Spiritual abuse, or religious abuse, is one of the most damaging forms of psychological coercion which can take years before a person fully heals from the trauma it causes them. Spiritual abuse happens in all religious or spiritual beliefs and systems. It is used within intimate relationships, parent-child relationships, and institutional or organizational structures (churches, mosques, temples, etc.) to compel action, silence, inaction or to manipulate or punish its victim.
Keep reading as we:
- Explain spiritual abuse
- Look at why it’s so destructive
- Share signs and examples of spiritual abuse
- Look at the effects of spiritual abuse within intimate relationships
- And within churches and other religious organizations
- And how to heal from it without abandoning your faith, even when you need to separate
Let’s get started.
Spiritual Abuse Explained
Also called religious abuse, spiritual occurs when a person, leader or organization either denies an individual’s religious or spiritual belief or uses their beliefs to coerce action or inaction from the individual.
Like covert or overt emotional abuse and other types of psychological torment or domestic abuse, spiritual abuse is devastating to victims, causing profound confusion, often leading to severe issues including PTSD/Complex PTSD, depression, anxiety, and more.
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 from within any religion. Any spiritual or religious belief can be used to exert power over family members or others.
- The second main expression of spiritual abuse is when the abuser seeks to justify their own behavior by hearkening to certain theology, doctrine, or religious text.
The first expression of spiritual abuse is seen when your relationship partner or spiritual leader exploits theology or scripture to:
- Control your clothing, hair, behavior, relationships, finances, parenting or family planning, etc.
- Instill fear, or to embarrass, silence, shame, belittle or hurt you.
- Prevent you from practicing your own religious beliefs.
- Force you to engage in spiritual practices or events that you do not believe in.
- Isolate you by making you feel you do not measure up spiritually.
The second main expression of spiritual abuse happens when they:
- Claim that their spiritual position in the relationship or church (e.g., spiritual lead, head of household) gives them the authority to make all financial decisions, control finances or deprive their partner of money for their and their children’s minimal needs.
- Justify verbal abuse or physical abuse as punishment to correct issues of “godly submission.”
- Silence you when you voice disagreement.
- Defend child abuse as a form of “godly” discipline.
- Excuse sexual coercion or withholding affection on religious grounds.
- Blame “the enemy” or demons as the cause for their abusive behavior.
- Exploit doctrines of forgiveness or mercy to make the abused feel guilty for expecting change or to justify the abuser’s superficial or partial apologies.
Now, let’s take a look at why spiritual abuse is so destructive to its victims.
The Problem is Profound
Any form of abuse is destructive, but there is something unique about spiritual abuse, which can continue to damage its victims long after the abuse has stopped. Here are some reasons why:
- A person’s faith is core to their being. The tenets of the faith they adhere to are sacred to them, forming a part of how they define themselves and guiding all areas of their life. Obstructions to that faith are devastating.
- For many, their chosen place of worship becomes a second home to them. This is especially true for believers who are from broken homes or have traumatic pasts. Their spiritual community may be the only family they feel they ever have had. The threat of or actual loss of that community is horrible making it nearly impossible to risk it by speaking up.
- Adherents to the faith are often called to trust their pastors, rabbis, ministers, priests, imams or other religious leaders and submit to their authority. Followers put great weight on the truth of the lessons their spiritual leaders teach. They will abdicate their own feelings about what is right in exchange for the opinions of their spiritual leaders. When that trust is repeatedly violated, the spiritually abused one is unable to trust for a long time afterward, especially in a religious setting.
- Spiritual abuse is done in the name of the God that religion worships. Victims may believe that their faith leaders and other representatives of God literally stand between them and their eternity with God. After experiencing spiritual abuse, the victim doubts God views them favorably.
How Mend Can Help:
Want a Free Spiritual Abuse Training from Our Not For Profit?
Join us on May 16 for a Free Interactive Workshop with MEND Founder, Annette Oltmans, to learn all about the signs of spiritual abuse and how to heal. Register Here.
Spiritual abuse takes power away from the victim while empowering the abuser. When religious leaders spiritually abuse a victim of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or child abuse, they are complicit in the abuse.
