Women in Abusive Relationships: The Good Daughter Syndrome

(Update: All the posts of this series have been collected into one piece, Seven Reasons Women Stay in Abusive Relationships, and How to Defeat Each One of Them.)

Over lunch I once told a pastor of mine that I had started seeing a psychotherapist.

Pastor Mike stopped his tuna sandwich halfway in the air toward his mouth.

“A what?” he said.

“A psychotherapist.” He looked at me as if I’d said “Psycho the rapist.”

“You know,” I said. “A shrink. Asks about your mom. Shows you inkblots. Surreptitiously checks out your fingernails to see if you’ve been gnawing them like a neurotic chipmunk. Like Frasier, on TV. But less funny.”

Mike slowly lowered his sandwich to his plate.

“You’re seeing a therapist?” he asked. “A psychotherapist?” He said it like he was asking, “Your brother died? Your brother, Robert?”, or, “You have cancer? Cancer of the brain?”

“Well, yeah,” I said, smiling uneasily. “Why? Is that bad? Is there some sort of national strike against shrinks happening that I missed hearing about?”

Ah, those were the days, when I was so blessedly ignorant about all the things to which I have since learned so many Christians take so much offense.

Now I know better, of course. (Still learning every day, though!)

Anyway, I know a lot of Christians think psychology and psychotherapy and all that sort of thing runs contrary to a proper relationship with Jesus. As Pastor Mike put it to me during our lunch, “Don’t you think the Bible is all the therapy you need? Don’t you think Jesus is the best psychotherapist there is?”

I do think that. To my mind, trying to heal spiritually and psychologically without God is like trying to build a house without a foundation. You can do it, and it can look perfectly fine, and you can even live in it for awhile—but sooner or later the edifice will collapse.

For enduring peace, (most) humans need an intellectual and spiritual context. God (hallelujah!) is that context.

But that doesn’t change the fact that no one can know Jesus any more than they know themselves. What you close off to yourself about yourself you close off to the power of God’s healing. Jesus can’t get to what we blockade him from accessing—or certainly isn’t likely to, since doing so threatens to compromise the free-will with which he blessed us all.

What stands between us and our psychological health, in other words, also stands between us and the healing power of God.

We must do everything we can to render ourselves psychologically fit, so that we’re as prepared as possible to accommodate as much God as possible.

And what is by far the largest determiner of our psychological health?

You got it: Good ol’ Mom y Dad.

If you’re a woman in an abusive relationship, know this: you’re guilty of nothing more than being loyal to the values taught you by your parents.

All you’re doing is being a good daughter. You’re being exactly the daughter that, one way or another, you were raised to be.

And all it’s costing you is your life.

More next time.

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  • One time I told my mom I was in therapy, and she had the same reaction as your pastor. She didn't care so much about the spiritual, just about the perceived weakness of needing psychological help, I guess.

    But I also was doing some physical therapy at the time (I get lotsa help in lotsa areas), so any time I'd mention "therapy," she'd get this hopeful tone and say "physical therapy??" and I'd say "no, mental therapy." And she'd get that same pity-sounding "Oh."

  • Yikes. That's the … wrong response.

    But one thing's very clear: for a blood-sucking undead Transylvanian bat-person, you've turned out just GREAT.

    (Okay, that'll be the last of the "Skerrib is a vampire" jokes. UNLESS YOU WANT MORE!)

  • Christine

    Interesting that Christian have this response. If you did have cancer and said you were getting chemo the response would be understanding. Why is it that when it comes to the brain that getting help/treatment/cure is seen as horribly wrong?? Isn't this the same as those out there who don't go to doctor's because they believe ONLY in spiritual healing?? Wouldn't we say most of these people are crazy, that God has used doctors to heal people?? Why then can he not use psychotherapists in the same way?? (funnily enough the people who don't believe in doctor's should see a psychotherapist lol)

  • Lisa

    They think therapists will fill our heads with a bunch of humanistic mumbo jumbo which will lead to our eventual drifting away from the church. I thank God for my therapist, but I make a point not to mention him to my pastor or church family. And while I am thankfully NOT in an abusive relationship, I am so very much the product of my mom and dad that I REALLY benefit from the help of my therapist.

