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spiritual bypass emotional abuse
When Abusers Use “Spiritual Bypass” To Fool You

Is he really in recovery? When abusers use spiritual bypass to circumvent true change.

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spiritual bypass emotional abuse

When women experience betrayal and abuse, many hope that their abusive partner will change.

Tragically, many abusive and unfaithful men use a mechanism called “spiritual bypass” to circumvent the hard work of recovery and true change, throwing themselves into spiritual practices that simply do not fix abusive thinking.

Tracy, a member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community joins Anne on the free BTR podcast to help victims recognize when their abusive partners are using spiritual bypass. Listen to the free BTR podcast and read the full transcript below for more.

What Does An Abuser’s ‘Spiritual Bypass’ Look Like?

After discovery, some couples will try to make things work. Often, abusive, unfaithful men will commit to recovery programs, support groups, and a routine of safe behaviors to perhaps begin the road to change.

When men try to take a short-cut to “recovery” and use spiritual programs, teachings, and service instead of investing the significant time and energy into abuse cessation to unpack and rewire their abusive thinking, they are using ‘spiritual bypass’.

Pornography addicts (and abusers) can even use ‘working recovery’ as a form of bypass, where they convince themselves that they are doing so great, but they’re really not. In fact, 12-Step can become a form of bypass. That doesn’t mean that it’s all bad or that it’s not good, but it can, definitely, become a bypass and inhibit further better recovery.

Tracy, member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community

Why Doesn’t Spiritual Bypass Work?

The real issue with an abuser’s use of spiritual bypass, is that it can encourage them to “check boxes”. When abusive men simply “check the boxes” without truly examining their behaviors and putting in the grueling effort to change abusive thinking, they are actually grooming both themselves and their partner for future abuse and acting-out.

Some of the boxes that abusive and unfaithful men may check are:

  • Attending church and other meetings regularly
  • Attending 12-step groups weekly
  • Volunteering and serving in a religious capacity
  • Studying scripture or other religious materials

They may even “box-check” things like prayer, family time, and helping around the house. When actions are taken to say, “hey, look at what I’m doing! I’m trying to change! I do this, this, this, and this,” no real change is occurring.

Spiritual Bypass Leads To a False Sense of “Completion”

He was doing all the right things on paper for recovery. He was doing all these right things. But that was just it, he thought that he was done. He thought that he had arrived and that there was, essentially, no more work to do, just maintenance.

Tracy, member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community

When abusive men have established a series of good habits over a period of time without real change, they are prone to believe that they are “done” and that the abuse is in the distant past, when often, subtle gaslighting, coercion, and manipulation is still occurring.

How Can Victims Recognize TRUE Safety Instead of Spiritual Bypass?

There is this false hope and a sense of safety, but it’s not genuine safety it’s just a feeling of safety that we so desperately want. When we’re in that terrible trauma and we just want relief, it’s easy to latch on to the idea that there is a cure or fix or a place of arrival, but it’s a false sense of security.

Tracy, member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community

It can become difficult for victims to identify that their partner is bypassing recovery because many women want their partners to engage in good things, like church activity and involvement in the home.

However, the cycle of abuse will just keep happening as long as abusers choose bypass over true change.


Women can recognize that their partner is truly changing when the abusive behaviors have stopped for a significant period of time and they feel:

  • Emotionally safe
  • Spiritually safe
  • Sexually safe
  • Physically safe
  • Financially safe

For some women, this may mean that they must separate themselves from their abuser because he is not creating a safe environment where healing is possible.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Supports Victims of Betrayal and Abuse

At BTR, we know the confusion, grief, and pain that accompanies the hope that an abuser will change. The disappointments, heartbreaks, and sense of loss can be overwhelming.

All victims deserve a safe place to process that pain with other women who understand. The Betrayal Trauma Recovery group meets daily in every time zone and offers women the validation, empowerment, and support that they deserve.