Effects of spiritual abuse
Some possible effects of religious abuse on the victim are:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder or Complex PTSD
- Loss of emotional expression and feeling
- Isolation from the spiritual community
- Fear or inability of being in a spiritual or religious environment
- Feeling rejected by God or another deity
- Intense anger at God
- Sexual dysfunction
- Decreased self-esteem and increased self-rejection
While these effects of spiritual abuse are similar to the effects of other forms of abuse, spiritual abuse remains one of the most destructive forms in the long term for the individual as mentioned above. So what are the signs of this type of abuse?
Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse
Warning signs of spiritual abuse can be witnessed in either the victim or the spiritually abusive individual or organization:
Signs of Spiritual Abuse in Victims
- Sudden expressions of shame, depression, and anxiety related to their religion
- Sleep disorders and intense fear.
- Emphatic that they caused the abuse because their actions do not meet the expectations of the divine position or tenets of their faith.
- Belief, almost as a martyr, that they need to take the abuse until their faith becomes stronger, they draw closer to their higher power, serve others more, pray incessantly.
- The victim will point to their religion’s holy book in a way that dictates their decisions even when those decisions contrast with their own well-being.
- They suddenly seem isolated even within worship services or stop attending altogether.
Signs of Spiritually Abusive Partners or Religious Leaders
- The abusive partner or faith leader illuminates how the victim is or caused the problem through their disobedience to the leader’s spiritual authority (even when that leader’s directives or ultimatums harm the individual).
- The abuser forces their own spiritual beliefs to fit into a dialogue that supports or justifies the abusive dynamic in their relationship.
- Their partner or religious leader criticizes other belief systems.
- Faith leaders chastise, shame, or silence followers who question or disagree with the organization or its leaders’ spiritual authority, religious doctrine, or practices.
- There are threats of spiritual consequences for not conforming to a certain religion.
These are sure signs of religious abuse that warrant further consideration.
Examples of Spiritual Abuse
Two of the most common examples of spiritual abuse happen within the church and in intimate relationships.
Spiritual Abuse in the Church
Spiritual abuse can occur within any faith-based or religious organization. It can happen through the leaders’ instigation or within their congregation between members of community or accountability groups, Bible studies, spiritual, discipleship, or pastoral counseling relationships.
Here are some common ways we have seen spiritual abuse play out within Christian churches:
Valuing the Institution of the Marriage Over the Individuals Within It
Many churches refuse to consider divorce or even controlled separation with the goal of reunification while they completely ignore, minimize, or dispute the violence within the relationship. They refuse to intelligibly recognize the trauma the abuser is responsible for causing the victim. The legal institution of marriage takes precedence at all costs.
Yet, the best chance of creating healthy intimacy in the marriage is through acknowledging the abuse, and compassionately responding to and protecting the victim while holding the abuser strictly accountable for their harmful actions. The responsibility for abuse is never a shared responsibility between two people, it’s 100% the responsibility of the abuser and until it is resolved and addressed, the victim should never be required to bear any burden of responsibility.
Punishing the Victim
For example, to resolve male sex or porn addiction or an issue with extramarital affairs, far too often pastors tell the wife to have more sex with their husband to resolve the issue. Many don’t confront the husband or require accountability enforced.
Church members might stop inviting the victim to events or studies because they are uncomfortable or want to coerce the victim back into the abusive relationship, couples therapy, or silence them to protect the abuser’s reputation.
Refusing to Confront the Abuse/Abuser
One of the core reasons MEND trains faith leaders is that they don’t know how to identify abuse nor do they have the training to know the most effective ways to respond and they often fail to confront it or the one who is causing harm effectively. Failing to enforce strict consequences for abusive behavior is so damaging to both the victim and the abuser.
Spiritual Abuse in Marriage and Relationships
Spiritual abuse within intimate partnerships or marriages is regrettably common and an incredibly powerful form of control and manipulation. Here are a few ways it plays out in marriages or intimate relationships:
To Justify Sexual Coercion
Yes, there can be sexual abuse within marriages and relationships. Sex should always be consensual, respectful, and loving. Forcing your partner to engage in sexual acts outside of their comfort level is wrong.
Requiring them to have sex on demand “because it’s their spiritual responsibility to their spouse” at any time but especially when there has been a break in the relationship that has not been addressed and healed is wrong. Also, refusing to have physical intimacy as a form of withholding or stonewalling can also be controlling.
