Do individuals suffer harm when they remain in verbally or emotionally abusive relationships? Cindy Kunsman illustrates the effects through an account of spiritual abuse.
By Cindy Kunsman, UnderMuchGrace.com
After reading Julie Anne’s post questioning whether divorce from an abusive spouse is actually a “sin,” I found myself thinking of the loss of perspective and the gratification that the abuser experiences when an abused person “submits” to their abuser and remains in the relationship. As Patricia Evans puts it in her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, the person who suffers abuse gradually loses their sense of “confidence and self-esteem without even realizing it” (pg 47). I also recalled a quote from her book that I’d highlighted before and found it when I sought it out today – a statement made by a domestic abuse survivor who just started learning about the nature of her relationship with her husband (pg 38):
“If you’ve never been in a verbally abusive relationship, you would have an extremely difficult time knowing what it’s like. If you’re in a verbally abusive relationship, you may never have recognized it.”
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Let me offer you a personal example as I paint a picture of where I found myself in life. As many of you know, I spent four years in a high demand, fundamentalist Christian church that was affiliated with a Charismatic Shepherding-Discipleship organization, loved Bill Gothard’s material, and followed a very similar order of worship to Sovereign Grace Ministries (pre-Calvinism). I was devastated when I left, sought exit counseling, and even found private Bible study to be quite difficult for at least two years. We relocated half way across the country just a year after we exited that church. When we started attending our new church, I would weep all the way through worship at every service, mourning over what felt like the loss of sacred music because it had become tainted. My husband chose a church that was sixty miles away from our home in the Texas Hill Country where he felt safe. Though we tithed and participated in ministry within that body by helping people in need, though we chose not to join. We naturally discussed this with the pastor.
I refer to the next few years that followed as our “desert experience.” I spent a solid five years with an infection requiring constant antibiotics and steroids, and I finally required surgery which was horrible. That was in between injections in my pelvis and back to treat a back injury. My husband struggled with three life-altering illnesses, used medical leave twice, and during the course of seven years, we flew to both the East and West Coasts to find effective treatment for him. Unrelated to those illnesses, he suffered a car wreck which eventually claimed his eye. He had several surgeries during a terrible six months until his eye was removed for pain management.
A year later, he had another unrelated surgery. On the evening of the accident, I phoned the home of the elder who had been friendly with us, left a message, but never heard any response. I phoned the pastor the next morning and told him that my husband would be kept in the hospital that was just twenty minutes down the road from the church, and he would be there for a few days. No one visited, but three weeks later, I did get a card in the mail from an elder with whom I once shook hands.
Between mailing in my tithe checks, I made it to church only twice during that six months. I did all of the driving, worked along side my husband at work all day, then went home to manage our home in the country and his medical needs. When I phoned the pastor to let him know about the final surgery he said very glibly, “You know, you’re always welcome to come back here.” I think I was too tired and stressed to even process what he’d said, considering that I didn’t know that I’d left. When well enough to make it to church again, my husband said that he didn’t want to go to a place that didn’t care whether he lived or died. I started irregularly attending two different churches when I could, but my schedule didn’t allow for much more.
After another sad life event a few years later and in need comfort, I decided to go back to the church to “make things right.” I had invested in people there and loved them, and I needed love that day. We’d never talked to anyone about feeling abandoned by the people at the church, and I showed up weeping on the church doorstep on a weekday afternoon to be greeted by a new pastor. He talked with me for awhile, but he was more interested in where I was going to church now and why I wasn’t a member. I finally just said to him in frustration and brokenness, “Here I am now, showing myself to you – like Jesus told the leper to show himself to the priest. I am willing to be healed.” But I found that all very odd and was shocked in hindsight that I’d even uttered such a thing – a statement of shame. The scene didn’t seem like one that was fitting for a sick, contrite, weeping woman? He jotted down my name and number, said that he would have to talk to the elders, for he felt at a disadvantage for having no knowledge of me or the situation.
The next Sunday, I tagged along to church with my neighbor who lived just five miles down the road. When the pastor walked by and greeted him but seemed not to recognize me, my neighbor introduced me, noting that he thought that we had met already. He acted like the cat that swallowed the canary as he shook my hand, then scooted away. It was amazing. The old pastor who had retired walked by me like he’d never met me, as did the elders we had known fairly well. I went home and waited for my call.
