If your parents did not have a healthy marriage—a deep emotional connection—then it is likely that either you or your sibling has experienced some measure of subtle sexual abuse. Subtle sexual abuse wreaks havoc in your heart… but because of its subtlety, you can live your whole life without knowing what’s plaguing you. Today we talk about what subtle sexual abuse is and how it can affect you.
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If husband and wife are not passionately committed to engaging one another in love and honesty—in other words, if they are not regularly talking about their relationship and taking responsibility for how they are harming each other, talking through conflicts, if they don’t have a deep emotional connection… if that stuff is not happening, then something called triangulation is inevitable.
Triangulation means that one parent becomes closer to you than to their spouse.
For example, your father begins to look to you to fill his needs because his wife is not there for him.
Or, conversely, your Mom begins to look to you to connect with her emotionally because her husband is not there for her.
If there is failure with your mother and father in regards to love, there will be triangulation. It’s inevitable.
When there is a failure of attunement between Mom and Dad, Mom and Dad will need to look somewhere for attunement b/c people need attunement.
So who did they get it through? It will be gotten through you… or your sibling.
Who was the face for your mother given that your father was not?
Who did your father turn to for connection since his wife was not interested in him?
Now, triangulation results in two deadly dynamics. And it was Dan Allender that first fleshed this out for me. Once he did, my life suddenly began to make sense.
Here are the two deadly dynamics that result from being triangulated.
Dynamic # 1 — your goodness… is consumed… by your opposite sex parent. And it doesn’t have to be the opposite sex parent, but it often is. Your goodness is consumed.
Dynamic # 2 — as a result, you are setup to be envied by your same sex parent.
So, you’re a 14 year old girl and your parents don’t have a deep and rich marriage… and so your Dad starts looking to you rather than to his wife for connection.
Dynamic # 1 — the goodness that you bring with your presence is being consumed by your father.
Dynamic # 2 — as a result, your mother comes to envy you b/c she’s not fond of the fact that her husband prefers you in many ways.
If your parents were not deeply committed to each other on a day to day basis—if there was not a passionate love and care and concern between them (if they weren’t each other’s best friend)—then you may know something about being consumed and something about being envied.
By consumption I mean that since your father knew that your mother wasn’t there for him, he began to look to you to fill his needs.
He began to consume the goodness that you brought with your presence.
Q: But what do you think your Mom thought about the fact that your father chose you over her? Do you see the setup? You were setup to be envied by your mother, to be a rival.
Here’s the point: This is known as triangulation. And all triangulation is a form of subtle sexual abuse.
Subtle sexual abuse occurs when a child becomes the object of a parent’s affection, when the child becomes the person that the parent starts to lean on or turn to.
In time, the child is forced to act like a surrogate spouse to one of the parents. To act like a surrogate spouse!
Subtle Sexual Abuse is far, far more prevalent than we think.
The setup for subtle sexual abuse is a chronically troubled marriage in which one or both parents feel a loneliness or emptiness because their spouse is not emotionally present and engaged.
As a result, one or both parents live with deep unmet needs for care, connection, and companionship… and eventually Mom or Dad begins turning to a child to get some of those needs met.
Now, this dynamic places an immense burden on the chosen child, BUT please hear this… , the chosen child won’t feel a sense of burden at all. Quite the opposite!
SLOW… To the child, the relationship will feel loving and sweet and good and kind and connected.
As an adult, you will think back on your childhood and remember being highly attuned to your opposite sex parent—anticipating their needs, reading them well when they were upset, being there for them.
You will feel close to the parent who is making you their surrogate spouse, close to the parent who is subtly sexually abusing you.
But there is nothing loving or caring about a close parent-child relationship when it services the needs and feelings of the parent rather than the child. Repeat.
This is so hard to get your head around… if triangulation was true for you, then the nature of your story is that what felt like love wasn’t.
That’s very hard to come to terms with. And therein lies the dark power of subtle sexual abuse.
Let me share the words of two men who are quoted in Silently Seduced, the book I mentioned by Ken Adams. Both of these men are trying to put language to what subtle sexual abuse looks like.
Here’s how one man puts it:
“There was mostly distance between my father and me. He never seemed to have much time for me and spent a great deal of time away from the house. I never could figure out why my parents stayed together. They didn’t talk to each other much. I see now why my mother invested so much energy in me.”
Do you see it? Distance between he and his father, closeness between he and his mother.
Here’s how another man puts it:
“I decided early on I was going to show my Dad that I could be a better father than he ever was. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was also working on being a better husband than he was — a role my mother always seemed to welcome.”
Q: Again, do you see the dynamic? Emotional closeness with Mom combined with competition between the son and Dad.
Now, one of the heart-wrenching realities of children who are subtly sexually abused is that IT FEELS REALLY POWERFUL and GOOD to be able to come through for your opposite sex parent.
I mean think of what an ego trip this is for a kid…
Here are the words of a woman looking back on her relationship with her father. Again, this is quoted in the book Silently Seduced:
My father always had me by his side when I was growing up. I was his little sweetie. He and my mother didn’t have much of a relationship so I was the object he adored. When I was younger, I enjoyed all the attention and closeness. REPEAT
She quote unquote “enjoyed” all the attention and closeness. And there was goodness in it, but it was also deeply violating because her Dad is looking to her instead of looking to Mom.
