Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy

Integrative Psychotherapy Articles

The Father-Daughter Dilemma: Incest and Counter-Incest

Brenda Bary and Ron Ohlson

Transactional Analysis Journal (Vol.15, No. 4, October 1985)

Abstract: Counter-incest victims are daughters whose fathers turn away in apparently cold rejection as the daughters reach adolescence and incestuous impulses arise in both father and daughter.  This action, a defensive reaction-formation on the father's part, leads to a negative self-image for the daughter. Mother's jealousy and competitiveness may aggravate the situation. The script decision, racket displays, and reinforcing experiencing of these victims are discussed, as are some of the treatment remedies needed by male and female therapists helping their patients replay this period to a healthier outcome.


After years of little research and theoretical discussion, much has been written recently on incestuous relationships, especially those involving the father-daughter relationship (Justice & Justice, 1979; Koch, 1980; Vander Mey & Neff, 1982). This increase is partly due to an emerging awareness of female boundary issues (Rubin, 1983) and also to the fact that women are more willing to reveal incestuous relationships. For many women such a revelation reduces the guilt and relieves the internal pressure from carrying a family secret for many years. In this sense, revelation may be very therapeutic. On the other hand, it may also involve a switch in the Drama Triangle from Victim to Persecutor as the script is lived out.

As clinicians we have become aware of a phenomenon, briefly mentioned in Justice and Justice (1979, p.212) and in Summit and Kryso (1978), which may be as prevalent as incest. We call this phenomenon "counter-incest" because it is based on a reaction-formation to incestuous desires and impulses experienced by a father and a daughter. The dynamic of counter-incest are well illustrated by a twenty-eight-year-old female patient who displays a severe rejection racket. She is an attractive, vibrant, physically well-developed woman who discounts her beauty through obesity and slovenly appearance. She is extremely sensitive to rejection and plays various games such as "Why Does This Always Happens to Me?" and "Corner" (Berne, 1964) in order to receive rejection "pay-offs". Describing her early childhood, she stated that she and her father were "good pals" until she was ten or twelve years old, at which time her father suddenly withdrew from her without explanation. He no longer touched, held, or even complimented her. She thus became a victim of counter-incest.

The developmental histories of counter-incest victims are similar to the one just described. Father and daughter are described as having been very close in the early developmental years, with father being warm, making good physical contact, holding, caressing, and generally attending to his daughter. However, when the daughter reached puberty, or when both of them became aware of her sexual development, the father became frightened of his desires and withdrew to protect against his incestuous feelings.  He then became rigid, cold, withdrawn, formal, and often very strict concerning his daughter's social activities. Often he would invite an "Uproar" game (Berne, 1964) from the Persecutor position by discounting his daughter and she would make the appropriate switch from Victim to Persecutor by becoming overtly rebellious.

Father's Role

In this kind of system the daughter is romantically and physically attracted to her father as she is to older men in the natural developmental process. She tends to idealize her father, wants to be attractive to him, and desires closeness and strokes, especially if that has been the type of relationship they have had in the early developmental years. As she experiences father withdrawing from her she tends to move to a "He's OK, I'm Not OK" position because of her idealizing tendency. It is difficult for her to understand that the problem lies primarily with the father and not with her. Subsequently she tends to blame herself for the withdrawal. The psychological messages she receives from her father cause her to decide that her physical attractiveness and sexuality account for his withdrawal. She may decide that beauty is dangerous, that she is not good enough, or even that she deserves to be rejected, and then to form on-going script beliefs based on this decision. The daughter's Free Child feelings resulting from this dilemma are anger and sadness. Her outward behaviour, or racket display, may include rejecting others through physical and behavioural unattractiveness or her rebelling, often through sexual promiscuity. On a physical level she may become obese, anorexic or clinically depressed. She will seek out men who continually reject her in order to reinforce the belief system that she is bad, not good enough, or deserving of rejection, while at the same time symbiotically waiting for father to come back and love her.

Mother's Role

Mother often plays an active role in this counter-incest system. Often mother is as threatened as father by daughter's emerging sexuality and attractiveness (Friday, 1977). This is especially true if mother herself is insecure, shut down sexually, or was raised in a competitive family system. Therefore, mother may attempt to limit the daughter's sexual attractiveness in a number of ways. She may stop the daughter from grooming herself by labelling such behaviour as vain, unnecessary, or even evil. She may be critical and disapproving whenever father and daughter display affection. She may never allow the two of them to be alone, or may competitively seek strokes at the same time the daughter is attempting to get strokes from father. Finally, mother may also become controlling and restrictive of the daughter's social activities. As a result, the daughter may feel rejected by mother because of her sexuality and attractiveness and may make many negative decisions about herself and her role as a woman.

