Signs of Spiritual Abuse

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 01, 2020

What Is Spiritual Abuse?

Any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs can be spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse can happen within a religious organization or a personal relationship.

Spiritual abuse is not limited to one religion, denomination, or group of people. It can happen in any religious group, as an element of child abuse, elder abuse, or domestic violence. Domestic violence, also called intimate partner violence, can be a concern across relationships of all ages, genders, socioeconomic classes, ethnic groups, and locations. 

Abuse is a pattern in which one individual (whether an intimate partner or person with authority) uses fear, intimidation, violence, or other harm to control another. Abuse can cause serious trauma and have a significant impact on your mental health. It’s important to remember that abuse is never your fault.

Types of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse can take place in a variety of settings. A person doesn’t have to be a member of your family or a spiritual leader to spiritually abuse you.

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Religious Abuse

One form of spiritual abuse, religious abuse, takes place within a religious organization. An example of religious abuse is a religious leader using scripture or beliefs to coerce or control the behavior of members of the organization. You may be experiencing religious or spiritual abuse if a religious leader has:

  • Used scripture or beliefs to humiliate or embarrass you
  • Coerced you into giving money or other resources that you didn’t want to give
  • Forced you to be intimate or have sex that you didn’t want
  • Made you feel pressured or obligated to do things against your will

These abusive tactics are found both in large, well-recognized faith organizations and in cults. Often, leaders of pseudo-religious groups will use spirituality as a way to exert control over followers. This can have serious consequences for adults and children.

Spiritual Abuse at Home

Spiritual abuse doesn’t have to be perpetrated by a religious leader; it can also be a facet of domestic violence. Domestic violence is much more than physical violence — hitting, kicking, and slapping. It also has many psychological and emotional elements that cause a great deal of harm and distress. 

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An abusive partner who is using spiritual abuse might:

  • Shame, make fun of, or ridicule your religious beliefs or practices
  • Prevent you from practicing your religion in the way you would like
  • Use your beliefs to manipulate or bully you
  • Demand that your children be raised with/without a certain religion
  • Use religious texts or beliefs to justify other kinds of abuse (physical, sexual, financial, etc.)

People who experience abuse often feel ashamed or isolated, and may wonder if they deserve to be treated badly. Abuse is never the fault of the victim. Whether at home or within a religious organization, abuse is always the fault of the perpetrator.

Signs of Spiritual Abuse

Religion and spirituality should be a source of comfort, peace, community, and inspiration in your life. If that is not the case, you could be experiencing spiritual abuse.

You may be experiencing spiritual abuse if your religious leadership or intimate partner is using scriptures or religious beliefs to control your:

  • Clothing
  • Behavior
  • Sexuality
  • Decision making
  • Choice to have children or not
  • Finances

Dealing With Spiritual Abuse

If you feel that you are experiencing spiritual abuse — whether from a religious organization or as an element of intimate partner violence — help is available. You do not need to endure this kind of trauma alone. You deserve to feel safe.

Some options for dealing with spiritual abuse are:

  • Leaving the organization or relationship
  • Speaking with a trusted friend or family member
  • Talking with an advocate from a hotline or shelter

Support and Resources

If you’re being spiritually abused, there are a number of resources you can reach out to for support.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers a toll-free number (1-800-799-SAFE) and a chat option on their website.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence also offers a variety of resources for those concerned that they may be experiencing abuse.

Additionally, many communities have domestic violence shelters with trained advocates and resources for those experiencing any kind of abuse. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control: “Prevent Domestic Violence in Your Community.”

Common Grace: “The characteristics of spiritual abuse.”

DomesticShelters.org: “Domestic Violence Shelter Search Tool.”

Family Support Services of Amarillo: “Spiritual Abuse.”

National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health: “Domestic violence and other lifetime trauma can have significant mental health consequences.”

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: “Learn More.”

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: “Resources.”

National Criminal Justice Reference Service: “Child Abuse in Cults.”

National Domestic Violence Hotline: “Here For You.”

National Domestic Violence Hotline: “What is Spiritual Abuse?”

Probe: “Abusive Churches: Leaving Them Behind – A Biblical Perspective.”

UNC Greensboro: “A Twisting of the Sacred: The Lived Experience of Religious Abuse.”

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