How a Dysfunctional Family Functions Like a Cult
ICSA Today, 9(3), 2018, 2-7
How a Dysfunctional Family Functions Like a Cult
Jose Fernández Aguado
Note: This article is based on a paper presented at ICSA’s Annual Conference in Bordeaux, France in 2017.
In my clinical practice, I often see how dysfunctional families cause pain to their members, and it is my opinion that the cult perspective can help explain certain aspects of what these families go through. (Many families may be dysfunctional in ways that have nothing to do with cultic dynamics. Those are not the focus of this paper.)
I start with a working definition of a dysfunctional family and note some broad areas of relationship between dysfunctional families and cults. Then, using three concepts from family systems theory (Minuchin, 1981; Satir, 1976)—boundaries, rules, and roles—I suggest similarities between how a dysfunctional family weakens its members and the harmful effect of a cultic group on its members.
In this article, I do not intend to deal with the relationship between persons being part of dysfunctional families and the degree of risk of their being recruited by a cult. Dysfunctional families may make their members more vulnerable to cult recruitment, but professionals acknowledge that even people belonging to healthy families can be deceived into cultic involvement; no one is free of the risk of recruitment. Rather, I focus on how families in which there is psychological abuse or inadequate relationships are similar to cults.
What Is a Dysfunctional Family?
Family is the fundamental human organization (Madanes, 1982). A family is the first and most sigficant school we attend on how to relate to others. When this learning process, which takes years, is adequate, an individual acquires two abilities. The first is the ability to establish bonds, to engage in interactions with others that, given the right circumstances, may develop naturally into intimate relationships. The second ability is achieving and maintaining autonomy. Like most animals, human beings are utterly dependent when they are born. The process of achieving autonomy is long and complex, and can go awry in many ways.
What is central is that these two abilities, to establish bonds and to achieve autonomy, are complementary; neither can be reached independently of the other since each is the guarantee of the other (Bowlby, 1999). For the purposes of this paper, a dysfunctional family is one that doesn’t teach its members (or facilitate their learning of) how to relate to others, both inside and outside the family so that members can form bonds and achieve autonomy in their relationships with other people.
The Relationship Between Dysfunctional Families and Cults
Two broad areas of relationship to consider in making a comparison between dysfunctional families and cults are distrust and dependence:
Distrust. An essential characteristic I have observed in my clients who come from dysfunctional families is a lack of trust. By trust, I mean here a reasonably well-founded belief in the reliability, good sense, or good will of another individual, as opposed to blind or coerced belief such as may be found in extreme religious or authoritarian systems or relationships. According to Erickson (1950), trust is a basic interpersonal emotion necessary for healthy relationships. Trust in oneself and trust in others usually develop at the same time, with the growth of one encouraging the growth of the other. A deficiency of one also encourages a deficiency of the other.
When trust is absent or deficient, relationships will be based instead on subtle or intense forms of control, which clears the way to abusive relationships. Within the family, the abuse may be between partners, between parents and children, or among any combination of family or extended family members. The harm to these family members that results may last for years, even if they have departed from their family home.
Both dysfunctional families and cults exhibit perversions of trust—that is, there may be deference or obedience between members, but neither is based on a well-founded belief in the good sense or good will of the other individual. Rather, members have been persuaded that the person in charge, or the controller, is more knowing or deserving or powerful; they also have learned that the consequences of disobedience to that individual may be harmful to them.
Dependence. A dysfunctional family makes its members weaker in many of the same ways that a cult makes its members weaker: In both contexts, members’ autonomy, critical thinking, identity, and dignity are suppressed or distorted to serve the needs of those in control (Langone, 1992).
Both dysfunctional families and cults make their members more dependent upon their family or cult, and consequently weaker. Even if members of a dysfunctional family become estranged, there is often a psychological dependence rather than a healthy integration with people outside the coercive environment of which they were part. Similarly, members of a cultic group are dependent on their leader in a way that depletes rather than enhances their own strength; and often this tendency to unhealthy dependence on another continues even if the persons are able to leave the group.
Some Fundamental Traits of Dysfunctional Families and How They Resemble Cults
One can understand how a family becomes dysfunctional by examining three features that are central to family systems theory and therapy (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981; Satir, 1976): boundaries, rules, and roles. I have observed that, in each of these areas, a family’s dysfunction is often similar to the dysfunction of a cultic group.
Boundaries within the family. It may be said that the best relationships are made of three elements: each person separately, plus the shared space of both (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Representation of a dyadic relationship in which each individual has both personal space and shared space with the other person.
This dynamic includes space exclusively for each member of the relationship in which the other member has no presence (I refer here primarily to a dyadic relationship, though the same principle holds for relationships of any number). Some people, though, may feel very uncomfortable with their partner having this personal space. They take it to mean that the partner doesn’t love them enough; otherwise, the partner wouldn’t keep a separate space in which they are not present. Therefore, they may try to suppress this space. But this personal space is important, and boundaries are key. Will the partner protect his space from being invaded, or will he submit?
