religious book laying open

Understanding spiritual abuse

Domestic violence can take many forms – it can include emotional, financial, physical, sexual and verbal abuse. One of the lesser known forms of this behaviour is spiritual abuse, also known as religious abuse.

Spiritual abuse is complicated, and can include control of another person’s religious choices and beliefs, as well as using religious beliefs to rationalise control over another person. Spiritual abuse can occur in domestic partner relationships, and also parent to child relationships (even with adult children). It can also occur in institutions, such as religious organisations or in workplace, education or care settings. Spiritual abuse can happen to anyone, at any age, regardless of religious affiliation.

In the context of domestic relationships, some signs of spiritual abuse may include a partner:

  • Forcing you into a subordinate role, using religion as the justification
  • Using religion to justify control and anger
  • Claiming they have spiritual authority or power over you
  • Manipulating religious teachings for control and power
  • Preventing you from practicing your religion
  • Shaming or mocking you for your religious views and practices
  • Forcing you to adhere to a religion you don’t believe in
  • Forcing you to do things against your own religion
  • Justifying physical or emotional violence as being part of a religion, or religious text
  • Forcing you to raise children according to their religious beliefs
  • Using religious beliefs to force you, or your adult children, in to marriage
  • Forcing you to attend religious places of worship, or organised events
  • Not allowing you to see friends who don’t share their religious beliefs
  • Using your religious beliefs to isolate you from community e.g. preventing you from attending your place of worship
  • Stopping a partner from divorcing or leaving a relationship, by saying “it’s against the religion”.


How to help someone experiencing spiritual abuse

It’s important to address spiritual abuse as it can have long term impact on those affected. If you think someone you know may be experiencing spiritual abuse, you can help in a number of different ways:

  • Looking for signs in yourself or those you care about: The above list is a start, but remember signs can be gradual and hard to immediately identify
  • Let the person tell their story, but only when they are ready. Let them know you are there to listen, and validate their concerns
  • Make sure you let them decide the next steps, as they need to feel in control of their choices
  • Assure the person that freedom of thought, conscience and religion is their right under Australian law
  • If you think a family member or friend is being isolated through spiritual abuse, you can try to reach out to them and keep regular contact
  • Encourage them to seek out friends and support networks who encourage them to form their own religious beliefs and opinions, while still ensuring they only do so when they are ready
  • Assure the person they are not to blame, and that spiritual abuse has long term effects, even when not coupled with physical abuse
  • If you are worried about the safety of the person experiencing abuse, you can suggest they have a safety plan in place, and help them find assistance to develop one
  • There are a number of free options for information and support that can help you or the person you are worried about
  • Talk about it: Encourage them to discuss their concerns with a GP or a qualified counsellor once they are ready to seek help
  • Other support: The following organisations offer free information and support to those experiencing spiritual abuse:


Help for those who may be committing abuse

If you think that your behavior might constitute domestic violence in one or more of its many forms and are ready to make a change, there are programs out there that can help you. Please visit our Find a men’s behaviour change program page here or you can enquire about enrolling in the Changing for Good program.


Further reading


If you’re experiencing family or domestic violence you can call MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78, access online counselling or visit 1800RESPECT.