Spiritual abuse is spirituality that has turned toxic. It ceases to be beneficial and instead becomes a tool to inflict emotional, spiritual and physical damage. Through in-depth interviews with spiritual abuse survivors, researcher David J. Ward identified six core themes of spiritual abuse. The following list is adapted from his article, “The Lived Experience of Spiritual Abuse,” in Mental Health, Religion & Culture, November 2011.
Six Core Themes of Spiritual Abuse Survivors
- Abuser Representing God
Spiritual abusers position themselves as representing the highest spiritual authority, and they claim to be placed in this position by God. It follows, in the abuser’s mind, that to obey him is to obey God, and to disagree with him is to be in opposition to God. Consequently, the abuser presents himself as more spiritually advanced than his partner.
- Spiritual Bullying
Because the abuser is not accountable to anyone else, he feels free to bully his partner. Examples of spiritual bullying include ridiculing her on spiritual issues, excessive fault-finding and isolating her from supportive members of the faith community. Bullying also can involve the misinterpretation and misapplication of sacred texts and teachings.
- Acceptance Based Solely on Performance
Spiritual abuse creates a fear-based, performance-based system where the partner’s worth is measured only in terms of her performance. If the partner does not meet the abuser’s ever-changing expectations, she is labeled as spiritually weak.
- Spiritual Neglect
Many spiritual abuse survivors describe experiencing significant spiritual and emotional distress that is ignored by their abusers. If they persist in speaking up about their struggles, they are blamed for their pain and labeled as spiritual failures, rather than being encouraged to seek care.
- Increasing Internal Tension
Spiritual abuse survivors describe a disturbing conflict between their inner and outer worlds. At first, the abused partner is able to suppress her individuality and emotional pain (internal world), in order to present the face that her abuser requires (external world). But doing this requires her to stifle normal human desires such as asking questions, expressing individual personality and desiring comfort when in pain. Internal tension builds as the gap widens between her true feelings and values and the “face” she shows in an attempt to avoid abuse.
- Physical Illness
Spiritual abuse creates more than a spiritual crisis. As their stress accumulates over time, survivors’ bodies begin to pay a price, and they can experience serious physical and mental illnesses.
In conclusion, Ward offers hope to those seeking a spiritually-healthy partner.
Some qualities of a spiritually-healthy individual include:
- Recognizing and acknowledging his own personal flaws and limitations, rather than putting himself in God’s place.
- Accepting his partner based on her intrinsic human worth, not based on her performance.
- Seeking the welfare of the whole person. He does not over-emphasize spirituality to the exclusion of his partner’s physical, emotional intellectual and/or social well-being.
- Seeking to cooperatively address spiritual needs.
- Encouraging his partner to express her spiritual concerns and disagreements.
- Encouraging a spirituality that can be expressed uniquely by each person. He respects his partner’s spiritual autonomy.