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The Truth About Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is often more subtle and overlooked than we realize. Learn the truth about spiritual abuse and how to begin healing here.

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Spiritual abuse is prolific among women of faith, yet it is one of the most difficult forms of abuse to detect.

Hillevi, an incredibly insightful member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community, joins Anne on the free BTR.ORG Podcast to share her story and shed light on the truth about spiritual abuse. Listen to the free BTR podcast and read the full transcript below for more.

The Truth About Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse makes victims question reality in regard to their own relationship with their Higher Power.

Abusive partners, clergy, and faith communities as a whole can be spiritually abusive.

In Hillevi’s story, she experienced the entire spectrum of spiritual abuse as her ex-husband controlled her, her faith community shunned her, and therapists using 12-step materials ultimately failed her.

Often, spiritual abuse is viewed as overly religious parents imposing strict religious regimens on their children – but spiritual abuse is a widespread domestic abuse issue, affecting intimate partners.

Have You Experienced Spiritual Abuse?

You may have experienced spiritual abuse without even realizing it. Spiritual abuse can be subtle and so ingrained into the fabric of a toxic faith community, that many victims experience spiritual abuse without realizing that it’s happening. Here are some common, “subtle” forms of spiritual abuse:

  • Faith communities “shunning” a victim and/or her children. This may include complete isolation or just less contact or friendliness than normal.
  • Clergy shaming, blaming, humiliating, and/or giving harmful counsel to a victim.
  • Members of faith communities, including clergy, sharing private information about a victim without permission to do so.
  • Abusive partners, clergy, and other faith community members using scripture and other religious teachings to control victims.
  • Abusive partners, clergy, and other faith community members compelling victims to “confess sins” as a method to control and humiliate the victim.
  • Clergy blaming the woman for sexual misconduct between a man and a woman while not holding the man accountable.

BTR Is Here For You

At BTR, we understand the pain of spiritual abuse.

When spiritually abusive partners relentlessly control victims –

When faith communities shun traumatized women –

When clergy betray broken-hearted porn widows –

The trauma is severe.

You need support.

BTR.ORG Group Sessions are available for you every single day in every single time zone, you can find the support that you need when you need it. We’d love to see you in a session today. 


Full Transcript:

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

BTR.ORG Group Sessions are so helpful. You don’t have to wait for an appointment, you don’t have to leave your home, you can attend from your closet or your parked car in your garage. Check out the session schedule. We’d love to see you in a session today.

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I have a member of our community on today’s episode, her name is Hillevi.

Hillevi on the BTR Podcast

Hillevi was born in Valparaiso, Indiana, and grew up next door to Orville Redenbacher, which is awesome. She started her career as a Christian musician singing and playing guitar with a duo, Milk and Honey, in the Chicago area. Being part of the Jesus People scene, she married the day after her 18th birthday. Wanting to please the Lord, she went to countless “how to be a Godly woman” workshops, including some of the Total Women, Total Submission teachings. She began to see the abuse in the way scripture was being twisted by the church. So, after seven years of a failed painful marriage, she divorced and began a journey that led her to Minnesota, where she worked in theater and discovered she loved working in theater and arts education. While working as an artist in residence, she completed her undergrad degree in music, visual communications technology, and media studies. Eventually, she completed her master’s in teaching literature and communications.

In 1993 Hillevi married her now-husband. Together with their five children, they lived a dream marriage until Hillevi discovered his secret life in 2013, shortly after they moved to the mountains of Colorado.

BTR Podcast Support

So, Hillevi has listened to this podcast from the very beginning. In fact, she’s read through and helped with a terrible draft by the way, it’s much better now, of my book that will be coming out next year. She’s read through and helped with sections of that. She has been a devoted supporter of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, not just emotionally but also financially by supporting the podcast, and I want to thank her for her continued support to Betrayal Trauma Recovery because this podcast is due in part to Hillevi and women like her who support this podcast and who volunteer their time and help out. So, thank you so much for all you have done to support me through the years.

Hillevi: Oh, thank you so much because you too have done a lot to support the rest of us women who listen avidly to your podcast.

“What I Felt Was Like A Sisterhood”

Anne: Well, we were talking before, and you said that you were listening from the very beginning where I was sort of a mess crying in the microphone and sort of fumbling around trying to figure this out. So, you have seen in real-time me come into my full understanding and power that I’m in now, which is so different than I was four years ago. Just for our audience, you witnessing that real-time, what did you observe?