Join today and begin your healing journey.

Full Transcript:

Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

Tracy and I are going to continue our conversation that we started last week about spiritual bypass. If you did not hear last week’s episode, please go back to the podcast, find last week’s episode, and listen to it first. Then catch up with us here once you are finished.

Before we continue, I want to give a shout-out to women who are interested in Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, which is our daily online support group. We have multiple sessions per day in multiple time zones.

We designed Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group just for you. We designed it so that you never have to get child care, you never have to get transportation, and you can get on very quickly after any abuse episode or anything that happens and immediately talk to a Betrayal Trauma Recovery professional as well as other women who understand what you’re going through. You never have to wait for an appointment, you never have to try and explain to someone what’s happening, they immediately get it.

Spiritual Bypass And Abusers

Let’s talk about how spiritual bypass is problematic for a man exhibiting abusive behaviors.

Tracy: Okay, so my husband, leading up to that second big D-day, his heart was actually beginning to change, which is, I think, unusual in these stories. He really did want to be rid of the addiction. He was not at a place where he was realizing how harmful it was to me or that he was abusing me. He wasn’t there yet, but for himself, his heart was beginning to change, and he wanted to be rid of this thing, so he threw himself into spirituality.

“He Threw Himself Into Good Things”

He threw himself into all these good things. He was becoming very involved in our church community, very service-oriented. He was reading the scriptures for a certain amount of time every day. On his commute to work, he was listening to sermons and he was keeping track in his little calendar journal of acting out points.

He convinced himself that this was all serving him really well because he was getting longer periods of abstinence between acting out events than he ever had before in his life. He was going a whole two weeks between acting out, for a period of months. He was convincing himself, because he was doing all these things, that he was really progressing. Were those good things? Yes, I maintain those were good things. Did they actually help him to progress? No.

“He Fooled Himself Into Thinking He Was Making Progress”

Anne: He elongated an abuse cycle to two weeks.

Tracy: Absolutely. Yes, he fooled himself into thinking he was making progress, but it was a two-steps-forward-three-steps-back and he was still living in lies, secrecy, and abusing me. He told himself, “No, this is good, because I will tell what’s been going on after I’ve gotten like six months or a year of sobriety under my belt and it will be this really awesome thing and she’ll be so excited for me.”

The thing is, he was never going to get to six months or a year. He was just bypassing, and it was keeping him completely stuck in addiction and keeping me stuck in abuse. At about one to two years post that second D-day, he was exhibiting another form of spiritual bypass. He was doing all the right things on paper for recovery.

Sobriety Can Be A Form of Spiritual Bypass

He had gone to a 12-Step group and was still going to it. He’d repented and done the repentance process through our ecclesiastical leader. He was doing all these right things. But that was just it, he thought that he was done. He thought that he had arrived and that there was, essentially, no more work to do, just maintenance.

Basically, he was content with sobriety and this kind of event of repentance and forgiveness. Like, “That’s all been taken care of so can we just put a bow on it and lock it up in the closet and never talk about it again?” This was just another example of how he used spiritual bypass.

Addicts can even use “working recovery” as a form of bypass, where they convince themselves that they are doing so great, but they’re really not. In fact, 12-Step can become a form of bypass. Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s all bad or that it’s not good, but it can, definitely, become a bypass and inhibit further better recovery.

Spiritual Bypass Keeping Victims In Abuse

Anne: I think for the women it becomes bypass when, instead of asking the question, “Have the abusive behaviors stopped?” which is a good question to ask, or, “Am I emotionally safe?” which is another good question to ask, a lot of women ask the question, “Is he in recovery?” which I think is a bad question to ask.

Because that question can be answered with, “Yeah, he’s in recovery because he goes to his weekly 12-Step meeting and he’s going to therapy every week.” It seems like that question can be answered with the things he is doing.

