Helpful Information

For everyone following My Story, I found this excerpt of an interview with author Jeff VanVonderen very insightful.  Click here to access his website.

STEPS: I think one of the most painful pieces of this puzzle is when you find people in abusive situations and they are unable to leave, unable to make healthy choices. Just as spouses in violent relationships sometimes return again and again to be abused, people who are in spiritually abusive relationships often find it very difficult to leave.

Jeff: The phenomena of not being able to leave has two parts. First, if you are outside a spiritually abusive system, you are the enemy. And secondly, although it is very easy to get in, it is very difficult to get out once you are in. It is exactly the same as in any very dysfunctional family. The fear is that if a person gets out of the family, they might tell the secret. So there is a lot of incentive to keep people inside the system. People in abusive systems think that the inside of the system is the only safe place. If you associate with or connect to people outside the system, that is not safe. You can get hurt doing that. So just stay in here where it is safe. Those people out there will lead you away from God or from the things God wants. So it’s safest to stay in here with the leaders, who are the only ones who really know what God wants. The paranoia is that any kind of break from “us” and return to “them” would be disastrous. What makes this even more hurtful is that an individual’s relationship with God is taken hostage. It’s not just that the leader is worried that you are going to fall from grace if you associate with outsiders—or that you might tell outsiders what it’s like in here. It’s more like if you do tell the truth, you will be wrong and God will get you for that. God will be the enforcer. Bottom line: Stay in here or God will punish you.

STEPS: People in spiritually abusive systems have usually invested a lot in the system.

Jeff: Sure. You invest so much—and you are required to invest so much—in abusive systems that your world becomes pretty small. Sometimes people forget relationship skills that are necessary for relating to people outside the system. After a while you don’t have anybody outside the system that you are close to. So that makes the dependence on the system even stronger. On a human level, when we invest a lot, we hate to lose our investment. So we sometimes invest more to try to get a return on the original investment. Which means we have more to lose. Which means there is an even higher incentive to invest more. Some people have invested incredible amounts of their money, their emotions, their time and their energy in abusive systems.A family I worked with recently was part of a small network of families. They only had associations with people in this small network. Their kids took piano lessons from someone in the group. If they leave that group, their kids lose their piano teacher. They lose the contacts with their sports teams. They lose not just the investment in the system—all the energy, time, money and emotions that they invested in getting the group to function—but they also lose all their social contacts and all the extracurricular things that are dependent on the group. This is very similar to the reason why a woman who is being battered doesn’t leave. If she leaves she has nothing. Going from something, albeit abusive, to nothing can be even more terrifying than staying where you are. So you stay, hoping it will turn around. Even if it is irrational to outsiders, the desire to stay put is very powerful when you are facing the loss of everything you know.

7 thoughts on “Helpful Information

  1. I too read Jeff’s posts and even sought refuge from some of his books. Girl, I have been there done that, have the t-shirt, and the matching key chain of spiritual abuse. It is amazing how similar our stories are a points. I wasn’t involved with a Shepherding movement church though. Mine was a Word of Faith church that spoke openly against the Shepherding movement but was hauntingly familiar in it’s practices.

  2. This article, like so many posts you have put up, Jana, is further explanation of what my husband and I experienced. It completely explains why it was so difficult to leave our abusive church. My husband even said at the moment we were preparing to leave, he now understood why battered women didn’t leave their abusive husbands. We absolutely feared God would “get us” if we left our church. Our investment was so great – and we were being told over and over that it was going to pay off – the reward was coming soon – it was almost here! Yuck. Such lies. Thank you, again, for posting this. Reading about it and seeing our pain put into words helps somehow. We know we are not alone in what we experienced.

  3. Mike, you are right that spiritual abuse is similar to incest. The trust that exists, and the emotional and psychological ties are very strong. In certain ways it can be even more destructive though because incest is physical and emotional, but spiritual abuse also affects the spiritual belief systems which are so core to our hearts and souls that you are shaken and left not knowing what to think or believe any longer. Very few understand that unless they have lived it, and most of those who have lived it don’t speak about it because 1) they are not yet recovered enough to speak 2) there is fear of retaliation or further abuse 3) they just want to move on.

    Many people wonder why anyone would stay in a situation like this. People stay because church is their family, their support system, their connection, their activities, their spiritual life, and in stories like Jana’s it is their career. To leave all your relationships, dreams, vision, passion, heart, purpose, and job is overwhelming, especially if you have no where to turn. Thankfully we have a God who cares enough to catch us when things do fall apart.

  4. This might sound a little disturbing but it is true. In my experience it is like an eerie parallel to sexual abuse within a family. I have seen cases where the perpetrator is considered such a great person to the family as a whole, that the victim’s testimony is discounted by the popularity and acceptance of the perpetrator. The family finds it hard to believe that this person could be capable of such a heinous act and chooses to believe it did not happen. In instances like this the indivudual telling truth may have their own character brought into question, and may begin to question their own sanity. In the end all will come to know the truth. Thank you for speaking the truth even though there are others that choose to look the other way, and even question your integrity. Thank you for having the courage to confront darkness.

    1. mike, yes, yes and yes. lynde just found me through jana -i was a part of the ‘church family’ and nc- and have just completed telling my story on my blog (which is how jana found me). and, yes – it is so much the story of sexual abuse (even though that’s not something i’ve been through). i am honestly afraid that, like lynde said, that i will be accused of ‘spiritually attacking’ the church – the church i left over five years ago! i was really just trying to tell my story. anyway, i’m glad to have found you and lynde and jana (and barry). xo

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