Category Archives: children

Family Culture or Family Cult?

“Transgression speaks to the ungodly within his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.”

Psalm 36:1

Every family has its own unique culture, a structure, and a flavor woven through it that begins with the parental relationship and filters down to the children.  Each family culture is defined by priorities, interpersonal relationships, and the power pyramid, which incorporates authority, family rules, boundaries and expectations.

Entire books have been written on this subject, so let’s summarize this dynamic by acknowledging that priorities may include a balance of personal responsibilities and social activities, as well as household expectations that incorporate chores, obligations and cooperation.  Some family cultures are obviously healthier than others, and some are downright destructive.  In this regard, I have come to believe that abusive households are not merely a less healthy family culture but more akin to a family cult.

To get a better glimpse of the home-based cult dynamic, let’s take a look at some basic descriptors that define a cult and compare it to the structure of an abusive home.

All-knowing leadership. The leader claims to be sent by God to rule and make all decisions. What he thinks and believes is law.

No room for differences. Members must believe exactly the same way and in exactly the same things; there is no room for negotiation or disagreeing with the leader’s rules or doctrines or doing anything outside of the set limitations.

Scriptures get an added twist. Bible verses are often taken out of context or twisted to mean whatever accommodates the leader’s agenda.

All others are wrong.  The cult leader asserts that God has given him the role of pointing out “heretical and evil” attitudes and behavior that don’t fall in line with his viewpoint.  Furthermore, followers are expected to defend the family structure no matter how rigid, cold, impersonal or impractical it may be.

Works prove faith. The leader often claims his efforts are superior to those performed by everyone else.  For this reason, all members of the family must demonstrate absolute abeyance, a commitment to perfectionism, devotion, the preservation of image, and an expectation that all family secrets will be kept.

The high standard applied to family members does not apply to the leader.  The leader is exempt from the expectations he imposes on others. Calling attention to the leader’s hypocrisy may result in painful retribution.

Safety is a big unknown.  The leader bases his measure of approval of family members on performance and accommodation.  Members operate under the constant fear of criticism, judgment and punishment.

No exit. Leaving is not an option.  Intimidation and the ever-present threat of physical, emotional, social or even financial pain are used to deter members from escaping.  Those who dare to question or leave the overly controlling environment will be condemned as traitors and treated as such.[i]

Although what is described above is consistent with a cult structure, it is also verifiably consistent with the kind of dynamic found in abusive households.

Family members suffering under abusive, dictatorial rule are often deprived of power, permission or resources; therefore, the intent to break free of the family cult comes with a substantial measure of fear and intimidation.  Escaping requires:

  • a sober recognition of the immoral, irrational dynamic that the cult leader has created in spite of heavy and ongoing indoctrination;
  • a courageous willingness to reject the authority of the leader and other family members and his allies; and
  • the determination to take the actions necessary to escape under threat of condemnation, demonization, isolation and other forms of emotional or practical punishment.

Those leaving a religious cult will almost certainly be welcomed, embraced and protected by many churches from the cult leader’s influence and his design to reclaim his victim(s), while providing victims with the opportunity to detox, enjoy restoration, and come to a full knowledge of the truth.  Unfortunately, when those wishing to flee a destructive, cult-like, abusive family seek out people of faith for support (pastors, Christian counselors and fellow believers), those who might be inclined to aid victims leaving a religious cult may be the very ones who try to prevent victims who are desperate to escape a home-based one.

Christian leaders and counselors should be guardians of truth – and therefore equipped to identify untruth.  Sadly, many religious folks tend to rationalize that these small but toxic sects are somehow benign or even valid when it comes to the family cult leaders’ hyper-controlling brand of authority.

Rather than identify the painful reality and support victims in their pursuit of freedom, home-bound cult victims may be encouraged to remain in the abusive environment.  We might expect hurting family members to be told that, rather than escaping, they should view their role as some kind of divine calling to be ever more respectful, obedient, encouraging and forgiving toward their leader.  In these situations, the powers that me may insist that demonstrating love is more important than rejecting the cult leader’s false teachings and sacraments, his demands for unquestioned loyalty and the fearsome power structure he uses to hold them captive.  Only because the man is a husband or a father does he somehow escape scrutiny.  This reality is absolutely bizarre, backward and overtly harmful.

