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How to Recognize Emotional Abuse in Your Church

How to Recognize Emotional Abuse in Your Church

In college, I had a friend who met this guy. He seemed to care about her and she liked him, so he got the stamp of approval.

But then one night, a group of us had dinner together. Throughout the meal, his attempts to be the “life of the party” ended up being at her expense. He teased mercilessly. A few of us spoke up, but he chuckled our comments away with a mention of her “oversensitivity.”

When she returned from a trip to the restroom, she’d been crying. Not only did he pretend nothing was wrong, but he hugged, kissed and gave her unwanted attention the rest of the night.

She admitted to feeling humiliated. He insisted that she was being over-emotional. He said she couldn’t take a joke and never apologized. They eventually got married, and so the cycle continued.

People who experience emotional abuse (more likely women than men) have a few things in common:

They’re not always sure it’s happening or what to call it.
They don’t think anybody would believe them if they told the truth.
Their partners are often well liked in the community.

Emotional control begins very subtly and escalates once a victim has agreed to a committed relationship. For those of us looking on—who care deeply for these friends—it can be difficult to spot and even harder to know what to do. These characteristics often indicate emotional abuse:

Not Trusting One’s Own Feelings and Ability to Hear from God

Women who are being manipulated have been lied to, bullied and brushed off so many times that they begin to question their own sense of direction. As one woman put it, “I don’t even trust myself to know when I’m (relationally) unsafe anymore.”

Another lady explained, “He says my feelings aren’t biblical and that God wouldn’t tell me to walk away when we fight. He thinks we should fix the problem immediately, even if he’s tearing me down. I want to honor God and I believe divorce is bad. I’m just tired. My work is suffering and I don’t want to get fired.”

When a partner applies their own needs and meaning to our feelings too many times, we wonder if we’re the ones in the wrong, even if our responses to him are completely biblical and kind.

Isolation from Friends and Family

It can be difficult for women who are being emotionally abused to maintain healthy relationships outside of the home. They do so at the risk of being bullied by their significant others. Looking back, one woman recalls this in her marriage:

There was always a fight the day or two before I was supposed to see my family. He didn’t like them, mostly because they never liked him either. They saw right through it, the hurt he would cause and then the promises he would make to do better. I rescheduled visits because I was so tired of arguing. I just wanted peace.

Excusing Manipulative Behavior

It’s common for problems to be overlooked in the beginning of relationships but for them to become more serious as time passes. Part of the reason we overlook warning signs is that we love our partners and don’t want to see them in pain. “He’s tired.” “He had a stressful day at work.” “His home life growing up was (fill in the blank).”

All of these statements give insight to circumstance. However, they’re never an excuse to take advantage of our compassion. Controlling behavior can’t be explained away. When an emotional manipulator feels out of control, they’ll say or do “uncharacteristic” things to try and feel better. Their tactics can be coercive.

Avoiding ‘Triggers’

It’s a problem when these things seem normal:

Hiding texts for fear that he’ll go through them and become angry.
Attempting to manage a “perfect” home to avoid conflict.
Hiding details about how “bad” things have gotten.
Altering clothing, hair and cosmetic options to please him.
Concealing feelings and selectively choosing words to avoid fighting.

Our strength and worth come from God alone. We cannot “fix” our partner’s problems or behave “perfectly” enough to make them happy. Attempting to do so will only snuff out God’s light in our lives. Should we find ourselves in that position, it’s time to get help.

Caring for the Abused

It’s not uncommon to feel so ill equipped or frustrated that we avoid the issue of emotional abuse together. While the call isn’t for the faint of heart, there are ways to offer support while maintaining healthy boundaries ourselves.

We must lay a slow and steady foundation. We do this by building up the faith of the abused, helping them to dream again of a joy-filled life, and having a support network established for when they’re ready to make a change.


If you’ve witnessed the cycle of abuse before, you’re aware of how difficult it is to observe without feeling helpless. A righteous anger festers as we watch our friend or family member “allowing” controlling behavior. However, most of us have very little understanding of how beaten down, insecure or numb she’s become to survive in that environment.

We sometimes become so impassioned by the situation that we’ll try to control or fix it. We must change our focus from “fixing” to “building up.” It’s only then that God can strengthen our gifts to exhort rather than to control. Abused women often feel more confused and weak than they can admit. The energy necessary to leave or reach out for help seems elusive. When faith is strengthened to the point that she calls on God in prayer and for rescue, she is infinitely more empowered.

Keep Pursuing Friendship

Invite your friend to dinner, book club. Pick her up for church. Be cordial to her partner so that you don’t ignite conflict; yet never apologize for adamantly reinforcing God’s love for her. Repeat that truth, over and over again, until it takes root in the soul. Praise her gifts and provide opportunities to use them. She needs to know that she’s capable of hearing God’s voice and receiving direction from Him. Then, once you’ve earned the privilege of her trust, challenge her to follow through!

Be a steady presence, even if she doesn’t take your advice. Ministering to her is not the same as condoning her partner’s behavior.

Cast a Net. Leave a Trail.

Counseling offices and crisis centers have community contact numbers that are available to the general public. They’re called “street sheets.” Give one to her, pass it out to your small group, or post it at your gym, church and workplace.

It’s not uncommon for emotional abuse to escalate into physical abuse as the cycle is perpetuated. It’s important for women to receive care right away so that documentation of the abuse exists. The better the paper trail, the more efficiently providers are able to assist.

As much as we love our friends and family, we can’t be their “on call” safety support. Hotlines and crisis centers provide 24-hour accessibility to care. The wider we cast the net, the better able she’ll be to receive timely help.

Plan a little. Pray a Lot.

A little bit of planning goes a long way on the journey to rescue and healing. When a frightened woman is well prepared and supported, she’s given the courage to make important decisions for both herself and her family.

As we pray to our God who breaks all the chains, we remember the work that resonates into eternity. May our faith and initiative touch a life forever. “Two are better than one … If either of them fall down, one can help the other up. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes. 4:9-12, paraphrased).


Meg Gemelli is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a wife and mama to three crazy-brave guys, and a disaster in the kitchen. Join in with her conversations on relationships and life at

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