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What Impact Does Cult Involvement Have on a Member’s Family


A model introductory talk developed by ICSA's NYC Educational Outreach Committee. For permission to reprint, contact mail@icsahome.com – 239-514-3081 (icsahome.com).


What Impact Does Cult Involvement Have on a Member’s Family

When a person becomes involved in a high-demand group, not only is the individual affected, but often the whole family system. Parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses, and friends struggle with a range of emotions as they lose their loved one to the group. Many loved ones say they feel as if they are talking to a completely different person than the one they knew before the loved one became involved with the group.

Although the signs that someone may be involved in a high-demand group may differ depending on the person and group, many loved ones report having a sense that something is not right. Rather than focusing on whether or not a particular group has been identified as a cult or a high-demand group, it is more productive to focus on the red flags, those things that are leading the family to question the healthiness of the group their loved one has become involved with.

Some scholars have noted stages in family responses:

  • Ignorance or denial, recognition, exploration, and action (Goldberg & Goldberg, 1989)
  • Introduction, awareness, education, strategy, action, family reconciliation, or ongoing vigil (Agustin, 2011)

Once a family has come to identify that a loved one is involved in a harmful group, family members may experience a range of emotions including anger, isolation, shame, fear, sadness, guilt, frustration, doubt, and anxiety (Goldberg & Goldberg, 1989; Wehle, 2014). Even within a family, the reactions of individual members may be drastically different from each other, which adds to the stress the family is already experiencing. Some family members may react angrily and want to take down the group at all costs. Other family members may be more fearful and not want to address the situation at all. And of course there is a broad range of other possible reactions.

For families, the first step is self-care. Often it is easy to become so involved with the loss of the loved one to the group that one forgets about self-care. It is important to remember to keep doing things that are relaxing and enjoyable.

The second step is to educate oneself about cultic dynamics in general and, if information is available, about the group in particular.

The third step will depend on the situation, but here are some options that might be beneficial:

  • Reach out to other former members of the group to help understand what your loved one is involved with.
  • Reach out to cultic-studies professionals, including therapists, exit counselors, support groups, and/or advocacy groups.
  • Attend conferences and local meetings through the International Cultic Studies Association and other organizations that study cults.

The most important question to ask yourself is “What is your goal?” Do you want to take down the group, get your family member out of the group, or have a relationship with your loved one?

For many people, the primary goal is to maintain their relationship with their loved one. This is often a difficult task because high-demand groups, by their very nature, discourage relationships with outsiders. High-demand groups view the world as divided between insiders (group members) and outsiders (nongroup members). Outsiders, including family members, are often viewed as a threat to the group. The group may accomplish the severing of family bonds in various ways, depending on the group.

After raising a child to young adulthood, it is easy to find many instances when one was either insensitive, unaware, and uninvolved, or overly sensitive, over-protective, and intrusive. Destructive organizations capitalize upon these natural and unavoidable occurrences by inducing the member to assign more weight and frequency to them than they may deserve. (Goldberg & Goldberg, 1989, “In-Cult,” para. 2).

When approaching your loved one, do not challenge the beliefs of the group. The group has probably prepared your loved one for this response. The group has created a narrative about your intent to challenge the beliefs of the group (e.g., “Your parents do not trust your judgment; they are trying to tempt you away from God’s chosen people; they are trying to control you; they are hindering your path to enlightenment”).

This approach does not mean that you need to agree with the beliefs of the group. Rather, listen with the intent of understanding what it is your loved one is involved with. Ask questions that show interest in your loved one’s life. The goal is to create a safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere in order to maintain contact.

Almost all people who have been involved in high-demand groups report having had moments of doubt during their involvement. These are vulnerable times that, given the right circumstances (e.g., having that open, nonjudgmental relationship), you might be able to use to help your loved one reevaluate the group, or at least the loved one’s involvement. For example,

I had a very close friend who joined a high-demand group. In the beginning of his involvement, he was very defensive when discussing the group and their beliefs. I felt that he was always trying to convince me that they were a good group. I listened and did not disagree or challenge his beliefs. After about a year, he gradually began to be less defensive. This allowed us to rebuild a trusting relationship. After two years, he began to let small dissatisfactions with the group slip out. Initially, I did not exploit these dissatisfactions. I just allowed him to vent and asked him if there was any way he could work it out with the group. Four months later, I took the opportunity during one of our phone calls to reflect to him how tired he sounded. I reflected that I worried about him and imagined a more fulfilling life for him. I asked him what he would like to be doing if he was not constrained by the group. That opened up a dialogue that led to him leaving the group two months later. (Anonymous n.d.)

As this vignette illustrates, this process can be long and difficult. It is necessary to have a strong support system, whether that be family, friends, support groups, cult-informed therapists, or others.

Some family members may want to take legal action against a group in the hope of disbanding or proving to their loved one that the group is unhealthy or harmful. Remember that this approach may cause your loved one to cut off contact with you; or if contact has already been severed, it may make it more difficult to reestablish contact in the future. That is not to say that legal action cannot be pursued, but it is important to consider the potential costs versus the benefits.

Deciding to go public with your story may again alienate your loved one in the group by reinforcing the us-versus-them mentality of the group, and may create a conflicted relationship between you and your loved one.

Usually, the less risky and more effective goal is, if possible, to build a bridge between the world of the group and the world outside the group; to create a safe, welcoming, and nonjudgmental place on the other side of that bridge.

Resources

Agustin, D. (2011). Family dynamics during a cult crisis. ICSA Today, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 6–8.

Goldberg, L., & Goldberg, W. (1989). Family responses to a young adult’s cult membership and return. Cultic Studies Journal 6(1), 86–100. Retrieved from http://www.icsahome.com/articles/family-responses-to-a-young-adults-goldberg

Goldberg, W., Hassan, S., Wehle, D., & Grosswald, P. (2014). Undue influence 101: A framework for understanding thought control [PowerPoint slides].