It would seem obvious that family members who have lost their identity, their value and their voice to a home-based power-monger-cult-leader could expect to receive support in their pursuit of freedom from those in the body of Christ.  If only that was the case.

Thankfully, there are some who “get it,” the passionate few who possess the knowledge, experience and history to be able to identify the dysfunction and the emotional trauma caused by family-based cults.  It is these who are willing and able to educate and empower victims, to give the hurting the support and tools they need to escape and reclaim their lives.  Of course, I am happy to help, but I would also like to share links to a few other exceptional ministries in this regard:

Speaking Truth in Love Ministries

Give Her Wings

Emotional Abuse Survivor

A Cry For Justice

When you see this cult-like dynamic or anything similar, take the time to encourage potential victims in their quest to get the support they need so they can break free and begin to live healthy, balanced, abuse-free lives.

[i] Don Veinot, “Defining a Cult,” Christianity Today, July/August 2001, accessed internet 6/9/2017; http://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/2001/julaug/definition-of-cult.html

(Although abusers can be of either gender, the overwhelming majority of abusers are male; therefore, the abuser is referenced in the masculine.  The reader’s  understanding is appreciated.)

Copyright 2017

Passive and Controlling Abuse: A Dictatorial Form of Emotional Violence

If you put together a list of all the primary strategies that abusers woman behind barsuse to keep their victims living a life of emotional paralysis, 99% of them would probably apply to the man to whom I was married for 20 years.  But as I read and hear other women’s stories, other more subtle patterns emerge, and among them is a practice I have struggled to identify even in my own history, a bizarre combination of passive and controlling abuse. Continue reading Passive and Controlling Abuse: A Dictatorial Form of Emotional Violence

The Temptation to Defend Yourself to Friends and Children

defend yourself (2)“For You have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat; For the breath of the ruthless is like a rain storm against a wall.”  Isaiah 25:3

There are days when it feels as though the battle is never-ending, when assaults on your reputation and your credibility are coming at you from every side.  So know this:  No matter what your enemies and detractors say, you have a Defender who knows and sees all.  You can be strengthened by the knowledge that you are never alone as you walk this often lonely journey.

Even clinging to that truth, though, there will be times when you will thirst for a word of compassion and validation from someone with skin on.

Continue reading The Temptation to Defend Yourself to Friends and Children

Avoiding Dating Disasters

dating (1)After escaping my abusive marriage, it was quite some time before I could begin to see men with any measure of objectivity, for during the craziness that came with divorcing my abuser, I arrived at the convenient conclusion that all men were scum.  My new mantra was clear and simple, and it felt good to finally embrace what felt like truth.

Having two sons, though, I knew they need not be destined for such a fate, and after more than two years of intense counseling, there finally came a moment when the high stone wall of disillusionment began to weaken, giving way to the remotest possibility of genuine relationship, when a flicker of hope began to warm my wounded, distrusting heart.

But reentering the dating world is not an easy thing after coming out of a relationship based on the lowest common denominators.  I was admittedly terrified at the possibility of making another life-altering mistake that would affect not only me but my children.  I didn’t ever want to play the fool once again or spend even one more night crying myself to sleep.

I presumed, as many of us 40-ish folks do, that all the good ones are taken.  I also realized that the odds were slim that any God-fearing man in his right mind would spend more than ten minutes in the presence of a shell-shocked, forty-something woman with four equally emotionally damaged children.

Looking back, it certainly does seem miraculous that I survived the Christian dating minefield (which is an appropriate description) and eventually met the love of my life and married him a little over nine years ago.  Based on my second-time-around experience, I would like to offer abuse survivors contemplating re-entering the dating world some basic suggestions.  They have been cobbled together from my understanding of our enabling tendencies bolstered by the lessons I learned through the dating process.

There is no scientific basis for what I share, and this commentary is intended almost exclusively for women, as I believe that a woman’s profoundly unique inclinations to operate as nurturers and helpmates also tend to make us prime abuser-bait. So as you consider re-entering this realm, these are a few things I would urge you to remember.

