Buckle up friends. I didn’t realize I had so much to say about this until I sat down to write it. It was supposed to be a #marriagemonday post, but after I spent a chunk of time on it, I realized I didn’t want to rush it. I always want to make sure I am communicating this as clearly, vulnerably, and effectively as possible.
I get a lot of questions about what to do when you’re in a spiritually abusive church and one spouse sees the red flags but the other doesn’t and is completely bought in to the hype. I have a lot of experience in that area, and unfortunately, while I want to offer hope here, it’s a really tough place to be.
I don’t think there’s a one size fits all list of steps to follow, but I hope I can shed some light on how to best get through it (and GROW through it) together by sharing some of our story. I also hope that if you haven’t experienced it for yourself, that this blog post will help equip you to protect your marriage against spiritual abuse.
I did want to mention, I know that spiritual abuse is possible within a marriage, where the husband or wife is the abuser. I am not writing about that specific topic simply because it is not my personal story, but many of the abusive tactics used in those situations are similar to what I have written about in the past.
Marriage as a Priority
Can I just go ahead and clear something up? This is foundational to all I’m going to discuss here, and something we had to learn the hard way.
In a Christian marriage, your order of priority should *ALWAYS* be God first, your spouse second, and EVERYTHING ELSE THIRD.
Louder for the people in the back?
- E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. E-L-S-E.
Your calling to serve the kingdom of God does not come before your calling to your spouse.
The moment you say your vows to each other is the moment that your marriage becomes just as much a part of your calling as your dream of pastoring, speaking, worship leading, or whatever else God has laid on your heart. It’s no longer your calling alone. It’s your calling TOGETHER.
Your church / serving / leaders / mentors do not come before your spouse.
In a healthy marriage where both parties are in a relationship with Jesus, you need to operate as if you are of one flesh. Not in the sense of codependency, no, but definitely in the sense of unity. One of the ways you can do this is by setting and enforcing spiritual, emotional, and physical boundaries around your marriage.
I’m a firm believer that no one should have more access to you than your spouse. No one should know more about your heart or your struggles than your spouse. No one’s opinion should hold more weight than your spouse’s, and no secrets should be kept from your spouse.
Unfortunately, walking through spiritual abuse, we found ourselves in a situation where we severely lacked boundaries. Because we trusted leadership due to years of history with them, and were naive in having had no prior unhealthy church experiences, we allowed a spiritually abusive leader to divide us.
That part is on us. Your boundaries are YOUR responsibility to enforce.
It had never even dawned on us that we would need boundaries against spiritual leaders and church. After all, we had known these people for a long time… they were safe, right? They loved us, they loved God, and they wanted to see us succeed… right?
Before we knew it, we had allowed a rift to come between us in our emotional connection and intimacy. We had gotten to the place of trusting a spiritual leader more than we trusted each other.
It felt like there was a third party in our marriage.
HOW does this happen?
You’ve heard it before, “What God has joined together, let no man separate.” (Matthew 19:6)
Well, spiritually abusive people will try and do exactly that. Separate what God has joined together.
Because united you are so much stronger and not easily manipulated.
United you are protected by the discernment of one another.
United you are less apt to be led astray.
It’s the same reason the devil hates marriages.
“Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”Ecclesiastes 4:12
Spiritual abusers know that in order to control and manipulate you, they must first isolate you.
Maybe it’s isolating you from family, maybe from a friend group, and if you are married, it’s often from each other.
They must sew seeds of doubt in your mind about your spouse in order to get you to start questioning them more than you question the leader/abuser.
How Spiritual Abuse Impacted our Marriage
I wanted to share a snippet of our personal story to help illustrate the situation and how damaging it can be. This was hard to articulate, and is super vulnerable, but I think it’s important to see firsthand the subtle ways that spiritual abuse can creep in and infiltrate your marriage.
I hope you know I am not writing this from a place of hurt or complaining. The past is the past, and there has been a lot of healing done. I have no desire to air my dirty laundry to the internet, but I do want God to be able to use it to help others who are in positions that I once was. So I am sharing it in spite of my fears.
