The fourth technique used in spiritual abuse is interference in family relationships. By exercising undue influence in a person’s core relationships, the group controls members at the most basic level. [i] Interference in the family can result in the group becoming more important than one’s parent, children, or siblings. It puts a wedge between individuals where they are forced to choose between God and their own salvation, and that of having a relationship with their loved one. It can place them in the role of policing the behavior of another family member.
Long before the marriage, teachings are used that set the couple in a spiritually adversarial position. There is little to no chance of the couple developing a healthy relationship with equality and mutual accountability. In spiritually abusive groups the male is taught from the cradle to the grave that he is the head of the household. He is the decision maker and he is the leader. He is also taught that females are less than him. At the same time the females are taught that they should yield, obey, and surrender. An imbalance of power becomes deeply ingrained.
Through lectures, studies, and modeling, girls and boys are taught powerful lessons. When women are required to wear head covering around men, are denied leadership roles, and are reminded to be modest, it teaches daughters that they have no power or choice. When boys are exclusively afforded privilege and taught that women are unable to attain an eternal reward without their leadership, it can teach them a sense of entitlement and a “my way or the highway attitude.” This attitude, when full blown in a relationship, leads to emotional abuse and domestic violence.
In high control groups, individual members are taught to police each other’s behaviors. This carries over into the couple’s relationship. If one person in the couple errs or has a secret “sin” the other will feel obligated to report it. Then the leaders of the group become enmeshed and overly involved in the couple’s relationship. It can be anything from, “she isn’t submissive,” to “he wants oral sex.” Matters that should be up to the couple, are regulated from the outside. In worse case scenarios, the advice can be deadly; women can be told to stay in abusive relationships and pressured to hide physical abuse and not report it to the police. They may be pressured to stay and not leave, putting them and their children in danger.
Abusive teaching can pressure couples to not have children; due to an apocalyptic worldview, the only thing that matters is to do the work of the group. Then what happens as time passes and the couple grows old, with no one to care for them? On the opposite end of the spectrum, abusive teaching can be used to pressure couples to have large families. Women may keep having children regardless of medical risk. All to prove faithfulness. Abusive teaching, may interfere with the couple’s choices on birth control. The problem may not just be the teaching, but may include what happens if a couple deviates from the expectation. The couple may be looked down on or labeled as lacking faith. They may face long term or unintended consequences, such as children being raised in poverty, or the loss of the mother during a high risk pregnancy.
The group will further regulate how the family functions, affecting how parents raise their children, how they discipline, and what medical decisions they make. Abusive teaching can lead to child abuse when it leads to a culture where corporal punishment is promoted. Parents are led to believe that children are born defective and need to have sin whipped out of them. They save the soul while destroying the child’s self-esteem. When teenagers make mistakes, the leaders may respond, and the parents may be removed from having any influence in the situation.
Sometimes through the application of one verse of scripture, families are pressured in their medical decisions. Prayer is promoted and anything but prayer is seen as unfaithfulness. Or one verse about blood is used to deny a lifesaving transfusion. Elders and leaders apply pressure so that compliance is obtained. People sometimes die.
Some of the most insidious forms of interference come through group teaching or pressure that leads one to expel, abandon or to shun one’s own family member, in order to prove faithfulness and to protect their own good standing. The one expelled is labeled and dehumanized through the use of derogatory language. All natural feeling and love must be shut off. This is by far the most damaging thing a person can be pressured to do or to experience.
To heal from this kind of interference is not an easy thing. It helps to recognize the way you were groomed to treat your family. There can be feelings of shame and guilt for the choices you made and the things you did to your children, siblings, or parents. Therapy may be helpful. It can be powerful to apologize, to forgive yourself, and to concentrate on the present moment. Concentrate on the relationships you have now. Establish a relationship that is free of strict gender roles, and focus on equality, respect, and mutual accountability. Raise your own children with a freedom you did not enjoy. No one gets a do over, but moving forward you can follow your conscience and do what makes sense to you. That alone can be quite liberating.
[i] To read more about the term undue influence, please see the work of Steven Hassan.
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