  • Greta Sheppard

    John, I seem to get your posts the day after and that sort of makes my comments redundant…but I will venture to vent my soul with a gentle reminder that one of Jesus' names is Counsellor . . . while i do admit that therapists do help, the Chief Counsellor lives inside me and you and knows exactly what is wrong and why. Trouble is, I think, is that the 'sheep are not hearing his voice'.

    Good post though….heads up!

  • Greta Sheppard

    o-o-o-ops…poor grammar…what I meant was 'the chief Counsellor lives inside you and me…and therefore knows what we think and what we feel…

  • Greta: No, you commented on this post the same day I wrote it. You're getting the stuff at the right time.

  • FreetoBe

    I attend a Southern Baptist church in a SB state in THE most conservative part of the country. The pastor has recommended a psychotherapist of the Christian persuasion to persons whom he felt unable to help. I admire that greatly–that the pastor knows his limits when it comes to counseling and that there is at least one therapist who incorporates God's love into his counseling. 🙂

    (I really like these smileys! ;




  • Latoya

    In the US, it's the christians that have this view that 'weak' people see a therapist, but in Jamaica that's a society view. Its only since of late that this is changing a little. I find that the people who live in the rural areas are more aversed to the idea of seeing a cousellor. My parents scoff at the very idea (by the way I start my masters in counselling psychology two months from now!)

  • dyann gardner

    here's an unspoken truth…my mother is from the baby boom. the generation where middle class folks got whatever their hearts desired.

    One wouldn't know it unless you lived with her, but she was and still is extremely abusive. When I was in high school I used to call her mama masa most magnificent. I was joking, but she loved it. narcissistic? understatment.

    ANyway I was being the good daughter and feared disobeying one of God's commandments-honor mom y dad.

    I attracted the worst of the worst from the first day of college on. My mmother paid for my therapy to break the abuse cycle. The therapist said move to Europe or wherever your mom can't get to you. I was tired of running. i have a loving dad. so I stayed put and learned how to stop her constant mental and emotional battering of me.

    How any owman could do tht to her chlredn is beyond me.

    POint is=== I learned. I read my Bible persistently to find guidnace in how to act or repsond, i surrounded myself with godly friends who gave good feedback with realistic advice, and with Jesus as my strength–I overcame. John is right. She took 37 years of my life and umpteen dollars in medical bills from my body giving out from the stress. by the way if you get seizures from stress—run to get medical help. Jesus came to give us life abundantly.


    We are Jesus' sheep and He is our ram…just as David was made king to be the ram that protected Israel, Jesus protects us. Trust Him for all things and He will set you free, indeed. I am fine, I am renewed and very healthy and obeying God's commands with ease. Your oppressor can be anyone—especially jealous women.Learn to walk in the Way of Our Lord and these things/people will leave you alone.

  • Dyann: Extremely effective (affective?) stuff. Thanks for all of it. You're experiences are really … trenchant.

  • Christine

    I think though we shouldn’t forget what people have done cos it does protect us in the future, we also need to forgive people. It ain’t easy, it ain’t fun but if we don’t our bitterness will grow and it becomes the poison we swallow expecting them to then die. It only ends up hurting us in the long run and affects the rest of our lives because we don’t move on. Forgiveness is key, Jesus didn’t want us to forgive to kill our fun at being angry but rather because he knows how dangerous it is for us if we don’t

  • Christine

    oops was meant to put that all pretty much in quotes and say see John's thing on Forgive and Forget. He said all of that and it really hit a chord with me and thought it should be reiterated.

    John: wasn't trying to steal your stuff promise 🙂

  • Veronica Franco

    Thank you.

  • christina

    I look to your posts for entertainment, and have found them inspiring of late.

    See, my parents divorced when I was 8, dad married someone else that I tried to live with as a teenager, but couldn’t stand. She didn’t try to accept me, and when I spoke with my mom, she never said anything disparaging about dad or his new relationship. I believed that if you love someone enough, eventually, they’ll love you back. If you sacrifice everything to care for your sick father for several years in terminal illness after he suffered the loss of his second love, he’ll realize the sacrifice and love you back. It’s true that clinging to the hope that love comes late from parents is naïve. So I’ve learned. If I took counselling now, I’m sure the church would understand. 🙂