Domestic Violence and Spiritual Abuse

By Amy Thomson

Spiritual abuse is a form of psychological manipulation used by abusers to coerce their victims into compliance by using religious belief as leverage. Regardless of the religion involved, doctrine is used by both the abuser and the enabling members of the congregation to force the victim into subjection.

How spiritual abuse manifests in the context of intimate partner relationships

Victims living with an abuser who uses spiritual control in the home are subjected to additional levels of control and coercion not experienced in non-practicing families. When used against a believer, manipulated doctrine has a powerful way to make the victim subject themselves to the abuser’s wishes.

By engaging in this behavior, abusers effectively elevate themselves to the role of God. The abuser expects their victims to be entirely submissive to them and exacts punishment for anything less than full compliance. Victims are often expected to subject to their partner’s will at any cost, including disregarding scripture or denying God if the victim’s partner is not a believer.

  • Abusers use scripture regarding wifely duty to manipulate their partners into having intercourse. However, any time a victim does not consent to intimacy, it is sexual assault or rape.
  • Abusers use scripture referencing subjection to guilt their partners into obeying everything they are commanded to do. Victims attempting to resist are met with rants and accusations about being a failure as a partner and parent to the children.
  • If a victim attempts to call the abuser into account for their abusive behavior, the abuser dismisses their concerns and notes scripture references to the woman being the property of the husband.
  • The victim is often prevented from attending church or engaging in social activities with other members of the congregation. They are also subjected to the ridicule of their beliefs or can be forced to practice a religion they do not want to.
  • Women are often not allowed to work outside the home as the abuser enforcers strict gender roles.
  • The abuser makes all decisions – even significant ones – without seeking input from the victim. If the victim disagrees, they are reminded to subject to the abuser’s authority as the head.

How spiritual abuse manifests in the context of religious leaders and congregations

Victims of domestic violence also face psychological manipulation from the enabling behavior of their spiritual leaders and congregation. Religious groups tend to be highly influential in their members’ lives and the congregation is expected to be at the center. Secular bodies and disbelievers exist outside this context, and therefore a congregation’s members are pressured to remain free of their influence.

Spiritual leaders are charged with the wellbeing of their congregants. Religious beliefs regulate all aspects of a person’s life and church leaders find themselves in the position of being both spiritual and psychological guides. Members of the church seek help with self-improvement and relationships or family life. When victims of domestic violence confide in the clergy, they are unfortunately not always met with the Godly love they hear so much about from the pulpit. Clergy often responds with victim blaming and shaming wrapped in the guise of counsel.

  • Church leaders usually meet with the abuser and victim at the same time to discuss the abuse occurring in the home. This is never a good idea because the victim is not free to say what they need to address. Also, it puts the victim at risk for retribution for revealing the abuser’s secret.
  • Prayer and self-examination are the most commonly offered solutions, but they also imply the victim is at fault. Victims are discouraged from calling the police or getting medical documentation of the injuries and are instead pressured to pray, change behavior, and submit.
  • Often, members of the congregation will blame the victim and pressure them to stay with the abuser. In too many cases, both clergy and congregation tell the victim that their weak faith is the problem.
  • Safety of the victim is jeopardized. The victim is pressured or coerced to subject to the head of the household and stay with the abuser to avoid breaking up the family.
  • Victims face the difficult choice of not only leaving their abuser, but their entire life behind. Religious communities tend to be closed to outsiders, and the church is the focus of its congregants’ lives. Most of the friends, family, and social activities exist within this context. When a victim leaves, they must leave their friends and social connections as well.
  • Long-term abuse in this context can damage or destroy the victim’s spirituality because they may start to feel abandoned by their god. They may stop attending services permanently, unable to trust that any congregation functions healthily.

Breaking free from this dangerous situation is an impossible choice for the victim to make. If they stay, their family remains together, yet they sacrifice their safety and well-being. If they leave, they have a hope of building a better life for themselves and children. However, victims must also consciously choose to leave their entire lives behind, not just the violence. Their lives center around the religious community, and the congregation often shuns those who leave. Such victims are unsure of where to go and whom to trust because they were expected to ignore secular sources of help.

