The pattern of spousal abuse within fundamentalist religions, and the way narcissistic men can (and do) use patriarchal theology to dominate, undermine, and manipulate their female congregants, wives and/or children deserves further study and discussion.
I attended a fundamentalist church as a young mom for 6 years in a small community in rural WA, where there were about 5 of us women all the same age, raising kids together in the gospel. I don’t think it can be a coincidence that 4 out of the 5 of us were married to angry, abusive, manipulative, sexually demanding/coercive, deceitful, disloyal men.
They each seemed to feel completely entitled to dictate our lives while they partied like teenagers, flirted with other women, traded porn and sexually exploitative material, and then used it all to undermine our self-worth and pit us against each other.
LIterally, just last week, I reminisced via phone with one of the afore-mentioned women. She told me that when we attended church together, her husband repeatedly said things like – “did you see the way Terah waited to breastfeed her baby until I was sitting right across from her? And then pulled down her shawl to make sure I could see everything?” (Might I interject here that I ALWAYS thought this man was quite literally one of the most revolting human beings on the face of the earth – not that it matters).
One of the OTHER men told HIS wife that I hit on him while he showed me the way to the bathroom during a children’s easter egg hunt, along with other disgusting lies, all while we were just trying to be good moms to our toddlers. The men completely fabricated these events and fed these stories to us individually, just to make us all feel isolated, crazy, insecure and competitive.
The sad thing is, at the time, these women believed what their husbands said. Some of them probably still do, since I can’t refute stories I have never heard. And I had no idea these things were being said behind my back. We are still uncovering the extent of it, and these revelations nauseate me, but are also incredibly clarifying.
Every single one of our marriages eventually ended in public shame, custody and legal battles, and personal loss & disaster. Four of the five of us have also left the church. But the damage in each of our lives, and our children’s lives, is incomprehensible and irreversible. The one woman who is still a faithful member divorced her first abusive husband, but is remarried to a man who recently broke her arm.
I don’t know if the church’s doctrine regarding plural marriage and inequality (based solely on gender) exacerbates an already-present, genetic disposition towards narcissism – or if a different environment, one that valued empathy and equity, would have instilled more respectful beliefs and behaviors in these men. It’s the same-old nature vs. nurture conundrum. But outside of fundamentalist religious circles, very few of my non-member friends have ended up married to sociopathic men, as far as I am aware.
Over the years, I have begun to realize that narcissistic religious men use the EXACT tactics of manipulation that the church leadership itself employs: gaslighting, love-bombing and then withholding love, isolating people from the outside, instilling fear, re-writing history to support their own opinions, refusing to take responsibility for their actions, refusing to apologize and persisting in lies even when the evidence proves they’re wrong.
I truly believe this pattern is a silent epidemic among the church members of my generation.
I am one of the four above women who eventually looked around at our shattered lives after doing everything the church had promised would make us “truly happy,” after we had practically – literally – killed ourselves trying to please these impossible-to-satisfy church standards and men. And as a whole, we were depressed, suicidal, crazed, drugged, exhausted, deceived and manipulated by not only our faith, but also our “faithful” husbands – all while the male leaders explained, dismissed and even endorsed their abuse, and sent the women back home again.
One of these church leaders violated my privacy by announcing in a meeting that my ex had lost his job (again), after I had gone to him in confidence and explicitly told him my husband would punish me if he found out we’d discussed it. My ex was publicly humiliated and enraged, and I had to return home from church with an aggressive 6.5’ 275 lb bully, intent on punishing me for my indiscretion.
Eventually my conscience simply did not allow me to stay in this faith. I could not bear the thought of my daughter living this kind of life, and feeling the way about herself the way I felt about myself. She was perfect the way she was, and I could not stand by while she was shamed and humiliated simply for growing up and experiencing life.
The teachings of the church had become so obviously abhorrent to me (I especially struggled with LGBTQ rights and racism) that I could no longer attend without the sure knowledge that as I was pretending to be a faithful church member, I was simultaneously supporting a toxic system. Eventually, I physically could not stomach listening to it anymore, to the point I was driven into the chapel parking lot with bouts of hyperventilation. Sitting in that building, listening to the stories I’d been told all my life, which I knew now were complete lies – felt like selling my soul to the devil while exposing my children to poison.