The Bitter Truth
Almost three months after I’d visited the pastor that day, I talked with an acquaintance that I hadn’t seen in some time, and she asked me where I was attending church. I wish that I’d had a video of myself while telling her about how I was waiting for that pastor to call me. It probably sounded like a damsel in a Disney fairy tale, and I was waiting for the cavalry to come to my aid. When proofing my posts about Lifeboats and Lourdes, SSB editor Brad Sargent noted how I created a fantasy as a child to maintain some sense of optimism to keep on living. I guess I’m nothing if not consistent!
I am so grateful to that young woman who very lovingly confronted me with compassion that afternoon. She said, “Cindy. That man is not ever going to call you. Not after three months.” I didn’t really believe her — I didn’t want to think it was true. I went home and wrote a letter of contrition to the pastor, about a page and a half long, typed. At the end of it, I said that I felt as though I’d been told to be warmed and filled like James wrote about in his epistle, but I don’t know that I’d even heard any message of peace. I was still waiting by the phone – until a friend put my waiting into perspective. I think I finally “got it” when the pastor wrote back to me and said that he was told that because I was never a member, the elders felt no duty to us. He called this a sin on my part, and recommended other churches I could attend – as his was no longer an option for me. He also noted that he took the time to contact the pastors of the churches he recommended to inform them of my sin issues. Perhaps one day when I happen over that letter, I may post it online. (Friends recommended that I burn it, but I chose to keep it.)
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Just as Evans describes, I lost my confidence and my self-esteem, and I didn’t even know it. My perspective shifted so much from so many factors in my life, and as a result, my level of “normal,” reasonable and acceptable dropped to an all time low. I didn’t have any energy to be assertive anymore, and didn’t start out from a great place to begin with. Abuse and trauma habituate us into a very unhealthy place in soul and spirit. I am so grateful for that compassionate woman who helped me see how skewed my perspective had become. I’ve composed a summary of the kinds of things that happen to a person as they lose perspective because of abuse. Though I referenced some material on domestic abuse, I used both Evans’ book about verbal abuse and Patrick Carnes book about the bonds of trauma as primary sources.
Reading through the list below, can you identify any consequences of abuse in my personal experience after two successive spiritually abusive churches?
Which of the consequences have you experienced?
Can you look back on a traumatic experience and see a similar pattern in your own behavior? If you can, Congratulations! Welcome to the human race.
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Consequences of Chronic Verbal and Emotional Abuse
- Negation of feelings/assumption of fault for confusion (“I must have missed something…”)
- Doubt of ability to “test” or comprehend reality (Such as results from “gaslighting”)
- Concerns/fears about one’s own mental health or coping
Loss of Self-Confidence
- Self-blame leading to obsessive replaying of events
- Paranoia over own behavior (“shoulda/woulda/coulda”)
- Critical self-talk /Internal thoughts about self
- Shame (Can progress to self-loathing)
Hyperarousal (Symptoms from Failed Efforts to Avoid Punishment)
- Problems with decision-making (Includes “freezing” response)
- Lack of spontaneity
- Lack of appropriate trust in other relationships
- Hypervigilance (Carefulness,“on-guard,” or “waiting for the other shoe to drop”)
Coping Mechanisms to Manage Moods (from Effective to Maladaptive)
- Desire to escape
- Behavior to distract from or numb confusion and pain
- Eating, drinking, or substance use for “release”
- Wishful thinking (“It will be better when…”)
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Other works cited:
- Obsessive Love by Susan Forward
- Free from Lies by Alice Miller
- The Emotionally Abusive Relationship by Beverly Engle
- Domestic Violence and Abuse: Types, Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Effects. American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.
- Emotional Abuse: Why Your Individual Therapy Didn’t Help and Your Partner’s Made it Worse.
- Are You Being Gaslighted? (Psychology Today)Are You Being Gaslighted?
- The Gaslight Effect by Robin Stern
- Disorders of Adult Attachment by Pat Sable