Helping women of faith find hope and healing after emotional and spiritual abuse

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How Abusers Groom Their Victims (and Everyone Else)

by | May 25, 2020 | Articles, Emotional Abuse, Healing from Spiritual Abuse, Survivor Identity | 7 comments

Have you ever wanted to pull your hairs straight out of their follicles? I know that feeling. I get it every time I hear another story of how a courageous victim finally gets up the nerve to expose her abuser, and instead of getting the help and hope she dreams of, she gets put on the rack and grilled.

She tries to get away from the abuse only to find herself being abused by her larger community.

She tries to tell the truth only to be told to shut her mouth and go back to living a lie.

My follicles are twitching right now.

I recently watched Wade Mullen give a presentation (see below) on how to spot spiritual abuse. Wade did his doctoral research on the subject of how evangelical organizations manage the impressions others are forming of them in the wake of an image threatening event. In this presentation he beautifully lays out the patterns he discovered.

While Wade focuses on spiritual abuse, I’d like to take the patterns he researched and apply them to victims of emotional and spiritual abuse in a marriage. I think some women may hear a presentation like this and see the similarities, but they don’t believe it applies to them because of the perception that emotional abuse isn’t as bad as other types of abuse.

But it is.

And emotional abuse is an integral part of every other type of abuse. It’s the longest lasting type of abuse, and it leaves the longest lasting scars on the brain, the spirit, the personality, and the internal organs of the victim.

I think it’s worth taking a closer look at this and drawing some comparisons.

Wade begins by talking about the fact that abuse always involves deception. The abuser is a thief, and their goal is to steal the personhood of their victim. To erase them. To objectify them.

How I would put this is that everyone has their own universe between their ears, but the abuser believes his universe is the only one that exists, and everyone else is IN HIS universe. This is the equivalent of making himself out to be a god. To be “like God.” The sin of the devil. The first sin in the garden of Eden – to be “like God, knowing good and evil.”

He defines good and evil according to his universe. His manual for life is the only manual that counts. Anyone with a different manual is “bad” and discardable. This means for him to define his wife in terms of “a good Christian woman,” she must reflect him and his values, opinions, beliefs, preferences, desires, and goals. To the degree that she expresses her own individuality, she is vilified with various religious labels like “Jezebel,” “rebellious woman,” “dripping faucet,” and so forth.

So she is shamed for being herself. If she wants to have a Good Marriage and a Happy Husband, she needs to disappear so only he remains.

This is essentially psychological murder.

So how does he get a woman to give up her own universe (agency, perspective, unique personhood) to be swallowed up in his universe? And how does he get everyone around him to agree that he has the right to do that, and she has no right to resist?

“Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait for victims like a hunter hiding in a blind. They continually set traps to catch people.”

Jeremiah 5:26

Wade talks about two types of evil language abusers use to trap their prey. Ingratiation and dismantling.

Ingratiation: “Bring oneself into favor with someone by flattering or trying to please them.”

Abusers use ingratiation to get their victims to do what they want them to do. Wade exposes four types of ingratiation. Flattery, favors, helping, and alliances.

Flattery

“You are special. One-of-a-kind. You are perfect for this vision of mine. God created you just for this. You and I will make the perfect ministry team. We will do this awesome thing for God together.”

These are the kinds of things a victim will hear, and it distracts her from the abuser’s real agenda which is to enfold her into his own universe and use her for his purposes. Do you notice the theme of the abuser’s deception and the victim’s annihilation?

But the victim doesn’t see it unless she is equipped with this kind of understanding. This is why I’m sharing this teaching and breaking it down for you. I want every Christian female, both young and old, to know these tactics inside, outside, and upside down so they can smell an abuser a mile away and run. So they can smell an abusive church a mile away and run.

A flattered victim will feel compulsive emotional and psychological pull to approve of the abuser and do what he wants her to do, including offering HIM flattery in return.