How religious leaders and congregations can get involved:

  • Contact a local domestic violence organization and ask to set up an action plan to use when congregants disclose domestic violence. Understand that secular institutions are not there to undermine faith, but to help the victim safely escape their abuser and refer them to legal, medical, housing, and law enforcement resources.
  • Each person in a leadership role should undergo domestic violence and trauma training to learn how to respond to abuse victims appropriately.
  • Give occasional sermons dedicated to addressing violence and trauma in the home. It is the clergy’s responsibility to tell their congregation that abuse is not condoned and that shaming and blaming is not acceptable.
  • Make listings of resources available to any congregant needing help.
  • Do not pressure the victim to stay and pray it out. If they have decided to leave, offer them help, and do not cut them off from the congregation.

How to Tell the Difference Between Healthy Arguments and Abuse

We all hope for our relationships to be as peaceful as possible. However, regardless of how healthy our relationships are, there are occasions where we will disagree with our partners and have arguments. When both parties are willing to seek a resolution to the disagreements in a healthy way, it is indicative of healthy dynamics. Unfortunately, not all relationships are built on a sense of respect and equal partnership. If you have found yourself wondering if the arguments with your partner are abusive, there are few things to look out for.

Healthy Arguments

Arguments that occur in healthy relationships tend to be isolated incidents. And are resolved by both parties actively working to come up with a solution that is fair to both people.

Characteristics of healthy arguments may include the following:

  • Arguing about chores, spending habits, grooming or hygiene, raising children, or difficult family or friends typically occur as a result of one party feeling unheard or from built-up frustration.
  • Either partner may say something insensitive or hurtful during an argument, but let’s be honest – we all lose our tempers and say stupid things or things we later regret. In healthy relationships, this can occur occasionally, but it is not a part of an established pattern of behavior. The offending partner will feel bad about their actions and make genuine apologies.
  • Partners in healthy relationships can admit when they are wrong, take responsibility for their actions, and compromise.
  • Tension is usually short-term and is resolved quickly.
  • Your partner may question some goals or decisions you make, but they do so with the intent of wanting you to think about negative consequences you may be ignoring or unaware of. They do not withhold support from you in general.
  • You and your partner may disagree about significant life changes – buying a home, whether or not/when to have children, or moving long distances – but all final decisions are reached by mutual compromise and agreement.


Arguments that occur in abusive relationships are indicative of a well-established pattern of behavior marked by rigid control and manipulation. Abusive arguments are one-sided and impossible to win.

Characteristics of unhealthy arguments can include the following:

  • An abusive partner will be consistently insensitive to how their words and actions affect you. They will often accuse you of being “hyper-sensitive” and make you feel like you are unreasonable, selfish, or both. It is also common that they will manipulate you, use guilt trips, and gaslighting to confuse you or twist your words to use them against you.
  • Your partner will be dismissive of your needs and feelings. May tell you that you have no right to need, want, or express opinions. They make it clear that you are there to do as they command (or pressure) you.
  • You are pressured to give into them or feel unsafe and insecure about expressing your emotions to them during an argument. You will feel obliged to comply out of fear of your partner’s anger or expectation that they will retaliate against you.
  • Arguments always make you look like you are at fault. Abusers will refuse to talk about anything that makes them out to be the guilty party. They will not acknowledge when they are in the wrong.
  • Your partner will maintain or escalate tensions until you give in to their demands or tell them what they want to hear. There is no discussion and fair compromise; you always sacrifice for the sake of peace. Some abusers may later punish you for non-compliance to enforce the idea that you must always do as they say.
  • Some abusers will attempt to block an exit or follow you around to prevent you from disengaging from the argument. You may be forced into agreeing with the aggressor in order to keep the abuse from escalating. The abuser uses this tactic to make you feel unsafe and pressure you into giving in.
  • An abuser may choose to argue with you in front of others. Friends, family, or even in public with strangers watching – and say things to deliberately shame and embarrass you.
  • Your partner consistently refuses to be supportive of any of your goals, dreams, or accomplishments. Uses them as a way to discourage you.

If you have noticed any of the above signs while arguing with your partner and you feel that they may be abusive, know that this is not your fault and that you are not the cause of the tension. You deserve to be treated with respect and loved in a healthy way. Try confiding in someone you trust or seek help from a domestic violence organization like Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline

National Grief Awareness Day: How to Understand Grief

By: Meghan Mausteller

National Grief Awareness Day, which is celebrated on August 30, was founded by Angie Cartwright in 2014.

