I’ve recently been reading about and observing narcissistic behavior in parents and estranged parents. It’s been fascinating observing patterns of abusive and disordered thinking among those who have driven their children away and seeing the similarities to my own family’s behavior.
One of the common traits is the duality with which the parent views their child: the child is simultaneously horrible, useless, embarrassing, and hated, but also the most important and treasured person in the parent’s life. On estranged parents’ forums, members will frequently describe how they despise the offending child, blame them for all of their problems, and even fantasize violence against them. But yet they view the estrangement as unbearable and they will take enormous measures to end it. They try to buy the child’s favor, try to manipulate, even stalk and threaten them. Even though they hate them, their child is the most important relationship in the world and they will do anything to get it back.
For a child enmeshed in this sort of relationship, it can be very disorienting. The abuser vacillates between treating you like scum to putting you on a pedestal and reassuring you that you are loved and the most valuable person in the world. Victims often respond by beginning to believe that they deserve mistreatment and should be grateful for the moments of affection that they do receive from their abuser. I know I sure did.
But this struck me as familiar in another way; the Christian god is generally depicted in a similar light. Captain Cassidy of the ever-excellent Roll to Disbelieve commented on the seeming contradiction in Christian theology between god viewing humanity as disgusting and evil and also viewing it as utterly sacred and beloved. We are both wretches and children. We are both worms and brides. And we are to be forever thankful that god loves us even though we are worthless and detestable in his sight.
This dichotomy is not contradictory in the eyes of a narcissistic parent. The reason they place such a high value on their victim is that they need that power. They need the confidence they get from controlling their child. They need the validation that comes from debasing them. They need their child to constantly apologize, self-efface, and prioritize the abuser’s desires over their own health and safety. If the child chooses to disconnect from the abuser and break that cycle, the parent loses everything. This is why the victim is both loved and despised.
I don’t believe god is real. But I do believe he was written and is depicted as a narcissistic abusive parent. Since he is not real, he is not benefiting from the arrangement. But someone is. Churches, religious leadership, pastors, and any people who claim the favor of god are benefiting from these power dynamics in the same way as an abusive parent. Their victims are the people who feel they are both loved and hated by god.
The way out for me was to define my own worth. I did not need god or family or anyone else to place me on a pedestal, nor did I need them to tell me I am a dirty, worthless sinner. I am human. I am neither sacred nor defiled. I am neither inherently worthy of transcendent love nor inherently worthy of transcendent disdain. I am inherently worthy of respect as a human being from other human beings, the same as all other human beings on this planet. I do not need divine favor and I do not need to submit to divine displeasure. The horrible truth that the abuser does not want you to discover is that you have the power. If you choose to walk away, you still have yourself. They have nothing.
I walked away.