Spirituality is a source of comfort, guidance, meaning and purpose for many people. However, for many survivors of domestic violence, misguided religious messages can be used to justify abuse and coerce victims to submit and accept maltreatment, coercion, cruelty, neglect and/or violence.
Spiritual abuse is an insidious form of trauma and psychological manipulation that uses religious doctrine to control community members and keep them subjugated. When spiritually toxic environments intersect with domestic violence, often scripture is used to embolden abusers.
Often times, scripture that alludes to women being required by God to be submissive or “fulfill their wifely duties” is used to force victims – women especially – to submit to their abuser. Worse yet, many survivors who report their abuse to practicing family or community members, are often turned away and told to “pray, submit, and be a good wife.” This is a powerful form of victim blaming and makes leaving a domestically violent relationship that much more heartbreaking.
Especially if there are children involved, women are forced to choose between trying to leave abusive partners and risk retaliation with little to no support from family. Many times, women have also not been allowed to work and are financially dependent on their husbands, making leaving the relationship that much scarier and harder. Layer messages riddled with guilt and shame and sin, and many women stay in abusive relationships because they truly feel that they have no other choice.
Spiritual abuse combined with domestic violence produces a particularly dangerous form of gaslighting.
Gaslighting is the tactic of abusers to manipulate victims into questioning their own reality. Abusers often deny having said something threatening, accuse the victim of being “too sensitive” or wield themselves as the victim when someone tries to hold their abusive behaviors to account.
This becomes particularly dangerous when it goes beyond the individual abuser and spreads through the entire spiritual community. Members, leadership and even God is seen as the ultimate victim blamer and gaslighter as victims are left feeling that they somehow asked for it or their doctrine requires them to ignore their own pain and submit to abuse.
Examples of the intersection of religious abuse and domestic violence include:
Leaders (and abusers) often cast themselves to be the authority figure. There is a message that they, themselves are on par with God and to say no to them is essentially saying no to God. Not only are church leaders and members experienced as being abusive, but God is also experienced as an abusive being.
There is some sense that when a human being is your perpetrator, their power is somewhat limited.
WHEN GOD IS SEEN AS THE ABUSER, THERE IS A SENSE THAT THE ABUSE WILL NEVER STOP, THAT IT IS YOUR FAULT AND THAT YOU DESERVE IT.
There is a deep sense of hopelessness and shame that results, not to mention a deep crisis of faith.
Seeking advice from anyone outside the church is often extremely discouraged, leaving victims feeling isolated and scared. Partners often seek marriage guidance form church leaders. Many times, abusers and victims are always seen together. This does not provide a safe environment for victims to speak freely about what is really going on.
Victims legitimately fear retaliation if they disclose abuse. Their fears of rejection and shame are only legitimized when church leaders and community members focus on the couple following the doctrine and not getting divorced under any circumstances over the safety and well-being of victims.
Healthy spiritual communities will hold abusers accountable and not victim blame. They will support victims to leave the marriage if the safety and wellbeing of the person and their children is at stake. Nourishing communities will support equality and autonomy of all members of the family. Leaders will be clear about not supporting or justifying abuse and they will get trained in trauma-informed approaches and domestic violence.
Spiritual abuse and religious trauma can be incredible damaging and insidious, especially when coupled with domestic violence and inter-partner abuse.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, know that you are not alone. The decision to leave a relationship can be extremely scary and difficult, especially when it feels like you also are choosing to leave family members and friends as well. That gets at the very core of our natural need for attachment and belonging. AND if belonging to a community requires you to accept abusive, control, manipulation and violence, then that is not true belonging or spirituality. A true spiritual path and a healthy spiritual community will want to lift you up and want you to be safe.
Erica Bonham is a certified EMDR (Eye-Movement, Desensitization and Reprocessing) clinician, consultant and trainer. EMDR is a powerful treatment for reprocessing traumatic memories and Erica is passionate about training clinicians in this modality, especially in the field of attachment repair, abuse recovery and religious trauma. She specializes in helping clients heal from spiritual trauma and religious abuse, which can affect relationships, body image, sexuality, self-care and a host of other areas of human lives. She also trains other clinicians in this topic and her course, “Healthy Hope: EMDR Best Practices for Treating Spiritual Trauma” will be out soon. This course is geared towards clinician and counselors that would like more training on the topic of religious abuse and spiritual trauma. You can get on the waitlist for the course here: https://erica-bonham.mykajabi.com
You can find out more about her team and group practice at www.avoscounseling.com and follow the practice on facebook for loads of resources on empowerment, abuse recovery, self-care and mental, spiritual and physical health at http://m.facebook.com/avoscounseling
Download two free resources on Spiritual Abuse recovery:
Issues of Power and Belonging After Spiritual Abuse: https://erica-bonham.mykajabi.com/pl/102447
Issues of Sexuality After Spiritual Abuse https://erica-bonham.mykajabi.com/pl/99719