Cartwright experienced grief in her life in the loss of her baby sister when she was only five years old, the death of her husband in a car accident in 1996 and the passing of her mother of a drug overdose in 2010. With so much loss in her life, Cartwright became overwhelmed by grief.

While dealing with her grief, Cartwright learned that “healing can only take place when grief is not shamed, rushed or tabooed,” according to her Change.org page. She believes that everyone experiences grief differently and that, as a society, we need to learn about grief and how to help someone who is experiencing it.

Like Cartwright experienced grief over the deaths of her loved ones, survivors of domestic violence often experience grief for a variety of reasons.

If you have a loved one who has experienced domestic violence, take the time to learn what grief is, why survivors must go through this period before they can heal and how you can support your loved one.

What is Grief?

According to Concetta Hollinger with the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, grief is the expression of loss through physical, emotional, behavioral and psychological reactions. This can include a wide variety of symptoms, including, but not limited to:

  • Feelings of numbness, despair, denial, anger and relief
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Neglect of self care
  • Muscular tension
  • Flashbacks
  • Triggers
  • Absentmindedness
  • Intrusive thoughts/memories
  • Crying
  • Seeking solitude
  • Withdrawing from friends and family

An individual can experience all or none of these reactions and many others as a way of dealing with and expressing their grief.

Each person will experience the individual symptoms of grief differently than the next, but it is usually experienced in five basic stages: denial, bargaining, depression, anger and acceptance.

How Do Survivors Experience Grief?

When they leave their abuser, a survivor of domestic violence can grieve over a lot of different losses.

Often times, survivors grieve over the loss of the relationship and their abuser. This can seem illogical to friends and family members who have not experienced abuse; however, it is important to remember that people become involved in abusive relationships because, especially at first, it isn’t all bad. Abusers are often charismatic and romantic at the beginning of the relationship, as they take the time to woo their victim. Once the relationship ends, this is the person the survivor misses: the caring romantic. They grieve over the relationship that might have been; that used to be.

They might also grieve for the person they once were or the person they thought they would be, as domestic violence is an experience that can drastically alter or destroy a person’s self-confidence and self image.

Unfortunately, these losses are categorized as “disenfranchised grief,” according to Hollinger, because society does not recognize the loss or respect the circumstances of the loss. This often forces the survivor to cope with their grief on their own.

How Can I Help?

As a support person, it is important that you give the survivor the help they need to grieve in a healthy way. This could be by listening with an open mind or possibly encouraging them to seek professional help, if necessary.

Hollinger recommends not allowing the survivor to reach a place where they begin idolizing the abuse or ignoring the relationship’s negative aspects.

She also encourages someone dealing with grief to write an obituary, eulogy or letter to the thing or person they lost and then burning it. Survivors can also do the “empty chair” exercise, where they hold a conversation with the person or thing they lost, represented by the empty chair.

Above all, you can support your loved one by legitimizing their grief and grieving process and giving them time to heal at their own pace.

Donate to BTSADV today to help survivors heal from abuse

Getting through Mother’s Day when your Mom was your Abuser

By: JM Oran

For many years, I would avoid logging into FaceBook on Mother’s Day; avoid it like the plague.

I didn’t want to see the inspirational quotes about mothers or motherhood that my friends posted, or the pictures of them with their mothers having a celebratory brunch date.

As someone who hasn’t spoken to, seen or even lived on the same continent as my verbally and emotionally abusive mother since 2005, you can see why I wasn’t exactly in the holiday spirit of celebrating moms. It wasn’t that I was jealous or resentful of the strong and loving relationships that most of my friends had with their mothers, but because I couldn’t relate, I felt left out.

Many survivors of domestic violence come from dysfunctional families and may have a broken relationship with their mother. She might have been the abuser, or perhaps she was unable to be physically and emotionally present for her children because of addiction or mental health issues or maybe she stood by the side not interfering while another family member abused you in some way. If you have a troubled relationship with your mother, don’t spend Mother’s Day feeling sad and lonely, but instead find another way to celebrate it and not just “get through it.”

