What is Spiritual Abuse in Marriage and Relationships?

What is Spiritual Abuse in Marriage and Relationships?


Spiritual abuse in marriage or other romantic relationships is a form of partner abuse that is less well known than partner abuse forms like physical domestic violence, but spiritual abuse is deeply painful. 

 “Body wounds heal and scar;
a wounded soul requires support and a lifetime to heal.”
─quote from a man who was spiritually abused by his partner


What's In This Post

The Effects of Spiritual Abuse
What is Spiritual Abuse in Marriage and Relationships?
Examples of Spiritual Abuse in Marriage and Relationships
Using Religion to Abuse a Partner: What Does it Look Like?
Enlisting Religious Leaders to Coerce a Partner: What Does it Look Like?
Abusing a Partner by Interfering with Religious Practices: What Does it Look Like?
Abusing a Partner by Ridiculing or Forcing Spiritual Practices or Beliefs: What Does it Look Like?
Partner Abuse Books



I've written several books about partner abuse. Click here to find out more.  

 Partner Abuse books by Ann Silvers


The Effects of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual and religious beliefs and practices go to the core of who you are. When they are used as a weapon against you, the wounding can be extremely deep and devastating.

Being abused in this way can create spiritual turmoil and discombobulate your view of the world. 


What is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse is the use of religious or spiritual practices, beliefs, organizations, leaders, or communities to abuse another human being. It could also be called religious abuse

Spiritual abusers can be church leaders, members of religious organizations or faith communities, family members, or an abusive husband or wife.


What is Spiritual Abuse in Marriage and Relationships?

Spiritual abuse is one of the 7 forms of abuse found in unhealthy romantic relationships. It overlaps another type of partner abuse which is emotional abuse. Spiritual abuse takes a deep emotional toll on the person whose faith and beliefs are being manipulated and weaponized against them. 

Partner abuse is motivated by any of three things: control, demean, or punish. 

With spiritual abuse, spiritual practices and beliefs are used by an abusive person as a means of controlling, demeaning, or punishing the target of their abuse. 

Spiritual abuse of a partner involves distortion, extortion, or extraction.

The abusive person:

  • distorts spiritual or religious beliefs and practices so that they can be used to control, demean, or punish;

  • uses spiritual beliefs, communities, or leaders to extort compliance through force or threats; or

  • uses the communities or leaders to extract punishment for attempting to defy the abusers abuses or extracts the abused partner from their religious community.


Examples of Spiritual Abuse in Marriage and Relationships

Examples of ways someone may spiritually abuse their partner include:

  1. using religious or spiritual practices, beliefs, or organizations to abuse or justify abuse;

  2. enlisting religious administration to coerce acceptance of abuse;

  3. interfering with performance of reasonable spiritual practices and connection with religious community;

  4. ridiculing the partner's beliefs; or

  5. forcing them to participate in religious practices.


Examples of Spiritual Abuse in marriage Domestic Violence  Infographic



Using Religion to Abuse a Partner: What Does it Look Like?


Using Religious Community to Abuse Husband Wife Boyfriend Girlfriend Partner


An abusive person may use their partner’s religious beliefs or community as a mechanism for abuse.

They may use scripture to justify their behavior and compliance with their controlling demands or to keep the target of abuse entrapped.

They may use their partner’s spiritual aspirations as a means of attack, throwing scripture at them: bombing the partner with accusations that the partner isn’t complying with the spiritual values that the partner holds dear.

Religious attachment to the sanctity of marriage can cause an abused person to stay no matter what. An abusive woman or man can potentially use their partner’s desire to honor their marriage commitment to the abusers advantage, keeping the abused partner locked in marriage regardless of how badly they are being treated.


Example of Using Religion to Pressure an Abused Partner to Stay

I had a call from a man who was clearly using religion to try and coerce his wife to stay married to him and wanted a counselor who would join in that coercion.

He said his wife was talking divorce and that he was looking for a counselor who didn’t agree with divorce and who would tell his wife that she needed to keep working on the marriage no matter what.

When I said that I wouldn’t do that, there wasn’t much air time before the phone clicked as he hung up.

Using Spiritual Communities to Further Abuse

Members of religious or spiritual communities may be manipulated into becoming accomplices in abuse.

They can be engaged to control an abused partner by pressuring the partner to do as the abuser wishes, become further sources of demeaning or belittling feedback, or exert punishment by shunning.

Rumors can spread like wildfire in religious communities. When someone ends a relationship, a vindictive partner may find many willing ears for their stories of they were done wrong by their fleeing ex, whether or not those stories are true.