Hillevi: I felt like I was walking through everything I went through from the onset of my discovery of my husband’s betrayal. And what I felt was like a sisterhood. You were expressing things, feeling things in real-time, and I had just passed through some of those emotions and was still struggling to find my way through this and maintain my marriage. So, it was very much just kind of a give and take of: I hear you, I understand, I’ve been there, I’m going through that again. It’s not just a single straight path of a timeline. It was definitely great to have you along for the ride or me along for your ride.

The Codependency Model Blames Victims

Anne: And vice versa because we’re all in this together in this journey of healing. It’s really cool to be part of that collective community because when someone has an epiphany and they let me know about it then I can podcast about it and that helps other women have epiphanies and we’re all working together to come out of the fog and to understand it more and it really is a communal effort. Also, I feel like all of us are genuinely praying for truth and for peace. And so, the Lord is guiding all of us sort of collectively together to find these things out. I think it’s interesting that so many of us started with a codependency model or you know some, something like that. And then we’ve all sort of independently or together found this abuse model. It really is the only thing that makes sense.

Hillevi: Oh, absolutely. I remember in the 80s I was dating another drummer, my husband is a drummer as well, I have this thing about drummers, but I was dating another drummer and he was one of those off again on again, I love you now but now I need other women and then come back to me. And a girlfriend gave me the book Women Who Love Too Much, and many people who listen know that book, and I didn’t know if that sounded or rang true or not, it just seemed like it was a little too much putting the blame on me, rather than, you know I need to just walk away and just stand up and stop accepting abuse. But that’s kind of where I started in understanding the, just the codependency model was so, so wrong. It was blaming the victim.

Spiritual Abuse & Victim Blaming

Anne: So, let’s talk about that victim blaming that happened to you and was around you in the 80s and 90s. Your bio mentions that you went to some workshops on “How to be a Godly Woman”, and about the Total Woman Workshops. I’m not aware of these. Were these really popular back then?

Hillevi: Oh, it was so popular. Maribel Morgan wrote The Total Woman, and she was on everybody’s television from Donahue to whatever and if you were a Christian, you needed to learn to totally submit, also subject yourself to your husband’s whims and desires, and dress like he wants you to. That little scene in Fried Green Tomatoes, if you remember, when Kathy Bates wraps herself in saran wrap. That was from The Total Woman. I kid you not. So, that kind of feeling that if you were a truly godly woman, you would take that one verse out of Ephesians 5, you know, and just put that as the idol in your home. You must submit. I just was too rebellious in nature to submit.

Spiritual Abuse & The Concept Of “Submitting” Oneself

My father hated that; my father was alive at the time. I was very very fortunate to grow up with a dad who said you can become anything, anyone you want. There is no limit, there’s no glass ceiling, and so my dad really hated what he saw me becoming. He asked me to please go back and read the whole Bible. And I was very very fortunate to have dad, he really helped open my eyes up to that. Both my parents were World War II veterans, but they both went to college afterward. My mother was a journalist, and my dad was a businessman in the lumber business. So, they were both educated, and he really guided me, my father did. My mom died when I was very young, but my father and my grandfather also were very good guidance as to what love and a good husband are, I just didn’t find it…yet.

Anne: So, what were some of the things that you tried while you were in this sort of Total Woman crazy trendy church teachings phase where you were kind of submitting yourself to these misogynistic ideas?

“Dressing The Way He Wanted Me To Dress, Cook The Food He Wanted Me To Cook…”

Hillevi: Well, the first thing was when I got married, I was touring as a Christian artist at the time, and he immediately wanted me to give up singing in public. He wanted me to stay at home, have babies, take care of the house, and to serve him. I was not to be elevated in public with the music. We started a church for instance, and I would be singing praise songs in church, but my voice does carry. And if somebody would turn around and say oh, I love your voice, we wouldn’t go back to that church. He would want me to step back and let him be the sole source of devotion from everybody around him. So that was the first thing.

Dressing the way he wanted me to dress, cook the food he wanted me to cook, that kind of thing. If would start talking about something and he wasn’t interested in, he would just say not interested and walk away. I was supposed to just accept that. So, it was a pretty hard time in my life, and I rebelled and stood up to him to that, and then of course the people around us who were very much into The Total Woman said that I was truly a rebel, and I was not honoring God, and they must shun me. So, I got shunned.

Anne: Spiritual abuse. Wow.

Hillevi: Yes, it was. It was.

Anne: Did you recognize it as that at the time?