This is something I experienced with an abusive pastor who groomed me in my early 20’s. He would flatter his favorites and make us feel extra special while blatantly ignoring people who weren’t in “his special inner circle of disciples.” I instinctively knew that in order to remain in his good graces, I had to make sure I ingratiated myself to him. There was no room to disagree. I found out later, when I dared to disagree, that I was right.

As Wade puts it, when you walk into their trap they are pleased. But when you don’t they can get quite upset. And watch them freak when you blow the whistle. This is what happens to women when they wake up to emotional abuse in their marriage and begin to speak the truth out loud. When they begin to come to the relationship as a real human being with a separate universe than his. That’s a serious no-no, and the woman pays the price for showing up.

The other issue Wade draws attention to, and I’ve seen this first hand as well, is that this flattery tactic creates an environment of flattery to the point where flattery is expected while constructive criticism or “truth-telling” is viewed as rebellious, negative, and bad.

I found out in the last church I was part of that if the community didn’t like the truth you were telling, they would just eliminate you altogether. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Favors

The next ingratiating tactic they often use is doing favors for their target. Because what do humans tend to do when someone does a favor that improves our life? We feel grateful to them, and it is also human nature to feel an obligation to them. So when they make an ask of us, we feel compelled to comply because of “all they’ve done for us.”

The women I work with in the private Flying Free Sisterhood are constantly dealing with this. As soon as they make a move to stand up for themselves, their husband starts doing nice things for them. What emotion does this invoke for these women? Guilt. It’s just a natural response, and their husbands know this. Sisters, it’s a deceptive tactic, and they use it because it is so effective.

Helping

Abusers want to isolate you from the outside world. From context. They want you to believe that what you’re experiencing in your marriage is normal.

One of the ways they do this is by brainwashing you to believe they are everything you need. You become dependent on them and stop believing you can survive without them. If you test the waters on your own, they’ll remind you of all the ways you’ll be destroyed if you try to get help anywhere else or on your own. These threats are just further evidence of their true character.

Alliances

Wade says the abuser will highlight what you have in common such as your shared opinions and experiences. “We are in this together. We can make it together.” Later they will use this tactic of alliances to separate you from the pack and attack you in that vulnerable position. They will form alliances with your family, your friends, your church, your neighbors, and anyone else that has the potential to support you and help you get out. They will get those people to collude with them and turn on you.

You may even find yourself triangulating with him against others you actually CAN trust. You may do it because you want so much for him to approve of you. You want so much to be a team. It feels good and provides a temporary sense of relief and security. And of course, he loves this because if he can get you to believe you are the instigator of the distrust, he knows you will be less likely to give up those beliefs.

I hope you can see how twisted all of this can get. Emotional abuse is an evil, twisted experience that is hard to extricate yourself from.

Dismantling: To take something apart

While the abuser is ingratiating his victim to him, he is simultaneously dismantling her external and internal universe. He is annihilating her.

His goal is to cut the victim off from her external support while dishonoring and demoralizing her inner world. He gets her to distrust everything else while creating a world for her and telling her HIS world is the only trustworthy world. She gives her universe over to him, and he swallows it up in his. Now she belongs to him.

He Attacks Her Inner World

He then exploits that trust by attacking her identity. He draws attention to and exaggerates her negative attributes by teasing her, calling her names, and bullying her. Her sense of self-worth and respect are demolished over time, and her autonomy is stripped away from her.

One of the things he attacks is her ability to make choices for herself. She comes to the belief that she can’t. She needs permission and approval from others before she can make any movement in her life. Her life gets smaller and smaller until she is a trapped bird in a very small cage. She can’t even flap her wings without being criticized.

Something Wade said struck me. He said laughter was a key indicator of this debasement of another human being. How often did my ex laugh at me or our children for something he disapproved of? Even worse, I remember when a friend told me she overheard the elders of my former church laughing about how my ex was treating me. She was shocked. By that time, I wasn’t. While they put on a spiritual show outwardly to the sheep, I knew their character behind the scenes. I didn’t want to believe pastors and elders could be like this, and yet, sometimes they are. The Bible talks a lot about mockers in Proverbs.