  • Remember:  You need time to heal.  You may never heal completely, but you need to be sufficiently healthy and emotionally strong enough to recognize unsafe or unhealthy men and walk away from them without blinking.  There is no specific timeline for testing those waters; however, if you are dangerously fragile and are torn between jumping in or waiting a while longer, please wait.  Time for healing and a balanced measure of wholeness are important pursuits and should not be rushed. Furthermore, loneliness is a poor motivation and could leave you vulnerable.  You need to be okay by yourself before you can be okay with someone else.  
  • Remember the needs of your children. Make sure your home base is well-covered and that your children feel secure and are able to handle any additional time you are away from them.  Consider whether they are okay with the idea of you dating.  Keep their needs first in this process even if that means waiting.

With children in mind, I personally recommend meeting new people at a neutral, public location rather than your home, at least until you feel like the relationship may have some long-term potential, so that men are not going in and out of your children’s lives.  You don’t want them to get the impression that relationships are inherently temporary, nor do you want them to grow too attached to someone who may or may not remain in their lives.

  • Remember: You have already been through hell. If you don’t want to walk that road again, avoid the kind of man who will be more than happy to take you there.  Even if you know what kind of relationship you want, you may be attracted to something else, something familiar – and unsafe.  This is not a call to paranoia, but rather to caution, a reminder to be willing to see legitimate issues, as we – as recovering abuse victims – have been trained to rationalize away those waving red and yellow flags.
  • Remember: Be patient.  This is not a race, and you are not looking for any man’s attention, you are waiting for the right man’s attention.  Whether you choose to wait for an acquaintance to ask you out to lunch or you decide to join a dating website, try not to panic, push or rush things, and listen, listen, listen to your instincts.  Don’t feel any obligation to “make it work.”  If that is your attitude, you are likely headed down a very familiar and unhealthy path.
  • Remember:  You want a protector not a project.  Any man with whom you decide to spend some time should be emotionally and spiritually balanced and healthy.  He should be a gentleman, not a show-boater, someone who sees you and hears what you have to say. He should be someone who would clearly look out for your needs rather than merely seeking to meet his own.
  • Remember: Set your standards high and hold to them.  Just because a guy notices you does not necessarily make him worthy of your attention.  You are under no obligation whatsoever to “give a guy a chance.”  If there is something in his manner or attitude that makes you uncomfortable, don’t waste your time or his.  You’re better off saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

If you hear a familiar voice whispering, “Maybe this is as good as it gets,” then know you are being tempted to settle for far less than you want, need and deserve.

One guy with whom I had met for coffee called one afternoon to invite me to go swing dancing with him that evening.  I told him I didn’t particularly enjoy swing dancing and would rather not.  He curtly responded, “A confident woman is comfortable in any situation.”  I told him that was nice, but that I still wasn’t going swing dancing with him.  His attempt to shame me into going out with him told me everything I needed to know.  End of story.

  • Remember:  Go Slow.  If a guy you barely know invites you to dinner, arrives at the door with a dozen long-stemmed roses and a box of chocolates and takes you an uptown French restaurant on a first date, he may well be expecting more than a good-night kiss at the end of the evening.  He may be assuming that, after a nice evening, you owe him.  So make it clear from the get-go that you can’t be bought, and you want to take it slow.  After all you have done to reclaim your life and your value, don’t be foolish enough to give it away.

It’s a good idea to meet for coffee, take a walk, go miniature golfing, hit a movie and generally keep it casual while you’re getting to know someone.  Spend time in a variety of situations to see how he responds to them – and to you.  One guy I dated was attentive when we were out together, but when we showed up to a party with his friends, he suddenly treated me like I was invisible, as though he was ashamed of me.  That was the real him.

With those basics in play, I’d like to offer some “dos” and “don’ts” worth considering. In no particular order, I recommend that you avoid dating a guy who…

  • Is married (even if he says he is getting a divorce);
  • Needs rescuing;
  • Makes you uncomfortable;
  • Makes you feel unimportant;
  • Is inconsistent (hot one day and cold the next);
  • Is boastful;
  • Is heavy on flattery;
  • Can’t keep his hands off you;
  • Doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer;
  • Can’t seem to hold down a job;
  • Can’t manage his finances;
  • Plays an enabling role in his family;
  • Has jerky friends – or no friends;
  • Has an impossible dream;
  • Has an impossible ego;
  • Has a hot temper;
  • Has an addiction;
  • Has a foul mouth;
  • Verbally “bashes” his former wife or girlfriends;
  • Is eyeballing other women when he’s with you;
  • Is disrespectful or flirtatious toward hostesses, servers and cashiers;
  • Is chronically late;
  • Is obsessed with you;
  • Doesn’t give you eye contact, listen well or acknowledge you during conversation;
  • Blames someone or something for everything that has ever gone wrong in his life;
  • Doesn’t treat you with respect;
  • Makes you cry.

