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Why Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Cause C-PTSD

Why Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Cause C-PTSD

What happens when you get scared or badly hurt? Your heart rate increases, your breathing quickens, and you might break into a sweat or get goosebumps. Your body immediately prepares to get the heck out of Dodge or kick some serious butt. Sometimes you shake from head to toe or your teeth chatter. You might cry or scream. Some people feel sick to their stomachs, mess their pants, or go into shock. 

When we experience terror or pain, we may not even notice how our body is reacting in the moment. Afterward, when the threat has passed and our bodies are trying to calm down, we might realize what happened or how amped up we were.

The fact that our brains and bodies work together in so many instantaneous ways to keep us safe when we’re in danger is amazing. It’s natural and expected; we depend on it for survival.

But can these normal, helpful reactions to traumatic events actually trip us up? What if our bodies start hitting the repeat button, telling us we’re not safe when nothing bad is still happening? What if all that terror—all those stress responses—go into overdrive and rattle and echo around inside us without any sign of stopping? 

What Is PTSD?

Most of us have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can occur when a person experiences or witnesses a terrifying or traumatic event such as a car accident, a murder, sexual assault, domestic violence, a natural disaster like a fire, etc.

There is a broad range of symptoms that can vary over time and from person to person but, according to the Mayo Clinic, the major categories of PTSD symptoms are intrusive memories, avoidance (not wanting to talk about or visit the places traumatic events happened), negative changes in thinking or mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions (everything from insomnia to overwhelming guilt). 

We used to think of PTSD as something that only happened to soldiers who lived through the horrors of war—a veteran who has flashbacks of a battle when he hears a backfiring car, for example. But PTSD affects people from every walk of life, in every culture, and at every age. What’s more, it doesn’t tell the full story of people who are experiencing repeated and prolonged trauma—when their daily reality is often violent and unsafe. 

How do we describe the effect of constant terror and stress and harm? Years and even decades of trauma instead of hours or days. The impact is real but complex.

What Is Complex PTSD?

According to Wikipedia, complex-post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is “thought to occur as a result of repetitive, prolonged trauma involving harm or abandonment by a caregiver or other interpersonal relationships with an uneven power dynamic. 

C-PTSD is associated with sexual, emotional or physical abuse or neglect in childhood, intimate partner violence, victims of kidnapping and hostage situations, indentured servants, victims of slavery, sweatshop workers, prisoners of war, victims of bullying, concentration camp survivors, and defectors of cults or cult-like organizations.[2] 

Situations involving captivity/entrapment (a situation lacking a viable escape route for the victim or a perception of such) can lead to C-PTSD-like symptoms, which include prolonged feelings of terror, worthlessness, helplessness, and deformation of one’s identity and sense of self.”[3]

So just as a single sexual assault can cause PTSD, so traumatic events that are ongoing, such as domestic violence and childhood abuse can cause C-PTSD.

One isn’t better or worse than the other; C-PTSD has a broader list of symptoms and encompasses more of a lived experience than a single event. Remember, the key difference is the “repetitive, prolonged” nature of the trauma and the lack of agency because of an uneven power dynamic or the inability to escape. 

Just because someone isn’t a prisoner of war doesn’t mean they can up and walk out of an abusive relationship. Domestic violence and childhood abuse are propped up by belief systems (abusers who believe they have a right to treat their victims like garbage; communities and societies and religions that endorse and perpetuate abuse; victims who are taught, sometimes from birth, that they have no right to demand better treatment, they deserve the abuse, what they’re experiencing is normal, they can’t survive without their abusers, and so on).

But those belief systems work in tandem with a physical reality. For example: Children cannot survive without their parents. And a woman who loses job after job because of her partner’s unhinged behavior and the time she has to take to off to recover from beatings is in a Catch-22: leave her marriage as a destitute woman unable to physically or financially care for herself or stay and fall further apart with each passing day. 

The issue isn’t even just what victims are suffering at the (sometimes literal) hands of their abusers. It’s all the ways their bodies are storing that trauma—all the ways their brains are surviving in constant fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. 

For some, their bodies shake uncontrollably when they talk about their abusers. 

For one woman, whenever she sees a wooden spoon or brown leather belt, she feels like she’s going to puke, and she can’t focus for hours afterward. 

For one single mother, if she notices her children doing something dangerous, she feels paralyzed; she can’t move to help or even call out a warning. 

PTSD feels like your body and mind have been hijacked. Even if all you’ve known is abuse, even if you love your abuser, even if you justify the abuse or think you deserve it, your body will contradict you. Because it was made to keep you safe. It’s wise enough to know that you weren’t (and aren’t) safe, even if you were taught the opposite.

One woman in my support group, Flying Free, remembers feeling suicidal a month before her wedding to a covert malignant narcissist. There was nothing obviously bad happening; she was just counting down the days until she became a Mrs. On her honeymoon, she began having terrifying nightmares and insomnia. Years later, she understands that her body and brain were trying to warn her. They knew she wasn’t safe even if she drove that unconscious knowledge away.

It took her 13 years to listen and leave.

For many sufferers, though, C-PTSD symptoms don’t start right away. They’re progressive, and the longer you suffer trauma, the more symptoms crop up, and the more often they wreak havoc on your day-to-day.

Maybe 10 years into your marriage is when you first noticed the trembling in your jaw. You thought you were cold. It wasn’t until the following summer that you realized it was happening in 90-degree heat. And it starts whenever your husband gets a certain angry look on his face or begins to shake his leg when he’s sitting.