Some women may experience rejection from father even without his withdrawal simply because he is silent when mother is being critical and controlling of daughter's social and sexual development. By not actively protecting the daughter's right to full female development, daughter may conclude that father, as well as mother,  reject her as a woman.

Family Education

One partial solution to the dilemma of counter-incest is family education. Since incest involves boundaries that are too lax and counter-incest involves boundaries that are too rigid, the solution requires making parents aware of appropriate boundaries around sexual issues. Father needs encouragement to validate his daughter's emerging beauty, femininity, and sexuality without invading her boundaries or withdrawing too intensely. Father needs to be clear himself and to give nonverbal clues to his daughter that she is sexually and physically attractive to him and that he is in charge of this behaviour so under no circumstances will he become sexually active with her. In addiction, he must communicate clearly that he will be in charge of that process so she can feel safe and protected. He will do this by showing in all areas that he has feelings, but that he is not run by them and does not engage in scary, impulsive acting out. Being assure of this, father may compliment his daughter on how she looks as well as how she thinks and feels without fear of acting upon sexual impulses or needing to withdraw because of his daughter's emerging desire for sexual validation. In addition, father and mother must be openly affectionate with one another, making it clear on both social and psychological levels that sexual satisfaction, gratification, and expression are taking place in the father-mother system. Finally, mother must take care of both her own inner needs for security and her competition so she can effectively affirm and validate her daughter's own growth and development.

Another partial solution to the problem of counter-incest is to encourage both parents to participate actively in early infant care-taking behaviours such as diaper-changing, bathing, and feeding. This care-taking has been shown to increase parent-child bonding and to decrease the incidence of incest between fathers and daughters, and even between step-father and daughters (Parker, 1985). It seems likely that this increased bonding might decrease the incidence of counter-incest as well, since healthy bonding may make healthy boundaries easier to maintain.

Therapy with Counter-incest Victims

Since such ideal family attributes are unlikely to be fully present in a large percentage of families, substantial remedial work will be needed with children from these non-ideal families. Therefore, a further reason for identifying this syndrome is to help therapists learn to approach their female patients while these patients negotiate replaying the adolescent developmental stage during therapy. While too many male therapists have abused female patients sexually, thus either reinforcing incestuous damage done earlier or creating new incest-like damage, more conscientious male therapists often err in the same direction as counter-incest fathers. In their efforts to maintain therapeutic neutrality and not become overly involved or be titillating to their female patients, these male therapists often reinforce the female's view of herself as not desirable or as sexually bad. What is needed, instead, is a recreation of the ideal parenting situation with the male therapist feeling sure enough in his sexuality that he is not threatened with fears of loss of impulse control; he can therefore allow himself to feel attracted to his female patient and she can see her attractiveness and desirability reflected in his admiring look. A female therapist can help female patients negotiate this stage by being fulfilled enough in her own sexuality; thus she can openly admire the patient's sexual awareness without danger of arousing jealousies in herself that cause her to reject the patient's sexuality. Often the ideal situation at this stage is to have the patient see both a male and a female therapist in some combination so she feels permission to be sexual from representatives of both mother and father.

In closing, we want to acknowledge that this article has focused on father-daughter counter-incest. In fact, tentative evidence has been found of the same dynamics occurring in the mother-son system. It may be that mother-son counter-incest is less frequent, perhaps due to more healthy early bonding. It may also just be more subtle or we may simply not be as attuned to looking for it yet. We hope future clinical observation and research will clarify such issues.


Brenda Bary, Ph.D., Certified Transactional Analyst, has a private practice in Bala Cynwyd just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Send reprint requests to Dr.Bary at 111 Presidential Blvd., Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, USA, 19041.

Ron Ohlson, Ph.D., is a Certified Transactional Analyst in private practice in Anchorage, Alaska, USA. He is a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology.

Berne, E. (1964). Games people play. New York: Grove Press.

Friday, N. (1977). My mother, myself. New York: Dell.

Justice, B. & Justice, R. (1979). The broken taboo. New York: Human Sciences Press.

Koch, M. (1980). Sexual abuse in children.  Adolescence, 15, 643-648.

Parker, S. & Parker, H. (1985, March). Personal Communication and in Psychology Today, p.

Rubin, L. (1983). Intimate strangers: Men and women together. New York: Harper & Row.

Summit, R. & Kryso, J. (1978). Sexual abuse of children: a clinical spectrum. American
Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 48, 235-251.

Vander Mey, B. & Neff, R. (1982). Adult-child incest: A review of research and treatment.       
Adolescence, 17, 717-735.


The Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy is approved by the American Psychological Association to sponsor continuing education for psychologists, by the National Board of Certified Counselors for counselors and by the American Board of Examiners in Pastoral Counseling for pastoral counselors. The Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy maintains responsibility for this program and its content.