PS. It should go without saying that everything I share, I share with my husband’s permission. 🙂
For months and months, maybe even over a year, our pastor and spiritual leader met with my husband to “disciple” him, which consisted mostly of feeding him lies about me and our marriage.
Some of the things that were said to my husband were:
- “Your wife doesn’t trust you. I can tell.”
- “It’s obvious your wife doesn’t respect you.”
- “Your wife doesn’t submit to your authority or let you lead.”
- “You need to get her under control and lead your wife better.”
None of this was true. None of it was warranted, yet the leader knew that I had questioned his authority. He knew that I was not completely bought in to his lies… so in order to keep control of my husband, he had to turn him against me.
In these same meetings, the leader would be sure to give my husband just enough praise and compliments to mask all of the negative and keep him compliant. After tearing apart me and our marriage, the leader would go on about these great qualities that he saw in my husband, with notes of threats about how if my husband couldn’t “get me under control” that his calling and effectiveness in the kingdom of God would be stunted, and that his staff job depended on it too.
Unfortunately, for a long time, my husband believed the spiritually abusive leader’s lies.
I can remember one fight that happened right after he came home from one of his meetings with our pastor in which he walked in the door and started lashing out at me repeating all the lies listed above that our leader had placed in his head. I remember being SO confused. This wasn’t even an issue we had in our marriage before. We always make sure we both agree before making decisions… we typically get along well. I mean sure, my personality is a little louder and bolder but since my husband is naturally laid back it hadn’t been an issue.
A huge danger of spiritual abuse tactics is that there is always a little bit of truth among the lies.
Should wives respect and trust their husbands, and should spiritually sound husbands be revered as spiritual leaders in their household? Totally. (Sparing you the argument that honor, respect, and submission should be mutual – because it’s unrelated, but I can’t help but mentioning that 🙂 ) But this leader wasn’t harping on this out of love for us as a couple and our well being.
He knew that if he could divide us, he could control us.
Another way he brought division was by attempting to control what we spoke about in the privacy of our own home. He would go on and on in meetings and from the stage on Sundays about how husbands and wives think they can talk to each other about anything but they can’t because “telling your spouse something that requires you to say someone else’s name who is not present for the conversation is gossip.”
Tell me where that is in the Bible. I’ll wait. 😉
So, why were people convinced that this was truth? Because again, there was a littttle truth in the lies.
Gossiping is wrong. No one wanted to be labeled a gossip.
So lets stop for a fact check then, shall we?
The definition of gossip: casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people involving details that are not confirmed as being true.
Just an observation as you are considering your own spiritually abusive situations: Isn’t it ironic that the spiritual leader spoke negative and false lies to my husband about me, yet wanted to drill it into his congregants heads that they should not be completely free to talk to their spouse about anything that bothers them regarding others?
Spiritually abusive leaders will accuse you of divisiveness while actively causing division in your marriage.
Spiritually abusive leaders always hold a double standard.
Let me just clear a few things up for you right now:
- Speaking to your spouse about anything that isn’t sitting right with your spirit, whether it includes a church, a pastor, a friend, a job, or family… is NOT gossip.
- Sharing your own story of abuse is NOT gossip.
- Talking to each other about the red flags one or both of you are seeing in a spiritually abusive environment is NOT gossip.
- Asking your spouse for advice about anything, whether it involves another person or not, is NOT gossip.
- These are NOT examples of gossip, yet those who have been conditioned by spiritually abusive leaders, will be convinced that they ARE.
So, to recap:
The damage done by the spiritual leader at this point as it pertains to our marriage was:
- Convincing my husband that I was a problem and that I did not trust, respect, or honor him.
- Convincing my husband that I would hinder his calling in the kingdom of God.
- Convincing my husband that he and I could not talk about the things that I was struggling with and discerning in our own home, because that would be gossip and divisive.
In addition to what I previously mentioned but for the sake of the length of this blog post, I do not want to go into too much detail:
- The leader told my husband things that pertained to me (and my staff job) that he was instructed to keep from me.
