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The Reality Of Spiritual Abuse

by | Abuse Literacy

The Reality Of Spiritual Abuse

The truth about spiritual abuse?

It’s subtle. It’s soul-crushing. And you may think that it only happens to women in faith-communities, but spiritual abuse is an inter-paradigm issue.

Speaking from her own experience, Coach Sharon takes a deep dive into the truth about spiritual abuse. Listen to the free BTR podcast and read the full transcript below for more.

Spiritual Abuse & Religious Abuse Leading to Faith Crises For Women

In the BTR community, both religious and non-religious women have questioned long-held beliefs about the Universe, karma, God, and hope after experiencing spiritual abuse.

Coach Sharon shares her experience as a victim in a faith community:

“Even with my relationship with the God of my understanding, I felt like there was no one who understood or could see what I was going through.

Not only do the marriage counselors seem to side with my abuser, not only does clergy and the pastoral care that I was reaching out for, not only do they see me as just chaotic and crazy and sinful, but even God is not there for me because no one can see what’s going on and identify if there’s more going on than what is being said. It was just a very, very hard, hard time in my life in terms of me being a person and feeling like I couldn’t be seen and slowly I just started to fade. I just started to fade.”

Coach Sharon, Betrayal Trauma Recovery Team

Spiritual Abuse In & Out of Faith Communities

Betrayal Trauma Recovery is inter paradigm – and so is spiritual abuse.

While faith community-related spiritual abuse is more generally easily recognizable, women who are not affiliated with any religion may also be victims of spiritual abuse.

When abusers:

  • Assert that they “know better”;
  • Use phrases like “you just don’t understand”, “you can’t understand”, or “this is a decision that I should be making for both of us”;
  • Restrict victims from accessing their own beliefs, whether religious or otherwise;
  • Coerce victims to participate in religious or spiritual practices;

They may be spiritually abusing victims.

Coercion, when committed because the abuser claims to have more access, authority, or right to spiritual (and/or religious) knowledge or power, is spiritual abuse.

Is My Clergy Spiritually Abusing Me?

In faith communities, many victims experience abuse-by-proxy. Religious leaders are, too often, guilty of spiritual and religious abuse.

When religious and spiritual leaders:

  • Side with abusers;
  • Counsel (coerce) victims to “love, serve, forgive”;
  • Counsel (coerce) victims to sexually satisfy abusers;
  • Counsel (coerce) victims to placate abusers;
  • Counsel (coerce) victims to bury or hide the abuse to protect the abuser or “good name of the church”;
  • Counsel (coerce) victims to “submit” spiritually, physically, financially, and/or sexually to their husbands;
  • Divulge private information that the victim has shared with them to anyone else;
  • Use scripture to condone, enable, or excuse abuse;
  • And/or do any of this in the name of God (which is implied because they are acting as religious leaders),

They are committing spiritual and/or religious abuse.

BTR Supports Victims of Spiritual & Religious Abuse

Questioning your beliefs, whether you are religious or not, is one of the most painful aspects of abuse.

If your religious community has turned against you, or your life-long beliefs about karma and justice are now beginning to fade into a vast pit of confusion, we understand.

Nothing makes sense in the chaos of abuse.

We get it.

Join the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group today and find a community of victims who understand what you are going through.

Full Transcript:

Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

Our Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, called BTRG for short, is a daily online support group.

Our daily online support group has more sessions than any other support group out there. We have over 21 sessions per week for you to choose from. You don’t have to wait for an appointment, you don’t have to leave your home, you can join from your closet or your parked car in your garage. We are here for you. Check out the session schedule; we’d love to see you today.

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Coach Sharon on the BTR Podcast

I am so excited to have Coach Sharon on today’s episode, she is one of our betrayal trauma coaches here at Betrayal Trauma Recovery, and she has over 20 years of experience. She’s passionate about exposing incorrect thought patterns that yield to the weaponization of spiritual truths. I’m so excited to talk to her about that today. As a survivor of physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, Sharon is determined to support women to reclaim their voice, reframe their value, and maintain their spiritual footing. As a Betrayal Trauma Recovery Coach, Sharon speaks the truth directly yet compassionately, as she challenges arguments, opinions, and mindsets that seek to undermine a woman’s mental and spiritual health. Welcome, Sharon.

Sharon: Thank you, Anne.