In therapy, I hear complaints by individuals who say their partner wants to understand everything about them. The one who wants to understand everything about the other thinks this is love, but it may also be a subtle form of control. Sometimes one spouse conveys that the other spouse who keeps a separate space is selfish, or a man suggests that if his lover doesn’t disclose everything, it means the lover has something to hide. The person who keeps this healthy space of intimacy may feel guilty or selfish doing it, and so may give it up altogether. In these relationships, we say that there are no boundaries between the members (see Figure 2). And when a couple without healthy boundaries has children, they may treat their children the same way, expecting the children to be almost extensions of themselves.
Figure 2. Representation of a relationship without boundaries.
I should point out here that, when I speak about boundaries, I refer to far more than sharing information. There is a saying that when parents feel the chill of the breeze, they will command their child to put his coat on. Some parents go a step further and command their child to put a coat on when they see other parents do so with their children. These may seem like innocuous statements; however, they really are about the degree to which individuals may in fact dehumanize another human being by viewing him wholly from the perspective of their own needs.
When a parent isn’t able to differentiate between her needs and the needs of her child, she is quite plainly violating the boundaries that her offspring needs in order to grow. In addition to being deprived of his own space, the child isn’t allowed to make his own decisions. While one factor underlying such a lack of boundaries is a lack of trust in a child’s ability to make appropriate decisions, another factor often is a lack of trust by the parent in herself. As a consequence, as a psychoanalyst would say, she will project that insecurity onto her child.
In families in which members trust themselves and each other, the members are able to differentiate between their own needs and the needs of others, which allows healthy boundaries to develop. In these families, privacy is permitted without being regarded as a threat. When this process of building boundaries is thwarted, members of the family may either become overly dependent on others’ opinions to make decisions, or they may ignore the advice or opinions of others when that input might be necessary or helpful.
Michael Langone (2016) has presented the concept of loving distance, which he has explained is fundamental to respectful relationships. Loving distance I believe is anther way of describing healthy boundaries. In a family without this loving distance, there will be what in family systems theory is called enmeshed relationships (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981). Enmeshed relationships are characteristic of dysfunctional families. Enmeshed relationships have the tendency to be coercive or abusive because they are based upon the shared assumption between the two members of the relationship that one of them is not good enough to make his own decisions. A parent, for example, who too closely monitors and checks the homework of a child may implicitly communicate that the parent thinks the child can’t measure up on his own.
Boundaries within the cult. The lack of appropriate boundaries that is characteristic of dysfunctional families is also a characteristic of cults. Similarly, enmeshed relationships are characteristic of cults. As in a family that assumes only the parents are qualified to make decisions about their child, a cult leader who insists that followers obey a myriad of minor rules throughout the day may implicitly communicate that the followers cannot measure up spiritually without him. The unspoken assumption is that “Without me, you are nothing.”
People who have been involved in cultic groups, especially those born or raised in them, often find the very concept of boundaries difficult to grasp. They are so accustomed to another person invading and controlling their emotional and psychological lives that they may find themselves literally unable to make decisions about even the smallest details of daily life, such as what to eat, when to sleep, how to dress, or what to say to others in social situations.
Boundaries between the family and the outer world. Families who do not grant privacy to each other by means of healthy boundaries (loving distance) also tend not to trust what is outside their family; so they also are often more closed toward the outer world. In such families, all needs must be fulfilled within the family.
Family members may view other families and people as threatening or dangerous, and therefore the family limits outside contacts. Thus, a child who has been invited to spend the night at a schoolmate’s home may be discouraged from doing that, or may be allowed only reluctantly and after being presented with a long string of precautions.
Or parents may view other families as useless or boring. Consequently, the children in these families will tend to see the world outside as threatening or uninteresting and so remain, whenever possible, within the walls of their family. These families will remain isolated from other families, and therefore will hamper their members’ chances to integrate in other environments.
Boundaries between the cult and the outer world. Isolation is also a fundamental dynamic of cults. Without it, a cult leader fears the outside world may give information to individuals he wants to control that causes them to question his control, or it may provide the lure of relationships that are more appealing than those within the controlled environment. The outside world may offer a beckoning freedom to members that opens up possibilities of personal growth not permitted within the controlled environment. It is no wonder, then, that former cult members often describe their groups as us-versus-them environments.
Previously, I stated that both dysfunctional families and cults lack healthy boundaries between their members, and yet they have strict ones between members and the external world. I have observed that, similar to the damage inconsistent and arbitrary boundaries can cause, rigid rules that dysfunctional families and cults establish can leave individual members disconnected within themselves from their own inner world.
