Religious and spiritual leaders when well trained can offer valuable support to victims. Spiritual leaders and authority figures can also inadvertently or intentionally wield spiritual abuse. We are going to talk about institutional spiritual abuse in our next blog. This week however we will address how spiritual abuse can also occur in relationships as a form of intimate partner violence. One domestic violence awareness organization defines spiritual abuse as “the denial or use of spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to control and dominate a person.” Like Covert Emotional Abuse and other types of psychological torment, spiritual abuse is devastating to victims, causing profound confusion, often leading to severe issues including PTSD/Complex PTSD, depression, anxiety, and more. Because spiritual abuse can seem subtle or go undetected as it is not a topic on which most individuals are educated today, we are highlighting the signs of spiritual abuse within relationships and what you can do if you suspect that someone is spiritually abusing you.
There are two primary expressions of spiritual abuse. The first expression is seeking to control the victim’s beliefs, behaviors, reactions, and responses, through spiritual beliefs or religious texts. It is important to note that spiritual abuse can and does occur across all religions and belief systems, even among people who may identify as “spiritual but not religious.” All spiritual or religious beliefs can be used for harm by an abusive person.
Some examples of the first expression of spiritual abuse include the following:
- Preventing the victim from practicing their religious or spiritual beliefs
- Exploiting doctrine or theology to silence, shame, or hurt the victim. For instance, “The Bible says that a wife should not deny her husband, so you have to have sex with me,” or, “You can’t go to church with me because church is for good people and nobody would want to see you there,” or even, “You don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to spiritual matters. I am much more educated on these topics, and everyone looks up to me as a leader. Next time, don’t assume that you know something to be true; ask me instead.”
- Forcing the victim to engage in spiritual practices or events that they do not believe in.
Any other way a partner tries to control their victim by misapplying their beliefs or a certain theology or doctrine qualifies as spiritual abuse. But victimizers are adept at blurring the lines and making the victim feel as if they are a bad partner for not accommodating the abuser’s wants or asks. We recognize that this is where much of the confusion for the victim comes from. By nature, spiritual and religious beliefs are meant to serve as systems that build up our lives, not tear them down. So when someone is using religion or spirituality to hurt another person, they can easily try to cover up their abusive actions and manipulate the victim’s feelings by attributing it to a belief system. Please know that if your partner has ever used religious or spiritual beliefs or texts to coerce you into being physically or emotionally oppressed or harmed, that is spiritual abuse.
The second main expression of spiritual abuse is when the abuser seeks to justify their behavior by hearkening to certain theology, doctrine, or religious text. Some examples include the following:
- Using the busyness of ministry or religious obligations to justify deliberate neglect. For instance, phrases like, “It’s selfish of you to ask me to do this activity with you when you know how much the ministry needs my time,” are excuses and spiritual abuse.
- Appealing to the work of evil spirits, demons, etc. as the cause for their abusive behavior rather than accepting responsibility for their own actions.
- Exploiting doctrines of forgiveness or mercy to make the victim feel guilty for expecting the abuser to change. Superficial apologies are not enough.
- Exploiting the victim’s minor flaws as sin in order to downplay their own abusive behavior.
These are merely a few, yet common, occurrences of spiritual abuse that seek to cover-up the abuser’s actions.
If even just one of these behaviors described is regularly happening within your relationship, we encourage you not to dismiss those actions. Be strong and stand against it. Spiritual abuse is difficult to identify, and it can be challenging to describe what you are experiencing behind closed doors to someone on the outside. To help you organize your thoughts and be able to get better help, consider starting a journal where you write down any suspicious or hurtful actions from your partner. Even if you are not sure if something is abuse, if it feels abusive or harmful, write it down anyway. It could be that some behaviors you have been experiencing for a long time and accepted as normal are abusive. If you have a controlling partner and you are worried they will find and read a physical journal, consider keeping notes on your phone (assuming they do not have access), uploading any notes onto a free dropbox account only you have access to, then removing the original from your computer, or texting the happenings to a friend, and then deleting the conversation or telling someone via phone and asking them to make a record of it, etc..
In addition to keeping a log of potentially abusive behaviors you may be enduring, we encourage you to take that information to a trusted confidant or professional. While counselors and therapists can be excellent resources, and there are several services nowadays that permit you to access one remotely, you may not feel safe reaching out to a professional, especially if your partner closely monitors your activities or if you aren’t sure the counselor is trained in matters of abuse. If finding professional help is not an option, please tell a trusted friend or family member about your situation. The act of sharing our experiences with someone who is trustworthy and listens to your hurt can be transformative, as it relieves you from feeling isolated and unsupported.
From there, some next steps that could be taken include calling on the help of friends, family members, or church leaders to confront the abuse. In our previous blog covering The Accountability Model of Courage, we detail a safe and effective way of interfacing with abusers and compelling them toward change.
We hope that the contents of this blog can begin to bring clarity to your situation. Every week on our blog and social media, we spread awareness about different types of abuse and how first responders can confront it. We encourage you to check in on our content and review the resources in the footnotes of our blogs to help you understand what you may be experiencing.
In the meantime, please help us to educate more people on these important topics by forwarding this blog, referring them to our website www.themendproject.com, or signing up to receive the blogs/newsletters here.