When we think of abusive relationships, we often envision physical violence, scars, and bruises, or controlling behaviors. There is, however, another insidious method of abuse that remains hidden at the intersection of faith and violence: spiritual abuse. At SHALVA we have 37 years of experience providing counseling and supportive services to people who have experienced abuse, many experiencing a spiritual component. Using religion to justify abuse can often compound the trauma that survivors can experience. By shedding light on this issue, we aim to raise awareness and empower survivors.
What is spiritual abuse?
Spiritual abuse is restricting or prohibiting a partner’s religious beliefs or spiritual practices to gain control in a relationship, and it can happen in any religious community. Perpetrators of domestic abuse often employ emotional manipulation as a means of control. They may use guilt, fear, or shame to undermine their partner’s self-esteem and independence and all of these tactics can come through the lens of someone’s religion or spirituality.
How to recognize spiritual abuse
Manipulation of religious texts may be used to justify abusive behavior, perpetuating a cycle of violence. For example, the husband of one SHALVA client twisted Jewish religious text about going to the mikvah (ritual bath) after her menstrual cycle, forcing his wife to do invasive bodily checks that are not part of the ritual. In other instances, marital rape was justified in the name of religion. Distorting interpretations of religious texts provides an abuser with a veneer of legitimacy for their actions. Faith leaders have also unknowingly misused religious texts to encourage women to stay in abusive relationships.
Examples of spiritual abuse include using scripture to:
Control your clothing, hair, behavior, relationships, finances, parenting or family planning, etc.
A husband perpetrating abuse may manipulate and coerce his wife into accepting his behavior by convincing her that it aligns with her religious obligation. One SHALVA client was forced to prepare elaborate meals for Shabbat guests, citing the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (hospitality), while simultaneously limiting her access to funds for purchasing food.
Force you to engage in spiritual practices or events that you do not believe in.
Abusers may insist on strict adherence to specific religious practices or norms that their partner is uncomfortable with, like insisting that their partner strictly observe the laws of hair covering after marriage, or dress a certain way.
Isolate you by changing where you go to worship.
Forcing someone to leave or change their synagogue can lead to isolation in a new religious community. This isolation increases dependency on the perpetrator of abuse and makes it harder for survivors to seek help or escape the abusive environment.
Instill fear, or to embarrass, silence, shame, belittle or hurt you.
Abusers often exploit community norms to embarrass their spouse and maintain control, such as threatening to disclose a deviation from their standard religious practice to the Rabbi or community members. The influence of cultural norms and community expectations can intensify the religious abuse experienced by survivors, and fear of judgment or social ostracism may prevent victims from seeking help or speaking out.
Prevent you from practicing your own religious beliefs.
Religious rituals are important because they create habits and help us to learn, grow and connect. Preventing a person from practicing rituals is another way to control a person. Lighting the Shabbat candles can be a powerful ritual to set aside special time to rest and reflect. If a person who abuses throws the candle sticks against the wall and smashes them, they are interfering with their partner’s religious practice.
Why is spiritual abuse so harmful?
Any form of abuse is destructive, but spiritual abuse is so harmful because a person’s faith is core to their being. The tenets of the faith they adhere to are sacred to them, forming a part of how they define themselves and guiding all areas of their life. Obstructions to that faith are devastating.
For many, their house of worship becomes a second home. This may be especially true for those who have traumatic pasts. Their spiritual community may be their only close personal connections. The threat of or actual loss of that community is horrible, making it nearly impossible to disclose abuse.
Signs of Spiritual Abuse in Survivors
If you notice any of these signs in yourself or someone else, it could be a sign of spiritual abuse:
- Sudden expressions of shame, depression, and anxiety related to their religious practice.
- Sleep disorders and intense fear.
- Worry that they caused the abuse because they did follow the laws of their faith.
- They suddenly seem isolated even within worship services or stop attending altogether.
How can we stop spiritual abuse?
At SHALVA, we are dedicated to combating spiritual abuse. We have formed partnerships with local Orthodox rabbinic leaders to educate and raise awareness about healthy relationships and abuse. Additionally, we offer free counseling services to survivors, empowering them and creating safe spaces for healing and recovery.
Spiritual abuse represents a distressing reality where faith becomes entangled with domestic abuse. By understanding the definition and red flags, (such as a major shift in religious observance or seeing discomfort someone has while practicing) we can work towards ending this cycle of harm. Through education, support, and advocacy, we strive to create a world where individuals can experience healthy, respectful relationships. SHALVA stands ready to assist survivors on their journey towards healing.