Maybe you taught yourself to be still and quiet when your emotional abuser would yell at you. But it’s as if your body listened too well. You regularly find yourself standing in your kitchen, hugging your arms around your chest, numbed out, ruminating over memory after painful memory. Trying to make sense of it all but never arriving at any conclusions.

C-PTSD keeps us from living in the present by recycling our past trauma through our bodies and brains, over and over. Because if our brains are stuck, our bodies are stuck. And many times, the trauma isn’t a car accident or a firefight during military service—it’s harm by people we love dearly, in the form of emotional and spiritual abuse. 

The Role of Emotional and Spiritual Abuse in Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Emotional and spiritual abuse aren’t one-offs. They’re belief systems. They’re family of origin dynamics. They’re religious dogma. All for the sake of preserving the status quo. And the only way to keep things the same is to control variables—to control people. 

If you’re in a relationship or community where people are actively working to control you, there are only so many ways to do so. Big surprise: They’re all based on lowering your value of yourself, challenging your intuition, and elevating the value of what others say about you, increasing your responsibility, and reinforcing how to live life within their rules. 

In other words, emotional and spiritual abuse meet the qualifications that lead to C-PTSD:

    1. An uneven power dynamic. This doesn’t have to be overt, like in the case of the president of a company and his or her underlings. It can be a priest to parishioner, a husband to wife, a mother to a child, a person of influence and status in the community and a “nobody,” for example. Abusers feed you a warped view of reality over and over to brainwash you into believing whatever will keep you under their thumb. Your experience, opinions, and rights are irrelevant. If you don’t believe them, you know (even if they don’t say it) that there will be a price to pay, ranging from their disgust to damnation of your eternal soul 
    2. Repetitive, prolonged trauma. Emotional and spiritual abuse happen within relationships and communities. Everything in your life is painted and affected by them. The pains, the betrayals, the snide remarks, the subtle meanness—all of if happens over and over, day in and day out. There is no end.
    3. No escape (or what seems like no escape). There’s no end…and what seems like no escape. Because of the first two aspects, escape either can’t be imagined, or it’s impossible because of a lack of resources (or because the consequences of leaving are so high). 

This is a three-part stew of nastiness where one aspect constantly bleeds and feeds into the others. And it’s like an instruction manual for getting C-PTSD.

But many victims don’t recognize emotional or spiritual abuse to begin with, so figuring out that they’re experiencing C-PTSD is impossible. In fact, they’ve swallowed the bait of their abusers so fully that they often blame the symptoms of C-PTSD on their own weakness, not the abuse they’re suffering. 

Emotional Abuse

We all have bad days. We all act like buttholes sometimes. But acting like a jerky three-year-old on a random Tuesday is not the same as emotional abuse. Being impatient and fussing at your kids when you’re PMS-ing before you rein yourself in is not emotional abuse. Getting angry at someone when they mistreat you or your kids is not emotional abuse. Calling out someone when they lie or don’t follow through is not emotional abuse. 

“Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior in which the perpetrator insults, humiliates, and generally instills fear in an individual in order to control them. The individual’s reality may become distorted as they internalize the abuse as their own failings.” (Source)

There are three important aspects of emotional abuse:

  • Behavior patterns. If you experienced normal human behavior, including isolated disagreements and frustrations, in your relationships, you probably wouldn’t be reading this page. The patterns, the never-ending merry-go-round, the consistency of an emotional abuser’s behavior is the problem. It’s a predictable cycle. You can count on them in the worst way. They keep making the same “mistakes.” No matter what they say about doing better or being sorry (if they even do say these things), they stay the exact same, month after month, year after year. 
  • Intent to control through harm. This is one of the hardest pills to swallow, maybe even more so than the fact that abusers rarely change (because they don’t want to). It’s the evidence that they WANT to hurt you. They often really LIKE hurting you. It’s not an accident. It’s not ignorance. It’s calculated and intentional. Abuse is nothing if not strategic. It’s a game to them. And you are a pawn. 
  • Impact. If you don’t remember feeling angry all the time, hating yourself often, struggling to remember what happened after disagreements, or being constantly confused about where you stand BEFORE your relationship started, it’s pretty unlikely that you suddenly changed into a weak or terrible person. It’s likely due to a combination of emotional or spiritual abuse and C-PTSD. Abuse is meant to destroy you, systematically and progressively, so if you feel as if you’re falling apart, the question isn’t “What’s wrong with me?” but “Why?” Healthy relationships feed people—they help them flourish. Real love expands your life; it doesn’t diminish or squelch you. If a relationship is harming you, the person or people on the other are not safe.

The sad thing is that even if you recognize your relationship is unhealthy, even if you recognize emotional abuse and admit it’s present in your marriage (for instance), there’s often another obstacle to protecting yourself from further harm (and C-PTSD). And it’s masked in the prettiest package you’ve ever seen. 

Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is also based on the aim of controlling another person or people, but through a specific means: religion. This includes, but isn’t limited to, using the Bible or another religious text to make people believe and do what you want. It’s endorsing your opinions with God or “God’s Word.”

Spiritual abuse also includes using religious authority to control another person. It can span every facet of life: sexuality and procreation, food and drink, physical fitness, marital status and divorce, gender roles, personal boundaries, parenting, music, hobbies, clothing/hair/makeup styles, Bible translation, all the way down to the specific words you use for prayers, the number of times you pray each day, and the names you use for God. 

