One of the great mistakes that we can make, especially as Christians, involves the merging of forgiveness and reconciliation, something that puts individuals at risk in both one on one relationships and within spiritually abusive systems. Research indicates that many religious systems and clergymen tend to view the acts and processes as one and the same, whereas counselors generally view them as separate. Counselors tend to pay more attention to the pitfalls of forcing reconciliation because of the problems suffered by the offended as they deal directly with the fallout.
But what kind of offended or abused person reconciles with their offenders/abusers when they continue their behavior without repentance, feeling entitled to treat others poorly with impunity? Why would anyone want to do such a thing? Many of them are people who are trapped by betrayal bonds.
As defined by Patrick J. Carnes, author of The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitative Relationships, the term describes incredibly intense and important relationships wherein one party exploits the trust or power of another. We can develop these relationships in virtually any areas of our lives, but those of special interest to this blog, traumatic bonding takes place within dysfunctional families, abusive marriages, divorces, child abuse, and religious abuse. One party or a system (think “irregular people”) enjoys entitlement and impunity for their own or for what they believe is the common good while the subordinate party suffers the consequences created by the the liberties of the other.
Trauma causes a wide variety of effects, and trauma need not be overt and abject, but can result from subtle trauma, including neglect and abandonment. Trauma victims experience a high degree of compulsive behaviors and tendencies, to both soothe the offender, reduce the offenders anxiety, and to manage their own feelings of discomfort. It is believed that the process becomes a highly addictive compulsion and a the attempt of the abused to remain attached to the abuser, learning to endure pain as a type of caregiver. It is a means of denying and avoiding the unpleasant or unthinkable reality of neglect and abandonment. And it doesn't stop there, explaining some of the reasons behind trauma repetition. Carnes states, “These 'compelling' patterns form a working model for how the child will later deal with significant people in her life. As an adult, the working model becomes the template for all important relationships.” (pg. 115) The abused party has the choice to lose function due to the terror of reality, or they can “distort reality” in order to survive. Quoting therapists Blizard and Bluhm, Carnes notes that “In adulthood, the defenses become maladaptive, because they prevent the survivor from accurately perceiving the presence or absence of abuse.” (pg 116)
Maladaptation in Lost Perspective
Both children and adults who remain in abusive relationships for some length of time either never develop healthy perspective about what is normal, appropriate, and healthy behavior, or they lose their better perspective when habituated within the abusive relationship and the betrayal bond. This forces the abused to develop coping mechanisms to survive the relationship, coping that the person also fails to identify as maladaptive. These potently addictive relationships result in “compulsive involvement” and “compulsive relationship patterns” relying on coping through reactivity (constant chaos, involvement, and betrayal), arousal (high risk, intensity, anger, fear, anxiety which make other relationships “boring”), blocking (love addiction/love avoidance, caretaking, the family idolatry of patriarchy and Botkin Syndrome), splitting (extremes of retreating from or obsessing about the relationship, also a type of black and white thinking), abstinence (forfeiting one's own needs/martyrdom), shame, and repetition (a compulsion to resolve the trauma). (Pp 116-117). Many aspects of these patterns were discussed in this series about deficits in emotional development in childhood.
Why is this relevant to pursing reconciliation?
If you've been raised in or habituated in an abusive relationship, without obvious evidence of healthy repentance and remorse in the abuser, you can easily be pressured into reconciliation when it is not in your best interest. If you've lost perspective and have not had the opportunity to confront the toll that the abuse has taken on you, or you have not worked on your own recovery from childhood emotional deficits, reconciling puts you at great risk. Narcissistic abusers, as a part of their own traits, will experience little motivation to change how they treat you, and their primary goal involves meeting their own needs, not respect or empathy concerning yours. That's where the information about trust and repentance can be so helpful because it helps you establish or reestablish good, healthy thinking about how to proceed.
Within adult relationships, research demonstrates the following compulsive relationship patterns in those who have suffered trauma. They manifest as are used by those who have suffered trauma in the same way that an addict uses a chemical substance or behavior to avoid negative feelings, negative circumstances, and rejection (Carnes on pages 125-127; West & Sheldon in Classification of Pathological Attachment Patterns in Adults; Sable in Disorders of Adult Attachment).