1. Realize that You are not Alone

On Mother’s Day, or on other important holidays when you’re expected to spend time with family, it can be easy to think that you are the only person in the world who has a bad relationship with your mother. Don’t believe it for a second.

People who are estranged from a parent usually don’t advertise this fact because some people can be judgmental; however, when I started to be more open about my family dynamic it was surprising how often I saw the light of recognition in other people’s eyes and heard them say with relief “Me, too!” It can be very helpful to have people in your life who also understand the pain of coming from a dysfunctional family, but if none of your friends fit the bill, you can turn to the internet to find support.

A good place to start is Reddit’s “Raised By Narcissists” community. And, of course, don’t forget your Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence brothers and sisters who are always willing to lend a judgment-free ear whenever you need emotional support or some companionship. If you can’t avoid being alone on Mother’s Day, don’t mope at home feeling sorry for yourself. Get out the house and do something fun to take your mind off things – go for a run, buy yourself some ice cream, see a movie, etc.

2. Don’t let Other People’s Opinions or Judgment affect You

People who have a bad relationship with their mother have one very important thing in common.

Sooner or later, we will be criticized or judged for limiting contact with our mother or cutting her out of our lives.

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard somebody pronounce, “But . . . but she’s your mother!” I would be a very rich woman indeed. Worse still, people have used various unflattering adjectives to describe me; selfish, cruel and heartless are just a few. It can be very difficult not to let others’ opinions affect your self esteem or make you doubt the decision you have made.

But guess what? They didn’t grow up in your family, and they don’t know what experiences you had, so their opinions mean nothing. If your gut instinct tells you that you need to protect yourself by not speaking to your mother, or by limiting contact, trust that and honor it. Only you know what is best for yourself.

3. Don’t Suppress your Feelings

If you find yourself feeling angry at your mother on Mother’s Day, don’t feel guilty just because every greeting card and store window says you should be grateful. If your mother abused you or let abuse happen to you, there is no reason for you to feel gratitude, and that doesn’t make you a bad person. Let yourself feel that anger, and don’t suppress it. But there’s a balance. You can’t let those angry feelings consume you and become your every thought and action.

Some people find that forgiving their mother, or developing some compassion for her, helps them process painful past experiences and let go of their anger. In my case, I do get angry occasionally when I think about my mother’s behavior, but I am also aware that she didn’t set out to cause pain. She grew up in an abusive household, so she never learned how to build loving relationships; how to act right. I believe that she did the best she could under the circumstances, and the same is probably true of most “bad mothers.” That being said, if you are not ready to forgive your mother, or you simply don’t want to, don’t force yourself.

4. Find another Female Role Model

If you’re not able to celebrate your mother on Mother’s Day, perhaps there is another female in your life you could pay tribute to instead – a sister, aunt, grandmother, female friend, teacher or spiritual leader. Maybe there was someone in your life throughout the years or even recently who has acted like a mother toward you; who has been there for you and done almost everything moms do.

Maybe you didn’t realize you had someone like that, take time to think if there was a female like this in your life. Then thank her, show her you’re grateful for her role in your life. Even if you can’t spend time with this person, try calling them or writing a thoughtful email or letter. You could also turn Mother’s Day into your own personal celebration of strong and powerful women everywhere: try listening to music by a female artist or reading a book by a female writer whom you find particularly inspirational.

5. Celebrate Yourself!

Let’s face it: it’s not easy going through life without having a loving and supportive mother. No matter how old you are, there will probably always be a time when you wish, even if only for a second, that you had a mother you could turn to for solace or advice. I’m not going to try to pretend that it’s not difficult or painful when this option isn’t available. However, please recognize how incredibly strong, resilient and independent you are to have survived – and thrived – without having a cheerleader mother behind you. If you could do this, then there is no limit to what you can achieve in life.

And if you’ve become a mother yourself, make sure you recognize that you’ve broken the cycle of abuse and pour out love on your babies this day. Show how grateful you are to them for making you a mom and filling your life with sunshine. And help remind them that, as their mom, you deserve to be celebrated a little bit. Even if it is an extra hug or sweet words coming from chubby cheeks.

So, this Mother’s Day, run a hot bubble bath, pour yourself a glass of champagne, lie back and make a toast to yourself! You deserve it.