It sounds funny to nonreligious people, who would simply brush off some of the rules and advice and judgment I’m describing.

But if you’re taught a certain way of thinking—a complete worldview and framework for reality—from the time you’re young by the very people you’re meant to trust the most, it’s pretty difficult to discount, deny, or distance yourself from that “truth.” It’s almost unimaginable that the God who is supposed to love you is actually a God of abuse. That the people who were supposed to have your best interests at heart actually just used you as a Lego character. That all the most important things you were taught are really warped and destructive, not beautiful and helpful and holy. 

This probably sounds extremely cynical and maybe even anti-religious. It might even sound overdramatic and like an exaggeration. But what I’m describing is the opposite of love, the antithesis of a good God and, sadly, the RULE instead of the EXCEPTION in many Christian families, churches, and denominations.

Emotional and spiritual abuse is an epidemic in conservative Christian circles (as well as religions like Islam and Judaism) because of their misogynistic beliefs about women.

Why Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Cause C-PTSD

Patriarchal (complementarian) Marriage

Complementarians assign primary headship roles to men and support roles to women—based on their interpretation of certain biblical passages. One of the precepts of Complementarianism is that while women may assist in the decision-making process, the ultimate authority for the decision is the purview of the male in marriage, courtship, and in the polity of churches subscribing to this view. (Source)

By its definition, there is an uneven power dynamic in a complementarian marriage that is truly functioning according to complementarian rules and not egalitarian ideals (a school of thought that promotes equality for all, regardless of gender).

Please Note: There are some who CLAIM to be complementarian in their beliefs, and yet their marriages are functioning practically as egalitarian marriages. It’s important to maintain consistency with reality, not just verbal head nods in one direction or another. I wrote about this in an article explaining complementarianism vs. egalitarianism.

So when you have an uneven power dynamic in a marriage PLUS emotional abuse (and spiritual abuse if the husband or church are telling the woman she is at fault for pointing out the abuse) PLUS the teaching that divorce is wrong, and no matter what the “authority/husband” does to her, she is stuck in the marriage until she dies

You’ve got all the ingredients for an emotionally and physically crippling case of C-PTSD.

Why Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Cause C-PTSD

How is this scenario any different from a prisoner of war?

Women are being brainwashed with controlling propaganda; held against their will and told it’s good for them; put in a place of subservience with all their actions controlled by others; told their opinions are meaningless and their experiences rubbish; and dehumanized, with no way out. 

So the woman of faith in an emotionally abusive marriage has her freedom of thought, action, opinion, and choice stripped away. She is disrespected as a human being. Viewed as less-than by virtue of her lack of a particular body part (hint: it hangs from a man’s body).

In essence, it’s not much different than being a prisoner of war. There’s even an “us vs. them” mentality (nonbelievers, wicked and sexually active women, single or divorced mothers, career women, etc. are the “enemy”), with dire warnings over the terrible consequences of not following religious rules (including poverty, disease, contempt, excommunication, hell, the wrath of God, and probably Vitamin C deficiency).

This is psychological abuse in a distilled form. What is more terrifying than eternal consequences? What is more corrupt than a comprehensive theology that imprisons every aspect of your life and identity? Your life is one long, traumatic event. And any sign of poor mental health because of this coercive control is an indication that you are in rebellion, not that you’re being mistreated. 

After all, mental illness is just a lack of faith in God, right? (No, no, and no.)

For women who’ve been so effectively brainwashed, they distrust their gut (or intuition), their bodies, and their minds, which also means they’re often suffering in silence and likely hating themselves for their perceived weaknesses.

So the cycle continues, and our bodies and minds bear the evidence.

19 Effects of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Our bodies can only carry so much stress before it spills over. Most of the abuse victims I work with have full-blown cases of C-PTSD, and they are largely unaware of it. Many of you reading this live with the debilitating symptoms of C-PTSD every day of your lives. It’s a killer. Here are just some of the common symptoms:

  • Persistent anxiety and unrest
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Difficulty remembering events surrounding abusive “incidents”
  • Reliving experiences (I call it looping; some people call it “ruminating”) over and over in an effort to “solve” the problem
  • Feeling helpless
  • Paralysis of initiative
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Self-blame
  • A sense of being different from the rest of the human race
  • Attributing total power to the perpetrator (they seem more powerful than they really are)
  • Becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator
  • Desire for revenge alternating with feelings of gratitude toward the perpetrator
  • A sense of alliance with the perpetrator and relief when buying into the perps’ belief system
  • Rationalizing the abuse
  • Repeated desperate search for a rescuer—someone who will listen and validate their experiences—the feeling that unless someone else believes them, it can’t be true
  • Repeated failure to protect themselves
  • Loss of sustaining faith that borders on despair
  • Disconnection that alternates with feelings of terror and confusion (Source)

Why Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Cause C-PTSD

Physical Symptoms of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

C-PTSD sufferers experience physical health problems as a result of all this emotional dysregulation in their lives as well, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Back and neck problems
  • Chronic headaches
  • Vision problems
  • Nerve twitches
  • Insomnia
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Heart palpitations
  • Panic attacks
  • Asthma
  • Stress
  • Immune system breakdown
  • Endocrine system breakdown
  • Unbalanced hormones
  • Brain fog

Long-Term Effects of C-PTSD

Over a long period of time, abuser survivors’ health can break down permanently, and this is why I continue to insist that emotional abuse is a covert kind of physical abuse rendered all the worse for the fact that it cannot be proven by the victim.