Schedule a Session with Coach Sharon

Anne: As you’re listening; Coach Sharon is of course one of our betrayal trauma recovery coaches, she coaches several sessions of Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group. So, when you join the group, you’ll be able to meet her and interact with her. You can also schedule an individual session with Coach Sharon here

So, Sharon, because you’ve been through this, can you talk about your experience? What did you think was going on before you had the word abuse to describe your experience?

Sharon: I thought we just had problems. I thought that we had, you know, problems communicating like every other couple had problems and if we could just get the tools needed to communicate that that would kind of set us straight but for whatever reason, we just kept missing each other.

Anne: So, what kinds of things did you do to try and not miss each other, you know, to get help for this?

“There Was The Desire to Help, But There Wasn’t The Knowledge”

Sharon: We tried a variety of different things. We did the marriage counseling a couple of times, numerous times, but really, we relied more on pastoral care as a source of support. There were people in our life within the church community that offered support to us in terms of counseling, but that always seemed to shine back on me and my direction in terms of my responsibility to satisfy him sexually, so that he would not fall into temptation, or to submit without question no matter how it was affecting me, or to just not act out in a rage of which I was acting out in rage.

So, we have these helping professionals that were trying to support and help but they just were not aware of the varying forms of abuse. So, because he was not physically assaulting me the whole time, the full length of our marriage, they did not see that I was actually in abuse. So, I suffered a lot of harm because the people that were in my life to offer support just did not have a working knowledge of varying forms of abuse. And I really do believe that these people meant me good in terms of the support they were trying to offer. I think that there was the desire to help but there just wasn’t the knowledge there to be able to speak to issues of emotional, psychological, sexual abuse.

Confusing Physical Abuse for “Anger Management Issues”

Anne: Now, my experience was that I was, I will say, mildly assaulted very mildly, three times in the seven years that I was with my ex. So, I didn’t think at the time that physical abuse was part of my story. He would like punch a wall every once in a while. One time he ripped a fence apart with a pickaxe. I mean, that sounds super violent, but for some reason at the time, I don’t know, it just seemed like he had an anger problem or something. I didn’t really perceive it as physical abuse. I also didn’t perceive my relationship as physically abusive at all. 

With your physical abuse, was it kind of similar where it was just a few incidents that kind of seemed mild even though I realize tearing a fence apart with a pickaxe is not mild at all now, but from your perspective, is that kind of the same type of thing you experienced when it came to physical abuse?

I Still Saw Him As “Just Angry”

Sharon: No, not really, Anne. Mine was the exact opposite. So, the first 15 years of my marriage were physically abusive. It was pushing, shoving, screaming, slapping, it was very, very physical in terms of the abuse that I was living in, but I just saw him as being angry and sometimes things would escalate. I still didn’t see it as physical abuse even though I was covering up scars with makeup and going to church with scars around my neck because you know, there were scars and so forth there. I still just saw him as just angry. I didn’t see myself as being abused, but then when he stopped hitting me because, after 15 years, he stopped physically hitting me. And I thought he switched on the emotional abuse because I really didn’t realize that I was emotionally abused the whole time. I didn’t know anything about emotional abuse, so when the physical stuff stopped, I was confused because I’m like, he’s not hitting me anymore. So why is it still dangerous? Why do I still feel like I’m in danger? And he’s not hitting me because I did not understand what emotional abuse was. And I certainly didn’t know anything about sexual coercion. None of that registered for me as abuse. So, I thought, okay, well, we stopped hitting you, and you’re still spiraling but I couldn’t understand why.

Need Help Reporting Physical Violence? Coach Renee Can Help You

Anne: So, at Betrayal Trauma Recovery, we actually do not specialize in physical abuse, right. We specialize in emotional and psychological abuse and sexual coercion in the form of a husband’s pornography use. But I will say that there is no physical abuse that happens without emotional and psychological abuse also being a component. So, if you have experienced physical abuse, you’re also always going to be experiencing emotional and psychological abuse. So, at BTR if you’re like, hey, I need help. I’m going to reach out I’m going to join the group. We actually don’t process physical violence in Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group. We recommend that you schedule a session with Coach Renee to actually access resources in your own location, like perhaps the domestic violence shelter or perhaps the police so that you can navigate that because sometimes reporting that is difficult. I just want to bring that up. So even though we’re talking about physical abuse right now, that’s actually not our specialty here at BTR. 

