Marriage After the Cult

ICSA Today, 4(3), 2013, 2-5

Marriage After the Cult

Lorna Goldberg

In 2003, I wrote an article for the Cultic Studies Review titled “Reflections on Marriage After the Cult.” In this essay, I will highlight some concepts that I originally articulated in that article.

Many authors have noted that often during the cult-recruitment process a new cult personality is created that overlays the recruit’s precult personality (Hassan, 1988; Lifton, 1961; Singer & Lalich, 2004; West & Martin, 1998). Along with most other cult members, married couples are induced to suppress their own wishes and needs for the “greater good” as the leader defines it. After couples’ departure from the group, the gradual unfreezing of their cult personalities and the simultaneous recovery of suppressed aspects of their precult personalities can lead to new conflicts within their marriage. Furthermore, even though married former cultists might share similar postcult difficulties, each spouse will be dealing with these difficulties in a unique way depending on, among other factors, their respective precult personality structures, the degree of support they receive from others, and the influence of their individual cult experiences. As the couples’ precult personalities emerge, the complementariness of a marriage based on cult values can erode as both partners begin to reestablish their characteristic and unique ways of viewing the world. Needless to say, this dynamic places a strain on postcult marriages. Once the need to serve the cult is no longer paramount, some partners become aware that they have little in common with their spouses. Divorce might occur, and this increases the amount of stress newly single former cult members and their families experience. However, a large number of former cult members do remain together, even many of those who were matched by their leaders. Sometimes there is a bond and a mutuality that exist independent of the cult overlay. Some couples choose to enter therapy to see whether they can work out some of their present struggles.

While they are in the cult, members usually begin to identify with some of their leader’s personality characteristics and attitudes. These identifications tend to supplant previous aspects of their character and previous identifications they have made with and in reaction to parental figures early in life. Because cult leaders generally are paranoid individuals, they tend to indoctrinate members into a paranoid vision of the world (Tobias & Lalich, 1994). Leaders can display their paranoia through a tendency to ascribe the worst possible motives to the behavior of others. When they leave the cult, some individuals who have incorporated this attitude may continue to see their world through a paranoid lens because their cult leader’s influence doesn’t evaporate the minute they leave. For most, “losing” the influence of their cult leader’s personality can take a great deal of time. Former members might be aware that their trusting nature prior to their cult experience increased their vulnerability to recruitment. Additionally, during times in which they might feel concern about the influence of others (because they are aware of their fragile sense of identity and of uncertainty about their own point of view), a paranoid attitude can serve to protect them from being unduly influenced by others.

However, in marital relationships, this paranoia has the potential of becoming destructive. When individuals who have been in a cult begin a relationship with someone with no prior cult involvement, the former cultists might have a tendency to interpret their partner’s behavior suspiciously or to see negative motives behind the partner’s behavior. When two former cultists have a relationship, this situation can intensify.

In all circumstances, including noncultic situations, The marital relationship, provides a place in which the inner conflicts of each of the partners can play out in the interactions that occur. Therapists who work with couples use several concepts to explain the type of interactions that can exist between marriage partners. Three of the interactions or dynamics that operate between married partners are transference, projection, and projective identification.

Transference operates in most important relationships. We can explain this term, originally defined by Freud, as “the displacement of patterns of feeling, thoughts, and behavior, originally experienced in relation to significant figures during childhood…,” and the projection of those patterns “…onto a person involved in a current interpersonal relationship” (Moore & Fine, 1990, p. 196). That is, all of us are constantly bringing to new relationships feelings that we experienced originally with important figures from early in life.