- There was more than one occasion where my husband tried to defend me to the leader and the leader would immediately shut him down, saying that conversation was over and they were going to have a problem if he brought it up again.
What was going on behind the scenes at the time?
I had questions. I had seen some red flags. I was uneasy, yet still somewhat blinded by the history of relationship we had with the leader and his family. I was constantly wrestling with what was my own “pride issue” and what was my discernment. I was terrified of being the one in the wrong… and kind of convinced I was, since I had heard so many negative messages that would confirm that.
I had no idea what spiritual abuse was at the time, all I knew was that I didn’t want to be like this man who was our spiritual leader and pastor. I knew that he was severely lacking the character and personality traits that someone who truly is led by God should embody. I knew I had all too often seen him be unkind, proud, boastful, and manipulative.
I also knew that my husband was more stressed, angry, and anxious than I had ever seen him be before in my 14 years of knowing him. I knew he wasn’t okay. It didn’t matter how much he was publicly praised by the leader when he made sure to tell him “It’s so great to see how far you’ve come in leadership. You have really grown.”
I knew for a fact he was drowning, at home he wasn’t himself, and his spiritual life was at it’s darkest ever.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, we even went through an in-depth marriage mentoring curriculum with the leader and his wife.
When I say we had no boundaries… I mean it. I am the type of person who is really comfortable getting really vulnerable, and even though I had my doubts, it wasn’t enough to keep a wall up. I literally use vulnerability to connect to others, and I was still throwing out lifelines even up to this point.
Before we knew it, we had shared the most intimate details of our marriage with them. Our finances. Our sex life. Our weaknesses… nothing was unknown. Nothing was off the table.
The rift between us grew and grew, and more and more events caused me to really question and distrust leadership, until finally, after a hundred other things had happened that would turn this blog post into a book if I shared them… in an act of GOD, my husband stepped down from staff and agreed to see a biblical counselor. We were still “on good terms” with the leader and the church as this point, but had made the decision to take some time to prioritize our marriage.
On his very first counseling visit, (at a practice that oddly enough was recommended by the leader) my husband shared about some intimacy issues and the feeling like there was something between us in our marriage. The counselor heard something concerning to her when my husband mentioned the church and this spiritual leader, and asked him to tell her more about that. He did, and she quickly came to a conclusion.
“I can tell you exactly what the rift in your marriage is.” She said.
“It’s that pastor.”
“It sounds to me like you have endured Spiritual Abuse from an insecure leader.”
Just like that. My husband’s eyes were opened to what had been going on this entire time.
He finally saw what I was seeing, and I finally had something to call it. I could finally breathe and rest in the fact that my discernment hadn’t been off after all. This was not normal.
As we started to research Spiritual Abuse together, we started to see so much more clearly. Just naming it and defining it gave us something to be unified over.
We had a long way to go in healing, but we were no longer isolated.
We finally made the decision to leave that church.
Over a year and a half later, our marriage is better than ever. Our unity with each other is better than ever.
God is so good. He really does restore broken things.
What to Do When Your Spouse is Blind to Spiritual Abuse
Like I said, I don’t think there is a perfect “step by step” way to walk through this, but I hope that some of these are helpful to you in this journey. I am always happy to answer any DMs or emails if you have any other questions or just need the ear of someone who has been there.
- Pray and seek God together. Whether or not you are in agreement about your situation, this is a time to strengthen your foundation of prayer in your marriage. You should both want to get to the same page, whether that page means staying at the church/organization or leaving, so ask God to help you find common ground. I have a friend who fasted and prayed with her husband until they both agreed about the situation. Prayer is always unifying.
- Reset your priorities. Like I talked about earlier in this post, make sure your priorities are set to God first, then spouse, then everything else. If they are not, fix ’em.
- Continue to learn about Spiritual Abuse yourself. As you read books, blogs, or listen to podcasts on the subject, it will probably awaken you to some less obvious areas that Spiritual Abuse has effected you/your spouse. Some lesser known side effects are anxiety, self-doubt, loss of confidence/self-esteem, difficulty making decisions, feeling the need to run everything by a leader or mentor… etc. I just think the more we can call out about it, the less power it has over us.
