Spiritual abuse is real and it is horrific, but what exactly is it?
I have a dear friend who is well educated, outgoing, never missed visiting teaching, and actively served in our ward.
Her husband seemed like the perfect man, especially at church, but because of the abuse my friend endured at his hand (or rather his words) she ran away from the church, believing she was going to hell, there was no hope for her, God couldn't possibly love her, and that she would never be good enough.
Emotional abuse and spiritual abuse are similar in many ways. They both involve control and manipulation in many forms. With spiritual abuse, religious doctrine is used as a weapon for the self-serving benefit of the abuser. The feelings of the abused, such as sympathy and the desire to do good, are exploited to benefit the abuser.
It is important to note that emotionally and spiritually abusive relationships can happen in a variety of relationship including, spouses, in-laws, friends, parents and children, etc.
How Do These Relationships Start?
Often, these kinds of abusers are intelligent and will only show what you want to see. They will be charming, outgoing, and flaunt their righteousness by flashing their temple recommends or sitting you down for a slideshow of their entire mission.
Often they will push the relationship along quickly, then phase two sets in. Now that you believe he is going to be the next prophet, he wants to test your righteousness. In this test he will see how much of a fuss you will put up when he asks you to do things, even if you are uncomfortable with them.
When you stand up for yourself he may use manipulative phrases such as:
“If you really had charity for me you would ……”
“I’m your husband, and you are supposed to do what I say, so you must….”
“By the laws of man and by the laws of God I am your husband so you have to ….”
“I’m the priesthood holder, and if you go against me you are going against God.”
“As a man I preside over this family, and if you don’t … I will be forced to take this matter to the bishop.”
He may also use lies to scare you such as:
“ I've talked to the bishop about you. If you don’t start doing what I say, he will take your temple recommend away.”
“The bishop met with me privately because you had a dark spirit about you in church on Sunday. He asked me to help guide you and set a good example for you.”
“I talked with your father, he is disappointed in you because you did … or didn’t do….”
Here are a few manipulation and intimidation tactics often used to affect your emotional state so you will change your behavior. This list is taken from Pat Kirkland's article titled "Poison Prince Charming Syndrome."
Taking cheap shots and putting you down
Making you feel guilty by acting put upon
Conning you - making up stories
Giving you the cold shoulder
Making cutting remarks
Teasing labeled as "just joking/kidding"
Humiliating - making fun of you
Playing Off Your Emotions:
Often abusers will uses behavioral tactics to trigger a negative emotional and psychological state in the person; such as a feeling or fear, low self-esteem, or a belief that they will be abandoned.
Let me tell you a true story about Jack and Jill (names changed.)
Jill resorted to writing Jack letters because of his defensive explosions when she confronted him about his excessive video game playing which seems to be preventing him from actively perusing employment.
Here is an excerpt from a letter Jack wrote in reply:
“I am not your child. I am a man. I must make my own decisions. While I may not have been playing video games when I met you, I most certainly was watching sports. You married me, for eternity, with this knowledge. It is not your job to change people; it is your job to love them. Perhaps I will give up many of the behaviors that you do not like, but I promise you that if you force me (or anyone) to change for you instead of for their own reasons, it leaves a lot of room for resentment and hurt. I have resisted the urge to try and change you, I would only ask the same courtesy.”
Here the analysis of this letter by someone who specializes in these types of relationships:
“If you break it down and remove all the fancy/manipulative wording, [Jack] seems to be saying, “Here is my addiction. Take it, I give it willingly… but… if you demand this extremely hard thing of me, you will regret it and I will resent you.” He is trying to appeal to [Jill’s] emotions by handing her his addiction on a silver platter then as soon as she takes it and the conflict is over [Jack] doesn't really intend to let [Jill] keep the offering. In fact, my thought is that he doesn't really think she will take it to begin with because of all his talk about how she can’t change someone else. This is a form of manipulation.
“Many of the things [Jack] mentioned in his reply are tactics used by manipulators whether on purpose or by their nature without consciously thinking about what they are doing. Tactics such as:
- Redirecting blame.
- Baiting you with things he can use to control you (like offering to give up computer games with a big manipulative “BUT”).
- Bringing up his own righteousness to validate his efforts.
- Pointing out all of the hard things he is doing to try to make things better and how difficult they are.
- Using illness as an excuse for behavior and suggesting that he should be excused from responsibility because of it.
- Professing love and a desire to fix things when actions speak louder than words.”
Using Your Fears Against You.