Have you heard the saying “Stress is a silent killer?” This is especially true of chronic stress. So let’s continue the cooking analogy. Take everything I listed above and put it in a bucket. Mash it around a bit. Let’s put it in a slow cooker on low heat and just let it simmer. What do you think will happen?

Besides all the flavors (panic attacks, anxiety, overwhelming guilt, vision problems, etc.) intensifying, you can’t break down a body but so far before it starts to fall apart. Based on numerous studies, the long-term effects or risks of C-PTSD include:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Hypertension
  • Obesity
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Psychosomatic syndromes (physical ailments without a clear medical explanation)
  • 41 autoimmune diseases
  • Vulnerability to serious illness/Getting sick more often (a broken immune system can’t put up much of a fight)
  • Brain damage
  • Early death

This raises the question: Are we facing a mental and physical health crisis or the fallout of an emotional and spiritual abuse epidemic?

In addition to the difficulty in diagnosing C-PTSD and the confusion over what constitutes abuse, many victims wonder if they themselves are part of the problem. I’ve found this to be especially true when it comes to the question of personality disorders, specifically borderline personality disorder.

Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental health condition. It’s characterized by the intense fear of abandonment and a lack of emotional stability. The most common symptoms include unstable relationships, impulsive self-destructive behaviors, feeling suspicious or out of touch with reality, explosive anger, and self-harm. These symptoms are long-standing and usually start in adolescence. Diagnosis is based on a minimum number of symptoms and the level of impact they have on a person’s daily life. 

Complex PTSD vs. Borderline Personality Disorder

C-PTSD is NOT a personality disorder. But it occurs as a result of living with a personality disordered individual for a length of time. It can happen to anyone put in those circumstances regardless of their original personality, their strength, their intelligence, their skill set, their will to survive or problem-solve, and so forth.

What often confuses people is that symptoms can overlap (dissociation may occur with both, for example), and C-PTSD sufferers may appear out of control because of trauma triggers. This isn’t to say that a person diagnosed with borderline personality disorder cannot also suffer from PTSD or C-PTSD, just that they are not identical and not necessarily related. Of the key differences: 

BPD involves a generalized under-regulation of intense distress related to real or perceived abandonment or rejection, whereas emotion dysregulation in PTSD is characterized by attempts to over-regulate (e.g., emotional numbing, avoidance, dissociation) distress related to reminders of traumatic experiences. (Source)

Why is the difference important? Because so many abuse victims and survivors are told they’re personality disordered, or unstable, or crazy (and being diagnosed with BPD doesn’t mean you’re crazy, by the way). They’re “diagnosed” by their abusers. Abuse victims feel unhinged, so they often believe the lie that the issue lies with them—that there’s something “wrong” with them (which again raises the issue of mental health condition stigmas). 

Borderline personality disorder is a common pick for emotional abusers who want to gaslight their victims. But their assumptions should never be taken seriously without the diagnosis of a trauma-informed, personality-disorder-savvy therapist. 

So let’s make the distinction between BPD and C-PTSD clear, while also drawing a line in the sand: Being abused makes you feel crazy. It brings up a lot of strong emotions. It can cause you to feel unstable, depressed, and even suicidal. But you’re not misinterpreting reality or being mistreated because you’re off your rocker. You’re just a good person in a terrible situation. 

Why Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Cause C-PTSD

How to Prevent Emotional and Spiritual Abuse That Cause Complex PTSD

  1. We educate ourselves. We read and learn all we can about it. We listen to survivors. We examine our own beliefs about women and how they line up with how Christ viewed women. We figure out why it is that we think a body part makes some people “authority figures” over other people. We figure out where our faith traditions strayed from what the Bible teaches about humanity. Both men AND women.
  2. We speak the truth out loud even though it makes people angry. We learn to tolerate the disapproval of men in order to gain the approval of our Heavenly Father. We see people as small, and we see God as BIG.
  3. If we are a survivor, we get help for ourselves. We don’t wait for a rescuer. We grab hold of Jesus Christ, and we learn and grow strong. Strong enough to break free. We get therapy (not from a biblical counselor who knows nothing about emotional abuse, but from a trained therapist who diagnoses C-PTSD.) EMDR therapy is a proven therapy for sufferers of C-PTSD. We find a community of women that know the unique dynamic of abuse, especially in the context of faith, such as the Flying Free Sisterhood.
  4. We tell our stories. We empathize with abuse targets. We call a spade a spade. We get out of our legalistic prisons and we find hope and freedom through Christ.

If you think you may have C-PTSD, you may benefit from our private Flying Free Sisterhood group. We have a course within this group called “Healing from C-PTSD” that does a deep dive into this subject. We would love to have you join us in learning the skills you need to become spiritually strong and emotionally healthy again.

Treatment Options for Complex PTSD

If you think you may have C-PTSD, you may benefit from the private Flying Free community support group. We have a course within this group called “Healing from C-PTSD” that does a deep dive into this subject. We would love to have you join us in learning the skills you need to become spiritually strong and emotionally healthy again. 

The following are a few types of therapy that are commonly used and often very effective for C-PTSD treatment. 

  • Internal family systems (IFS). 
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). (I’ve gone through EMDR therapy, as have many women I’ve coached. It’s popular because it works.) 
  • Prolonged exposure. 
  • Cognitive-behavioral (CBT).

