Emotional Health · Marriage & Life Partners

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: When Parents Act Like Children

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


 9710384965_81f0727756_zPhoto by muchO via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

In Julia Pierpont’s excellent novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, the action begins with a letter to a wife from the mistress of her husband, Jack. It’s in a box that a New York doorman mistakenly hands over to the wife’s children. 

One of the reasons why the letter Jack’s girlfriend sends is so stunning is that the box also includes copies of ardent and mostly erotic emails between the two lovers. Many are extremely explicit, detailing sexual acts they have performed or want to perform in the future. Jack and Deb’s younger child, Kay, doesn’t even understand some of the language or references in most of these emails, but she spends the rest of the novel trying to work through the aftereffects of this premature and inappropriate exposure to adult sexuality.
In fact, her mother, Deb, already knew about her husband’s infidelity, but it is this blatant exposure, and the involvement of the children, that provokes the marriage crisis that propels the novel’s action. Psychologically, this makes a certain amount of sense: One of the most important boundaries between parents and children is the strict one concerning sexuality. Not only are the two generations required to refrain from sexual activity with each other: Even knowledge of the other’s activities is taboo, and when it is shared, it is generally met with great anxiety.
This is particularly true for children learning about their parents’ sex lives. Most of us can remember our feelings of incredulity, even horror, at the idea that our parents must have had relations. There are reasons for this, of course. Freud said that the incest taboo, which is essentially universal, can be maintained only with the help of powerful defense mechanisms, such as repression, which are effective but leave a residue of anxiety. The greater the conflict (between desire vs. defense), the greater the anxiety. Awareness or exposure of parental sexuality makes repression less effective and increases conflict.

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