As stated earlier, abusers will try to use behavioral tactics to trigger a negative emotional and psychological state in the person; such as a feeling of fear, low self-esteem, or a belief that she will be abandoned.
In another example let’s say Jill is upset about Jack’s gaming addiction. As soon as Jack realizes what Jill wants to talk about he cuts her off with,
“If you make me give up video games then I will file for divorce.”
“Why can’t you just love me for who I am?”
“You’re trying to control me and that was Satan’s plan!”
Bingo! Notice how Jack deflects the issue in an effort to make Jill emotionally uncomfortable almost to the point of incapacitating. By using a portion of gospel knowledge, such as God’s plan and Satan’s plan, this emotional abuse has now crossed the line into spiritual abuse.
These tactics were obviously used to get Jill to drop the subject of Jack’s addiction.
Another example of using fear:
Jill is an author and is starting to get recognition for her literary works. Jack comes to her one day and says:
“I've just had a revelation! I've never felt the spirit so strong in my life, not even on my mission. You must write books and put me as the author because one day someone is going to shoot you at a book signing. I will take that bullet for you.”
Let’s break down this statement. First off, Jack starts by using claims of a personal revelation for Jill to give up something, then Jack uses fear (of being shot) to reinforce his manipulation to take credit for Jill’s work.
In this next letter notice how Jack uses fear mixed with gospel doctrine to manipulate and bully Jill into doing what he wants :
I have even prayed to the Lord that if it would make you miserable to be with me, that he would find a way to end our marriage without divorce.
You have told me that you have fasted and prayed for answers, but I am worried about where your answers may be coming from. If you ever read the quotes I sent you about divorce, you should have a pretty good idea about the doctrines of the church regarding divorce. There is no room for interpretation in the quotes I sent you. While I found even more compelling quotes from prophets, I only sent the ones that I had a specific time, place, and person source that I could point you to so that you could look it up yourself and know that I had not made them up.
In the past, it seemed that being obedient was very important to you, and if it still is, then we should be working on our marriage together and not getting a divorce.
If we do not get back together it would be because you could not hear the Spirit. The only reason I point out the inconsistencies with your life and if you are receiving revelation to leave me is because of this promise.
The scariest thing regarding your mission (writing books), to me, is that I think I may have actually found the author who may be your back up if you are not able to accomplish, or worthy to do, your mission. I still believe in your mission. I still want to help however I can. But, I am truthfully very scared for you.
This letter encompasses all that we have talked about.
Again he points out his own righteousness.
He uses fear of guilt in this line here: “I have even prayed to the Lord that if it would make you miserable to be with me, that he would find a way to end our marriage without divorce.” It is important to note that Jack had threatened to commit suicide many times and told Jill that she would be responsible for his death.
Jack sent conference talks and used quotes from church leaders to try and validate his point.
Jack tries to play off Jill’s emotion and desire for obedience by deflecting the issue with, “In the past, it seemed that being obedient was very important to you.”
Jack again tries to play off fear with, “The scariest thing regarding your mission (writing books), to me, is that I think I may have actually found the author who may be your back up if you are not able to accomplish, or worthy to do, your mission.”
So what is the difference between a spouse offering advice on a spiritual matter verses Spiritual Abuse? Ask yourself:
Is there more fear than love in the relationship?
Is the husband the beneficiary of the action he is asking you to do? For example: “I had a revelation that you need to have sex with me more often.” This is also sexual coercion.
Do you feel fear, confusion, and doubt in his words?
Does he try to make you feel guilty for expressing your concerns, asking for help, or standing up for yourself?
Alienate You From Those Who Can Help
When Jill talked on the phone with her father, Jack would scowl at her, hold up his fingers to indicate how many minutes she had left to talk, or he would yell, “Honey it’s time to get dinner ready.”
Jack would tell Jill that her sister was crazy, and that she shouldn't talk with her anymore.
Jack even wrote a letter to the Jill’s parents saying that Jill never wanted to have contact with them again.
These were all ways to try and alienate Jill from her family.
Toward the end of Jack and Jill’s relationship, Jack became more controlling and his outbursts became more intense. This was most likely out of fear of losing the relationship. Jill wasn't allowed to talk on the phone unless Jack knew who it was, how long she would talk for, and what she was going to talk about.
When Jill’s visiting teacher called and heard Jill give the report to Jack about who she was talking to, why, etc., the visiting teacher asked to set up the meeting for a time when Jack wouldn't be home.
Jill told the visiting teachers what was happening and they advised her to let her parents know about the situation and speak with the bishop.
Jill hid out in the garage to talk on the phone with her father and get his advice, then spoke with the bishop, who, after hearing a little about the home life situation, advised a separation.
