A Look at Spiritual Abuse Through the Lens of Domestic Violence

When you hear the term “domestic abuse”, what first comes to mind? Many of us first think of bruises and marks that come with a physical altercation. Maybe you also thought about financial control and emotional abuse that survivors so often report facing in their homes. 

Often, we forget that spiritual abuse, or religious abuse, can be a part of the power & control dynamics in an abusive relationship—whether a romantic relationship, between family members, or between others in a household.  While the news often references spiritual abuse in relation to religious leaders using controlling and abusive tactics with their parishioners or members (which is a serious issue), spiritual abuse by a partner or family member easily slips under the radar for many.

What is Spiritual Abuse?

Sometimes the best explanation is a story.

“Kathy” married her abusive husband after he pressured her to get married because of her religious beliefs. After being married a short time, he began isolating her and would not take her to church gatherings until it was far too late. After a few months of this, Kathy was so embarrassed that she stopped attending church and other gatherings all together. She could not talk freely about her relationship with others because her husband always found a reason to be in the room when she was on the phone or visiting. Eventually she opened up during a private conversation with a family member, who encouraged Kathy to leave. However, when she told her husband she wanted a divorce, he taunted her saying that she would go to hell for getting a divorce according to her beliefs.

Read Kathy’s full story here

Put simply, spiritual abuse involves controlling how and/or whether or not someone is able to practice their religion freely or using religion to manipulate or control that individual. Many times, religious texts are used to rationalize abusive behaviors and make those behaviors seem like they are okay, or even encouraged. Some abusers prevent their partner from fully participating in their religion (for example preventing them from participating in services or scheduled prayers). Other times, an abuser may sabotage their partner’s attempt to follow their religion, like preventing them from following dietary guidelines. Abusive people may also force their partner or family member into participating in certain activities (e.g. baptism) without their consent.

Regardless of how it happens, using religion as a tool to manipulate, coerce, threaten, or intimidate someone else is never okay.

While spiritual abuse normally is accompanied by other types of abuse (e.g. emotional abuse, financial control, intimidation, etc.), it can have serious implications on its own and it can be one of the biggest barriers for leaving an abusive situation. Many religious communities place a high value on the family unit and keeping marriages intact. Though not inherently a bad thing, these values often create additional barriers for a victim of abuse from reaching out for help or seeking safety, as it did in the case of Kathy. This is why it is so important for religious leaders of all types to be educated about domestic abuse and how to respond to it appropriately within their religious community.

What Can Religious Leaders Do?

Perhaps most critically, it is important for religious leaders to be informed about the dynamics of domestic violence so that when, not if, they encounter a member who is experiencing abuse, they actually help the situation instead of creating further harm. Many women who are religious will first reach out to a religious leader for assistance (1). However, many faith leaders report they lack knowledge about the dynamics of abuse or about local resources available to survivors of abuse (2).

With many abusers hiding in their religious communities, it is also crucial for pastors, clerics, and religious leaders to speak out against abuse from the pulpit. It is important for religious leaders to use language that is sensitive to the needs and concerns of survivors in how they speak. One report found that only 1/3 of Protestant pastors speak to their congregation more than once per year about domestic and sexual violence (2). If faith leaders rarely address the issue and are not cognizant of how their language may minimize or blame abuse on victims rather than abusive partners, they effectively send a message that abuse is acceptable and normal.

Because abusive partners are often completely different behind closed doors than they are at the synagogue, church, or mosque, many survivors of abuse are rightfully concerned they will not be believed by the people who worship and serve alongside their partner each week. Abusers are often very charming people of whom others think very highly. They also tend to isolate their victims from their support networks. So when a faith community refuses to believe that a member could be abusing their partner or children at home, they inadvertently isolate the victim even more.

Another problem is that well-meaning pastors and religious leaders frequently encourage counseling for couples who are looking at divorce or separation. This can be great for couples where abuse is not a factor. However, if abuse for couples where abuse is a factor, couples counseling will be detrimental if anything (3). The reason for this is because abuse is not a “couple’s issue” as so often is assumed; it is a personal issue that only the abusive person can be responsible for solving.

Rather than encouraging or performing couples’ counseling, religious leaders can encourage their parishioners experiencing abuse to receive individual counseling from someone who specializes in trauma and is familiar with domestic abuse. They can also help the abusive partner, if truly willing to change, to seek out specialized therapy for abusers that will address the power and control issues at the root. Most importantly, religious leaders and members of a faith community can hold abusive people accountable for their actions and ensure the person being abused is safe and supported during this process, acknowledging that being safe can mean separating from an abusive partner, sometimes permanently.

Religious communities have the opportunity to be a supportive and healing space for individuals who have experienced abuse. However, they can also perpetuate more harm than good without education and processes in place to best support victims of domestic violence. Navigating this can be difficult, but we can help.

Next Steps

At NWAWS we believe that everyone deserves the ability to freely express their faith and follow their spiritual beliefs without religion being used as a tool to trap them in an abusive situation. If you are experiencing spiritual abuse and would like to talk to someone, our confidential hotline is open 24/7 and our advocates are happy to speak with you.

If you are a religious leader or would like more information about supporting survivors of spiritual abuse, email Amber at alacewell@nwaws.org. We’d love to connect and support you as you seek to support survivors in your own community.

For further reading about spiritual abuse, domestic violence, and the faith community, visit these resources:

National Network to End Domestic Violence: https://nnedv.org/latest_update/domestic-violence-faith/

FaithTrust Institute: http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/

Jewish Women International: https://www.jwi.org/

Sojourners Women & Girls Project: https://sojo.net/join/campaigns/women-girls

  1. http://religionanddiversity.ca/media/uploads/projects_and_results/biblio_and_case_law/strand_three_violence_and_religion_phase_1.pdf
  2. “Broken Silence: A Call for Churches to Speak Out.” IMA World Health, We Will Speak Out U.S., Sojourners. https://sojo.net/resources/broken-silence-call-churches-speak-out-survey
  3. A Policy Statement on Domestic Violence Couples Counseling: http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/resources/articles/Policy-Statement-onDV-Couples-Counseling.pdf