To Sanction Physical Abuse or Child Abuse
Using Scripture or another religious doctrine to justify punishment or physical abuse as a means of godly correction or conditioning is another common form of relational spiritual abuse. As a representative of the God the couple believes in the abuser can confuse the victim’s viewpoint of God. The victim often becomes estranged from their faith and forms an inaccurate opinion of how God sees them because of the spiritual abuse.
To Stifle Your Reasonable Emotions or Reactions to Abuse
Scripture is often used to silence a victim’s attempts to confront abuse. They label the victim’s reasonable reaction to the harmful behavior as “disrespectful” or a sign that they are “failing to submit” to their partner.
To Justify Various Forms of Financial Abuse
Use of spiritual roles, such as “head of household,” “provider” or “spiritual leader” texts or interpretations to compel their partner to work, or refrain from working, to control the finances, bar access to finances, to enforce isolation, or harm a person’s mental or physical wellbeing. This plays out when one uses their spiritual position to justify every harmful action including financial abuse.
To Invade the Victim’s Privacy
Demanding access to email, phones, social media accounts, journals, or anything the victim would deem private on the basis that it’s inappropriate for a godly wife or husband to keep anything private from their spouse. Everyone needs personal space and a place to vent or communicate their hurt or feelings, or simply to have private conversations with friends, family, and others.
If a covert narcissist gains access to private, vulnerable information belonging to the victim, they will use it to publicly or privately embarrass, belittle, or shame the victim. If someone asks their spiritual leader to require their partner to share their private journals or accounts with their spouse, this is a red flag, which indicates a need for the leader to learn more about the relationship (by separately asking each partner) and decline the invitation.
Blocking Contact with Counselors, Mentors, or Other Spiritual Figures
Many people, including religious leaders, frown upon help outside of prayer or church saying these things are not from God’s blessing. In an abusive relationship, the victimizer uses that to prevent the spouse (or child) from getting the help they need and possibly protect the abuser from disclosure to outsiders about the violence taking place in the home.
Recovering and Healing from Spiritual Abuse
Healing from spiritual abuse can take a significant amount of time, but try not to rush yourself. God can handle the time you need and the anger you likely feel. Here are some helpful ideas for healing from spiritual abuse:
- Therapy. If you are still in an abusive relationship this might be hard to get away with, but please try. You could see a spiritual mentor, or counselor who hosts online sessions and can often find free or low-cost therapy you can afford. If possible, it would be helpful to see a counselor who shares the same faith. They should not bring faith into the counseling sessions unless you allow it. However, they might better understand what you have dealt with if they share the same faith as you.
- Physical separation. If you are still living with your abuser, you may consider a physical separation to give you time to heal and get help. Some churches or other religious institutions can help couples with controlled separations keeping each person accountable to the concrete, specific steps they need to take to heal themselves and the marriage.
Saying each person needs to do work to help the relationship does not mean the victim shares responsibility for the abuse. But counseling and other support will help the victim regain their self-esteem, understand the root causes for the conflict in their relationship, learn how to set healthy boundaries, and bring healing to the trauma they have experienced.
Unfortunately, many abusers refuse to honestly engage in the healing work they need to do to end the abuse and will not agree to a controlled separation. Even if they won’t agree to a controlled separation, you might need to physically separate to protect yourself and your wellbeing. And it’s okay.
- Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. Certain types of yoga help remove trauma from your body and can bring significant healing. Try it! If you are unable to listen to meditations with Scripture due to the trauma you’ve experienced, that’s OK. There are forms of healing meditation that will not go against your religious faith.
- Exercise. Sing. Dance. Sounds impossible? You’ll be amazed at how effective these practices are to bring healing and wash trauma off of you. Check out our blog on grounding techniques. You’ll see.
- Community. Find a friend or mentor within your faith who is safe and will not judge you. Vent, cry, be angry, get it out. Sometimes we need to do that over and over (and over) again. Releasing anger, frustration, hurt, confusion and pain are all important parts of the healing journey.
If you have suffered the loss of community, please consider a domestic violence or spiritual abuse support group where you will find other people who have experienced this form of abuse and many who have found healing.
You do not need to jump back into a church or your own religious group or text right away. Take time to heal and let God bring you the peace and healing you deserve.