With “Am I emotionally safe?” or “Have the abusive behaviors stopped?” is more a question of what he currently is. Is he currently safe? Yes. Then the abusive behaviors have stopped. Then you can look for “Is he lying? Is he manipulating? Is my gut telling me something is off?” That seems to be a much better question for victims to ask than “Is he in recovery?”

What Is Real Safety?

Tracy: I agree. There is this false hope and a sense of safety, but it’s not genuine safety it’s just a feeling of safety that we so desperately want.

Anne: I think it’s a hope of safety because, if they’re attending a 12-step meeting and they’re attending therapy, then you’re not safe yet. You’re hoping to be safe soon. Instead of setting a boundary immediately and saying, “I need to get to safety now and then watch from a safe distance to see if these abusive behaviors have stopped.” You’re tolerating the abuse behaviors with the hope that they’ll stop sometime in the future.

Tracy: Yeah. When we’re in that terrible trauma and we just want relief, it’s easy to latch on to the idea that there is a cure or fix or a place of arrival like, “Well, once my husband gets to this place (this many years of recovery or whatever), then we’ll be good. This really will be all behind us.” But. again, it’s that false sense of security.

Learning To Live With Acceptance

I have learned that to be genuinely safe and at peace with myself, I have to let go of any kind of control or expectation. I have to live with the reality that my husband could make choices any day, that if he ever goes back and I find myself back in this cycle, then I will separate myself. That comes with an acceptance that that is possible, that is always possible. That means that divorce is possible, and that may be hard for some women to accept.

It seems like, “Oh, but who wants to live with that reality that that’s always possible?” We’d rather live with the idea or assurance that, “No, that’s never going to be on the table. We’re going to get to a place. We’re going to make it, and everything’s going to be great. I just want to get to a place where we can take that off the table completely because my husband is doing great.”

Trust Yourself

My husband is doing great. I’m doing great. We’re doing great. It does not take away my peace to know, in the back of my head, that divorce is always possible or that relapse is always possible. Rather, it reminds me that my safety is in God and in trusting myself and my relationship to God, my connection, my gut. That’s where my safety is and that allows me to enjoy the peace and the joy that I’m feeling right now in my relationship.

Anne: What it does is currently today, you’re not experiencing abusive behaviors and because you have not been experiencing them for some time, you do not appear to be in any cycle. But you wouldn’t know if you were in a cycle unless it happened again and, at that point, you could look back and reframe what your current experience is. Until that happens, why not just enjoy the moment? Hopefully, it never happens again because this period of peace and safety is not a grooming period. It’s actually that he has changed his behaviors.

What’s The Difference Between Grooming & Genuine Change?

I’m always concerned about these peaceful good times. How do we know if they’re another, maybe, long and better grooming period because he’s learned perhaps how to be nicer or whatever? Like he’s learned all this therapy-speak, so he’s able to groom a little bit better than he has been before. Or is it genuine that he has actually learned the skills of honesty, compassion and empathy.

First, how do we know the difference between those two: grooming and genuine change? The answer to that is going to be time. That’s the only answer. Over time, you will see, and I would be willing, if I were, myself, in your situation, to let that play out, if currently I’m not experiencing any abusive behaviors.

Accepting Uncertainty Can Be Helpful In Healing From Abuse

Tracy: Right, exactly. For me, I feel so much safer and secure and at peace having learned to live with the uncertainty. Because that’s just it, is that I do know, even while I’m experiencing good things in my relationship right now and I think that we’re going to be fine forever. I hope that we’re fine forever, but I don’t know that we will be, and I can actually have more peace, allow myself to open up more fully, to be more vulnerable, to just give myself over to the goodness that we’re experiencing right now. Let my guard down and just embrace it.

I’m better able to do that when I also understand, at the same time kind of paradoxically, that it might not last, that things could change. That’s okay, if things change. Will it still be painful if he relapses and we get a divorce? Yes, it would be painful. It would be awful, but I know that I can heal from that. I know that I can move on from that. I know that I can still be in a good place with God through that.