Rules in families. Every organization has rules, and a family is no exception. Rules determine what may be said and what may not; what may be felt and what may not; what behavior is allowed and what is not. In families, rules are often implicit, but that doesn’t mean they do not exist and are not carefully observed. Families encourage their members to conform to both stated and implied rules from birth. Family rules may be beneficial, providing a moral compass and security to family members. Important criteria of effective rules are whether or not they encourage one’s growth and health. However, in dysfunctional families, the rules may also be enforced for the sake of control and without regard for a person’s individuality.
As an example of the potential impact of such a rule on family members, I have been working with a 35-year-old married woman who, since the sudden death of her dad 10 years ago, has been suffering chronic anxiety and regular outbursts of crying that have overwhelmed her wherever she might be. That there was a trauma was clear from the beginning, but the nature of the trauma has become clearer to both of us as we have worked through it.
This woman’s mother has always been psychologically frail, so when her father died, my client was the one who had to give the news to her grandparents of their son’s death. From the moment she saw her father dead to the moment she informed her grandparents, she couldn't experience the grief of the event. She didn't allow herself to do so. She was complying with a family rule that said “Emotions are dangerous. You cannot express them. You cannot experience them.” She firmly believed that if she appeared too distressed in giving the news to her grandparents, they would not be able to stand the experience—they might even die. So she complied with her family rule. She accomplished the task of showing no emotions so well that she didn’t even experience the feelings herself. She used the word petrified to describe how she felt.
The rule my client was obeying had not encouraged her to be healthy. She was facing her dead father, and yet she couldn’t express any emotion because that is what she believed her family required of her. She paid the cost of carrying out this rule for 10 years; without therapy, she would have had to pay even longer. In therapy she has been able to experience the emotional impact of losing her father. By working to overcome her family rule, she has enabled herself to experience the grief of the event for the first time.
Unhealthy families often have rules related to talking about feelings, especially uncomfortable feelings. For instance, a child may grow up feeling that it is shameful to display weakness or show confusion. These unspoken restrictions prevent family members from talking about problems, or even recognizing their existence, let alone taking steps to improve the situation. Robin Norwood (1986) described this situation in her book The Women Who Loved Too Much:
It is important to understand … that what all unhealthy families have in common is their inability to discuss their problems. It is the degree of secrecy—the inability to talk about the problems—rather than their severity, that defines both how dysfunctional a family becomes and how severely its members are damaged. (pp. 6–7)
Rules in cults. In cults there are tight rules too—sometimes explicit, but often conveyed through rewards and punishments—about what you can express or not, about what you can feel or not. And as in many dysfunctional families, these rules are enforced as a way of controlling followers.
As Fleur Brown (2018) puts it in her blog Medium, “Another characteristic of cult life is the absence of authentic self-expression. Cults have a powerful unifying mono ‘cult-ure.’ In ours, the members were magnetically friendly.” Ms. Brown refers to what might be understood as a rule in the group she was in as “Niceness is next to godliness.”
In both dysfunctional families and cults, the definition of who you are depends on whether you behave or feel according to the rules. Because the definition of who you are comes from the group and not from within you, you have to conform to the group not only to be accepted by them, but also to be accepted by yourself. Your identity is always at stake. The price you pay may be to disconnect from your inner being, where the feelings that are deemed bad by the group occur. To be accepted by the group, you must alienate from yourself. Both members of a dysfunctional family and members of a cult dissociate themselves in order to cope with the contradiction between the information that arrives from outside and from within. As a result, both family members and members of cults develop a basic insecurity that causes them to become very vulnerable.
Roles in families. We all have roles in our families, which are often assigned according to our gender, age, and position. For example, girls are often expected to be caregivers, and boys are often expected to provide protection. The father’s role is to provide, and the mother’s is to raise the children.
In Catalonia, the part of Spain I come from, this is still true, especially in rural areas. The first male offspring is the heir and will rule the family’s land. He will become a farmer. The second offspring will go to the city, where he will become a merchant and, if things go well, will open a shop. The third offspring will go to college. The education that is given to each child takes into account his future role.
The more fixed these roles are, the less freedom there will be for the persons who adopt them. These roles may prevent family members from developing their own personalities and natural strengths. An intelligent, creative woman may be forced to suppress those strengths and stay home with her children; while her husband, who may be more of a caregiver, is forced against his nature to run a business. Both will be recognized by other family members only when they play their roles. Accordingly, they may lose their skills to function in other roles.
Roles in cults. As in dysfunctional families, members’ behavior and even thinking in cults is highly likely to become stereotyped, developed not in accordance with the person’s natural skills and character, but in service to an outside source of control. We who work with former members of cultic groups often hear about careers aborted because they did not serve the purpose of the group. Artists either are compelled to give up their art, or use it exclusively to promote the leaders’ purposes. Mothers abandon their children to minders who abuse or neglect them. Pattie Hearst was changed from a socially conscious young woman into a terrorist. These are extreme examples of the kind of change that takes place in people whose names we never hear, in more mundane but no less tragic ways.
