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Spiritual abuse, also called religious abuse, has multiple meanings. Within the context of domestic violence, it often refers to an abuser using a victim’s religious beliefs to control them or preventing a victim from practicing their religion.
Within a religious organization, spiritual abuse is when a religious leader shames or controls members using their position of power. It’s difficult to say how prevalent this type of spiritual abuse is, although one survey suggests as many as a quarter of religious organization members have experienced some form of spiritual abuse.
What Does Spiritual Abuse Look Like?
Spiritual abuse can involve a religious leader, such as a priest or a rabbi, exploiting their authority to control, or sexually or financially abuse followers. It can also refer to spiritual advisors who ignore abuse or pressure victims of abuse to stay in a marriage with an abuser.
In terms of an abuser perpetrating spiritual abuse, it can manifest in several ways, including when an abuser:
- Prevents you from practicing your religion. It could be that your partner forbids you to attend spiritual meetings or church. Maybe you’re Muslim and your partner is hindering your attempts to pray at the certain times you need to pray. Or you may be Jewish and have decided to keep kosher, and your partner coerces you into eating pork.
- Ridicules your beliefs. This might look like your partner belittling you when you talk about your faith. It could be your partner scoffing when you kneel to pray at noon every day. Or perhaps your partner is insulting when you try to share your religious views, calling you names until you start to question your own belief system.
- Uses religion to berate or manipulate you. Maybe you and your partner are the same religion, something you bonded over in the beginning of your relationship. Now, your partner is using religious texts to validate his abuse. They may cherry-pick bible verses that talk about being obedient to a husband, another way in his mind that controlling behavior is justifiable. An abuser may even use the scriptures that talk about obedience to demand you do things you’re not comfortable with, such as things that are illegal or sexually coercive. Questioning him is on par with questioning God, they’ll say.
- Forces your children to be raised in a faith you don’t agree to. Whatever this faith is, you and your partner have not talked about it or agreed upon it, but your partner is insistent your children be taught certain religious values. Shutting you out of this decision is a type of power and control.
For a more in-depth look at what spiritual abuse looks like, read “5 Ways to Recognize Religious Abuse.”
Who Commits Spiritual Abuse?
Anyone can commit spiritual abuse. Abusers will use any and all tactics to exert control over their victims, and they do not need to be “religious” themselves to commit religious abuse. As with any tactic of domestic abuse, the majority of abusers are men, although women can commit spiritual abuse as well.
While spiritual abuse appears to be particularly prevalent in certain religious sects, including among Hasidic Jews and fundamentalist Mormons, it happens across religions, denominations and belief systems, including Christianity and Islam. It happens within all types of relationships as well, including heterosexual, same-sex and polygamous and polyamorous relationships.
When Spiritual Abuse Turns Physical
Just as with other forms of nonphysical abuse, abusers can commit spiritual abuse along with or as a precursor to physical abuse. It’s rare, in fact, for physical abuse to occur by itself; it almost always accompanies or follows a pattern of nonphysical abuse.
All forms of domestic abuse, including spiritual abuse, tend to escalate over time. Sometimes the escalation is gradual, and other times it happens abruptly. Escalation of spiritual abuse might look something like this:
- An abuser tells you scripture dictates the man is the head of the household and thus makes important decisions for the family without consulting you.
- When he gets angry and yells at you, he says it’s because you’re a sinner.
- He tells you it would be a betrayal to tell anyone, including clergy, about what goes on in your home.
- When you want to leave, he says divorce isn’t an option because of your faith.
- He threatens to make good on the vow you made “’til death do us part.”
It’s not uncommon for spiritual abuse to turn physical, or even deadly—sometimes in the blink of an eye. The worst thing a survivor can do is underestimate an abuser’s ability to be violent. The following are indications that nonphysical abuse may turn physical:
- Not respecting a survivor’s boundaries.
- Blaming the survivor for the abuse and not taking responsibility for his or her choices.
- Isolating the survivor from friends and family.
- Threatening to harm or take away a survivor’s children.
- Threatening to harm pets.
- Acquiring a weapon as a means of intimidation.
- Displaying excessive jealousy or paranoia.
It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the signs that violence might turn deadly.
Barriers to Leaving Spiritual Abuse
There are many, many reasons survivors stay in relationships with abusers. They’re called barriers to leaving, and we’ve summarized at least 50 of them. In addition to challenges all survivors face, victims of spiritual abuse have unique concerns. While many survivors find solace and guidance from their spiritual leaders and their faith community, others may find their religions preaching that separation or divorce are frowned upon or outright forbidden. And many such survivors believe that will affect not only the rest of their earthly life but their fate in the afterlife as well.
In many cases of spiritual abuse, the victim’s family may even play a role in convincing them to stay as was Samra Zafar’s case. Religion is also a strong barrier to escaping for Black women. In a TIME opinion piece, Feminista Jones argues Black Americans are “more likely to rely on religious guidance and faith-based practices when working through relationship issues,” and that religious beliefs discourage divorce and encourage forgiveness.
How Do You Escape Spiritual Abuse?
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Abuse of any form is not OK, no matter your religion. You have every right to leave someone who abuses you and/or your children. If you’re still trying to find the strength, start here:
- Look to the true teachings of your religion. While many religions teach that wives are supposed to submit to their husbands, they also teach that husbands should love their wives. Ask yourself if that’s really happening if your partner abuses you.
- Call your local domestic violence shelter. If your church, mosque or synagogue doesn’t offer a place of refuge, find a local domestic violence agency that can help you find a shelter. Ask if they can refer you to a trained advocate who specializes in divinity counseling and who shares or is trained in your particular faith.
- Look for spiritual direction. Within your own faith you may want to look to another church, synagogue, mosque or house of worship for guidance. Or you may want to turn to other religious faiths like Waqas did. The Christian group Selah can help you connect with a spiritual director in your state. You may also want to look into the Faith Trust Institute. A group called Spiritual Directors International, or SDI World, can help connect you with spiritual directors in a number of other religions, including Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. You can also try calling the department of theology at a college or university near you. If you decide to search for a new religious group, be sure to stay alert for the signs of religious abuse and have a safety plan in place.
- Try to take care of yourself. Being compassionate with yourself is key to beginning the healing process. In most cases, that doesn’t mean stepping away from your religion, but if your faith leaders are part of the problem, then it’s best to find somewhere else to practice at least for the time being.
If you decide it’s time to leave an abuser, reach out to an advocate at a hotline to talk about your options, such as an order of protection, to formulate a safety plan and to get help deciding how it’s safest to leave.
You can learn how others have handled abuse in the past by reading survivor stories.
We’ve prepared a toolkit “Am I Experiencing Abuse?” to help you understand even more what domestic violence is so you can better assess your relationship and understand your situation.
Faith after Spiritual Abuse
Leaning on your faith and speaking with your religious leaders can be comforting after abuse. But it’s not that way for everyone. That’s why, even if you personally have found faith to be healing, we should never push survivors toward religion. The better way to suggest turning to a higher power would be to say, “What makes you feel good? What’s a self-care act that makes you feel safe? For me, it’s faith, prayer, the church. What is yours?”
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