“Am I Safe Now?”

Just learning to live with the uncertainty. Just learning to live in a place of discomfort, of knowing there is no way to really control the outcome. There is no guarantee that everything is going to be good forever, and that’s okay, and that’s why I can really embrace what is good now.

In the same kind of way, when I think about “am I safe” it’s am I safe now? Am I safe to engage in this conversation with my husband? Am I safe to let my husband back in my bedroom? This can be different for different women or at different times in your relationship.

My question is not, “Am I safe to recommit to my husband and that we’re going to be together forever, and divorce is never on the table?” No. I wouldn’t even ask that question. It’s, “Am I safe right now, to continue engaging in the relationship in the way that I am right now?” The answer is yes, so I do, knowing that that can change.

Spiritual Bypass Vs. Spiritual Abuse

Anne: Yeah, that makes so much more sense. I love that. I’m so grateful you brought that up. Let’s talk about some other examples that a man, exhibiting abusive behaviors, may use to manipulate his victim in terms of spiritual bypass. It might be, “I use the atonement. Jesus took away my sins. So, what, you don’t believe in Jesus?” You know that sort of thing.

Tracy: Well, that’s just spiritual abuse. There’s a great book called Recovering Spirituality, I recommend everyone read, it’s by Ingrid Mathieu. The point from which she’s writing the book is about how spiritual bypass is used within 12-Step stuff in recovery from addiction but the principles in the book, the concepts, are universally applicable.

I would say to a wife who’s not so concerned with her husband’s addiction, read the book anyway because the concepts are universally applicable, even though it’s written more in the context of addiction recovery.

“Why Haven’t You Forgiven Yet?” Is Abuse

Here’s a quote from this book. She says “inherent in offensive spirituality is a feeling of superiority that Bautista says insists that others live up to a spiritual standard as a condition for a relationship while using the standard to avoid emotional conflicts and problems. A person who is engaged in offensive spirituality temporarily escapes her vulnerability by feeling as though she has risen above it.”

We can do that with ourselves or with others and others can do that with us. The question that you were asking, when this happens to a victim, I mean that’s just straight-up spiritual abuse. “Why haven’t you forgiven yet? Why can’t you move on? Why are you being so un-Christlike?”

“My Expressing My Pain Is A Good, Healthy Thing For Me”

Anne: They’re parading what seems to be their devotion to their religious beliefs as legitimate when they’re really just a form of spiritual bypass, if they existed at all, but in this case, it’s actually simply gaslighting.

Tracy: Right. The day after my last D-day I was simply expressing how I was feeling to my husband. I was expressing how much pain I was in, and he looked at me and said, “I cannot tolerate this cruelty,” and tried to walk away from me. I said, “Don’t you walk away from me.”

Calling me cruel, suggesting that, somehow, I’m devoid of compassion so I’m falling short of some spiritual standard is the idea, because he’s trying to escape the shame that he is feeling. His own shame that is triggered when I express my pain. That shame is his problem, not my problem. Me expressing my pain is actually a good healthy thing for me to be doing. It doesn’t mean I’m not compassionate.

Spiritual Bypass Can Come In The Form Of Gaslighting

Anne: Yeah, both for you and for him. That is a form of gaslighting to say, “You, telling me how you feel about me abusing you, is mean.” It’s absolutely ridiculous. A comic on Facebook said, “I’m so, so sad and depressed about how you’re talking about me abusing you.”

Tracy: Yeah, and this can happen with ecclesiastical leaders as well. Both for the addict and for the victim, or the abuser and the victim. Bishops or pastors who tell men, “Well, you just need to pray this away. Praying alone is going to work,” or “You need to immerse yourself in scriptures and that will give you the strength to overcome this,” but not addressing the underlying psychological issues that are at play here, that need to be addressed.

