Freedom Wings

Cultivating A Safe Place for Women: Defining   Intimate Partner Violence for Christians

What constitutes abuse? This simple question represents one of the greatest challenges to understanding intimate partner violence. The most common conceptualization of relationship abuse is depicted in the news through stories and images of bruised women. What this inures in the population is the belief that only physical abuse represents intimate partner violence. This gross misconception dramatically impacts the ability of both victims and pastors' ability to recognize when a relationship is abusive. Given that at least 1 in 3 women experience abuse in our communities globally—most often between the ages of 18-24—it is critical for pastors to intentionally cultivate an in-depth understanding of the multiple forms of abuse. The following #IPVSyllabus, then, is intended for Christian clergy around the world to learn the signs of emotional, physical, sexual, financial, and spiritual abuse in relationships. Additional information to learn how to respond to situations of intimate partner violence are below in the Clergy Resources section.

"A pattern of power and control over another is undoubtedly the central concept of relationship abuse according to trauma and abuse experts."


Domestic—or intimate partner—violence can be defined as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. However, where this articulation falls short is its failure to understand and recognize the five forms of relational abuse: emotional or psychological, physical, sexual, financial and —the most frequently forgotten—spiritual abuse. What follows is a thorough explanation of these types of relational violence to aid clergy in their role of supporting women in their congregations and communities.

Is emotional abuse really a form of violence? Isn't physical abuse more damaging?

Emotional abuse is a form of intimate partner violence that is described by most survivors as more destructive than being physically hit and has devastating long-term effects (Vernick, 2013). It can be defined as:  “repetitive attitudes and behaviors that result in tearing someone down or inhibiting her growth… and is usually accompanied by a lack of awareness, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of change” on behalf of the abusive partner (Vernick, 2013, 11). Emotional abuse includes verbal abuse and can be overt such as: yelling, angry outbursts, making threats, blaming, constant judging and criticizing, name-calling, and ordering; to covert abuse such as: lying, denying, minimizing, forgetting, blocking and diverting, discounting, neglect, abandonment, withholding or making jokes (Evans, 1996; Engel, 2002).

Though emotional violence is quite possibly the most common form of abuse, it is exceedingly difficult to acquire accurate statistics on as most people do not acknowledge emotional abuse as a form of relationship violence (Evans, 1996; Engel, 2002). Still, existing research securely demonstrates that emotional abuse is a devastating act of intimate terrorism which leaves a woman deeply shamed in her identity—her sense of being or self—as her partner’s “emotional abuse systematically degrades, diminishes, and [may] eventually destroy the personhood of the abused” (Vernick, 2013, 11). Over time a woman may internalize her partner’s abuse, believing as he says, that her perception of reality and her feelings are wrong (Evans, 1996; Engel, 2002). This is called “crazy-making” or emotional “gaslighting” as the abusive partner denies both his abusive behavior towards his partner, while presenting himself in public as charismatic and ‘normal’. Additionally, it is important to know that emotional abuse is often unpredictable, intermittent with periods of calm where the abuser reaffirms his love and promises to change and then cycling back to exerting anger and control over his partner (Vernick, 2013). Finally, one of the most essential points to be aware of is that emotional abuse always precedes physical abuse in relationships and should be considered a serious act of violence from one partner to another (Evans, 1996). Understanding this not only enables clergy to help prevent relationship abuse, but also assists them in recognizing the beginning stage of the abuse cycle (Evans, 1996).

The Emotionally Destructive Marriage l 7 Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship l Understanding and Recovering from Narcissistic Abuse l Words Hurt Too

Are signs of physical abuse always observable? Are threats and intimidation—without actually battering a woman—still forms of abuse?

While emotional abuse is almost always a precursor to physical violence, it is customarily when a woman’s body bears the bruises inflicted by her partner that most people would acknowledge intimate partner violence has occurred (Vernick, 2013). Indeed, it is perhaps the easiest type of abuse for victims to recognize given the visibility of welts, bruises, and broken bones; however, women often cover up their wounds so it is important to understand that physical abuse is not always easily apparent. Unfortunately, this means that it is not uncommon for physical violence in intimate relationships to lead to death; in 2003 almost 1,300 women were murdered by their partner in the U.S., for example (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control). While many women are worried about heart disease or cancer, the principal threat to a woman’s health remains firmly in the form of physical violence at the hands of her male partner (CDC, 2010). This is yet another piece of evidence that clearly demonstrates the incredible danger to women in the church and local community which impact clergy in their work of providing pastoral care. 