- Talk to them about your concerns in educational terms. Even if it’s saying, “You know, I have been seeing this girl post about Spiritual Abuse, and I see some of the red flags she talks about in our situation.” Or talk about a book you have been reading on Narcissism in the Church. (This one by Chuck DeGroat is amazing.) Anything that will be for the purpose of educating them that something like this exists. Even if they are resistant to it initially, you never know what a seed planted will do to inform them going forward.
- Get outside counsel together – from a professional, or from spiritually sound friends/mentors that you can trust. Preferably, people who are NOT associated with the spiritually abusive church/organization in question. Sometimes having an outside/third party perspective is really helpful in calling out what is not normal behavior. Spiritually abusive leaders would say it is divisive for you to suggest such a thing, they don’t want anyone to have a chance to open your eyes.
- Trust God and banish fear. Looking back, my husband now says he did see the red flags that I saw earlier on, but he was afraid. He didn’t want to lose his job, income, friendships, community… it’s a scary thing. But I am convinced that God never uses the fear of the unknown as a tactic… that always comes from the enemy. You and your spouse may need to have a serious conversation about fear. If that’s your/their only reason for wanting to stay and ignore the spiritual abuse… it’s not good enough. It’s certainly not of God.
- If your spouse is in any sort of serving or staff position, ask them to take a break for your sake – if at all possible. For us, it took removing ourselves out of the bubble/inner circle to be able to see what was so toxic and unhealthy about the culture we were in.
- Ask your spouse to spend more time with you one-on-one. Whether it’s date nights or just nights at home with the kids, the more that you can physically spend time away from toxic people, an abusive church and all of their church functions, etc., and more time TOGETHER, the better and stronger your connection will be. Closeness and proximity can be pretty powerful at removing rifts in any relationship.
- Whether or not any of these work for you and your spouse, ensure that YOU are digging in deep to Jesus. No matter your relationship with church right now, remember that church is not God, and God is not the church. Spiritual Abuse attempts to shake the foundations of many Christians, but if your foundation is firm in the one true God, He WILL get you through this. Spend time in His word. Spend time in worship. Press in to hearing His voice above all others. He is, after all, our ultimate healer, protector, and restorer.
- Banish bitterness. Do whatever you can to protect your heart from becoming veraciously bitter. Choose compassion and grace for your spouse, as he/she is likely sucked in to something and unaware of how negatively it is effecting you. Get curious about how you can love them well during this time. They are not your enemy, they are your teammate, and I am betting -and praying- they will soon remember that.
In closing, because I know this has already been a lot, I just want you to know that your marriage is worth fighting for, it’s worth protecting. Have hope in the knowledge that no matter how bleak your situation looks right now, God can take it and make it into something more beautiful than you could have ever imagined.
Some questions that were submitted that I wanted to address:
Q: How do you respond when your spouse is acting unhealthily out of the abuse but doesn’t realize it is affecting their behavior?
A: It’s so hard, but I really think God showed me how to not escalate things when we were in that season. I am typically a fire-back kind of person, but I found myself learning to just stay calm and not respond when I knew my husband was acting out of being so stressed and spiritually abused. I would just say to try and keep loving and praying for them. Maybe later confront them about it when things have calmed down. Not in the heat of the moment. Although I did have an outburst where I screamed “I want to talk to my husband right now! Not [insert name of spiritually abusive leader here]!” which seemed to shake him up pretty well. 🙂
Q: I see the red flags but my husband doesn’t. Do I stay and wait for the Lord to show him?
A: Honestly, it depends on the situation I would say. I never want to encourage anything that would require a husband and wife making a separate decision and attending separate churches. But if your spouse is understanding, maybe ask him/her if it would be okay for you to take a break from attending while you guys figure all of this out? Be really honest about how uncomfortable it makes you to keep attending this church.
Thank you for reading! As usual, feel free to find me on Instagram at @alishabmitchell. I am so thankful you are a part of this conversation with me.