I suggest reading information about each of these therapies, what they consist of and how they work. You can search for a therapist who specializes in a specific therapy type in your area. Many survivors find different healing modalities helpful at different times. 

And as much as I’m an advocate of therapy (and even medication as needed), I will tell you that many of the women in my community support group say that Flying Free has helped them exponentially more than therapy ever did and in much less time for much less money. 

To your healing,

Natalie Hoffman

Recommended Resources

Why Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Cause C-PTSD

Flying Free Sisterhood

An online coaching, education, and support community for women of faith in destructive relationships.

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The Comments

  • Avatar
    December 1, 2022

    Hi there. It sounds like your site is such an excellent resource for women who are experiencing a range of issues and abusive situations. I have had a look through the stie and the flying free program. I had a couple of questions related to it.
    I live in Australia. Is the program/podcasts etc available internationally? Do the hosting sites you use work overseas?
    secondly, a lot of my CPTSD was caused by working in a spiritually abusive missions organization for 25 years. Is the course mainly designed for women in abusive marriages and focused on those types of relationships? Whilst there are hurts there (from us both in our marriage to one another), a lot of my pain relates to the org/leaders dynamics. I’m sure there will be stuff that is applicable, but is most of your content specific to marriages? Thanks! love and recognize your courage and heart for the Lord, others and your self.

    • Natalie Hoffman
      Natalie Hoffman
      → Kay
      December 1, 2022

      The program is accessed via the Internet, so if you have Internet access, you would be able to access the program. The program deals specifically with abusive marriages. That said, there are a handful of single women who have dealt with abuse in the church and the workplace who have gone through the program and applied it to their situation.

  • October Is Domestic Violence Awareness Month – Summit Community Counseling
    January 28, 2021

    […] […]

  • How Can I Be a Good Mom in an Abusive Marriage? -
    November 30, 2020

    […] been officially diagnosed, you likely have most of the symptoms. (You can read more about complex PTSD HERE.) This means you’ve not only got regular parenting challenges, but you’ve got kids who […]

  • Bethlehem Baptist Church Is Not a Safe Church for Women in Emotionally Abusive Relationships -
    November 11, 2020

    […] same symptoms of BPD, but unlike BPD which is a personality disorder that can’t be changed, C-PTSD is situational and can be healed with proper treatment. I had EMDR therapy with a real licensed therapist in the […]

  • Avatar
    October 24, 2020

    This is a very helpful article. Are the Recommended resources: The Body Keeps the Score and
    How He Gets Into Her Head still available as the pages were not accessible? Thank you.

    • Natalie Hoffman
      Natalie Hoffman
      → Emma
      October 24, 2020

      Thank you for letting us know! Those links are now updated.

      • Avatar
        → Natalie Hoffman
        October 24, 2020

        Thank you 🙂

    • Avatar
      → Emma
      September 27, 2022

      I was so blessed that my pastor and his wife listened to me, believed me, and told me that by his behaviour my husband was breaking his marriage vows to me. They have stood by and loved me. Their support was a major factor in my gaining the strength to leave my 35 year marriage.
      Thank you for using your voice, Natalie

  • Avatar
    November 11, 2019

    My worst C-PTSD symptom was recurring nightmares. In the dreams, I knew my spouse was trying to kill me, so I was frantically trying to escape. The nightmares finally stopped a few years after I fled.

    In real life (when we were together as a married couple), Psycho tried to destroy me with all types of abuse. Within 5 months of marriage, I completely lost my health from trying to live with that man. Many times he neglected my basic needs (water, food, hygiene, bathroom) when I was terribly ill & unable to take care of myself – yet I was expected to take care of him when he was sick.

    I praise & thank God that I was finally able to flee. Recovery is taking much longer than I expected, in part because both families, church & many friends/acquaintances took the abuser’s side.

  • Avatar
    April 30, 2019

    Wow–this point was so helpful to me. “emotional abuse is a covert kind of physical abuse rendered all the worse for the fact that it cannot be proven by the victim.” I have never thought of it that way. Thank you!

  • Avatar
    Janet Dixon
    March 22, 2019

    Thank you for this eye opening teaching about what Galatians is all about and what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about.
    It was a true refreshing blessing!!!

  • Avatar
    Lyn C
    February 18, 2019

    Thank you for this post! I suffered emotional and spiritual abuse at the hands of a well-respected senior pastor as a member of his congregation and as an associate pastor at his church. I eventually discovered several dozen other women and men in my former church had also been emotionally abused by this expert, covert narcissist pastor. Although he has since retired, the current pastoral staff were his proteges and the toxic, abusive policies and behaviors continue. After months of trying to get the pastors and church board members to take our stories seriously, my husband and I finally left the church after 40+ years of committed membership and service as lay leaders and eventually as an associate pastor myself. We are slowly trying to put our lives back together, but I am still facing the likelihood of having to surrender my credentials and ordination within this denomination if we don’t return in a couple of years. If this happens I will have to leave my current position as a hospital chaplain (which I love), as my employment in this capacity is dependent on my being ordained and in good standing with my denomination. I feel stuck and trapped and want very much to continue in my current ministry.