Soon after the separation, Jack tried to use intimidation over manipulation and would shout, swing his fists, hit objects, and make multiple threats of suicide.
“Why do you always …..?
“You never …”
“Oh, not this again. Why can’t you just …”
Sentences that start like this after a minor mishap such as the sink getting clogged, the meal isn't cooked just right, etc. is an obvious sign of redirection, but there is a more complex form of redirecting blame.
In an attempt to drive a wedge between Jill and the people she relied on for support, Jack tells Jill that her father is disappointed in her. He also pointed out that if she tries to talk with her father about it, he would never tell her the truth.
Here is the letter Jill wrote in reply:
You lied to me.
I called my dad and he even put my mom on the phone to confirm that he never said any of the things you told me last night. My dad is not disappointed in me, but I am very disappointed in you.
I asked for 5 things in order for us to stay together. 1. Get a job 2. Go to counseling 3. Stick with your addiction recovery program. 4.Go to church. 5. Stay on your medicine.
You have done everything you could to control, manipulate and frighten me into staying with you since I laid down the ultimatum last August.
I'm tired of being lied to, I'm tired of your so called righteous threats.
Obviously this is an emotionally charged letter from Jill after catching Jack in yet another lie.
Here is the more complex form for redirecting blame. See if you can spot how Jack redirects blame in his reply after he is caught in a lie:
I really am worried about you. I do not know what will happen, but I have expressed what I fear may happen to you. I'm sorry if you think that I am trying to manipulate you by sharing my feelings and fear for you. I have known since we sat with Bishop [Name Removed] and you ambushed me that you were never going to come back. I tried to hold onto hope that the Lord would intervene, but I think your heart is too hard.
Now That You've Stood Up For Yourself, He’s The Victim
In the last reply from Jack, Jack makes himself out to be a victim by claiming the bishop and Jill “ambushed” him to tell him about the decision to separate.
Now that the split up has happened he desperately needs to save face and come up with reasons why she left that deflects the blame to her. In order to make himself look like the victim he must make Jill look like the bad guy.
Jack told his family his son was coming for Christmas. Three days before Christmas, Jack emailed Jill and said, “So, when you bringing [son] down?” Since there was no previous agreement made and in their current agreement Jack was supposed to be responsible for long distance travel, this was an obvious attempt to make himself the victim.
There are many other ways, besides setting up a situation that abusers try and make themselves look like the victim:
He may threaten suicide or injure himself. (Threat)
If he sees a picture of you with another man he will immediately accuse you of cheating on him and that’s why you left. (Deflect)
He may accuse you of changing. “You’re not the same person.” “You are listening to the voice of Satan.” (Deflect)
“Our kids’ lives will be ruined.” (Threat)
“I will put in the divorce papers that I will stay on my medication for mental health BUT ONLY if it says she will too” (This is deflection since the wife wasn't on and doesn't need medication for a mental disorder.)
He may also pretend he is too sick, injured, or depressed to pitch in, change eating and exercise habits, or do anything outside of what he is comfortable doing. He may also remind you about the dishes he washed last week to make you feel guilty for needing his help with something this week.
Why do they do this?
This list is taken from Pat Kirkland's article titled "Poison Prince Charming Syndrome"
Making all decisions
Deciding for you
Controlling access to you
To take advantage
Financially – not pitching in. refuses to get a job.
Doesn't account for his time
There is a deeper meaning behind why they do this and its different for all abusers. Some feel that they must take advantage and maintain tight control over other person because of a feeling of lack of control in their own life, insecurities, mental illness, low self-esteem, or it could also be a learned behavior.
There is good news if you find yourself trapped in one of these relationships. Usually you can’t change the abuser because they see nothing wrong with what they are doing, but you can change yourself.
Educate yourself on manipulation tactics so you can see them coming.
Develop a tolerance to emotionally uncomfortable states so you can keep your mind clear when threats are being made.
Work on healing your own wounds, develop self-esteem, and a strong personal relationship with the Lord so you will be emotionally impenetrable to his threats and immune to manipulation tactics.
Develop a support system.
Study the difference between fear and faith. Don’t be afraid of the Lord and don’t withdraw from the truth because of instilled fears.
Have open communication with everyone. Many abusers have been caught in lies this way. If you are told the bishop thinks you are going to hell, have the guts to sit down with the bishop and tell him you want to straighten things out. Think of how that manipulation tactic backfired on the husband.
Remember: No matter what rumors he starts about you, just continue to live your life so that those who really know you won’t believe those lies.