Therapists who work with couples become aware that at times each partner views the other as a significant person from early life, most typically a parental figure. However, I have come to see that, sometimes, those who have left a cult situation begin to view their respective partners in the way they regarded the cult leader. This pattern is particularly true for those who have spent many years in cults. Complicating matters further are the therapists’ countertransference reactions when they are sitting with couples who have left a cult. By countertranference, I am referring to the feelings that the therapists bring to the clients, based on the therapists’ own early life experiences. Therapists can become aware of powerful feelings when they are working with marital partners. It is important for therapists to have an understanding of the source of these feelings: Are these feelings that anyone who is with the couple can experience (induced countertransference), or feelings that the therapists feel (countertransference) because they are reexperiencing feelings from childhood that they went through with their own parents or others? For example, I might have become aware of how I am put off by a former cult member who is arrogant or dismissive to his or her partner. That reaction might be “induced.” That is, any therapist might have the same reactions. However, I also might have felt a need to jump in and “call” the partner on the arrogant behavior; and my tendency to do this may stem from the way I reacted in childhood. Nevertheless, despite my own countertransference tendency to be bothered by arrogant people, it is more helpful not to jump in and, instead, to examine how the client’s partner is responding. Is the partner becoming angry, or is the partner tuning out (dissociating)? If I notice that the partner is spacing out, I will verbally note this behavior and ask that partner how he or she is feeling at that moment. In doing this, I will begin to examine the interaction that occurs between the two of them (arrogant behavior and tuning-out response) and attempt to make them more aware of a dynamic that occurs between them. My goal is to help both partners begin to examine their own and their spouse’s behavior, to better understand the emotions and beliefs that are being played out between them in that particular moment.

Here’s another example: Rob had grown up in a house with a mother whom he experienced as caring, but somewhat intrusive, very talkative, and boring. He dealt with her by making his room into a fortress and escaping for hours into his books. While at college, he became attracted to an esoteric cult; in the cult, his ability to distance himself served him fairly well. However, it took him 10 years to be able to remove himself from the increasing demands of the cult leader and leave. After he married another former member from his group, Rob tended to experience his wife as his malignant, self-serving cult leader (recent transference figure) rather than as the intrusive, but generally benign mother of his childhood (early transference figure). Rob would hide his thoughts and feelings from his wife because he expected her to “rip them to shreds” as his cult leader had done. He came to recognize that, although his wife, Rebecca, often pursued him when he became aloof or secretive and sometimes even reacted to his distancing with anger, she wasn’t particularly interested in cutting him down. In fact, Rebecca tended to look up to Rob and see him as much more knowledgeable than she was.

Meanwhile, as a result of the cult leader’s degradation, Rebecca tended to see her own abilities as inferior to those of others. Furthermore, in their cult, the appearance of intelligence (mostly about cult doctrine) was highly valued; and so a cult aftereffect for some former members was a tendency to intellectualize and use a large vocabulary. While working with Rob and Kate, I became aware of my own countertranference, and I came to see this as a reaction to their intellectualization, including their use of esoteric words. I decided to share with them my induced reaction that I was sitting with intellectual heavyweights, which left me wondering whether they would find me smart enough to work with them. Rob and Rebecca were quite surprised by my admission. However, it led them to consider and focus on how they had felt the same way when they were in their cult, and, in turn, how they might be coming across to people in their present life.

Furthermore, transference reactions between spouses that originate with their experiences with the cult leader are intensified if one spouse was placed in a higher position in the cult than the other spouse. Rebecca often would experience her husband as a stand-in for the cult leader, particularly when Rob continued to identify with the cult leader’s behavior; and sometimes he even spoke with the same inflection. This response led Rebecca to continue to thwart her own ideas and opinions after she left the cult. Gaining this understanding in therapy allowed both individuals to examine their behavior, begin to change, and begin to experience themselves more authentically. Rob had a desire to change from being arrogant like his cult leader because he could see how that behavior would put off many other people in his present life, including his friends and coworkers. Rebecca was able to see how she held herself back, and how doing this was costly to her in many new situations because it was difficult for others to see all that she had to offer.

Cult paranoia leads many former members to fear that their present partner is going to exploit them as they were exploited in the cult. For example, cult leaders may have told followers that they were loved, but love was a hollow word when narcissistic and/or antisocial individuals who lacked true capacity to love or feel concern for another human being used it. Instead, the leaders used others to serve their own needs.

Many former cultists also rely on the defense of projection. Projection has been defined as “a mental process whereby a painful impulse or idea is attributed to the external world” (Moore & Fine, 1990, p. 149). For example, at times, we are too uncomfortable with a feeling to acknowledge it. Therefore, we tend to place the feeling onto others. And if there is a conflict about certain feelings we have, we may project those feelings that we experience but consider forbidden onto our marital partner. The cult leader made members feel as though they were selfish for any expression of self-interest. The leader’s attitude that a member should have no self-interest can be projected onto the member’s marital partner. Therefore, former cultists may believe that their partners do not want them to have pleasures in life, or that their partners will be unwilling to consider their desires. In part, this behavior also is a projection of their conflicts about the enjoyment of pleasure after the cult. Cult members might believe that they want pleasure, but because it was forbidden for so long in the cult, they unconsciously displace their discomfort about their desires and project those feelings onto someone else. In effect, they think, “Although I want pleasure, my spouse does not want me to be pleased.”