She is the object that Dad adores, not MOm. Oh, how that wreaks havoc in a little girl’s heart, but it’s rarely going to feel damaging.
This is subtle.
Here’s a quote from a man:
It felt so good to be able to make my mom stop crying and put a smile on her face. I was more than willing to be there for her. I felt so important and powerful. After a while it seemed that my mother actually preferred my company over my father’s.
Q: Do you see the subtle power of this? When this man was a boy it felt good to be able to comfort Mom. He felt important and powerful… special.
It’s important to understand the darkness of Subtle Sexual Abuse.
Whereas someone who is physically sexually abused—i.e. with sexual touch—will often feel like they have been abused, the victim of subtle sexual abuse will not feel abused at all… quite the opposite, they will feel idealized and privileged.
The victim of subtle sexual abuse will never in a million years think of themselves as sexually abused. Why?
Because your relationship with your opposite sex parent felt good, it felt sweet.
And it sure as heck felt better than your relationship with your same sex parent who was often critical of you or distant from you.
Here’s the kicker with subtle sexual abuse: very often, you will live your whole life believing that the parent who subtly sexually abused you was the best parent you had. REPEAT
Consider these words from a man we’ll call John, again quoted in Silently Seduced.
And it’s a full paragraph, but boy does he paint the picture well. Here’s how he says it.
[say this slowly]
I thought I had the perfect parents. I was particularly fond of my mother because she was always there for me, to comfort me and talk. We talked about everything. Often she talked about my dad…
I always felt special around her because she trusted me with personal information.
My father was also an attorney who loved his work. He seemed more married to it than to my mother.
But he made sure we had everything — the best clothes, schools and whatever we wanted. It was hard to be angry with him. Besides, as a family, we seemed fine. There was never any overt family fighting or feuds. We seemed real close.
I always felt special after one of my talks with Mom…
I thought including me was my mom’s way of making me feel special…
I had no idea my mother was seducing me because she was lonely.
Wow. Do you see it?
John felt much closer to Mom than Dad. But Mom is the one who’s sexually abusing him.
He says, “I always felt special around her because she trusted me with personal information.”
He felt special after his talks with Mom. And the way he interpreted their special closeness was “oh, Mom is just letting me in and being kind to me. She’s including me.”
But the reality is his final sentence: “I had no idea my mother was seducing me because she was lonely.”
This is the core of subtle sexual abuse.
Now, here’s the thing that makes subtle sexual abuse so pernicious and confusing. I mean this is just madness.
In the example just given, John will feel like his Mom was the good parent and his Dad was the mean parent.
The reality is that his Mom is sexually abusing him and in so doing, she is setting him up to be hated by his father.
John was chosen by his mother to be her confidante and companion because John’s father was emotionally checked out.
But by choosing John, John’s mother put John and his Dad in competition with each other.
The seduction by John’s mother pitted John against his father b/c John’s father naturally felt jealous.
So as John grew up, he always had this sense that his Dad didn’t like him but he didn’t know why. There was something that John couldn’t put his finger on about why there was this competition between he and his father.
When you have been subtly sexually abused, it can be very hard to name it. Very hard.
Why? Well, here’s how Ken Adams explains it. He says,
“People will insist there is no harm in their close relationship to their opposite-sex parent. Actually they claim to feel special and privileged. These children were given a special position by being idealized by the parent. But there is no privilege in being cheated out of a childhood by being a parent’s surrogate partner. As adults these individuals in turn idealize their parents to cover the pain of the abandoned and victimized child within.”
Those last two sentences are so important.
# 1 – “there is no privilege in being cheated out of a childhood.”
When you are required to function like a surrogate spouse to your Mom or Dad, your childhood is stolen—why?
Because you can’t be a kid when you’re being an adult. You can’t be a kid when you are more preoccupied by your parents emotional state than your own.
Sentence # 2 As an adult, you will tend to idealize your parents. Why? Because it allows you to escape feeling the pain of naming all the devastating dynamics that were actually happening in your home.
So, let me list 4 symptoms of people that have been subtly sexually abused.
I’m going to talk about these in the context of a woman who was subtly sexually abused by her father. You’ll have to make the adjustments in your mind to fit your situation.
Symptom # 1 On the one hand you will feel privileged because of the special relationship you have with your father; on the other hand you will feel like you aren’t doing enough for him.
Because as hard as you try, you can’t fill the void in him. You just can’t heal his pain. So you feel simultaneously special and yet somehow like you’re not special enough. This, of course, is absolute madness.
Symptom # 2 You will feel guilty about your own needs and probably have a difficult time identifying what they are.
Because you were forced to focus on Dad’s needs rather than your own.
There was no space for the legitimate needs you had as a child. And so you feel guilty about your own needs… and you probably have a hard time even identifying your own needs.
Symptom 3. As you think back on your childhood, there will be a sense of rivalry and competition with your mother. You will feel like she abandoned you in your growing up years. Indeed, this is precisely what Dad setup by choosing you over her to be his confidante.
Symptom # 4. You will likely have chronic feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. Why? Because as hard as you tried you could never give your Dad what he was looking for.