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Religious Trauma and Abusive Romantic Patterns

By B ~

There are innumerable and unforeseen ways in which growing up in the fundamentalist evangelical fold shaped who I am; for the most part I am horrified by the impact. I did not resist a lick of it, being a natural people-pleaser (is that natural? Or is that also part of the programming?). I was a ten-year-old prodigy preacher, considered by elders of my church and leaders of my close-minded Christian school to be “Lady Wisdom”, a manifestation of God’s efforts to guide his flock. I was good at it! I believed it in every crevice of my heart and mind. I vividly remember sobbing in my room at home, listening to worship music and begging God to deconstruct my life, take my world to pieces, and make me His disciple. I was maybe eleven.

That is the start of the story. I am 34 now and I am here to find out if anyone has experienced anything like what I am currently experiencing. My Dad became a pastor when I was a kid, and I dutifully leapt into his mania. His Father (I generally refuse to refer to him as my ‘grandfather’) was psychologically abusive and an alcoholic. My Dad wanted to end that cycle and, bravely, never had any booze when I was growing up. But like so many other unhealed adult children of alcoholics, his style of relating to me never healed. Despite his abstaining from alcohol, my experience with my Dad was much like his experience with his Father. Whereas my Dad, as a child, never knew if his Father would come home drunk or sober, I never knew if mine would come home full of joy or the wrath of God. My developing brain marinated in unpredictability and psychological stress. I found myself compulsively trying to do things to keep him happy, to prevent his instability from tipping one way or another- a futile endeavor, as anyone with an all-black-or-white parent can tell you.

The way this has most recently, and distressingly, manifested in my life is three years spent with a malignant narcissist who I barely managed to escape. As I attempt to tend my mental and emotional wounds, I recognize that this type of oppressive, manipulative, unpredictable personality was welcome in my life because of my experience with my zealously religious Father, and the male-to-female modeling of my evangelical upbringing. I was a prime candidate for “love bombing”- a concept with which you may not be familiar, if you are unfamiliar with the tactics of malignant narcissists - because I was raised to define myself in relation to a man. I recall my Dad, during family devotions, drawing a large umbrella that read “God”, and under it a smaller umbrella that read “Dad”, and under that a smaller umbrella that read “Mom”, under which were the umbrellas representing me
and my sisters.

I was raised to define myself in relation to a man.My Mom became the primary bread winner, raiser of the children, and side-job holder when my Dad went to school to be a pastor, but, despite her strength, she was an all-around-martyr for his religious inclinations. She flushed herself into his obsessions. And here, despite me managing a remarkable career, taking care of myself (especially now that I have cut off the narcissist in my life), and having a very strong group of intelligent and supportive friends, I find myself vulnerable to ideas that I am just not whole until I find someone to complete my family. Like a yin without a yang. And I am scared that I am going to find my way into another abusive relationship if I don’t make sense of how to change this.

That is a long road to asking this: is anyone else making every effort to live an independent, healthy life, but finding themselves vulnerable to repeating destructive, familiar relationship patterns related to their religious trauma? How can I make sure I don’t waste any more time with predatory personality types just because the emotional patterns of submission and unpredictability are familiar?

I hope I am not alone in this.