Helping Loved Ones Involved in a Spiritually or Psychologically Abusive Group or Relationship
Michael D. Langone, PhD
Families usually seek information from us because they have a loved one involved in what they think might be a cultic group or abusive or exploitative relationship.
Although getting information on the group or individual(s) in question has utility, it is usually more important to understand the processes that underlie abusive involvements. In this overview we want to call your attention to a number of points that we believe families with an involved loved one should keep in mind. We recommend that you read this overview first. Specific articles and other resources are listed on this page.
As you continue to explore this field, please keep the following in mind:
Don’t jump to conclusions and don't succumb to the allure of simple answers. Do not rely upon popular accounts of spiritual abuse or cults, although these can sometimes provide useful background information. If you want to be informed, you must read a lot more than a handful of newspaper or magazine articles. You should talk to a variety of people with relevant knowledge. And you must think things through carefully.
When you talk to other families who have had a loved one involved in a spiritually or psychologically abusive situation, learn from them, but do not overlook the uniqueness of your own situation and don't let their confidence or fervor cause you to overgeneralize from their cases to yours. Each involvement is a unique interaction of a complex personality and a complex environment.
Ask yourself this central question: "Let's assume that your loved one is not in an abusive relationship or "cult"; what if any behaviors would trouble you?" If nothing troubles you, then you might consider reexamining your assumption that your loved one's situation is harmful and take a closer look at your own motivation (maybe you merely disapprove of your loved one's leaving the family's religion, for example). If you do identify troubling behaviors, then try to determine if these behaviors are at least in part a function of what goes on in the group or relationship. This approach enables you to focus on harmful psychological influences without getting bogged down in tagging a label on the situation. Groups are very different; most large groups exhibit differences among their various local organizations; and people respond differently to similar environments. Tagging a label on a group is secondary to determining whether or not psychologically manipulative or abusive practices are harming your loved one.
Keep in mind that group members' behavior is a function of their unique personalities and identities and what goes on in the group or relationships that influence them . Do not make the mistake of assuming that your loved one is a helpless pawn. Manipulative and abusive environments can be powerful, but they are not all-powerful.
We advise that you not let other people talk you into believing that your loved one will only leave his/her situation, if he/she is deprogrammed, with "deprogramming" referring to a process involving physical restraint or coercion (distinguished from "exit counseling," “thought reform consultation,” or a “strategic interaction approach,” in which the group member is always free to leave). Thirty-five years ago, when information in this field was very limited, deprogramming may have seemed to be a reasonable option to some families. Indeed, the New York State legislature passed a conservatorship bill (twice vetoed by the governor) that essentially would have legalized deprogramming. Today, deprogramming is fortunately quite rare, in part because of the legal risks it entails, but mainly because helping resources are much better informed and able to help families investigate other options. Moreover, the evidence suggests that deprogramming, even disregarding the compelling ethical and legal arguments against the process, is less effective than interventions that don't involve restraint. Such interventions, however, demand much more preparation on the part of the family. So some families today may be tempted to try to find a "deprogrammer" because they mistakenly think it is the easy way out. We advise against this course of action. You may find yourself alienated from your loved one and involved in a costly lawsuit.
Because the majority of group members, even those in very controlling groups, eventually leave their groups, a concerned family's primary role is often to facilitate a departure that may eventually happen anyway. In many cases families seeking expert consultation may be able to help their loved one a great deal without attempting an intervention. Sometimes families can pursue a conflict resolution strategy that makes for an improved relationship with their loved one, even if he or she does not leave the group. Since there is no way of reliably predicting who will eventually leave a group and who won't, we always respect a family's fear that their loved one either may never come out of an abusive situation or may be gravely damaged if the family does nothing. Nevertheless, taking the time to assess a situation thoroughly is often more fruitful than acting hastily.
Even though there may be times when families may feel justifiably helpless, their situation is rarely hopeless. So many factors influence a person’s relationships that even those of us who have worked in this field for years regularly encounter pleasant surprises. So don't give up hope. Beneficial changes in your loved one may occur because of events that have nothing to do with your actions (e.g., a growing disillusionment with the group; an accumulation of small grievances against leaders; dissension within the group). Some group members achieve enough independence from their group to maintain or reestablish a respectful and loving relationship with their family, even though they may remain group members. Remember, people are different and will respond in different ways to the same environment, which itself can change over time.
Take advantage of the many resources that are now available to families, including those available through this site. We especially recommend that you purchase, through ICSA's online bookstore, Coping with Cult Involvement by social worker Livia Bardin (also available as a free e-book). This handbook helps families carefully assess their situation and organize their thinking. It is an indispensable tool. Also, consider attending a conference.
A useful general introduction to the cult phenomenon is Take Back Your Life by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias. ICSA's Counseling Resources page lists experts around the world.
We advise people seeking professional consultation to investigate options to make sure that they feel comfortable with a particular person. Sometimes state psychological, medical, or professional associations maintain referral lists for the public. Even though few professionals have much expertise with spiritual abuse or cultic groups, many can be helpful, particularly if they have worked with family systems or abused populations and if they are willing to learn about spiritual abuse and cult-related issues. Our readings for helping professionals may be useful to therapists seeking to learn about this area. Families requiring assistance from legal professionals or private investigators may find it helpful to consult ICSA's legal study guide or child custody collection.
Although our capacity to give individualized responses to inquiries is limited, we do what we can and, when appropriate and feasible, refer inquirers to people who may be able to give additional assistance. If this service interests you, contact us.