Tension Among Forces: Healthy and Unhealthy Responses
In a functional family or organization, the group is influencing an individual’s behavior, but an individual’s behavior is also influencing the group, which means that individuality also plays a role in shaping the group. This tension of forces drives both the group and the individuals in it to grow. The tension arises from individual differences trying to unfold as much as from the dynamics of a group or controlling leaders trying to force members to conform.
Thus, in a healthy family, a child with musical talent may be permitted to pursue that passion, even if the parents’ preference was that the child become a doctor, engineer, or farmer. Parents respect their child’s identity as it really is, not as they wish it were. They do not force their child into a role that is unnatural for the child. Nevertheless, in the process of the child and the parents trying to assert their initially different views, some degree of tension will arise. Dysfunctional families are that way to a great extent because they are not able to tolerate this tension, so they suppress it.
In a healthy family, as in a healthy group, the identity of the individual is honored, even when it may conflict with the needs or desires of the group. Sometimes individuals may compromise because they care for the collective. Such compromises, however, emerge from within the individuals involved and are not imposed from without.
In a dysfunctional family or group, the force of the group annihilates the separateness of the individuals in it. The people who hold the power in the family or the group decide what is good for the individuals in the group, ignoring that it might be bad for the individuals who make it up.
To summarize, the potential dysfunctional outcomes presented in this paper, when left unresolved, include
Fusion or disconnection. Persons who cannot find freedom within a family may feel that the only way to be free is to cut all ties, that the only alternative to being enmeshed is disconnection. Often, they carry this behavior into other life relationships; these individuals will relate to people in other parts of their lives either by fusing with or by completely disconnecting themselves from others.
Controlling or being controlled. Those who leave an enmeshed family or a cult may relate to others in ways that reflect the control dynamic to which they are accustomed:
“I will try to control you. I want to know what you are doing at any given moment, what you are thinking about, what your problems are. I need for you to be dependent upon me.” Interestingly, in this type of relationship, the person exerting control is actually more needy than the person being controlled. This is the dynamic of the cultic leader, who depends upon controlling his followers to support his grandiose sense of himself.
“I will [paradoxically] require you to control me” (this is the complementary position of the previous example): “I will allow you to know everything about me. I will let you know constantly about my actions. I will share with you all my problems and worries and will let you solve them.” People who were taught by their family that being controlled was the condition for being accepted and loved may repeat that behavior as adults in social life and in romantic relationships. Likewise in cults, members are made to believe that the leader’s control over every aspect of their lives demonstrates his love for them.
Rebellion. Similarly, those who leave an enmeshed family or a cult through rebellion may relate to others in ways that reflect this need to rebel:
“I will reject you through constant criticism and disdain. I will defensively attack you because I expect you to try to control me.”
“I will [paradoxically] communicate that you should reject me because I am unworthy, volatile, and untrustworthy.”
Integration: The Alternative to Dysfunction
One way to describe the opposite of dysfunction is integration. Integration is a healthy relationship between different parts of the self, different members within the family or group, or different people belonging to different families or groups. Integration implies differentiation but not disconnection between the related elements. Instead, there are contact and harmony between the elements, which retain their individuality but strengthen the whole.
It is not the purpose of this paper to suggest how people in dysfunctional families or cults may learn to relate to people in a healthy way “however, a suggestion can be made through the image of a knotted rope, as in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Image of knotted rope.
The colored strands visible on either end of this rope are held together by the knot. Each strand retains its full color but is only in proximity to the others; no single strand can rely on the strength of its neighbor. They are not integrated. The strands between the knots, in contrast, are woven together in such a way that their colors are all still visible, but they combine to form a whole stronger than the individual strands.
Something similar happens in healthy families and groups, in which individuals are the threads working in harmony with the family or group, which respects the individual’s color, while the individuals gain from their integration into the whole.
Integration means differentiation without disconnection—what happens in healthy relationships. On the contrary, dysfunctional relationships are characterized by the basic polarity of those in the relationship being either undifferentiated (enmeshed) or disconnected. It is as if the members had only two modes for relating to others; they have no other options in their repertoire.
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I wish to acknowledge Patrick Knapp’s help in both inspiring the thoughts in this article and helping me with their development. After reading his paper Nothing Need Go to Waste, in which he claims that his dysfunctional family of origin played a role in his enrollment in a cult for more than thirteen years, I shared my ideas with him, and he shared his with me.
About the Author
Jose Fernández is a psychologist at PEHUÉN Psicologia y Formación, in Barcelona (www.pehuenpsicologia.com). He has been a couple’s and family therapist for nearly twenty years. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org