Deceiving and annihilating the personhood of another for their own gain. This is the abuser’s agenda. This is why it is so hard for her to leave. Her identity is no longer her own. It is woven into his.

He Attacks Her External World

An abuser wants his victim to be alone without any help or support. He will do this in two ways. One way is by brainwashing her to believe the outside world is dangerous and out to manipulate and destroy her. They will “corrupt and contaminate” her. He will get her to distrust health care workers, social workers, her family of origin, therapists, law enforcement, journalists, the legal system, and anyone else she may think she can reach out to for help.

At the same time he is feeding her these messages, he is working to create those alliances I mentioned earlier with these same people. He is setting it all up so that if she ever attempts to get out or expose his abuse, he will have the snare already set to ruin her. This is the constant, unspoken threat that hangs over her head every minute of every day.

And she sees him in public. She sees how kind and helpful he is to everyone. He’d give the shirt off his back to anyone outside the family who asked. He’d drop anything to go help someone in need. He’s generous with his money outside the family.

And then he brings God into the abuse. He brainwashes her to believe that he is only upholding God’s agenda. “GOD wants you to x, y, and z.” If she says not to the abuser, she is saying no to God, Himself. This is terrifying for a Christian woman who loves Jesus.

She is set up in a trap meant to destroy her no matter which way she steps.

Abusers Eliminate Boundaries

Boundaries are what separate our personhood from the personhood of someone else. In a healthy relationship, both partners respect that boundary line and appreciate and respect the full wholeness of the other person as a SEPARATE person. In an abusive relationship, one partner eliminates that boundary and engulfs the victim.

Abusive churches will do the same thing. They will see people as commodities, and some people are dehumanized depending on their gender or race or age or socio-economic status. In patriarchal communities, women are the abuse targets, and women aren’t allowed to have boundaries or agency of their own.

This matters because when a woman sees the abuse in her home, she will often reach out to her church community for help. If their theology has an undercurrent of patriarchy, she is doomed from the beginning.

When the Community Colludes with the Abuser

This is where I start to pull my hairs out. I see this over and over again, and I experienced the horror of this first hand. It was, by far, the worst experience of my life. Worse than losing my firstborn, worse than losing my dad, worse than losing my marriage. And my church did it to me. I don’t know if they had any clue that their actions were gutting the heart of a woman, but they were. And when I tried to tell them, they ignored me. They simply didn’t care.

I was worth less than nothing to them. I was a woman. I was my ex’s target, and then I became their target.

It takes herculean courage and strength to go against everything you’ve ever believed or wanted or strived to achieve or worked for – and tell the truth about your marriage. For so long a victim truly believes the abuse is “normal.” That’s what she has been brainwashed to believe. So there may even still be some cognitive dissonance within her mind as she awakens to more context and more reality and more truth about her situation.

I admire women who tell the truth. And instead of the shame I originally felt, I now feel proud of the woman I was. Scared to death of what could happen to me if I did – and yet willing to risk everything to bring myself back into alignment with my core values and with what I believed was true about Jesus Christ.

An abuse victim gets to the place where she wants to tell the truth out of a desire for relief as well as a desire for others not to have to go through the same things she did.

I laid it all out on the table for the elders and pastors of my church to see, and instead of the help and love I so desperately craved, I was sentenced to the death of my friendships, my reputation, my marriage, my family, and my church home.

My husband had been annihilating me for two decades, and the church proudly and piously finished the job and sent me packing.

This is the pattern Wade also discovered in his research. In an abusive eco-system, there is no place for a truth-teller. She is a threat to their entire way of life. To their theology and the way they’ve always done things.

When she goes for help, they turn on her and require her to give an account of every strategy she used to resist the abuse of her husband. Wade says, “They are prepared to take her through the same process of abuse.”

She finally tells her family secrets, and her church not only refuses to believe her, but they give her new secrets to keep. They cooperate with her abuser in working toward keeping her silent and afraid.