Taking a Stand against Sexual Assault: The Green Band Project

By: Meghan Mausteller

In Colorado Springs, CO, a teenage boy is doing his part to raise awareness about sexual assault among high school students with the Green Band Project.

Last summer, Jess Cohen, a high school senior, worked as a junior staff member at a leadership camp, where he heard a guest speaker talk about sexual assault. After the presentation, the junior staff talked together and a few female staff members came forward and discussed their own experiences with sexual assault.

For Cohen, this was a life-changing moment. While he had learned about sexual assault and domestic violence in school, he had never before realized that it impacted people his age.

When he returned home from the camp, he began talking to more people about what he learned and realized that most people have a friend or family member who has experienced sexual assault. This inspired him to immediately begin brainstorming ways to bring sexual assault awareness to his high school. Out of this came the Green Band Project.

The Green Band Project works to prevent sexual violence by empowering people to become active bystanders and “intervene in any situation of sexual inappropriateness.” Through this project, Cohen teaches students about sexual assault and encourages them to sign a pledge promising to intervene. To show their solidarity with sexual assault survivors and that they have signed the pledge, students also wear green “I Will Intervene” wristbands.

The goal of this project, which was modeled after the Green Dot Program on college campuses, serves the dual purpose of creating a community of people who are willing to stand against sexual assault, while also providing a safe space for sexual assault survivors.

According to Cohen, he decided to focus on bystanders to remind people that we all play a role in preventing sexual assault.

“It’s obvious to tell people not to rape, but most people think this doesn’t affect them because they know they won’t rape anyone,” he said.

Citing the Stanford University rape case as an example, Cohen said he believes that it is the third party that has the power to step in and stop or even prevent a sexual assault from occurring.

“If one person can change or impact someone else, it can be a chain effect,” he said.

Creating this network of people supporting others will not only serve to encourage people to intervene in situations of sexual violence, but also to encourage them to begin talking about the issue and work on erasing the stigma surrounding sexual assault.

While his ultimate goal is to stop sexual assault, Cohen would like to “have hundreds of high school and college campuses be involved and have students across the country wearing green bands.”

Currently, the Green Band Project is only being implemented at Cohen’s high school, but he is also working with friends in other school districts in Colorado, as well as in other states to try to spread the project’s mission to a wider audience. When he starts his freshman year of college this fall, Cohen also hopes to bring the Green Band Project to that community.

“Don’t be afraid to speak out and use your voice,” he said.

He said it’s important you know that what you are doing matters and to find a supportive community that will encourage you to reach for and accomplish your goals.

This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, take a stand against sexual assault in your local community. If you are interested in bringing the Green Band Project to a high school in your area, visit www.greenbandproject.com for more information and check out the “Get Involved” tab to order your own wristbands.

What I wish I knew before I left

There are so many things I wish I knew before I left the abusive relationship. And right now, someone is being abused has reached their breaking point, maybe this person is you. They want to leave. It’s quite possible that they’ve tried to break free before, but they just know they need to get out before they get more broken. Or worse than they already are.

I wish I knew I wasn’t alone

Let me say before I go any further that I don’t have to personally know you to hurt for you. I was once where you find yourself now, and I felt like I had nowhere to go. I felt like the weight of the world was bearing down on me. Suffocating me to the point that I’d disappear and no one would even know that I was gone. Perhaps the worst part was that I blamed myself for what was happening to me. I thought no one would believe if I tried to tell them I was being abused.

If I could, I would reach in and pull you (and your children and/or pets) out to safety. Ultimately it’s you who must make the final choice to leave. Many of us leave during an emergency or with little or no safety and recovery plan in place. We do not always know what steps to take or what questions to ask when we leave.

Leaving will be one of the hardest choices you will ever make. It will also be the most important choice you will ever make.

There are several things you need to know to make this transition as complete and safe as possible.

Above all else, you need to know that it is not your fault. No matter how hard you try to love them or adapt your behavior. You cannot make your abuser stop hurting you. You are not alone. There are people out here who will believe you, support you and help you. You deserve to be safe and loved.

You are valuable.

You have purpose.

You have courage beyond measure.

Make a plan before you leave

It is important that you do not alert your abuser to your intention to leave. Even if they have never been physically violent with you before, you do not know how they will react. Abusers do not like to lose the control they have. Telling an abuser you are planning to leave increases your risk. They should not suspect your plans.