And, of course:  Don’t date a guy who reveals any abusive tendencies.  If for any reason he becomes demeaning, harsh, accusatory, possessive or manipulative, walk away and don’t look back.

On the other hand, men with a solid history, good friends and a gentlemanly, positive attitude are a safer bet.  Don’t be afraid to spend some time with the guy who…

  • Sees time spent together as an investment in the relationship rather than a necessary evil;
  • Is a good listener;
  • Is a protector of you and others under his charge;
  • Doesn’t need to be the center of attention;
  • Doesn’t freak out about the cost of things or flaunt his wealth;
  • Is respectful to you and everyone else he encounters;
  • Understands the differences between men and women in a good way;
  • Arrives on time to meet you or pick you up or calls to let you know if he’ll be a little late;
  • Enjoys spending time with his family and friends – and yours;
  • Has healthy hobbies, interests and outlets;
  • Is not addicted – to alcohol, drugs, pornography, television or even technology;
  • Can manage his money, his work, and his household;
  • Looks you in the eye and responds sincerely during conversation;
  • Can confess his life stresses without whining about them or blaming everyone else for them;
  • Trusts you;
  • Is confident without being cocky;
  • Returns your phone call in a timely manner;
  • Is conscious of your comfort level in unfamiliar situations;
  • Doesn’t pressure you when he takes you home;
  • Pays your way (or not, if that is more appropriate for the situation);
  • Can maturely and responsibly handle inconveniences or crises;
  • Is interested in you as a person and not just your body; and
  • (As a believer), has a genuine, personal relationship with God, not just a church.
  • Remember: Protect your heart.  Just because a man pursues you does not mean you should let him catch you.  If your heart is screaming ‘no,’ listen.  And if your heart is encouraging you to say ‘yes,’ but something in your head is whispering ‘no’ (or vice versa), remember that you were misled once before.  Take a step back, try to be more objective and seek counsel from those who know him and/or you.  Or just give the relationship more time.  Don’t ignore or attempt to minimize any red or yellow flags. Don’t believe for one minute that you can help, fix or change him.  Just  walk away.
  • Remember: Be open to feedback.  If your friends and/or family are telling you that there is something wrong, listen.  The odds are good the people who love you see something to which your eyes may have been blinded.  If you find yourself defending him to others, there is almost certainly a problem that you are working too hard to overlook.  On the other hand, if people see someone genuine and emotionally healthy, then let it ride.
  • Remember: You don’t want or need a man. You want to share your life with one man – the right man, a man who will see you and prize you and love you for the rest of your life.  Pray for him.  Wait for him.  And if you don’t meet him, maybe it’s because the time isn’t right, or you are just fine all by yourself.  Being on your own is far better than feeling perpetually stressed, unhappy or emotionally neglected, living with someone who doesn’t truly love, enjoy and appreciate you.  And you might want to avoid kissing any frogs until you are pretty dang certain that there is a prince in there. 
  • Remember:  You don’t want to just be with someone you love; you want to be with someone with whom you are in love – someone who is also in love with you. I believe there is a profound difference.  I am not talking about obsession, which is unbalanced and unhealthy and controlling, but a love where there is connection, commonality and chemistry.  Wait for someone you know you want in your life for the rest of your life.

I am so glad I did.  I married my best friend, my confidante, my soul mate and the love of my life.  I wish nothing less for you.

Now it’s your turn.  Please feel free to offer some of your own insights and suggestions.

Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved

The Burden of Perfectionism

perfect3One afternoon less than a year into our marriage, I returned to our apartment to find my then-husband waiting impatiently for me in the living room.  He didn’t waste a moment before severely scolding me for failing to turn off the stereo receiver before leaving home.

He then launched into an in-depth lecture about the sensitivity of the components and the value of the equipment and insisted that my singular offense was “absolutely unacceptable.”  I humbly apologized for the oversight, but he immediately dismissed my apology.

“You have to promise me that will never happen again,” he demanded.

I explained that I would do my best while confessing I could not make such a promise.

“That’s not good enough,” he fumed.  “You have to promise me.”

Continue reading The Burden of Perfectionism