How Emotional Abuse is Physical Abuse

by | Oct 11, 2023 | Abuse | 9 comments

Emotional Abuse is Physical Abuse

Sheila here! October is Domestic Abuse Awareness Month, and last week I saw an amazing post by Emily at Thriving Forward, who was a guest on the Bare Marriage podcast a while ago talking about growing up under Gothard, and being part of the lawsuit against him. 

One of the biggest issues in Christendom is that many people say physical abuse is grounds for divorce, but not other kinds of abuse.

But as Emily argues, it’s all physical. 

I want to share her post with you today.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Emotional abuse IS physical abuse.

I was dying for most of my teenage years.  I mean literally, in a hospital, 73 pounds, not enough blood running through my veins, dying.  

When I was 13 years old I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The doctor said it was the worst case he’d ever seen and I had had it for at least two years. How, one might ask, does an 11 year old develop a stress-induced, life threatening disease?  

Emotional abuse can kill.  

There are so many misunderstandings when it comes to a word a broad as “abuse”. So many preconceived ideas of what abuse looks like…

I grew up in a home where my abuser was, by traditional definitions, emotionally abusive. Abuse that consisted of intense imposing of fear and shame, angry outbursts, manipulation, passive aggressive behavior, apathy, and gaslighting, to name a few things.  

I was only ever struck twice.  

*Only twice.*

Yet, I now believe and understand that I, in fact, DID grow up with continual physical abuse, and this would be true even if I had never been struck.

My physician has a statistic posted in her office: nearly 80% of all doctor appointments can be traced back to stress. Similar statistics regarding chronic/acute illness and stress reveal the same connection: Stress, in particular, emotional stress, will wreak havoc on a body and can even be deadly.

Leaving a Christian marriage is a highly touchy subject within the church. Typically, physical abuse such as repeated violent striking or bruising is the only “acceptable” excuse for a woman to leave her husband. But even then, John Piper has publicly taught in previous years that in order to be submissive, “a woman should endure verbal abuse for a season, and endure being smacked for a night.”

Why are we telling women that the hell they are living through isn’t real or valid unless they are being beaten black and blue every night?  

We tell them that it doesn’t matter that the emotional abuse is slowly destroying their brain chemistry, their adrenals, their digestive system, and their immune system. Who cares if you’re dealing with chronic fatigue and systemic inflammation, just so long as he hasn’t hit you, right? 

This is a deadly message and is unfortunately the same message the church is often sending to hurting, vulnerable, and trapped women.  

We need to call emotional abuse for exactly what it is: dangerous and damaging to the mind AND the body.  

Instead of minimizing these women’s situations and telling them their abuse isn’t real or valid, let’s reach out with empathy and understanding. Let’s offer them a safe place to live. Let’s help them hold their abuser accountable. Let’s encourage them to take care of themselves physically — rest, eat well, get good sleep. Let’s become a gateway to their healing, not an administrator of more guilt and shame.

Because emotional abuse IS physical abuse. And it can be deadly.

Sexual abuse can also have long-term physical effects.

A number of people have shared this stat on social media lately about how sexual abuse in boys is linked to heart attacks later in life:

Men who experienced childhood sexual abuse are three times more likely to have a heart attack than men who were not sexually abused as children, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Toronto…

We had expected that the abuse-heart attack link would be due to unhealthy behaviors in sexual abuse survivors, such as higher rates of alcohol use or smoking, or increased levels of general stress and poverty in adulthood when compared to non-abused males. However, we adjusted statistically for 15 potential risk factors for heart attack, including age, race, obesity, smoking, physical inactivity, diabetes mellitus, education level and household income, and still found a three-fold risk of heart attack.”

Childhood sexual abuse linked to later heart attacks in men

Science Daily

The body keeps the score

We need to remember that ALL abuse has physical effects, and consider ALL abuse actually physical abuse. 


She Deserves Better!

Because we all deserve a big faith.

Your daughter deserves better than what you likely grew up with in church.

What would it look like to prepare the next generation without toxic teachings about modesty, sex, or consent, and instead set her up for a big faith?