What a blow to the survivor. There is such a horrific sense of injustice as her abuser is praised and supported for “putting up with her.” She is often accused of being the abuser herself. I was accused of having a personality disorder and of having an affair. There was no evidence of my abuser’s accusations, yet he was trusted and believed.

By the way, I write and teach classes and coach women every day of every week, and I have for over three years. I rarely talk about my personal experience, and I’ve never shared my whole story online. Yet sometimes I’m accused of being an angry, bitter woman for mentioning my experience in public. That’s simply not true.

Angry? Yes. I pray God will always give me a portion of His holy anger over abuse and injustice and deception that destroys men, women, and children – His precious creation.

Bitter? Not on your life. I don’t have time for that. I love life and people too much. And I forgive my former church and my ex for their abuse though they have never repented of any of it. But I will never pretend it didn’t happen just so people will say nice things about me or think I’m a good Christian girl.

I’m not a good Christian girl. I’m a warrior, and I train warriors to set captives free. And at night I go to bed with a smile on my face and say “Thank you, Jesus, for this honor.” That’s not bitter, that’s purpose and peace, my friends. And I want that for all of you.

Wade tells a story that perfectly illustrates the madness of this type of injustice done in the Name of Jesus. He says it’s like a lion who is hurting a lamb in the bushes. They hear the voices of the shepherds coming to look for the lamb. So the lion puts on a lamb’s skin and goes out to meet them crying “Help! Help! A lion is hurting me!” And the shepherds care for him and coddle him while the real lamb hides in the shadows.

Flipping the narrative so they are the victim works for many abusers in religious environments. But if that doesn’t work, they will try other tactics.

  • Discredit the woman’s testimony by claiming she is confused, mentally unstable, bitter, out for revenge, making things up, fallen away from God, or a “Jezebel.”
  • Make excuses for their behavior and place the blame on someone or something out of their control. They’ll claim the victim is making a big deal out of nothing, and emotional abuse isn’t even a real thing.
  • Use Scripture to back up their claims so they sound like the one who has God on their side.
  • If the community wants an apology, they’ll give one. Wade points out that you can always tell a fake apology. They are short, packaged in defensive language, and self-promoting.

And then finally abusers and abusive communities will do what Bethlehem Baptist did in the wake of abusing women. They will dive into pro-social behavior which they hope will dilute their abuses by showing just how much good they are doing. Bethlehem Baptist wrote their own abuse protocol manual and began to go public with their own “fight against the abuse of women.” All while continuing to abuse people behind the scenes who were protesting their behavior.

Why do they do this? They do it because they can. They do it because it works. Did this just happen to me? Not on your life. My story is just a drop in the ocean of stories in our culture today and all throughout history. The pain and devastation is tremendous. But as so many of us have found, there is healing on the other side.

What You Need to Heal

Women coming out of emotional and spiritual abuse need

  1. They need to recognize their experience as abusive and that the annihilating effect that abuse has on their minds, spirits, and bodies. This involves coming out of denial and brainwashing and accepting reality.
  2. They need validation. They need someone to accurately reflect back to them what is true and real about themselves as human beings created in the image of God.
  3. They need help to unravel the twisted labyrinth of toxic shame downloaded like software into their brains.
  4. They need a loving, accepting community who will support them in becoming the autonomous adult women they are.
  5. They need unconditional love and freedom to learn and grow and make their own choices and their own mistakes.
  6. They need time to vent. To rage. To weep. To process. To tell. To heal. To forgive. To find new life.

Who will give this to them? Very few churches will give this to them. But there are many resources available. I highlight these resources and interview experts and survivors every week on the Flying Free podcast.

Fly Free,

Natalie Hoffman

7 Comments

  1. Martha

    This was my life… when I finally realized I was in an abusive cycle, I was shocked. For me, this was worse than physical… I felt like I lost myself. It took me a lot of counseling and working through some things to break free and really had to work on being able to forgive myself. Pathological, sociopathic narcissist was what my counselor called him… all 3 of them actually. I faced condemnation from fellow church people, his family… , I was ridiculed, shunned and had to fight against a lot … I stayed in the church for my kids and it’s been almost 12 years now… I’ve remained single, raised the children 100% on my own and overcome a lot. I have peace but wonder if I’ll ever trust myself to try again.