  • Avatar
    January 8, 2019

    I was with a man for 7 years and engaged for two of them. I didn’t feel like he loved me so I ended the engagement. He hoovered 4-year saying that he thought God meant for us to be together. the year after we separated but he was still hanging around I found out he was cheating on me I was celebrating his two-year anniversary with another girl. I was devastated and I had no support because people couldn’t understand why I cared if I left him. When I confronted him about why he did that to me he said that God healed him from me and that he wished he had done things differently.
    Fast forward to four years ago. I meet a guy at work I start dating him and 3 months and I feel like I’m with my ex all over again. I felt so alone even sitting next to him on the couch. He was a drug addict. I walked away from him twice. He started dating a friend of mine that I cared dearly about and somehow that triggered me and I lost my mind because I couldn’t imagine her going through what I’m going through now. I’m scared I’m going to lose my job. I’m in therapy for anxiety and depression. But I’ve been out of work for a month on Fmla and I’m angry with myself for not being good enough to go back to work yet. And my HR lady has seemed to have lost her patience with me. I don’t think she believes me I don’t think she understands. I need an advocate so badly to defend me. I’m asking for a miracle guys.

  • Avatar
    December 30, 2018

    I have been married for 23 years and recently separated. My husband and I have difficulty in conflict. He can become angry in these time and bully like. I admit I am not completely innocent in past of not retaliating. My husband does have a medical reason for some of his inability to control anger ( head injury) He says this is why he can’t remember things he says. But interestingly can remember things others say. We tried counseling but he has quit because he says “he doesn’t get anything “ out of it. He wants the kids (3 kids, two in college and 1 high school) and I to come home and we can work out on our own. We have tried this multiple times in past and things are better but then we get back into same cycles. Our kids don’t want me to go home and try anymore because they feel he is just to self centered. I have been told by counselors he is verbally abusive but it definitely is more around time of conflict and not daily. We ( the kids and I) often felt unease in our home due to always trying to make sure we followed the rules. I’ve tried to communicate to my husband that our home environment felt that way. He just states he’ll try to lighten up but as a man he has to have rules for the home. I really feel our situation is hopeless because my husband won’t return to counseling and I won’t return home because I don’t want to be in the same cycle again. So frustrated because I really wanted to honor my marriage covenant but I mentally can’t go through it all again.

    • Natalie Hoffman
      Natalie Hoffman
      → Leah
      December 30, 2018

      Marriage requires two individuals who actively honor their vows. One just one. It sounds like you are the only one interested in doing this. When the covenant has been broken over and over again with no repentance or action on the part of the one who repeatedly breaks the vows, the other party is free. See David Instone-Brewer’s book Divorce and Remarriage in the Church for more information from a biblical perspective. My book, Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage will also help clarify things for you.

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    December 26, 2018

    what about men? i know abuse if women is huge. but spiritual abuse hits men hard too.

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    September 20, 2018

    I joined the Flying Free support community about five months ago after leaving my husband of 26 years less than a week after losing my mother. It is true what they say, you can inadvertently marry into an abusive marriage as a result of growing up in an abusive home. I thank God for leading me here, for the memory of my mother’s strength and courage and for the support I have received from all of the ladies at work who have helped me. I have filed for the divorce, had him served at work (to which he never responded) and am now waiting to get a court date with my judge. The Flying Free support community has taught me so much about the emotional, mental and spiritual abuse that my husband has put me through. It has also taught me how to overcome the lies that have kept me in the cycles of abuse throughout my life. I too thought I was “going crazy” because that was what my narcissistic husband was telling me. I told him I wanted a divorce and he said that God was going to send me and my children to hell, which of course he later denied, this coming from a man who lied about another woman and hid a porno addiction. I have had every aspect of my life questioned and put on a chopping block and I thought I would die just from the effort of divorcing him. Narcissist DO NOT like to be held accountable for their behavior and they DO NOT like to have that behavior exposed by there victims. They will go as far as telling everyone what they have done in order to get sympathy so they don’t look bad! But God has given me peace with my decision to divorce, I AM doing the right thing. I still have a long road ahead of me but I am an example to my daughter that she is also worthy of love and respect. Please please please share this community with as many women as you can, there are so many of us who need this support. God Bless!

    • Natalie Hoffman
      Natalie Hoffman
      → Deana
      September 20, 2018

      I’m so glad to hear this. I wish no woman would ever have to go through this, making this group unnecessary. But I am glad it has been a lifeline for you. I appreciate your feedback, Deana.

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    June 12, 2018

    Oh my goodness I fit under nearly all of these descriptors. Add a latent Lyme infection that was triggered ten years ago from the stress of my marriage, and this is my life. That last bit nearly killed me until God thankfully led me to help in the alternative health field. Some things, like having major anxiety episodes, are newer, within the past few months.

    I am in a church that leans more “reformed” in it’s theology, though it doesn’t publicly identify as such, and my husband has been way into the major reformed teachers who teach male headship and female subordination. I tried to be the submissive christian wife, and never spoke a word against my husband to anyone for our entire marriage of almost 12 years, because then I would be gossiping and disrespectful. I completely lost my sense of personhood and identity, knew I was disgusting and worthless, and started having explosions of anger at husband before I started realizing what was happening. I am still grieving the passionate, kind, gentle, naive and trusting girl I was before getting married.

    For the past four years I have been slowly climbing out of this pit and having moments of clarity in the fog. My prayer for the past four years has been for clarity. Just clarity. I want to see the truth. It is slow and it’s scary. Especially when I don’t know who to trust, or whether I’m overreacting or oversensitive (common accusations by hubs). Sometimes still go back into denial and I oftentimes wonder if maybe I’m the abusive one (also accusation by hubs, especially after I brought up spiritual abuse in pastoral counseling). Reading more has helped me combat this, but I still go between wondering if I am the main problem to knowing that I’ve been completely brainwashed.

