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What is Abuse?

AAbuse is a hot, yet tender, topic. Nearly everyone would agree that abuse is horrible, unjustifiable, and devastating. Invariably, within a discussion of abuse, someone will bring up the question of definitions and ask, but what is abuse? Are we just throwing the word around, willy-nilly, and making false accusations? Are we slandering others using this emotionally-charged word? Shouldn't we drop this word and perhaps use something a little less alarming?

We are conditioned to consider abuse to be that which inflicts violence in the forms of rape, battery, beating, or extreme neglect. And yes, those are examples of abuse ~ yet they are not the only examples. Here is how the United States Department of Justice defines abuse. Please read carefully.

We define domestic violence 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.  Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.
Physical Abuse: Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair pulling, etc are types of physical abuse. This type of abuse also includes denying a partner medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use upon him or her.
Sexual Abuse: 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.
Emotional Abuse: Undermining an individual's sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem is abusive. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one's abilities, name-calling, or damaging one's relationship with his or her children.
Economic Abuse: Is defined as making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding one's access to money, or forbidding one's attendance at school or employment.
Psychological Abuse: Elements of psychological abuse include  - but are not limited to - causing fear by intimidation; threatening physical harm to self, partner, children, or partner's family or friends; destruction of pets and property; and forcing isolation from family, friends, or school and/or work.
Domestic violence can happen to anyone regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender. Domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. Domestic violence occurs in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships and can happen to intimate partners who are married, living together, or dating.
Domestic violence not only affects those who are abused, but also has a substantial effect on family members, friends, co-workers, other witnesses, and the community at large. Children, who grow up witnessing domestic violence, are among those seriously affected by this crime. Frequent exposure to violence in the home not only predisposes children to numerous social and physical problems, but also teaches them that violence is a normal way of life - therefore, increasing their risk of becoming society's next generation of victims and abusers. Sources: National Domestic Violence Hotline, National Center for Victims of Crime, and WomensLaw.org.

These descriptions illustrate the mis-use of power and control over another person's mind, heart, and body. But there is another form of abuse, a spiritual one. A popular blogger recently observed that the term spiritual abuse is becoming increasingly wide-spread. I am thankful for this! It means that awareness is growing and when one is aware, he or she is more likely to be alert and able to discern warning signs. But what is spiritual abuse? Ezekiel 34 illustrates spiritual abuse in heart-wrenching prose.
“Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them.”
Another definition is offered by Watchman Fellowship:
Spiritual abuse is the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help. Sometimes abuse arises out of a doctrinal position. At other times it occurs because of legitimate personal needs of a leader that are being met by illegitimate means. Spiritually abusive religious systems are sometimes described as legalistic, mind controlling, religiously addictive, and authoritarian.

It is important to reach an understanding of words and what is meant when terms are used. But while one could argue definitions all day, please remember that meanwhile, there are some desperately hurting individuals in this world who need healing.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I am bookmarking the Desmond Tutu quote.

  2. LOVE the Desmond Tutu quote. I may have to borrow that one.

  3. Love the thoroughness of this. Contrary to what some people think, most people who claim abuse have spent hours of agony trying to figure out "Is this abuse?"

    And I am also stealing, with permission , the Tutu quote.

  4. No need to ask permission to borrow this quote. :-)

  5. Amen, Hillary.

    Thanks you for your kindness in tough topics.

    Blessings and love,

  6. i needed this refresher and reminder ... that he really was, and is, so abusive. he hides it well from our children, and for that i am thankful. kids need their dad's, and since they see him on standard visitation weekends, he is able to control his emotions for those short periods of time.

    my youngest daughter, 11 yo, did tell me she is better for her dad than me, she holds it in, b/c she fears him. she said she's afraid of his 'outbursts.' it's been a good while, i think, since he's had one with her, but they are burned into her memory.

    a huge part of my oldest daughter died the day we told them, six years ago, we were getting a divorce. just the other night she was crying those deep, gutteral, painful sobs, telling me how painful it is and how she can't trust anyone b/c of this one moment in time. she trusted her parents, and we broke her trust.

    i cannot tell my girls why we're divorced. i also cannot change or remove his intense and seething hate for me. they know he hates me. they also do not know all the things he still does to me. he is so mean and demeaning and many of the things listed.

    he is actively involved in a large, evangelical church, though, and he never ever ever misses a sunday. he even teaches children's sunday school. he leads a double life, modeled after his parents who are ministers.

    the pain my daughter shared w/me the other night makes me wish we never divorced. but when i remember, or am reminded, of how extensively abusive he was/is to me ... ... . i have to believe God is going to heal my children.

  7. Ame- As the daughter of an abusive father who is still married to my mother, let me assure you that you did what was best for your daughters. My parents have been married for nearly 40 yrs. Every one of those years was filled with abuse that spilled over onto my sister and me. Anyone who hates his wife and dispises her so much for simply being female can NOT truely love his daughters.
    Let me also encourage you to talk to your daughters when they are mature enough about why you left. Abusers are the masters of secrets but your children saw more then you thought they did. As a daughter i was desperate for the love of my father and for his approval but my heart broke for my mother and I hated him for it. I was so confused and lost for years not knowing where these emotions came from. From personal experience, I feel like my recovery would have been much easier and quicker if I could have had an honest talk with my mom. thank God you had the courge to get out for your sake and for the sake of your children. I pray that God will continue to bless you and lead you in the path of healing.

