our fatal attraction

blog fatal attractionmy husband jose has a theory about people.  he says that in some weird ways, “we’re always going back to our abusive dads, trying to please them.” he doesn’t mean this in a literal sense (although it’s true for some), but rather that human beings are strangely drawn toward being mistreated.  that we live our lives from a place of shame, not freedom.  that we somehow like to be mistreated.  that like a moth to a flame, we often go back for abuse & control & power, subtly or directly.

a pro-bono lawyer for domestic violence victims at a christian legal aid clinic, he sees this a lot.  i have journeyed with many people over the years trying to leave abusive relationships and unhealthy churches so unfortunately i have often seen it, too– this sad and painful pattern of continually returning to bondage instead of walking toward freedom. i can’t tell you the number of times i have cried over women who have gone back, yet again, after coming close to leaving an abusive relationship.  or the number of times jose has started cases only to drop them when the men started being “nice” for a while.

i also can’t tell you the number of people i know who week after week, year after year, sit under unhealthy, controlling, shame-based christian teaching from charming evangelical pastors with charisma.

it leads me to believe what i suspect has always been the case related to humanity & religion.

it’s easier to default toward bondage than freedom.

i will go so far to say that we have a fatal attraction toward control & power (not a crazy-boil-bunnies-fatal-attraction, but a propensity to keep going back to what’s not good for our souls).

we like leaders who kick ass & take names, who tell us what to do and what to believe, who set the record straight and speak for God, who use shame to motivate, who keep us in line.

we want kings to rule over us.

we prefer the outward appearance of real strength to humility.

we choose charisma over integrity.

we repeat bad relationships instead of learning how to create good ones.  

i know of many pastors who get away with mistreating folks but are amazing communicators; throngs of people aren’t willing to give up their hour fix on sunday for someone less “powerful”.  i also know many women who are being mistreated by their partners but never leave because they think it’s normal or what they deserve or “if only i would…then maybe he wouldn’t…” or that they don’t have any other better options.

the human psyche is interesting.  because many of us have such a low view of ourselves (self-hatred & low self-worth is pervasive and so dangerous, both in and out of the church), we allow ourselves to stay stuck.  it’s tempting to give our power away to an institution (to carry it for us) rather than working through it ourselves.

there are many reasons for our false attractions–our family histories & life experiences, deeply grooved social systems that falsely define our value, and emotional & spiritual baggage we carry. unfortunately, churches tend to perpetuate this in the worst possible sense, giving people what we want (what’s familiar & comfortable even though it’s controlled & limited) instead what our souls really need (freedom, real freedom).

when i reflect on the scriptures, especially matthew 23,  Jesus does some serious calling out of the pharisees and ways they enslaved people through religion. honestly, i am reminded of how little things have changed from 2,000 years ago.

at the end of matthew 23 he reminds them that they always kill prophets, people who call out truth.  then he says something i think about a lot, “how often i have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me” (v. 37).

“but you wouldn’t let me.”

freedom is scary.

i know it has been for me.  to come out from underneath a system that controlled me has been terrifying. to let my husband really love me has been the work of my life.  to see myself as an equal instead of underneath others or unworthy of respect has been hard.  to soak in the truth of how big and not-controlling-or-shaming God is has been a long and difficult process.

many of us don’t believe we deserve a healthy relationship where we are treated well, with dignity and respect. or someone who believes in us. or a vocation or passion that makes our heart come alive. or friends that aren’t just takers.  or a God that lavishly loves us.

we settle for crumbs.

so many of us have shifted our unhealthy attractions (yes!)–in churches & in other relationships.  we are discovering we are worthy of love & connection & freedom & dignity & passion & purpose.

but i know so many others still there.  who prefer macho over humility, easy answers over reality, and comfort over freedom.  who give time and hearts to people & places who subtly or directly mistreat them and use the name of God or their power to keep others contained.

it makes me sad.  and mad.  i think it’s supposed to.

God, may we let you gather us up and help us believe we are worthy of good things, of love, of freedom.  that we deserve better than we think we do.



Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Kathy,

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately. What I see is a cycle of addiction. In AA literature alcoholism is a physical allergy to the alcohol (when I take a drink I can’t seem to stop) and a mental obsession (when I’m not drinking I have an insatiable craving for the next drink). The cycle is awful. People relapse over and over again because they just can’t stop. Most are not even aware that they have a problem it is so deep. But all know something is just not quite right with the world.

    The solution to the cycle is to find a power greater than ourselves to solve the problem. Not a despotic power, but a gracious and loving power. Many start with the power of other alcoholics. Others find God.

    I see the cycle you are talking about in a similar way. I think religion can be addictive. It’s like a Stockholm Syndrome, a dysfunctional symbiosis. I can’t live with it but I can’t live without it. Maybe the only thing to break the cycle is to transfer the need for one higher power that is cruel and controlling to another higher power that is liberating and loving. I love the 3rd step prayer of AA:

    God, I offer myself to Thee — to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!

    • i love that prayer, too. the 12 steps are such a beautiful path to so much transformation. i am struck by that almost every day. the cycle of our addictions is so strong, the things we desperately cling to to take away our pain and hide and control and keep ourselves comfortable. i really love hearing about the radical shifts in your journey over this season. beautiful.