    I’ve been to seek counseling three times within our church. The first time the biblical counselor told me I am a co-addict because my husband lied to me and was very successfully deceptive prior to marriage. I have no idea how being innocent, naive, and trusting makes me a co-addict. The second time, I hesitantly brought up emotional and spiritual abuse to the pastor in couples counseling. He said the things hubs had said sounded spiritually abusive in nature, then next session hubs said he felt like he was misrepresented and it was dropped. Never heard another word about it. Then the third time, a few weeks ago, I brought up major issues of hubs’ untrustworthiness in our relationship and how I am now dealing with being triggered about past betrayals, which is met with complete lack of empathy from hubs when I can’t successfully stuff it. I get accused of believing lies and assuming the worst. Zero compassion or ownership. The pastor said I have valid reasons for feeling the way I do, and then referred to me as having bitterness in front of hubs. Which was an accusation the first time we went as well. That was the last straw for me. Seeking truth is not bitterness. Asking for help is not bitterness. Confronting sin and hurt is not bitterness. Trying to heal is not bitterness. Forgiveness is not synonymous with trust and reconciliation. I am reading everything I can, and going to the Bible, to scholars who value women, and to secular sources who understand emotional/spiritual abuse and betrayal trauma. I don’t know what to do about my marriage. In a lot of ways hubs is a really good guy (as the pastor reminded me multiple times). Physically faithful, gentle with our daughters, works hard and tries to give me a good life…as long as I don’t say anything he disagrees with or anything that feels like an attack to him. Then it’s words and the Bible that is used to blame me and vindicate himself. I’ve learned to keep my heart and opinions to myself.

    • Avatar
      → Mosaic
      June 14, 2018

      Hi Mosaic. This story sounds really awful, and one thing you said reminded me of an article that I just read on Henry Cloud’s Boundaries site:
      When you said: He’s a good guy (and your pastor agrees). I encourage you to read this article and think how you can see him as a whole person.

      A good man is not what he is. He’s an abusive man who dominates his wife. Those things will not change. I am sorry for the pain you’re in, but the answer to what to do about your marriage isn’t in your power. Marriage takes two. You don’t have one–I didn’t either. I had an arrangement. A sort of forced agreement that as long as I didn’t stir up the problems, and he did what he wanted, then things would be ok. When one friend finally said, here’s the thing Mel, marriage is supposed to glorify God. That’s not what yours does. It really does the opposite.

      I was so afraid of divorce– but I was not afraid of making my marriage an idol. Taking one step after another (taking stands, speaking truth, not going along with the abuse, setting boundaries, waiting for the guidance of God and then following it) in the hope that this was our best chance at being healthy and ultimately glorifying God. That led to this — my husband refused to have that kind of marriage. He maintained that I was destroying our marriage. But eventually God showed me that wasn’t me. I didn’t do that. I just exposed what was rotten. The milk isn’t bad because I sniffed it and made a face. The milk is bad because it’s bad.

      Seek out the Lord’s opinion of you, not your spouses. And see this: He is not a good man. And you are not oversensitive, you’re a human being who’s being treated awfully. Your pain is trying to shout a warning to you. And your daughters do not have a good father, I’m sorry. They have a father who will show them what kind of husband they should look for. One like him.

      That was my final straw. My daughter loved her dad. She was twelve years old when I looked at her and thought: If she winds up with someone like him, I will die. And a wise woman asked me: Why is it not okay for her, but it’s okay for you?

      Because I valued her more than I valued myself. And you know what? God used that love to give me enough strength to take a step toward him and ask: What do you want me to do now?

      And he has been very good to us. My worst fear did happen– I’ve been divorced six years now. And I see this only as the best grace God has ever shown me and my kids.

      In the end, what we needed was to have health and truth and grace. Oh how I wish I would have believed that was enough for them. Praise God they have healed.

      But my daughter did exactly what I was afraid of, she found her own abuser when she was 18. But because she knew what it was, because I’d said what it was out loud, because I finally learned and spoke up, she was out by the time she was 19. And she’s getting better. She’s not repeating it, not for twenty years at least.

      To be a wife and a mom means to speak the truth. To fight for what is right. And to hope and pray that he will see it.

      To do otherwise means that you believe you made the milk bad. And you didn’t, Mosaic. You didn’t make it that way.

      • Avatar
        → Melanie
        June 17, 2020

        Are night terrors a symptom of ptsd as well? It wasn’t in your list but I thought they might be. Been getting them off and on for last couple years…I’m almost 50. And back and neck issues…not sure how it can affect me physically but it seems to. How do you stop the terrors? It scares my kids so much…

