Love and Relationships

[Two Pronged] My boyfriend once slept with his first cousin, and that bothers me

Margarita Holmes, Jeremy Baer
[Two Pronged] My boyfriend once slept with his first cousin, and that bothers me
'He doesn’t think it’s a big deal and thinks that I’m weird for being uncomfortable about it, especially since it happened before we met'

Rappler’s Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr. Margarita Holmes.

Jeremy has a master’s degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in three continents, he has been training with Dr. Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives

Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.

Dear Dr. Holmes and Mr. Baer,

I have a strange question.

I recently found out that my boyfriend had hooked up with his first cousin in the past.

He doesn’t think it’s a big deal and thinks that I’m weird for being uncomfortable about it, especially since it happened before we met.

I keep trying to make him understand that it’s not the hooking up part but the incest aspect that makes me uncomfortable, but he doesn’t get it.

How do I make him understand the difference?

Thank you very much.

Not a Fan of Incest


Dear Not a Fan of Incest (NFI),

Thank you for your message.

Relationships between cousins spark diametrically opposed views around the world. For example, cousin marriage is illegal in countries such as China, Taiwan, both Koreas, many US states, and of course the Philippines. By contrast, a high percentage of marriages in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and some other Middle Eastern and African countries are reportedly between first or second cousins, though statistics are incomplete. Culture, religion, and economics, particularly protection of family wealth, play their part in this disparity of approach.

While the above sheds some light on the frequency and acceptability of cousin marriage, it is silent as to extramarital cousin relationships, though it is likely that these are more frequent than actual marriages. Again, there are laws against such liaisons in some countries, but generally legislation is reserved for cases involving minors, coercion, undue influence, and such. While I am very happy to be corrected, I have found no Philippine law that prohibits sexual relationships between fully consenting adult cousins.

Turning to your particular situation, you and your boyfriend (let’s call him Diego) mirror this disparity. You are concerned about the incest and not so worried by the hookup, while he sees no problem with the familial connection and dismisses the hookup as ancient history. Interestingly, you suggest that the solution lies in Diego accepting your argument, not you accepting his.

Prohibition of cousin incest has traditionally relied on cultural, religious, and medical grounds. Regarding culture, the question whether precolonial Filipino attitudes to cousin relationships were supported or subverted by the Spanish and American imposition of their own value systems falls outside the purview of this column. However, when it comes to religion, the very diversity of views on the subject suggests that if there is a supreme being, he/she/it is rather inconsistent. 

The Hebrew Bible has many instances of cousin marriage, Islam does not oppose it, Catholics have at different times allowed it and then prohibited it (while allowing dispensations).

What is known medically from countless studies is that children born of cousins have a higher exposure to genetic disorders. Historically this has been a significant factor militating against cousin relationships. Now, however, with enhanced birth control, pregnancy can be avoided and thus a major argument against these relationships falls by the wayside.  

NFI, you do not explain on what grounds you have such strong feelings about incest, but it seems that unlikely that any of the above should trigger such a response. Possibly it is just a stance that, like many others, you have inherited and never needed to question. If however there is some related trauma in your or your family’s past, that needs addressing.

Finally, we mentioned earlier how you expect Diego to adjust to your view rather than vice versa. On the narrow issue of incest, perhaps you need to consider whether his view does in fact have merit, given the hookup nature of the relationship, which is after all between consenting adults who hopefully practice birth control.

The wider issue is what your approach says about your general relationship with Diego. Is this the only time when you have simply expected him to change his view to accommodate yours? If so, that’s fine; if not, perhaps you need to consider what implications it has for the longer term health of your relationship.

All the best,

Must Read

[Two Pronged] It’s always a ‘no’ when it comes to incest

[Two Pronged] It’s always a ‘no’ when it comes to incest

Dear NFI:

Thank you very much for your letter. In the interest of full disclosure, I find Mr. Baer’s answer is highly commendable, answering your letter directly and also supplementing it with a broader perspective. I also agree with all he says.

However, I have experienced that many Filipinos have a gut-level reaction against any kind of incest, so I can understand your discomfort. There are some theories that support this seemingly instinctive aversion to incest. One is the inbreeding avoidance hypothesis (nature); the other the incest taboo (nurture).

Diego’s relationship with his cousin shows that neither the incest taboo (mainly focused on how we do not feel sexual attraction for people we grew up with, such as siblings and close cousins) nor inbreeding avoidance (circumvented by birth control) are applicable to the situation you describe.

There are several articles to help you understand why some people might have a subjective aversion to incestuous sexual relationships;  to me, the best one is Robert Paul’s “Incest avoidance: oedipal and preoedipal, natural and cultural,” published (2010) in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Society. An abstract is available, but the whole article is worth reading should this issue mean as much to you as it did before you wrote your letter.

Please write us again, NFI, if you want to explore this (or, indeed, any other topic) further. It is not easy to do a volte face about something you have held dear (even if unconsciously) all your life.

All the best,
MG Holmes


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