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

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Why Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Cause C-PTSD

by | Jan 3, 2018 | Emotional Abuse, Grieving, Learning, Popular Posts, Waking Up | 25 comments

Most of us have heard of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can occur when a person witnesses a terrifying or traumatic event such as a car accident, a murder, a fire, etc.. But what about C-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]

Why Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Causes C-PTSD

Think about a 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 HERE.

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 Causes C-PTSD

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

Most of the abuse targets 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 some of them:

  • Persistent anxiety and unrest
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Difficulty in remembering events surrounding abusive “incidents”
  • Reliving experiences (I call it looping) over and over in an effort to “solve” the problem
  • Helplessness
  • 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 Causes C-PTSD

They experience physical health problems as a result of all this emotional disregulation in their lives as well.

  • 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

Over a long period of time, their 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.

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.

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 Causes C-PTSD

So what do we do about it?

  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 Support Group.
  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. (See my video below.)

If you think you may have C-PTSD, you may benefit from the private Flying Free community support group HERE. 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.

Recommended resources:

The Body Keeps the Score

How He Gets Into Her Head

Why Emotional and Spiritual Abuse Causes C-PTSD

25 Comments

  1. Louise

    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.

    Reply
  2. Sarah

    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!

    Reply
  3. Janet Dixon

    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!!!

    Reply
  4. Lyn C

    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.

    Reply
  5. Jessica

    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.

    Reply
  6. Leah

    Hi
    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.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      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.

      Reply
  7. bob

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

    Reply
  8. Deana

    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!

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      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.

      Reply
  9. Mosaic

    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.

    Reply
    • Melanie

      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: https://www.boundaries.me/blog/the-worst-relationship-is-the-one-you-can-t-let-go-of
      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.

      Reply
    • Rising

      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…..my 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.

      Reply
  10. Lin

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

    Reply
  11. Angel

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

    Reply
    • Tiffany McLearn

      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.

      Reply
  12. Charlene

    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!

    Reply
  13. mary

    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?

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      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!

      Reply
  14. cmarie

    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).

    Reply
  15. Kaye

    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!

    Reply
  16. Nancy Oren-Jezek

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

    Reply

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