Spiritual Bypass Is Telling Victims To Forgive Rather Than Holding Abusers Accountable

Anne: It reminds me of Luke 18 where the unjust judge says, “Pray and God will help you,” but He actually has the ability to hold the offender accountable in many ways. Instead of holding the offender accountable, perhaps putting him in jail or whatever other options that that judge has for that offender, instead of doing that, he tells the victim pray, God will help you. When he is actually refusing to be that help, shirking his duty as a judge.

Tracy: He could be the instrument in God’s hand to help and is not. This happens often to victims as well. “Why haven’t you forgiven yet? You just need to forgive.”

Anne: As if the forgiveness is the problem rather than the ongoing abuse, too.

Spiritual Bypass Can Teach Self-Compassion

Tracy: Right. One of the most important lessons that I learned, after my second D-day, was that forgiveness is not an event. It is a process, and that’s okay, and there is no timeline for it. For me, what I tell women is, as long as their heart is open to healing, that’s good enough. That’s good enough, right?

I hear women beat themselves up because they haven’t forgiven yet, six months out or a year out. I’m like, “But just the very fact that you’re having this conversation with me, tells me that you are open to healing and that you want to forgive and that you’re working on it, so to me, you’re doing great.”

“Forgiveness Does Not Mean Accepting Bad Behavior”

Obviously, we know that forgiveness does not mean accepting bad behavior or living with abuse or anything like that. The “just forgive” is spiritual abuse, in terms of trying to push spiritual bypass as a solution.

Anne: Well, and a lot of times it doesn’t take safety into account. You’re telling a victim to basically tolerate abuse and that if she doesn’t, then she’s the problem rather than the abuse.

Tracy: That’s why boundaries are so compassionate, because sometimes we need to separate ourselves to a degree or to several degrees, depending on the situation, to get a level of safety, so that we can better love a person or forgive a person. But that’s asking almost the impossible, and certainly very unhealthy, to ask someone who is living in abuse, and currently and continually being harmed, to just forgive, as if that’s going to make them not be affected by the abuse.

“Boundaries Need To Be In Place”

Anne: Yeah, we know that doesn’t work, and I love that you brought that up. We know that, in order to facilitate forgiveness, boundaries need to be in place. The abuse needs to have stopped, either because the man exhibiting abusive behaviors has stopped participating in those behaviors, that’s one way, or that you’ve set a boundary, so they’re no longer continually harming you. Either way works, but then you’re able to get enough traction on your healing to start thinking about forgiveness.

The other thing is, if instead of women saying, “I’m working toward forgiveness,” they can just reframe it as, “I’m healing.” The word forgiveness and healing can be synonymous, I think, in that context.

Tracy: Right. Yet, they’re not one and the same. Forgiveness is one aspect of healing, but oftentimes spiritual leaders will talk about them as if they are one and the same. “Well, if you just forgive then you will be healed.” That’s not the way it works.

Using Spiritual Bypass Effectively

If we are aware of what spiritual bypass is, then we can come to realize that it’s not always a bad thing and that we don’t have to just put off all spiritual things because, “Oh no, they’re a defense mechanism and they’re going to keep us stuck.” We can learn to use those good things in a way that is helpful to us as opposed to a way that is a crutch or a coping mechanism, or an avoidance tactic.

Also, for me, when I reflect on my experience post my first D-day and then my second D-day, it’s helpful for me to recognize that I did benefit, personally, in terms of my own connection with God and my own spiritual growth. I did benefit to a degree, based on the experience that I had with God there.

While it was a form of bypass that kept me in that relationship, that is not a good thing, I don’t have to discount the experience entirely. I can hold on to the good lessons that I learned for myself in terms of my connection with God, like the power of God that I experienced there.