Identifying Abuse When Physical Battering Is Not Present

So now we’re going to start talking about Sharon’s experience when her husband stopped physically abusing her and began solely employing psychological and emotional abuse, and how confusing that was. But before I say that, when you were getting help from clergy and stuff during this time, did they also not recognize that as physical abuse, and during that time did they also say hey, you just need to be more patient, you need to be more loving, you need to submit more and he’ll stop pushing you around?

Sharon: The clergy, the church community was telling me that the emotional stuff was just me not submitting to him. So, if I would satisfy him sexually, then that would cure him falling into temptation and we wouldn’t fight so much. Or if I would just submit because submission was a big part of our faith, so I was serious about submission in terms of what I felt like a woman’s role was. So, anytime I would challenge him if I had a difference of opinion, that was frowned upon. I had no voice. And that’s what I say like even though there was physical abuse in my circumstance, I think that emotional abuse was harder actually to deal with because first of all, it was unrecognized by myself or anyone else. Clergy did not recognize emotional abuse. So as long as he wasn’t hitting me, I had no leg to stand on. 

When Clergy & Therapists Blame The Victim

So, when we would get in these counseling sessions, and I was trying to explain what was happening, there was no way to explain it because it wasn’t a scar. It wasn’t a physical scar. It was something emotional that was happening to me that I didn’t even understand. So, I was getting advice like, you just need to, you know, satisfy him sexually and the marriage bed is undefiled and, you know, whatever happens in the marriage, that it’s okay. And this is really not about sex. It was a lot of, well, you have to submit without question, without me really having a voice, without really asking what the arguments or the disagreements were about. And I was just acting out and that was what was getting responded to. Me yelling and screaming, but no one was asking the questions why? Like there was smoke, but no one was looking for a fire. It was just like she’s yelling and screaming, but no one was asking those questions, what’s going on behind the scenes that were, you know, attributing to our relationship being so chaotic. 

“I Had No Voice”

And I didn’t have a lot of information that I have now in terms of looking at things like gaslighting and sexually coercive behaviors and weaponization of scripture. Like I didn’t understand a lot of the things that BTR brought to light. So, I did not know what was happening to me, so I couldn’t explain it. You can’t explain what you don’t know. So, it was hard for me to explain to clergy exactly what was happening because I really didn’t even understand what was happening to me. But what I did know was that I had no voice. I had no ability to have a voice. Biblical submission meant that Chuck held all the cards with decision-making. So, if I had something that I wanted to do in terms of parenting, if there was a direction I wanted to take with the kids, or if I felt like something was wrong to do or right to do, I had no voice in that. I had no voice and finances. I had no voice in intimacy. Intimacy had to look a certain way. Kissing had to be a certain way, intimacy had to look a certain way, or it was wrong. You know, so there was no voice in terms of me being able to have a say in what the marriage was like. I had no value. I had no opinion in terms of if there was something that I thought was correct, then it wasn’t respected because I wasn’t educated enough to give voice to whatever it is he was saying. 

“He Always Had Scripture to Prove That God Was On His Side”

He would say things to me like you can’t comprehend. You can’t comprehend that. And I couldn’t comprehend anything. I had no ability to comprehend much. So, I had no right to give an opinion on anything because I couldn’t comprehend anything. I couldn’t contribute, or at least my contributions weren’t supported, because they weren’t significant. Nothing that I brought to the marriage relationship was significant. Therefore, it wasn’t knowledge. So, I wasn’t contributing anything. I had no resources, whatever I brought to the marriage, whether it was finances or whatever it wasn’t enough of a match, comparable to him, you know, to what he was bringing in. So, there was no voice, there was no value, but I think perhaps the worst thing was I had no God. I think that’s the worst part of it for me was I had no God because God was always on his side, and he always had scripture to prove that God was on his side. 

What Does Spiritual Abuse Look Like?

So, if I was hurt about something and tried to relay to him that I’m being harmed on being hurt, or I don’t agree, then he would say things to me like well, you just need to forgive. You know, God wants you to forgive. So, there was no way that I could ever stand up for anything because forgiveness was always that variable that always put me back into, I have to just let it go. You know, if I refused his sexual advances, then God said I had no authority over my body. You know, if I had an opinion, then God said I had to obey in everything, you know. And he would say, you know, touch not my anointed and do my profit no harm, was one of the scriptures that he would continually say, but that made me feel like garbage because there was no ally. I had no ally even in God. 