If we return to the couple, we can see projection occurring and intensifying as Rob becomes so guarded about sharing his thoughts that Rebecca angrily demands information from him (and thereby, becomes more intrusive). Therefore, Rob’s unconscious inner conflicts are transferred and reenacted by his partner in the marital relations.

I turn now to the concept of projective identification, which originally was defined by Melanie Klein (1946). This is a phenomenon in which one partner not only disowns unacceptable thoughts, but also acts in such a manner that his inner reality will be played out by the other partner. In this way, an individual can expel (project) and remain in touch (through identification) with some unacceptable aspect of himself. What is the unacceptable part of Rob that is being played out? It’s interesting that Rob married a woman who wanted to be close to him. As their therapist, I wondered whether Rob unconsciously recruited Rebecca to play out the side of him that desired to be more intimate.

Therapy should attempt to provide a safe place for former cult members to express their uncomfortable feelings—feelings that would have been dangerous to express in the cult and that they continue to experience as too dangerous to express within their postcult marriage. When it appears that those uncomfortable and unacceptable feelings are transferred or projected onto their partners, the therapist can focus on the concept of transference or the defenses of projection and projective identification to help former cultists take ownership of uncomfortable emotions. This acknowledgement can lead to these individuals seeing their partners in a more positive way.

Needless to say, all marriages are difficult. In part, these difficulties occur within the intensity of the marriage relationship because individuals begin to experience their partners as new versions of significant (usually parental) figures from their past, or unacceptable parts of themselves. Former cult members also can begin to discover in themselves harmful (as well as positive) identifications or behaviors that were influenced by their relationships with their parents. We all are first influenced in our understanding of how married people behave by watching our own parents. (Even when we consciously or unconsciously strive to be the opposite of our parents, our parents are influencing us because they are causing us to move in the opposite direction from their behavior.) If we also view our partner as a more recent parent figure—the malignant, controlling, narcissistic cult leader, an additional burden is placed on the marital relationship.

Therapy, unlike the promise of the cult, is not a magical place where a relationship is transformed. It is crucial for the therapist to explain that the goal of therapy is for the couple to adopt the therapist’s attitude of benign investigation of behavior as their approach to looking at their relationship outside of therapy. That is, the goal of therapy is for the couple to be able to talk over difficulties that emerge between them and consider how transferences from their cult relationship and from their early life might be impacting their attitudes toward one another.


Hassan, S. (1988). Combating cult mind control. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.

Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27, 99–110.

Lifton, R. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York, NY: The Norton Library.

Moore, B. E., & Fine, B. D. (1990). Psychoanalytic terms and concepts. New Haven, CT and London, England: The American Psychoanalytic Association & Yale University Press.

Singer, M. T., & Lalich, J. (1995). Cults in our midst. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Tobias, M. T., & Lalich, J. (1994). Captive hearts, captive minds. Almeda, CA: Hunter House.

West, L. J., & Martin, P. (1998). Pseudo-identity and the treatment of the personality change in victims of captivity and cults. In S. J. Lynn and J. Rhue (Eds.), Dissociation (pp. 268–288). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

About the Author

Lorna Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA, Board member (2003 to present) and past president (2008 to 2012) of ICSA, is a psychoanalyst in private practice and Dean of Faculty at the Institute of Psychoanalytic Studies. In 1976, she and her husband, William Goldberg, began facilitating a support group for former cult members that continues to meet monthly in their home in Englewood, New Jersey. Lorna and Bill received the Hall of Fame Award from the authentic Cult Awareness Network in 1989 and the Leo J. Ryan Award from the Leo J. Ryan Foundation in 1999. In 2009, Lorna received the Margaret T. Singer Award from ICSA. Along with Rosanne Henry, she co-chaired ICSA’s Mental Health Committee from 2003 to 2008. Lorna continues to publish numerous articles about her therapeutic work with former cult members in professional journals. She has authored a book chapter on guidelines for therapists and co-authored with Bill a chapter on psychotherapy with targeted parents.