Perhaps if we truly understood the long-term effects on the body, we’d take all kinds of abuse more seriously.

If you believe you may be a victim of abuse, please contact your local Domestic Violence Hotline

  • Canada: 800.799.SAFE (7233)
  • United States: 1-800-621-HOPE (4673).
  • United Kingdom: 08 08 16 89 111
  • Australia: 1 800 737 732
  • New Zealand: 0800 456 450
  • Kenya: 0-800-720-072
  • Nigeria: 0800 033 3333
  • South Africa: 0800 428 428

Emotional Abuse is PHysical Abuse

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Kate

    This is so true. My dad (a pastor) emotionally abused my mom for decades. I watched him gaslight her straight into the mental hospital. She has fibromyalgia and she was diagnosed with bread cancer this year after finally getting a divorce.
    I live with two incurable digestive disorders that are stress induced. Emotional and mental abuse can sometimes be more damaging than physical abuse and it is wild to me that people don’t seem to understand that. If my dad had physically abused me, I could have gotten help. Instead I stayed trapped in an impossible situation. The church told my mom she didn’t have a valid reason to leave. I was a vulnerable child trapped in a horrible home life because of this advice. This thinking is leaving women and vulnerable children in terrible situations. It needs to stop and the church needs to take accountability. Thank you Sheila for the work you are doing!

  2. T

    He never hit me. But at the end of the marriage, I could literally feel my life force slowly leaking from my body. And I had a clear sense that if I continued to stay, my life expectancy was probably about 10 more years.

    Divorce was, at that point, a life and death decision.

  3. Marie

    Not sure how I missed this post! Very important info to know

  4. Anonymous305

    I didn’t label my prior marriage as abusive, but I was shocked at how much my stress level went down after I was free. I saw stress as an inevitable part of adult life, until I was free and thought, “wait, it’s normal not to feel angry every day????”

  5. Nessie

    Raised by a narcissist. Chronic headaches and nausea for most of my childhood into adulthood. They began to subside, and unexplained weight gain happened (only comes off with extreme levels of dieting and exercise). About 15 years into a sexually and emotionally abusive marriage (albeit unintentional), multiple joints developed chronic inflammation and caused pain significant enough to restrict nomal activities.

    I absolutely believe abuse of every kind is physical abuse. However, I don’t know that most people would agree… Like Kate shared above, it’s difficult to get help for non-physical abuse. The other abuses are just “normal” if you grew up with them or were conditioned to accept them in adulthood. The non-physical forms of abuse are difficult for people to believe because they aren’t as tangible/measurable.
    “If you have nausea, well, just change your eating habits! Why would you think that was stress-induced? You just like to blame other people for your problems.”
    “Pain in your joints? That’s just because you are getting older. You must not handle pain as well as others. It’s probably arthritis. (It’s not.)”

    When a system has become so adept at gaslighting in ways to keep women oppressed in the church and home, that gaslighting carries over into all aspects of life.

  6. Laura

    This is all very true! Unhealthy situations do cause physical issues. I’m thinking of a situation where I had a mean boss and thankfully, I quit that job after 6 weeks. I got horrible stomachaches and just felt miserable, but I thought I needed to tough it out because at that time (almost 20 years ago), I thought part of being a “good” Christian meant to put up with trials because they would make me stronger. After all, this woman claimed to be a Christian and her husband was a pastor. I also learned that just because people claim to be Christians does not mean they are good people. This experience was similar to the emotional abuse I endured in my first marriage. I believed that if I did everything right, then I would not be criticized.

  7. Lisa Johns

    Absolutely. I have recently become clear on what the slow build-up of stress in response to emotional abuse has done to my body. I very much look forward to seeing how much healing happens when I am free and on my own!

  8. Anon

    What right has anyone, other than God, to tell another person what to do with their lives and whether they should get married or divorced or not? Especially the church. What right does the church have, and who do they think they are to tell anyone inside of their congregation or out of it, what to do with their own lives?.

    • Lisa Johns



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