If possible, you should document the abuse that is occurring. This can include pictures of injuries, recordings, texts, voicemails, or emails that include verbal and emotional abuse, damaged items, and clothing. These should be kept outside of your home with someone you trust.

When there are opportunities, gather important items into a bag you can take with you on a moment’s notice. Many of us do not have safe hiding places in the home with the abuser. It will be safer for you to keep some of the following items in a bag with someone you trust.

Important Items

  • Extra set of car and house keys
  • Medications, immunization records
  • Checkbook, credit cards (if you can get them safely) or cash
  • Documents (for you and your children) like driver’s license, insurance cards, passport, social security card, and birth certificate.
  • Any other legal documents you may have that will help prove identity, relationship to the abuser and financial resources
  • A list of important contact numbers (friends, family, medical, school and local DV organizations)
  • Change of clothes and basic toiletries

The list of items may make sense to you now, and seem obvious. But when you’re in a high stress situation (like getting ready to leave), it can be easy to forget. A way to help prevent this is to contact a domestic violence organization to have a customized safety plan created. You can also create a safety plan to help minimize risk while still with your abuser. The safety plan will not only provide checklists of important items you need to bring with you, it also helps you come up with plans of action. These plans help your children to know what to do in an emergency, places you can go, who you need to call, and who needs to be notified in case you are hurt.

After You Leave

You should be aware that any electronics, email, and social media accounts you have that can be used to track you. It is important that you get a new cell phone, have your laptop cleaned, change all passwords and PINs so the abuser cannot access any of your accounts.

Whether you have the abuser charged is your choice, but think through the consequences carefully. Not doing so can reduce your options later if you attempt to apply for financial assistance through a crime victims office in your state. It will also affect the type of protective order you can get and the duration of time you can be protected by the order.

I wish I knew more about protective orders

When I left, because of personal circumstances I did not have my ex arrested. In my state, this automatically meant I was only eligible for a one year order through family court. Once it expired, it could not be renewed or extended. I was told that I had to wait for him to come after me before I could petition for a new order. Make sure to ask your advocate about the differences between a family court order and a criminal order. Had I known this, I would have taken the risk and had my ex arrested.

Another note, because not all orders automatically include provisions for “no third-party contact,” you will need to request the judge to add this stipulation in addition to confidentiality of all your contact information. If you do not, when the order is served, your address will be printed on the abuser’s copy. Once you receive the order, you should make copies: one for the glovebox, your bag, work, congregation, your child(ren)’s school, doctors – everywhere you normally would be. It should always be accessible as sometimes the court electronic system is not up-to-date.

Taking Care of You

On a more personal note, with so many “technical” things to remember, it’s imperative that you do not neglect your emotional health and self-care. The previous information is important to help protect your physical safety, but you will need to face and work through the trauma that you have been subjected to. It is common to feel anger, grief, sadness, confusion, shame and a sense of failure after leaving an abusive relationship. There are ways to get help so you do not become suffocated by those feelings.

You should, as soon as possible after leaving, connect with a counselor who specializes in domestic violence and trauma as well as locate any survivor support groups that may be in your area. Trained counselors will be able to help you and your child(ren) understand the dynamics behind what happened. They will be able to help you work through the trauma, provide coping and self-care tools to help you navigate the hurt. Counselors will also help you develop and repair family relationships that were severed during abuse.

I wish I knew about emotional trauma

You are strong, but emotional trauma is not something you can work through on your own or just forget about as though it never happened. When we neglect to confront and work through the trauma, it will manifest in other ways. It is common for survivors of abuse to develop post traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, depression, migraines, anxiety and other health conditions resulting from the abuse. Also, if we do not take care of our emotional health, the trauma can seep in and erode relationships with our family and friends.

It can be uncomfortable baring our vulnerability to another person after being abused, but a professional, caring therapist will help you work through that so you can develop trust, find your balance and begin your journey to healing.

For those of you reading this who may be thinking about leaving an abusive relationship, you deserve to be treated with respect and genuinely loved. No matter what you’ve been told by your abuser, you are strong, courageous, and bold. You have an amazing heart, and there is life beyond the hurt. If you are ready, you can reach out. Someone will be there to take your hand.


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