  8. Anon - thank you very much. you have comforted me in a discord sort of way. i am so sorry for what you endured. i was abused in my parents' home, too, and it's no easy path.

    i hate the guilt my girls have. so much guilt ... guilt for their parents being divorced, guilt that daddy hates mommy, guilt for liking their step dad, and the list goes on.

    i work hard to allow opportunity for them to share their feelings with me. i don't want them to bottle it up. they know i can't tell them the reasons now, but they also know i will share with them what they need to know when they are older. i work hard to keep the lines of communication open with my girls. i want them to feel free to talk to me. i don't tell them how much that hurts sometimes, though. it breaks my heart all they go thru.

    in one sense, we are free; in another, we are not. i'm coming to believe there is no real freedom till heaven.

    btw - my parents divorced after 40+ years of marriage. my mom up and left him in the middle of the night, leaving a 'dear john' letter on the table. my siblings were furious. i was at the tail end of my own divorce and refused to have anything to do with it. both my parents were abusive, but my dad the most. my mom escaped the only way she knew how. my dad is a swift/sweet talker, and he has the money, so my 3 siblings are always buddying up to him. i won't have anything to do with him. i just can't. everything with him comes with a price - a price i'm not willing to pay.

    i needed your encouragement. yes, if i'd stayed in the marriage, my girls would be worse. he filed for divorce, but i forced him to choose to get well or to get out. he chose the latter.

    his hate seethes through everything he does, and i'm always having to deal with it. he has sued me twice since the divorce, and he keeps every medical, school, and any other kind of record, and every correspondence, as court documents to use to sue me again. i never know when i'm going to get that knock on the door w/someone serving me papers again.

    then, he turns around and prays on his knees every morning at the sofa and reads his bible, for a long time my daughters tell me. and they are not allowed to interrupt him at all for any reason. if they're hungry, they have to wait.

    such a juxtapositon. i cannot reconcile these things. his parents are this way, too. i'm thankful i'm not God and i don't have to reconcile them.

  9. Ame and Anonymous - thank you for sharing. I am at the beginning of a similar situation, newly separated. I needed the encouragement to stand strong, remember the gravity of what happened, and not give in to the manipulation to go back to the status quo of abuse and danger. I don't want my kids growing up to think this is normal.

  10. Excellent, thorough, thought provoking article.

    Thx for sharing such an intimate part of your life. Covered all the bases.

    Nike Chillemi

  11. This is hard to read, because I'm forced to acknowledge I have experienced every last type of abuse listed here. Every single type. This is what happens when you are raised in a cult. My heart breaks for the girls and boys, men and women still experiencing this pain.

  12. Dina, My adopted daughters were sold by their biological mother and maternal grandmother to any guy that walked in and brought a bottle of booze or take out.

    These littel girls would be in the bedroom and their momma and grandma would be in the kitchen eating and drinking.

    I have one adopted daughter doing really good. Another who will not even admit to the abuse coming off the street. Pls pray for her.

    The third is getting high and acting out sexually...pls pray.

    Dina, I'm praying for you. :)

  13. Nike: I am so sorry to hear about that. It's truly sickening. I will pray for them. Substance abuse is common when people have histories like ours. Sexuality was used as discipline and punishment ever since I was a baby or toddler - Not just by my dad, but brothers (forced by my dad) and other men in the community. It took me many years to stop being so depressed I wanted to die. I had children who were also being victimized before I had the courage to leave. And more years before I found the courage to really want to LIVE! Healing is possible! All things are possible through G-d.

  14. Yes, all things are possible with God. We're going to see all three of our girls on Dec 23rd.

    We're taking them out to dinner at a small and comfy Italian restaurant for a "Christmas Dinner." Public places are safe to meet when you're not exactly sure.

    If all goes well, we'll take them home and have eggnog and exchange gifts. Of course, the middle one goes right back to the streets. The older one goes back to her boyfriend (who is much better than previous boyfriends).

    So, God is doing His healing work in them. We're blessed to be seeing them at all during the Christmas holidays. It will come to pass in God's time. His time and His ways are not ours.

  15. I have a sister who is actively involved in a church, doesn't seem to miss a Sunday. She goes through the motions of a Christan, puts on a sweet face but she is living a double life just as Ame's ex was....
    Those who are strong, true Christians know better though. They know what she did to her family... her words, her actions. They can see the change within her.

  16. APGifts (soaptalk AT hotmail DOT com)June 19, 2012 at 6:47 PM

    An interesting related article:

  17. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.


  18. Thank you for sharing this article. I have also read parts of your book. It is hard to read because no one should have to go through any type of abuse. It is horrible and wrong. Fortunately, we have a great and wonderful God who gives us all of His love and wants to pour all of His unmerited grace out to us, heal us and help us to forgive and love those who hurt us.
    I ran across your wonderful website the other day and have had you on my mind. I am praying for you. Know that there is soooooo much more God has for your life.


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