    • Avatar
      → Mosaic
      August 18, 2018

      I have also rode this merrygo round…reaching out for help, thinking I have found it, and then having the “help” jump ship and on me and side with my abuser. I first feel validated and hopeful, feeling some clarity from the utter confusion inside my head from living with someone I have trusted my life with….who is now and has been abusing me for a very very long time. But as instantly as I feel hope that someone sees and understands what is really going on behind closed doors, the hand that once reached to lift me, quickly pulls away…I am left hurt, confused, and wondering if I am oversensitive, if maybe there is something wrong with me. I have circled and circled and circled that horrible loop. I finally realized, if my perceptions of things were truly skewed, that truly I was just oversensitive and delusional, and I truly was the one with the problem, and the post traumatic stress was all my own doing….if this was in fact the case… husband STILL has no empathy for my condition. He STILL offers me no support, comfort, or help. He STILL insists on my body for sex, though he knows I cry as he is using my body, and he has seen me cry for days following these encounters. He KNOWS the things he does to my body in the night while I am sleeping cause me terrifying nightmares, but does he stop? NO. He STILL feels entitled to meet all his “needs” with my body, guilting me, using my tender heart against me. IF I TRULY AM THE ONE WITH THE PROBLEM then ok, let’s just say I am. I sure as heck realize I am suffering serious symptoms of fear, terror, anxiety, and depression. My husband STILL has no compassion, care, or concern for my health and wellbeing. He STILL FEELS ENTITLED TO MEET HIS EVERY NEED AT THE EXPENSE OF MY HEALTH AND WELLBEING. That is someone who does not love me. That is someone that will never love me. That is someone I need to protect myself from, because God did not bless me with a body and life to have another individual destroy that body and life. That is against the will and plan of God. It took me a long time to realize that. It hurts to face the truth. It is much easier to make excuses for my husband’s behaviors and tell myself I am overreacting. But the truth is, I matter. I matter to God. He is my Father. I am his precious child, and he loves me. He blessed me with agency and life, so I could exercise that agency and live, if I want to, and I do. And I know he is proud of me, for doing this very hard thing, exercising the gift he gave me….My will. I choose to live. I choose to free myself from a darkness that is destroying my soul. The darkness of abuse. I choose freedom. I choose God.

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    May 22, 2018

    Your print is so light and hard to read.any way to darken it.

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    May 22, 2018

    No one has ever explained this to me… But this is the exact story of my entire life.

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      Tiffany McLearn
      → Angel
      June 13, 2018

      I lost a child right before coming into a very abusive church. I have been struggling with Post traumatic Stress ever since. It is so hard because I have the same thing where I get triggered by scripture. I have been feeling so much guilt because I feel bad for avoiding what I believe in. I feel so alone like no one understands what it’s like to be a Christian and have PTSD. I went into shock when my 3 year old died suddenly. I was so numb I couldn’t feel my face. Then as I was coming out of this fog I was listening to fearful preaching. This triggered PTSD. I want the Lord and actually have a desire to witness to others and help people find healing yet I’m going through this myself.

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        → Tiffany McLearn
        October 10, 2020

        Dear Tiffany, My heart goes out to you in the loss of your precious 3-year-old child. I understand your agonizing journey, sister. Years ago, my little son passed away at home shortly before his 3rd birthday of double pneumonia, undiagnosed by his pediatrician. Upon finding him, I also went into shock. The loss of a child is a devastating blow. When my little one went Home to Heaven, I didn’t know the Lord. Later, I came to salvation in Jesus, who comforted me in the midst of the crushing grief. I also suffered PTSD symptoms, but was welcomed by a kind body of believers who demonstrated true Christlike compassion. Someday, I look forward to a future reunion with my son, who rests in the Care and Presence of Our King, along with your dear little one.

        Church should NEVER be a place of judgmentalism, rejection, or abuse. I pray that you find a new beginning with a loving, caring fellowship of true believers. May you be welcomed and comforted in the spirit of Grace according to 1 Cor. 13. May Our Father grant you His Perfect Peace, beloved. ~ Love never fails ~

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    May 17, 2018

    This article is also helpful for identifying C-PTSD, which after 30 years of abuse, I am finally admitting and seeing.

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    April 26, 2018

    This is what I experienced for the last 43 years from my mom. I am so angry at people in church and out that made me feel guilty for feeling hurt by her psychological abuse! I got out of and have been healing from an abusive marriage. But the extent of damage my mom has done is so overwhelming! Thank you for bringing up this topic. We all need to keep talking about these experiences so that others can figure out if this is something they have experienced!

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    April 1, 2018

    I love everything you have to say. May God bless all that you do. I know He will because you speak truth. Do you ever think that medication is necessary?

    • Natalie Hoffman
      Natalie Hoffman
      → mary
      April 2, 2018

      I ended up going on medication for two years due to extreme anxiety and low-level depression. It was affecting my parenting and my ability to sleep. I was having panic attacks on the road – heart palpitations numerous times a day, etc.. The medication got me through the worst of my divorce/excommunication. I’m no longer on meds, but I recommend them for those who need them!

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    February 2, 2018

    I have been suffering from CPTSD for a lifetime. There are times I am feeling and doing better though- but most of the symptoms are ever present in varying degrees. Espcially triggered and experiencing most of them now With the most recent situation with a loved one(married to an Narcissist and whom has stubborn fleas).

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    January 4, 2018

    Thank you for sharing this , but specifically your video at the end. My heart greatly needed the sweet reminders this morning. I’ve learned the truth absolutely makes others uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable. It’s hard, it’s hurtful, it’s ugly. Just like the abuse has been ugly for many years. As I’m learning to speak the truth to myself, with & through counseling, prayer, and research, I know that I my healing occurs as I acknowledge what I’m really, truly healing from. Allowing God’s words to wash over & fill me via scripture is so necessary. I loved your perfume comment. Oh, to have the sweet, fragment scent of Jesus lingering all day.
    Thank you!

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    Nancy Oren-Jezek
    January 3, 2018

    It seems the video stops about the three minute point and doesn’t continue