Recognizing Spiritual Abuse

Hillevi: Eventually I did. Not at the beginning. I thought it was just all connected, but it didn’t take me long. My grandfather didn’t like him, my father didn’t like him. As I said, they were really trying to help me find my own, but I was young and ignorant. I was 18 when I got married, so yeah, I was pretty ignorant, and my life got filled very quickly with my children and I just got involved with them. It was a time that I eventually just learned to walk away, to stand up. My friends from that era, we just kind of laugh about the stupid things we did at that time, thinking they were right. And that’s not to say that there isn’t a given take in a good marriage, but this was abuse. This was, you will do as I say. That is total abuse.

Anne: That’s really interesting, especially coming up in a different time period.

Hillevi: I just want to tell you that I’m not an old 65. My arm is in a sling right now because I had rotator cuff surgery last week from a bad zip lining experience, so I’m one of the young 65 people.

Anne: Of course. Well, I feel like I’m a super old 43-year-old. I feel the opposite. I feel like I just want to eat pudding and lay on the couch. You know, how can I not walk up and down the stairs, you know, that kind of thing.

Hillevi: I just did my 10,000 steps yesterday, so I’m back on my feet, getting ready to get this off I hope soon. I love life in the mountains and that keeps you young too. I have grandkids, and we do stuff together, and I want to be a young grandparent.

Anne: Yeah

Hillevi: I love it.

Generational Contexts of Spiritual Abuse

Anne: Yeah, well I think the reason I bring up that age difference is that we all have these cultural and perhaps religious scripting that is working against us, that we don’t realize, that is a part of our generation. It’s a part of our time. And right now, for the kids, you know the 20-year-olds, it’s like porn is normal. This is fine. You’re totally sex-negative if you’re not into porn, and if you’re not sexting. So that’s the generation they’re growing up in.

The one that I grew up in was that you are there to help a man and stay at home and do that stuff. So, I guess what I mean is you know when I was going to college, I never thought about what career do I want. It was what do I need to graduate in so that I can have a job where I can make sure that I can be a mom. It wasn’t like what do I really want to do? I really want to be an astronaut, you know, or I really want to do this, which I didn’t want to be an astronaut, but I certainly at that time was not thinking I want to be a porn podcaster, that’s for sure.

“It Was His Secret Life”

Hillevi: I know, I feel really blessed in that I returned to college when I was in my 30s, and by that time I knew what I wanted to do, I’d already been working in musical theater in the Twin Cities as an actress, I’d already been teaching in the schools as an artist in residence, directing plays. And by the time my children were starting school I was ready to go back to school myself, and it became a really exciting time in my life because I was, you know, in my late 30s and now I’m sitting in a classroom with 18-year-olds who could care less about doing their homework and me, I’m obsessed with getting straight A’s, right.

It was wonderful because while I loved the theater, I was also becoming very fascinated with technology and media history. And that began to open my eyes to a whole another realm of what we were doing. The history of media and what it was doing to form our culture, and not in a good way, you know, in a very, very bad way. So, when everything came out with my husband, who by the way, helped put me through school. He was really thrilled. He’d already been through college, so he knew I wanted to do it. So, when everything came out, I guess I was prepared in many ways in that I saw what the music industry, the theater industry, the film industry, all of what it was doing and creating in our society. I just thought he was above that. I truly thought he wouldn’t have that kind of porn attitude, that he did, but it was his secret life.

Anne: And you discovered that in 2013?

Discovering Her Husband’s Secret Porn Use

Hillevi: Yes. Yeah. When we moved here, he works out of our home, and I was really excited to work for Apple for a while, so I’m kind of an Apple guru. He, of course, got an Apple computer and I became his techie, and I just never in a million years thought he was going into porn. I knew he had been involved with that before we were married when he was on the road in the band, all that kind of thing, but I had no idea because he knew how I hated it. He knew I was just frustrated by men’s idolization of a woman’s body, and that came before anything else. So, it absolutely shocked me when I was doing some cleanup work on his computer, to all of a sudden pull out the preferences and find out that he had passwords for porn sites, and that was a real wake-up call.

Trauma Mama Husband Drama

Anne: I’m 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. When you go to our books page and click on any of those books, it just takes you directly to Amazon and you can throw those books in your cart. After you have purchased the book, please remember to circle back around Amazon and write a verified purchase review, along with a five-star rating. That helps isolated women find us, it bumps Trauma Mama Husband Drama up in the Amazon algorithm, and even if women don’t purchase the book, it helps them find this podcast, which is free to everyone.

Now back to our conversation.

In The Aftermath Of Discovery

At this point, you find out about his porn use, and you begin, would we say decades of terrible counseling, or maybe just one decade of terrible counseling? You talk about the horror stories of trying to navigate through the “sex addiction” “pornography addiction” recovery world without the context of abuse and why that was so damaging to you and also to your husband.