There are many types of physical abuse, including—but not limited to—intentional acts of hair pulling, slapping, hitting, punching, slamming a woman against something, throwing her across the room, choking or strangling her, burning her, or having a knife or gun used against her (Breiding, Chen, & Black, 2014). Additionally, an abuser will often make threats of violence to cause fear and assert control over his female partner, as in emotional abuse. While the frequency and severity of physical violence can vary in any abusive relationship over time, it is essential to take any and every threat seriously. Alongside this devastating reality of women’s lives, it is critical to know that a woman is most likely to be murdered by a partner after she leaves the abuser (Wilson & Daly, 1993). This devastating reality presents yet another compelling motivation for priests to take action for the sake of their congregants.

Abuse in Intimate Relationships l Behind Closed Doors Documentary l Physical Abuse and Immigrant Women

Is sexual abuse primarily about rape, or is there more to this issue? Can sexual abuse happen in marriages? What exactly is consent in terms of sexual activity and how important is it?

Sexual abuse is undeniably one of the most prolific forms of relationship abuse with more than half of female rapes occurring from a male partner, and two-thirds of women in physically abusive relationships also experiencing sexual violence by her partner (CDC, 2010; Taylor & Gaskin-Laniyan, 2007). According to the U.S. Department of Justice, sexual abuse can be defined as “coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to, marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence has occurred, or treating one in a sexually demeaning manner” (2016). Again, as we think about abuse in its essential use of power and control over another person, it is paramount to remember that there are various forms of force. An abuser may employ physical force, but psychological or emotional coercion, manipulation, and threats of harm, and other forms of intimidation are additional types of force utilized to make a victim comply. Here it is critical to recognize that compliance is not the same as consent, and explicit consent must be given or sexual contact, behavior or acts constitute sexual violence (McFarlane & Malecha, 2005). In addition to physical sexual acts, sexual abuse also includes an individual’s right to control the context and circumstances in which sexual activity occurs, and their access to birth control and condoms (Breiding, Chen, & Black, 2010). 

Sexual abuse is a particularly violating encounter in the embodied, private nature of this act, in addition to the public’s role in placing blame on the survivor and not the abuser. This not only amplifies a survivor’s difficult in reporting and recovering from the assault, but as with emotional abuse, the failure of public recognition and the requirement for palpable evidence often yields the survivor’s silence and her ongoing pain. When clergy take the stance of naming perpetrators of sexual abuse as solely culpable for their actions, this creates space for victims to be acknowledged both personally and within their faith community, empowering them to begin their healing journey (McClure & Ramsay, 1998).

While it may be debatable whether date rape is included within the bounds of intimate partner violence, due to its significant prevalence for women aged 18-24 in our communities (Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000). Indeed, much has been made of the topic in mainstream news the past few years, centered on the rape of female students on college campuses—which is often committed by a current or former male partner (Department of Justice, 2015). While a common misconception is that these young women are somehow at fault due to their choice of clothing, consumption of alcohol, or presence at parties, it is critical to understand that unless an individual gives explicit and unforced verbal consent to sexual activity, all such sexual acts must be considered within sexual abuse (Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000). 

Intimate Partner Sexual Violence l Sexual Violence on Campus Prevention Strategies l Dating Abuse l Marital and Intimate Partner Sexual Assault l Sexual Abuse and Violence in Youth

How common is financial abuse? What role does it play in an abusive relationship, and what impact can it have for women?

One of the invisible weapons in intimate partner violence is that of finances. This little recognized type of relational violence, financial abuse—sometimes called economic abuse—occurs in 99% of intimate partner violence cases (NCADV, 2015). Here we start to see that the coercive and controlling behavior of abusers is not binary but incredibly complex and interrelated; in fact, most survivors experience more than one form of abuse from their abuser (Breiding, Chen, & Black, 2014). Manipulation and control over a partner’s finances are frequently used to prevent a woman from acquiring, spending, or maintaining money or other forms of financial resources. As an unseen mode of isolation, financial abuse effectively cuts her off from accessing means to leave the abuser and to recover. Indeed, the primary reason a woman does not leave her male abuser is due to financial abuse trapping her in a position of dependence on her male partner (Allstate Foundation, 2014).