Bypass Vs. Having Compassion On Ourselves

Spiritual bypass, if we understand what it is and are aware of it so that, as we incorporate spiritual things into our lives, we’re doing it in a healthy way, as opposed to a defense mechanism kind of way, then we can look back on periods or instances, where we recognize we had been bypassing, and see that, “Okay, but that was helpful to me in this way or in that way,” just to have compassion on ourselves is, I guess, what I’m trying to say. The thing that we want to avoid, that I suggest we would want to avoid, is having blinders on to the concept at all, getting defensive about the idea of the concept.

I can think of people in my life who are not aware of it and they live good lives and they do good things, but it’s very clear that they have these psychological blocks that keep them stuck. That’s what we, hopefully, want to be able to learn to move past as we learn about spiritual bypass, so that we can accept and have compassion on ourselves when we use it at certain times when it can be helpful.

“It’s Just Too Heavy Tonight”

For example, there are times when we may be feeling just so heavy and we really want a break. “It’s just too heavy tonight, I’m going to go read my scriptures or say a prayer, ask God to take this feeling away, listen to some uplifting music or whatever,” recognizing that’s what I’m doing. It’s an intentional thing because right now it’s just too heavy and I need this comfort.

That’s okay, that’s not a bad thing. Is it bypass? Yeah, technically, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s not the kind of bypass that’s going to keep you stuck, unless you’re unaware that that’s what you’re doing, and you use that as a cure-all for your whole life every time you encounter something hard.

Anne: Yeah, I was going to say I don’t think the way that you just described it in that context would be spiritual bypass because you know I need a break from this, but this is not going to be the end all be all. I’m not going to kneel down and be completely healed when I stand up.

Adaptive Vs. Maladaptive Bypass

Tracy: Ingrid Mathieu, who wrote the book Recovering Spirituality, she makes the distinction between adaptive and maladaptive spiritual bypass. That would be a form of adaptive spiritual bypass. It still is bypassing, but if you’re aware of it and you’re doing it intentionally and it’s not keeping you stuck. It’s okay to do that sometimes. Maladaptive is when we are unaware of what we are even doing, so we are stuck, and we stay stuck.

Anne: Yeah. There is never going to be anything wrong with asking God for comfort and asking Him for peace. The only thing is, if you’re in an abusive situation, a moment of peace is not going to solve your problem. A moment of comfort isn’t going to solve your problem. You can feel that comfort enough to move forward, to set a boundary, to know what you need to do, and also for a break from the intense emotional pain.

I remember I would jump up and down when I was praying, and I would scream and yell and be like, “Why aren’t you doing anything about this?” Kind of thinking that there would be an instant where He would solve it. Most of the time, I wasn’t even comforted in the moment, I just felt terrible, until I was more healed.

Every Victim’s Healing Journey Is Unique

I think my experience was He was like, “I’m not even going to give you these moments of peace because you would, maybe, misinterpret them, so I’m going to let you be in total pain for a year and a half.” Then the cloud sort of lifted and, by that time, I had been away from the abuse for a long time and I was feeling more healed. I had done a lot of work by that time.

I think it’s interesting the different ways that God can help us. Because many women do feel a lot of peace, even though the situation isn’t good, but it helps them continue to heal. I don’t think it’s ever going to be bad to feel God’s love and His comfort and His peace. We don’t ever have to think, “Wait a minute, that wasn’t real.”

Tracy, thank you so much for coming on today’s podcast.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Is Here For You

Tracy is a member of the BTR community. The BTR community is full of amazing women in different stages of their healing journey. Some women, like Tracy, are further along, some are only at the beginning and others are stuck somewhere in the middle. No matter where you are in your healing journey, Betrayal Trauma Recovery is a place where you can find others who are or have been in a similar situation.

For any woman who needs a safe place for support or is searching for that traction they need to help them move forward, we encourage them to join the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, which is a live face-to-face group with a Betrayal Trauma Recovery Coach, who is a certified professional. In those groups we see women making a lot of progress and they are less isolating because you actually get to talk to people face-to-face online.

Until next week, stay safe out there.  

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