A community that was cherished as a nurturing haven may turn painfully unwelcoming. The loss can pile betrayal and rejection on top of other breakup challenges.


Enlisting Religious Leaders to Coerce a Partner: What Does it Look Like?


Spiritual Abuse Domestic Violence, Using Religious Leaders to Abuse


We usually look up to our ministers, priests, and spiritual leaders. We can be greatly influenced by their opinion, possibly even convinced that they speak for God and confident that their guidance is the means of spiritual and everlasting health.

It can be shocking and devastating if those people who you thought had your best interests at heart turn out to demand your compliance with unreasonable conditions, either because of their inability to see the reality of the situation or because the religion itself is abusive.

An abused partner may feel as if they are forced to choose between their religion—which they have relied on for guidance, inspiration, and support—and their (and their children’s) mental, physical, financial, and possibly even spiritual, well-being. It’s a disturbing choice to have to make.


An Example of Spiritual Abuse by Enlisting Leaders to Coerce a Partner

A woman who was a member of a religious community had been emotionally abusive to her husband for many years. After he asked for a divorce and moved out of their home, she stalked and harassed him.

She went to their church elders and harassed them with her many distorted stories of his wrongdoing and insistence that they step in. Worn out, they capitulated and called the estranged husband in for a meeting. They told him to do whatever she asked of him. They were not interested in his side of the story. He was shocked and dismayed.

This first calling onto the carpet by the elders was devastating in and of itself, but unfortunately it was just the beginning of the woman’s use of their religious leaders as an extension of her abusive reach. Eventually, they threatened him with excommunication.

Through much inner turmoil and excruciatingly painful reexamination of his understanding of the religion that had been the center of his life for many years, he took the arduous step of removing himself as a member.


Abusing a Partner by Interfering with Religious Practices: What Does it Look Like?



A person may abuse their partner by interfering with the performance of spiritual or religious practices.

Getting in the way of a partner’s participation in their religion isolates the partner from their support group, both in the physical realm and the spiritual realm. 


Example of Abuse Through Interference With Spiritual Practices

A man had a strong attachment to his church since his childhood. When he was dating the woman who would become his wife, she was very supportive of his regular attendance at church. As soon as the couple married, the wife began her stealth isolation campaign, which included separating him from his church community.

She waged a two-pronged campaign: interfere with his ability to attend church, and interfere with his relationship with other parishioners.

She subtly undermined his ability to attend church by making him seem like he was being unkind if he chose to go to services. She went out of her way to schedule events on Saturday nights and keep the kids out late.

Sunday morning, both she and the kids would complain about how tired they were. She’d say: “Let’s not get up and go to church today.” If he chose church, he would feel like he was being pushy and unreasonable. If he said he would go alone, he would feel like he was abandoning her and not being considerate.

She told him stories about bad things that church members said about her and him. He didn’t realize at the time that her stories were lies. She was successful in making him feel rejected and betrayed by the church. He detached himself from church events, members, and religion entirely.


Abusing a Partner by Ridiculing or Forcing Spiritual Practices or Beliefs: What Does it Look Like?


What is Spiritual Abuse in Marriage, Ridiculing Religious Practices


If someone wants to really hurt another person, then ridiculing that which defines them is a very effective way to achieve that goal.

Spiritual beliefs and practices are very important to many people and an integral part of who they are. Unfortunately, that can make them a susceptible target for demeaning comments and attitudes.

Having discussions about differing spiritual views can be part of a healthy relationship. Shaming or belittling a partner for his spiritual beliefs and practices is abusive.

Treating a partner’s items of spiritual significance with disdain and disrespect sends a message of deep disdain and disrespect for the partner.

Forcing a partner to participate in religious services and practices that they find abhorrent is also abusive. The forcing may be via threat, intimidation, or there being a price to pay for non-compliance.

An abusive person may push or entice their partner into going against the partner's religious beliefs and standards. Manipulating a partner to not adhere to their own religious beliefs can have a devastating impact. It can create agonizing inner conflict.

Any of the manipulation methods listed in my post about controlling behaviors can be used by a woman or man to exert force on a partner to bend to their will rather than follow their own conscience.


Partner Abuse Books

I've learned a lot about partner abuse through academic study, personal experience being the target of an abusive partner, researching the topic to write about it, and by helping hundreds of people deal with it on either the giving or receiving end of partner abuse. 

I've turned that learning into several books about partner abuse. 

Ann Silvers Partner Abuse books, 7 forms of abuse



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