  • Hi kathy,
    i find this post interesting.not very sure what you mean about shame based churches.I was wondering if you thought that just the prosperity gospel should be preached at churches?
    please understand that I was curious about it and not trying to be hateful just trying to understand the point that you were trying to make.
    I came from an abusive relationship.I am a pretty intelligent,strong christian( i studied womens studies as a major in college)inspite of that I could not get out and once I did I understood what women in relationships like that go through.My husband is a wonderful wonderful man and I am grateful for him every single day.
    again,I am not trying to be mean or rude just trying to get the pointyou were making

    • you are not sounding mean or rude at all. thank you for sharing. i do not believe in a prosperity gospel in any way shape or form. i believe it is a dishonest teaching. i do not think that is biblical or at all what Jesus promised. his path is actually a path of pain and hope in that pain. what i mean by shame-based churches are churches that use shame and fear as a primary motivator instead of love. there’s an awful lot of them out there, who motivate by guilt & control. i hope that helps.

  • Oh my goodness! You just put in one blog what I do in my counseling office at least 50% of my time with clients. Two of my three primary areas are spiritual abuse and domestic violence. Thank you for continuing to speak out, Kathy! Even though many Christians don’t understand spiritual abuse yet, it is out there and doing such severe damage. And you nailed its core – misuse of power and control (often through shame and/or patriarchy). Great blog!

    • thanks, connie. thanks for being part of this oh-so-important healing process for people! you know how gnarly it is to heal from.

  • Kathy, I wrote a post really similar to this last week, regarding freedom from dieting. How easy it is to rely on a diet or someone telling you what to eat as opposed to listening to your body and using good judgement about food and your body- freedom. What a scary concept. Thanks for writing this piece.

    • I am always amazed at how well our bodies can whisper to us about what they need (and when) once we remove ourselves from the yelling and screaming of the sickeningly sweet and greasy. Thank you for blending that in with Kathy’s message, Kim.

    • thanks, kim. yeah, it’s so true, the connections are strong between those two. speaking of body/food: one other thing i never learned in church was how to be in touch with my body and listen to it. head knowledge isn’t enough. the truth is that my connection in that area is way jacked up and part of my healing process has been to integrate it and become a more whole, less separated person.

      • That is something I wish the church would address!! My mom worked for our church and was overweight and unhealthy, but no one ever addressed it. With how many times food, feasting and body image are mentioned in Scripture, it is a wonder no one talks about it unless you’re doing the Prism Diet. That would be a great thing to talk about….

  • I loved this. I found my freedom when we walked away from the “church” 7 years ago. Church as an institution needs to change, church as a body of people meeting together still happens to us in some ways and that is what fills us. Encouraging, inspiring, and being free. I grew up in a bible college town and went for twelve years indoctrinated. I memorized the whole bible and know every evangelical song and argument..but now. NOW I am FREE. While I appreciate some of my history and it took some of that to get me to here- I realize perspective is EVERYTHING. There is only a life of love and I am free to live it without guilt, compunction, abuse, or power. But I would never have seen it if I would not have had this journey- I believed that in my cage I was not being shamed but challenged. I saw the Pastors as Godly always. This does not change until one slowly steps out of the box. Thanks for advocating for love and freedom. I appreciate your posts. It is harder to live this way. I get more flack, judgement and correction..but I would not go back ever again. It’s tougher to live by thought out choice and more questions than answers but it is beautiful in the magnificence of the Mysterious One who IS.

  • Yes! … and I just received an email from a religion professor friend. In talking about her students, she said “they’re so used to fast food that most of them just take what they’re given and drive off with it.”

    Do we attend super-sized fast food churches and expect fast food relationships and gobble down fast food belief systems? Are we just not willing to do the work?

    May the Lord hear our groaning.

    • yeah, that is such a good analogy. over time, fast food makes our bodies not work properly and causes all kinds of problems..

  • i often resonate more with the other side of the equation- being the abuser. i learned how to use power in way that was not offensive to the masses, but to the “little people”. in fact, doing so helped me be more successful (more gross).
    but, on those occasions when a superstar would shine on me, i would do anything, including being mis-treated, to keep the light on me.

    • thanks karl for always being honest about these struggles with power. they are real for all of us in different ways. it’s really hard when the systems we were in were built on being strong & superior somehow.

  • This is my first time to visit your site, Kathy. You have a very interesting and relevant approach to Christianity and ministry. I like it and look forward to visiting often!

    • thanks for reading. yeah, unfortunately you get it. how many times intersect with people who rave about what’s on the outside when we know what’s on the inside. it really is a fatal attraction. scary, too.

  • Good post Kathy!

    I observed this phenomenon when I worked Social Services. Women who had been abused chose to return to the abusers. I still know people who put up with the kinds of things you describe happening in churches.

    Guess I’m kinda weird. I refuse to put up with this stuff, be it in personal relationships, at work or at church. That’s part of why we’re no longer part of the institutional church. Know what? – It really pisses off those super spiritual charismatic types with lots of teeth and a big smile when I tell them we won’t put up with their control, power and abuse. We’re better off without them. That may be religion, but it isn’t Jesus.


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