Hillevi: When you find these things out, that your husband is looking at porn and visiting prostitutes, you take a lot of turns. The first one you do is try desperately to find help. I was very fortunate, initially in that I went to my church, and my counseling pastor there said, oh, well, this is horrible. We want to pay for you to get the kind of counseling you need. The woman he sent me to, we had sung together in the worship team, so I knew her, and I knew she wasn’t a crazy. I knew when I walked into her office and started crying like crazy, she was a comfort, she was a delight, she was helpful. She helped direct me in great ways, but they paid for about six weeks of counseling right at the beginning. Through those six weeks, my husband hadn’t yet confessed everything. He had that lovely attribute of wanting to do the drip, drip, drip, we all know what that is.

“Drip” Confessions, or Partial Disclosure

Anne: For listeners who might not know what that is, although I think everyone does, it’s where they just tell a part of the truth in a drip fashion. And so, you’re just getting a little bit of the truth every once in a while.

Hillevi: Absolutely. When he got discovered, a lot of things happened in succession and he ended up in a one-week hold psychological evaluation because he said he was going to kill himself, and they sent him there. And of course, he wasn’t really, he was just trying to get out of everything. He didn’t tell the truth the whole time he was there, but they did recommend a counselor. He went to the counselor and then the counselor asked to speak with me and told me my husband was a lying SOB who was still hiding a bunch of stuff. And this is a Christian counselor, so it was a lot for him to say that. So, on my way home from that, I said hey, we’re going to get a polygraph test, and he started backpedaling. They don’t work, they’re not allowed in court, all the usual excuses. And that’s when I realized that he hadn’t told me everything, but he wanted to leave that particular counselor.

Anne: Because that counselor was on to him, right, so he wanted a new one?

Hillevi: Oh yeah.

Anne: Yeah, I get it.

Victim Blaming Through Counseling

Hillevi: We went to another counselor for a very short period of time who immediately wanted to delve into his history, his family, and all of that blah blah blah blah blah. But he’s the kid that grew up with great parents. Mom was a pilot in the RAF during World War II, Dad was on the National Council of Boy Scouts. They went traveling together, he had a great, great childhood, but his mom had warned me that Darry was a very selfish person, and she was very disappointed in his selfishness as an adult, but she was so glad that he married me.

Okay, so that counselor, I walked away from. Eventually, it landed us at Heart to Heart Counseling Center in Colorado Springs. For those of you who don’t know, that’s where Dr. Doug Weiss is in Colorado Springs, and we went to one of the counselors there who, how shall I say this, he started the same things all over again. Well, it must be something connected to his past, his parents, and all that, and it wasn’t. He had said to me point blank, it’s because he’s selfish, it was because he had prostitutes and porn on the road when he was a traveling musician before he became a Christian. One day he just decided, I’m going to go in Sex World in Minnesota, that was a strip club type of thing, and got back into it. He eventually had to come to grips with the fact that now I knew there were a series of prostitutes and everything. And so, he started going to a 12-step at Dr. Weiss’s facility, and things were coming up that I didn’t like, things that didn’t seem, how shall I say this, humbling. It was well, we need to have sex right away.

Anne: This was coming from a therapist there?

When 12-Step Harms Victims

Hillevi: Yes. Yeah. He had found that they were balancing the need to get right back into having sex again. I went to one 12-step group myself where they told me that I should not control his recovery. I am not entitled to the pain of being rejected.

Anne: What? Whoa, whoa, whoa. You are not entitled to feel the pain of what he did to you?

Hillevi: Yeah.

Anne: Wow.

Hillevi: That’s an actual quote, and I needed to stop expressing my anger to my spouse. And that we needed to make a sex chart, it was kind of a calendar, where we would decide who was going to lead sex every night of the week. One of the worst things I heard was, and I’m reading the quote because I took notes, you tell your husband you don’t want him to go to Starbucks, because the coffee shop is filled with hot women behind the counter. Your insecurity is controlling. Stop controlling him, let the guy get his cup of coffee.

Anne: Well, through all of that, there’s this subtle victim blaming going on.

“He Had To Take Responsibility”

Hillevi: It wasn’t so subtle. Extreme victim blaming. Then we started comparing notes on some things that were being said, and I tried to look at it in the light of what God says a relationship should be, and he started to listen. He still hadn’t confessed everything yet, but when he would be dismissive of something I would just stop him, and I say why are you dismissing my feelings? You were saying what you did doesn’t have an effect on me? He started to see how much he hurt me. There were a lot of physical things that happened, and he had to take responsibility for me having a hysterectomy, for me, passing out and hitting my head and suddenly having to get surgery with little holes drilled in my head because I had a subdural hematoma from the shock that he was dumping on me every time he’d make a confession.

