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Similarities between Domestic Violence Survivors and Spiritual Abuse Survivors



As a counselor and a consultant, I work with many survivors of domestic violence and survivors of toxic religious environments/ spiritual abuse. Recently, I've noticed the ways in which survivors of high-control religious groups and those who have survived physically abusive marriages/ partnerships sound the same. The psychological and emotional toll surviving these situations is eerily similar. Here are some commonalities.


  1. Power and Control Dynamics: Both domestic violence and spiritual abuse often involve power and control dynamics. In domestic violence, the abuser seeks to exert control over the victim through physical, emotional, sexual or psychological means. Similarly, in spiritual abuse, leaders or figures within the faith community may use their position of authority to manipulate and control individuals, often through religious teachings or doctrines. I can't count the number of times a DV surivor and a Spiritual Abuse survivor talk about how scripture or other holy books were used to manipulate them into remaining in the abuse.

  2. Dependency and Isolation: Survivors of both types of abuse often experience isolation and dependency on their abuser or the faith community. Abusers often isolate their victims from friends, family, and support networks, making it difficult for them to seek help or escape the abuse. Similarly, in faith-based communities, survivors may fear ostracism or excommunication if they speak out against the abuse, leading to a sense of dependency on the abusive community for validation and support. In both situations, the abuser is positioned as the perpetrator AND the "only one" who can help.

  3. Guilt and Shame: Shame is a huge barrier survivors have to overcome to get help. Survivors of both domestic violence and spiritual abuse experience toxic shame and guilt. These feelings sound like, "this is happening because I'm bad/ not good enough," or "If I was better at managing myself in the relationships, this would not be happening." While working with one client who survived a high-control religious group, she said, "I just always thought that my salvation was in the balance-- when they made me stand up in church to confess and repent, I thought, they love me, that's why they are doing this, they are making me better. I wasn't even sure what I had done, I just knew it was bad and I needed to be better." Victims may blame themselves for the abuse or feel ashamed of their inability to leave the situation. In sessions with DV clients, I hear similar themes-- "If I hadn't done XYZ, then they wouldn't have-- fill in whatever violent act took place." In spiritual abuse, survivors may internalize teachings or beliefs that suggest they are at fault for questioning or challenging the authority of religious leaders. More than once a survivor has said, "I thought they were disciplining me because they loved me."

  4. Trauma Bonding: Both types of abuse can create a strong emotional bond between the victim and the abuser or the faith community. This bond, known as trauma bonding, can make it difficult for survivors to leave the abusive situation or to recognize the abuse for what it is. Identifying abuse as abuse is a huge part of healing.

  5. Long-term Effects on Mental Health: Survivors of both domestic violence and spiritual abuse may experience long-term effects on their mental health, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and low self-esteem. The trauma of abuse can have lasting repercussions on one's emotional well-being and sense of self-worth. A lot of time in session is spent re-building a sense of personal dignity, self-worthiness, and self-respect.

  6. Barriers to Seeking Help: At the Family Justice Center here in Birmingham, we have a phrase we use often-- are you the barrier or the bridge? Survivors of both types of abuse often face significant barriers to seeking help. These barriers may include fear of retaliation from the abuser or the faith community, ex-communication or further isolation from those the survivor loves, fear of not being believed, personal confusion about what has taken place, lack of awareness of available resources, financial dependence on the abuser, or cultural or religious stigma associated with seeking assistance.

  7. Recovery and Healing: Recovery from both domestic violence and spiritual abuse often requires a multifaceted approach that includes therapy, self-care practices, financial coaching and rebuilding one's sense of identity and autonomy. Healing from these experiences can be a long and challenging process, but with support and resources, survivors can reclaim their lives and find healing and empowerment.


It's important to recognize that no two experiences are the same-- even with individuals coming from the same family unit or religious community. Each survivor faces different challenges and may require different forms of support. Seeking help from trained professionals and support networks is crucial for both survivors of domestic violence and spiritual abuse. In my consulting practice, I work with clients to rebuild hope and a vision for their future, free from abuse, as they untangle the lies they have believed. Using Brainspotting as a method to processing these lies and building up internal resources and truth is profoundly effective. I am currently taking new clients. Reach out to inquire about an initial appointment at ericasmithcounseling@gmail.com.


If you or someone you know is suffering from a DV situation, please call the National DV Hotline at 800-799-7233.



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