurting the kids.”
There’s a lot of these people who have children and the children would get trapped in these generational enmeshed relationships too.

Kate: So well said.

Dr. Adams: Yeah. I think, like any problem, I think it requires a gentle persistence. I love our workshops. I’m kind of biased, of course, because I designed them. But we specifically create a corrective moment in time for these men and women so they know what it’s like to feel free: “Aha! That’s what it’s like.”

Kate: Dr. Adams, how can people learn more about your workshops? We’ve sent several people to them and they come back transformed. And in our last 30 seconds or so, how can people contact you to learn more?

Dr. Adams: Website-; is probably your best bet.
You can also try

Kate: Great. Dr. Adams thank you so much for joining us today.
You’re listening to Behind Closed Doors. This is Dr. Kate and Lauren right here on talk radio 790KABC. Thanks for joining us today and tune in every Saturday at 6 PM for more information about mental health, addiction, sex, and relationships.
And feel free to give us a call at Triune Therapy Group with any questions you have on today’s episode 3-1-0-9-3-3-4-0-8-8 and a big thank you to you, our listeners. We do it all for you, have a great weekend.
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