“This Is Not Her. This Is All You.”

So, these are big things that he had to find out, and he realized the counseling that he was getting wasn’t working at all. We eventually did find a counselor who anytime I would say something he would look at Darry and say, are you listening, are you listening, you’re the cause of this. This is not her. This is all you, and he started to wake up, but until he really got to that point where he could hear what he was doing without making an excuse, when he could own the things that he had done without saying the word but I. That’s when he started humbling himself truly, because he was the son of a very strong British woman, and had two sisters, who were very strong independent thinkers, he did have an innate respect for a strong woman. So, that really helped, I will be honest there, but it’s not saying he immediately changed. It took years to get down the road. He said to me, I want to spend the rest of my life making this up to you. I want to do everything I can to show you that I love you and I’m willing to sacrifice for you, and that meant not making excuses, that meant learning how to tell the truth.

Honesty & Transparency Are Essential In Marriage

One thing I’ve heard you say, and guests on the podcast say, it seems like telling the truth is the last thing to heal. Right after, you know, The Ten Commandments. The seventh is you shall not commit adultery, the eighth is thou shalt not steal, and the ninth is don’t lie, and they all work in there. He was stealing from me in the sense that he was taking our marriage and he had made it into something it wasn’t. It was not an open marriage. You can’t be married with three or four people in a marriage. I think that’s the most important thing when we as women turn around and look and we want to stay in the marriage. We can only stay in the marriage if the husband is willing to lay down his life before God and acknowledge everything that he has done to you, to your children, to those around who looked at him, respected him. It had to be open, and that meant, everybody knew what was going on.

Anne: The stories that you’re telling, about bad therapy, where they’re basically enabling the abuser and further harming the victim. Is that what you’re seeing? 

Hillevi: Oh yeah. He did that with a couple of them along the way, but the only thing that really matters is that true transparency. This is why I couldn’t understand, I mean there were a bunch of other therapists we try one or two times, but they would not want me in the room to validate, you know, what he was saying. And how can you listen to just one side in this, when they’ve openly said yes, I’m a liar, I’ve committed adultery, I’m seeing women on the side, but that therapist is supposed to believe everything he says?

Anne: Right.

Hillevi: Over anything else?

Anne: Absolutely not. We have found that even in the DV, which is domestic violence, a lot of people believe that the victim lies and that the perpetrator is telling the truth. Like well, this is the first time he’s done this, you know, that kind of thing and you’re like no, this has been happening for years. It’s just the first time she found out about it. 

We are going to take a break here and continue the conversation with Hillevi next week, so please stay tuned.

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


  1. Sandra Reppenhagen

    Interesting that u are seeing problems in understanding DV and abuse even from workers in the DV field. I was talking to a friend who works in that industry, last night and she was saying, “A lot of the women go back. They are really messed up. You know they have Stockholm Syndrome.” I asked hat that was because it was said in a way that sounded as if she was talking down towards them. And she answered, “It is when the woman gets so attached to the man because she’s wanting love from him even though he’s an abuser.” And she concluded, “She’s co-dependent. That’s why they don’t stay at the shelter.” She then went on to tell me how horrific some of the conditions are at some of our shelters locally (nothing like The Maid).

    I paused and said, actually, she’s not co-dependent for asking for and wanting love from an man who has promised her love and who used to show her excessive love and devotion. She waiting for him to become that again, she’s not co-dependent. And I said, “And women don’t stay with abusers because they are latched into the abuser. They don’t leave because they have nowhere to go and no way to support themselves and their children on what they can earn. So if leaving means they are then living at a poverty level, most of them will just stay, as a way to provide for their children.

    I was shocked to find that she had been taught that the women went back because THEY are the sick ones. I was really mad at her center for teaching her that.

    But that’s how it is. A patriarchal society, where the “Bro Code” is strictly enforced by men and the “sister code” is literally non-existent, keeps women trapped in bad situations.

    Men who lead families, churches and businesses do not want to admit that one of their secret club members has caused so much devastating pain to a woman, that she has stopped going to church, or is unable to work or care for her children like she was, or is paralyzed in life, or suddenly sick with autoimmune disease.

    • Anne Blythe

      I totally agree. This sort of victim blaming nonsense is rampant in the DV field and it drives me crazy. They don’t seem to realize that the women are literally entrapped, and they want to get out, but due to the fog of abuse and society and financial factors, sometimes no matter how hard they try, they can’t be totally free of abuse. Family courts require victims to interact with their abusers if they share children, for example. It’s horrific. Thanks for your comment.


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