Relationship Patterns of Victims in Response to Those who Exploit Power
- Compulsive Helplessness
- Compulsive Focus on the Abuser (Involves caretaking and enmeshment)
- Compulsive Self-Reliance
- Compulsive Caregiving
- Compulsive Care-Seeking
- Compulsive Rejection
- Compulsive Compliance
- Compulsive Identification with Others
- Compulsive Reality Distortion (Denial of abuse and wishful thinking)
- Compulsive Abuse Seeking (In other relationship or through self-destructive behavior)
Should you reconcile without an obvious change in the way you are esteemed and treated?
Whether you're considering staying in or returning to a church or a one-on-one relationship that was abusive to you in the past under the guise of doing what God demands of you through forgiveness, I can almost guarantee that the abusive party will merge forgiveness and reconciliation. When the stakes are small and nonthreatening, this may not be so problematic at first, but very little about the process will foster health, intimacy, or spiritual benefit. Continuing to submit to mistreatment in the name of love turns love into duty and deadness. It just reinforces the addictiveness of the relationship and further binds you to the abuser. It fosters the growth of bitterness.
Healthy and supportive relationships foster recovery and form the bedrock of it. For many of us who have endured spiritual abuse or came to knowledge of God through spiritually abusive systems that manipulated Scripture, we no longer have a healthy and supportive relationship with the Word of God. So for those reading here who would take issue with the statement that the foundation of recovery comes through supportive relationships, please consider that in spiritual abuse (by systems of worship or by manipulative spouses or parents alike), this is not a denial of the importance of the principles in the Bible. It's a matter of one's relationship to the Bible, for many have been raised to believe that Scripture condemns and exploits them just as much or more than an abusive person can. And Scripture involves eternal consequences, not just the our relationships. A Christian might consider that those who have had Scripture used against them so cruelly have been alienated from their most critical and healing relationship.
Maintaining an abusive relationship, particularly with the significant abuser in your life under the guise of forgiveness becomes a manifestation of self-destructive behavior. The compulsion to return to such a person is powerful anyway, and demanding unmerited reconciliation only makes the process worse.
Recognizing the Loss of Perspective After Abuse
When I was struggling with the ever increasing awareness of the problems within my cultic church years ago, someone asked me why I had so much trouble coming to a decision about what to do. I'd lost my own perspective and developed many of these compulsive traits in how I related to my church and its leadership without even realizing it. An honored friend and mentor of mine posed to me the Apostle Paul's idea that the Kingdom of God was not about eating or drinking (an intense and encompassing focus on the things that we do) but was about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
That statement gave me much room to allow myself the liberty to think about how the overall relationship affected me, and it really renewed my perspective. I often say in interviews that following a religion should enhance our lives and should help to give us tools to help us transcend the difficult problems in life so that we can live meaningful lives. Within reason, and particularly in terms of the everyday aspects of following the religion, it should bring us the sense of goodness about ourselves, peace and joy. In reviewing my experience at that church, I realized that all of the problems I struggled with in terms of the church were all created by the church system. The problems were not a mere discomfort but were deeply disturbing and intensely painful experiences that I didn't experience in any other system and were not a function of my failure to comply. They didn't bring goodness, peace and joy into my life. They took it away.
Even more painful on a personal level, I experience (and have learned to resist) this same compulsion and same pain in one of my most significant relationships, too. It made accepting the church's aberrant system that much more easy, because I already knew how to compulsively pursue that subordinate role of shame. And never expecting this to happen, when I healed from the most significant difficulties of my trauma from the abusive church system, I found that I was no longer capable nor willing to submit to the same kind of denigrating subordination in personal relationships. And as I realize more healing and growth, I find that I have fewer and fewer relationship problems with which I must contend. I make better choices and find greater ease in resisting toxic people.
If you've spent any kind of time in an exploitive relationship or if you've been compliant with a relationship that demanded reconciliation of you when only forgiveness was appropriate, I highly recommend reading and working through the resources in The Betrayal Bond.
One more post to come on reconciliation,
and then on to forgiving the church, God and self.