So even in having this relationship with God I felt like there was no one who understands or can see what I’m going through. Not only does the marriage counselors seem to side with him, not only does clergy and the pastoral care that I was reaching out for, not only do they see me as just chaotic and crazy and sinful, but even God is not there for me because no one can see what’s going on and identify if there’s more going on than what is being said. It was just a very, very hard, hard time in my life in terms of me being a person and feeling like I couldn’t be seen and slowly I just started to fade. I just started to fade.

Trauma Mama Husband Drama

Anne: I am going to take a break here for just a second to talk about my book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama. You can find it on our books page, which has a curated list of all of the books that we recommend. My book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama, is a picture book for adults. So, it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it, it’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations, as well as infographics at the back.   

And now back to our conversation.

“I Didn’t Know That Spiritual Abuse Was a Thing”

Anne: And knowing you, my guess is, and you can correct me if I’m wrong here, but the reason you started to fade is that you love God, you love Jesus, you love the Bible, and here all of these things are being used against you. And this is spiritual abuse, but I’m guessing you did not recognize it as spiritual abuse at the time.

Sharon: Not at all. I didn’t know that spiritual abuse was a thing. I had never heard of the weaponization of scripture until BTR. So, anytime I would hear a scripture, it seemed to validate what he was saying. So yes, the Bible does say that a woman is to submit in everything. So how can I stand up for rights if he was the spiritual head and the Bible says that? I had no idea that spiritual abuse even existed. So definitely, it just left me at a disadvantage to be able to speak up for myself or keep myself safe. Because what could I do? I can’t go against God; I would have been willing to stay in that abusive relationship forever if that meant I had to go against my faith. There was no way.

Anne: We do have an awesome podcast about biblical submission and what it actually really means with Tom Pryde. The way that he deconstructs that and helps us understand what Jesus really meant is super helpful for those of us who would like to follow the scriptures, right. Who genuinely believe in God and want to do what we believe God is telling us to do. 

“Love, Serve, Forgive” Does Not Stop Abuse

I do want to make a point. We do have agnostic listeners; we do have atheist listeners. So, neither Sharon nor I am trying to like, proselytize, but we’re just trying to share our own experiences. If you would like to come on the podcast and you’re an atheist, for example, or you’re agnostic or something we’d love to hear your story from your point of view and the tough times you had maybe from family or therapists or maybe secular places where you couldn’t get help. Everyone is welcome here. 

So, let’s talk about when you started realizing that this isn’t working. So, you try this “biblical submission.” You try to do all the things that this, I will call them abusive clergy. Not that they understood they were being abusive, but they were sort of abusing you by proxy. Your abuser was manipulating them, and so they were just kind of taking his side. When did you start to recognize like, wait a minute, I have loved, I have served, I’m forgiving? I’m doing all the things and it’s not working. Like our marriage isn’t getting any better. He’s told me, hey, you just need to forgive and things would be okay, but they’re not okay. When did you recognize that that typical Christian advice of love, serve, and forgive was not working?

“I Had An Answer To What Was Happening To Me… But It Wasn’t While I Was In The Relationship”

Sharon: I mean, it was a long time after marriage. I mean, well into the marriage, definitely post BTR, because I didn’t understand any of this until I left. And after I left the relationship, a family member referred me to the podcast, and I started listening to podcasts and started hearing some of the truths that were coming from BTR. And honestly, Anne, I did not know at any point in the marriage that I was in an abusive relationship. I really did not until after I left, moved out, and started listening to podcasts from BTR. There were just really red flags everywhere and shining light on truths that I had never heard of. And it was just amazing. It was traumatizing, it was overwhelming to learn that this is it. Finally, I had an answer to what was happening to me, but it was definitely after I had left the relationship and began to seek safety outside of my home that I realized this is just not working. It wasn’t me, but it wasn’t while I was in the relationship.

Support the BTR Podcast

Anne: Yeah, so many victims when they’re in that fog of abuse, plus they’re in the fog of clergy abuse, right. Where kind of this whole vortex of people around you is telling you to love, serve, forgive. You can’t really tell what’s going on. I’m so grateful that you found BTR.

We’re going to pause the conversation here and coach Sharon is going to join me again next week, so stay tuned for that. 

If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. Until next week, stay safe out there.

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