This extremely common tactic includes both subtle and more overt instances of abusive behaviors that represent serious betrayals of a person’s rights. Some examples of the insidious actions of financial abuse women experience are: having credit cards and loans taken out in her name without her consent; using her bank cards without her knowledge; being given an allowance and having purchases closely watched; manipulating she sign loans, mortgages, or other financial documents; threatening her to coerce her into financial decisions, and preventing her from working or demanding she quit (NCADV, 2015). These illustrations of financial abuse depict the multifarious methods by which many abusers seek to control and coerce women into a dependency that obliterates their self-sufficiency. Such egregious abuse, though in some ways documentable, remains largely outside the public sphere of legal justice and thus is a powerful tool that can devastate women through a lack of food, medical care, clothing, and sustainable housing, resulting in poverty and homelessness. These barriers to meeting a woman’s fundamental human needs severely impair a survivor’s ability to security and safety either within an abusive relationship or afterwards if she is able to leave.

16 Signs of Financial Abuse l About the Invisible Weapon l Understanding Financial Abuse & Safety Planning l Economic Abuse l Women's Law & Financial Abuse l Warning Signs of Financial Abuse

Isn't spiritual abuse a clergy issue, not an intimate relationship concern? Is there any link between theological concepts of men and women's roles in relationship and intimate partner violence? What are the dynamics of spiritual abuse in intimate relationships?

Many women of faith who experience relational abuse will encounter the deep wounds of spiritual abuse. In regards to intimate partner violence, spiritual abuse can be defined as the use of religion or spirituality as a means to exert power and control over one’s partner (Johnson & VanVonderen, 1991). This form of abuse remains largely outside the awareness of many clergy and victims, owing in part to the little research and resources focused on the injurious reality of spiritual abuse (Johnson & VanVonderen, 1991). It is helpful to know that a recent psychological study found that women in complementarian relationships—where men are viewed as having leadership over women—are more likely to experience various forms of intimate partner violence (Levitt, Horne, Wheeler, & Wang, 2015). Conversely, egalitarian theology purports that God created men and women fully equal and they are to co-relate in equal authority within intimate relationships (Kroeger & Nason-Clark, 2010). Whether aligning with either belief, the significant factor to keep in mind—as in all forms of abuse—is that abuse is about power and control over another person, and anyone can behave abusively. With this in mind, spiritual abuse in relationships can be articulated as the use of power and authority to dominate or control a partner through the use of spiritual, biblical or other religious practices that minimize, deny, or harm a partner’s right to full equality in all ways (Miles, 2002).

Spiritual abuse in our context of intimate partner violence, then, involves the demand for power and control by the male partner invoking a divine right to such a hierarchical stance over the female partner. Such exploitation consists of the abuser using theology or scripture to: deny a female partner the right to make decisions within the relationship or family; barring her from pursuing leadership in the church or public spheres; denouncing her personhood as less than his; blaming her for not submitting to his authority; threatening to abandon her for spiritual reasons; declaring her thoughts, beliefs or actions as sinful or ungodly; and refusing for her to separate or divorce due to his abuse (Johnson & VanVonderen, 1991; Miles, 2002; Kroeger & Nason-Clark, 2010). While such examples are not exhaustive, spiritual abuse is essentially the act of justifying one’s abusive behaviors through spiritual or biblical means. The effect of which is the breakdown of the survivor’s identity as the beloved of God by attacking her perceptions of God and her self as God’s good daughter.

Spiritual & Emotional Abuse l Spirituality & Recovery l Spiritual Abuse from Pastors l General Spiritual Abuse


Power and Control Tactics Used Against Immigrant Women l Power and Control Wheel for Immigrant Women l Intersectionality and Women of Color


Private Violence [USA] l Mandevilla [Korea] l Teen Dating Violence [USA] l Hindi Short Film [India] l Half the Sky [Africa] l Opium Brides [Afghanistan] l Saving Face [Pakistan] l Women with Altitude [Bolivia] l Silent War [UK]

Information by Region

India l South Asia l Latin America and the Caribbean l Africa l Europe l USA l Canada


If you believe you or a person you know is facing domestic abuse of any kind, please reach out for help. There are plenty of people ready to believe you and provide support. 

U.S. and Canada: 1-888-799-7233 l The National Domestic Violence Hotline UK: 01823 334244 – ManKind Initiative l Australia: One in Three Campaign offers a number of crisis hotlines l India: 9423827818

1-866-USWOMEN (1-866-879-6636) — an international domestic violence crisis line that can be reached internationally toll-free from 175 countries l Additional International Hotlines by Country



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Vernick, L. (2013). The emotionally destructive marriage: how to find your voice and reclaim your hope. Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press.


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