By Michel Apioli —
Imagine the stereotypical speech of an abusive “significant other”. It would sound something like this:
“Look at what you made me do to you. I’m only doing this for your own good, because I love you; this way, maybe you’ll learn to appreciate me and realize what you have. Don’t you realize how lucky you are that I’m with you? You’re just a piece of garbage, I could be with anyone I wanted, and yet I’m still with you. After all I do for you, all that I sacrificed for you, and this is how you pay me! And still, you know what? I’m willing to let it pass if you start to behave properly, just look how patient I am…
“Do you even remember who you were before you met me? You were nothing, I’m all you have, you are nothing without me! Everything that is good in your life, all the good things that happened to you is because of me. You say you’re going to leave me? And then what, you’ll be alone. No one ever is going to love you as much as I do.
“Maybe you cry now, but you’re going to realize that I am in the right in doing what I did to you. I know you better than anyone; I know what’s best for you. Can you just stop crying? You should be thankful that I’m holding myself back and not knocking in your goddamn teeth or sending you to the hospital! The only thing I’m asking you is to obey and respect me… also stop going out with the whores of your friends, they’re always poisoning your head against me, don’t hang out with them anymore, why do you want them anyway? Do you prefer to lose me instead of them? I have to be the most important thing in your life…!
“…wait, what are you… no, wait, honey, I’m sorry, I’m going to change, please, be patient with me, I’m going to change and we’re gonna be fine, I promise, don’t leave me please forgive me OH COME ON ARE YOU SERIOUSLY GONNA LEAVE JUST FOR THIS LITTLE NONSENSE? SEE, YOU’RE A PIECE OF TRASH I KNEW YOU NEVER LOVED ME YOU’RE GOING TO REGRET IT AND COME BACK BEGGING.”
Now, let’s imagine a stereotypical church sermon:
“God doesn’t want to see us suffer, but sometimes we force Him to make us get through hardships so that we can be conscious of our wrongdoings. Each test that He sends us is for our own good, because He loves us, so that we can come closer to Him, since during tribulations is when we learn to appreciate God. We have to marvel at how blessed we are. We, who are no more than sinners, undeserving of His love, and still, God in His grace keeps by our side. And despite all that, we keep moving away from Him and getting lost in the World and temptation. After everything the Lord has done for us, God sacrificed his own son for us, and this is how we repay Him! And even then, after all our offenses, He’s still willing to give us His forgiveness if we just repent and follow Him, because that’s how great His mercy is…
“Just remember, brothers and sisters, where were you before being born again: your lives were empty and devoid of purpose. We were nothing until God enlightened us, we are nothing without Him. Everything we are, everything we have accomplished, we owe it to Him. No one ever is going to love us as much as God does.
“Even when we are dealing with struggles, we have to understand that God has a reason for everything. He knows us better than anyone, and knows what is best for us even better than ourselves. Sometimes we complain about our problems, and we forget to be thankful for the fact that God hasn’t forgot to wake us up in the morning, that He gave us another day of life, that we don’t have a terminal disease, that our family is still healthy. The only thing He asks from us is our obedience and devotion. We must walk away from the bad influences of the World. The World will always try to infect our minds to draw us away from the path. It is better to be rejected by the World and loved by God than be loved by the World and rejected by God.
“…and even if sometimes it seems that everything is going downhill, that no one listens to our prayers, we have to be patient, because the timing of God is perfect, and sooner or later He is going to keep His promise. We saw that many people were unable to endure the trials and move away from the path. Those people were never true Children of God, never felt true love, they built their houses on the sand. But remember the story of the Prodigal Son, who came back begging to the arms of his father admitting to not being worthy of being called his son. Have faith that they will return seeking the mercy of the Lord in the same way.”
When arranged this way, pair to pair and with the help of italicized key phrases to mark the parallels, it may be easy to notice that the manipulative strategies in both cases are the same. However, the second speech by itself, being less aggressive and much more cleverly constructed, might appear for most as inoffensive, even positive, encouraging… loving.
It is sadly common for people to judge in a negative way those who are victims in an abusive relationship, asking themselves how is it possible that they don’t realize their situation and just leave. This naïve mentality of invisibility and “that could never happen to me, I’m too smart for that” turns people paradoxically more vulnerable to this kind of rhetoric, since while they expect to confront a caricaturized version, in real life manipulation occurs as a slow and subtle process through personal degradation, guilt, dependency, and fear.
Both a toxic partner and a toxic God (or, in better terms, the concept of God or any deity or leader figure employed by a toxic church, cult or religion — let’s call him the “Toxic Other”) operate initially in the same way: at first, everything is perfect, all your dreams may come true at his side and the world is rose-colored. This is the stage where it’s made clear that this/person/church/religion isn’t like the others. In this moment of first love, or “love bombing”, it is difficult to distinguish the toxic person/church from a legitimately loving and healthy one, and thus the victim lowers his guard.
But certainly, the victim is going to realize that this is not a healthy situation once abuse begins, given that it is not something a good, loving being would do, right?
It is at that point when personal degradation and guilt get into the game. If the victim is expected to continue to feel loved even under abuse, it is necessary to progressively undermine their self-esteem and fill them with insecurity and guilt to the point where they feel unworthy of any kind of good treatment. The same way the victim should be thankful that their toxic partner doesn’t send them to the hospital as they “deserve”, the victim of a toxic religion is not an intrinsically valuable human being anymore, but a wicked, ungrateful sinner deserving of the most severe agony, at whom the Toxic Other, in his infinite love, has decided to forgive and to save, a gift worthy of praise and gratitude.
Even when abuse has already settled as the norm, it is possible for the victim to realize that they’re not happy nor comfortable in that situation, but by then an “efficient” toxic partner/religion will have already implanted a strong emotional dependence in them, preventing them from moving away: the victim has lost their sense of self-worth and security, replaced by conditioned versions of them. They don’t have any value but the one the Toxic Other provides them, and without it, they’ll be instantly lost. The moment they decides to move away or even think about it, their entire life could crumble apart.
Add to that the fear of punishments that may occur if they try to leave, punishments that are perceived as justified and deserved because of all the previous conditioning factors. And on top of that, it is very likely that the toxic partner/church has made sure to isolate them from all contact with people outside a select approved circle that reinforces what they must think and believe, leaving them devoid of any possibility of acquiring different points of view or a critical perspective of their situation. The manipulator makes sure of locking the victim in an echo chamber where they cannot conceive of the idea that their suffering relationship is neither healthy nor normal.
It is not impossible for people to break away from the claws of an abusive relationship (of course, it’s better to avoid getting trapped in the first place). However, if the underlying problem is not addressed — manipulation and the tools used to achieve it — nothing ensures that someone who managed to successfully get away from toxicity doesn’t fall again. After all, at first the toxic one is always not like the others.
The best vaccine is to leave behind the illusion of intellectual invulnerability, and to assume that we are all susceptible to fall for manipulative tricks. That’s why it is important to know them and how to identify them, as well as to know our own vulnerabilities and blind spots that can be taken advantage of. Above all, it’s important to be critical and not be afraid of asking questions. Healthy levels of self-esteem, self-love, and critical thinking are the best shields against manipulation.