    Reply
  2. just ... K

    One of the best articles for my personal situation that I’ve ever read. In my situation there was actual exchange of money (on repeated occasions) between my diagnostically narcissistic husband and the pastor that was giving us counsel – which absolutely affected the pastor’s loyalties (his insights into our situation would wax and wane in my husband’s favour along with these “gifts”!) When I wrote a letter of complaint to the associate pastor (very detailed with dates and email excerpts) I had stopped attending church because I couldn’t hypocritically continue attending – the end result was that I was quietly “disappeared,” it’s like no one even knows that I ever existed any more. My case was watertight enough that two of the pastor’s flying monkeys were sent to ask my husband to stop attending church so that he didn’t “damage the pastor’s reputation”. The level of revenge and vitriol from my husband now being leveled at the pastor (all being done so very quietly, while he feels out anyone that will still listen to him at the church, and he has also taken legal counsel) are a chilling reminder of why I am still where I am in this relationship. Presently my husband is so distracted that I’m getting a bit of a break, but the conniving energy and the desire for absolute revenge is shocking. My husband is a true covert, passive aggressive – so there is always a smiling facade and plausible deniability when you’re facing off with him. (Lundy Bancroft’s “water torturer.”) I’m getting a good look at what is behind the curtain at the moment, and just how much planning and subterfuge lie behind his plausibly “innocent” behaviours. Utterly shocking – there is something almost sociopathic going on here. No wonder I was in mental confusion and turmoil for so many years. So appreciate your work, Natalie. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Wendy Oliver

    Very truthfully expressed! Grateful that God is using you in this realm of “overcoming abuse” for many women today!!
    This is a “sisterhood” and I find GREAT peace and enthusiasm as I read/hear many things you write and state!! Keep being a strong voice to the broken-hearted. You and your story are resources to women everywhere of Gods redemptive love and OVERCOMING!

    Reply
  4. Emma

    Thank you for your site. I found Evan Stark’s book ‘Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life’ also very helpful. However, you rightly focus on control in religious settings. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is current in the UK and has heard a lot of similar testimonies in religious settings. Best regards with the work you are doing.

    Reply
  5. Susan Cooke

    This was spot on. I did not experience spiritual abuse from my church, but from my spouse. My daughter often says “He thinks he is God”. So true. I just recently started telling people that according to him we are not good enough for him or God -yes we know. :-

    Reply
  6. Carrie

    I went through this to much extent where the church almost made me change churches because my emotionally and spiritually abusive husband wanted me to. (AGAIN!) so thankful the counselors saw thru him . The main mistake is they counseled us together which allowed him to continue abusing me in front on them. He will never admit fault so it would have been better to counsel us separately. This was 22 years ago but it’s still not resolved as he will continue to speak to me that way when he comes home. He doesn’t believe in boundaries. We have been separated for 13 years but not legally . I took a vow to stay with him almost 40 years ago but it feels like we are already divorced.

    Reply
    • Jane

      I keep listening to Wade’s presentation over and over today. His description of the behaviors of those engaged in the evil of abuse, is shockingly accurate. Thank you Natalie for posting this article and for highlighting the excellent points from his lecture.

      My abuser has moved onto a new target and I am free now that I escaped him four years ago. My abuser has done each step, exactly as described in this post, EVERY single one, in that order! For some reason, I didn’t see the process in my own life so clearly. (We were very young and I was easily swayed by his behaviors and knew nothing about abuse.) Yet, now that he is attacking a new woman, I can identify his actions and tremble with the knowledge of what awaits her. He is an unstoppable, professional, pathological evil abuser. He told me he hears Satan speak to him. Now, more than ever, I believe he does.

      Reply

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