Category Archives: recovery

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

Lessons in Crazy-Making

Lessons in Crazy-Making

It was not just a bad night among many, it was an insane night.  Our four kids were all asleep in their beds when my husband and I got into an argument about something rather menial, but he quickly escalated into a rage.  Having no success in calming him, concerned for the kids and seeing the extreme manner of his response, I simply said, “I think you need to leave.” 

At that point, he exploded.

“Oh, you want me to leave, do you!?  Well, if that’s what you want, then that’s what you’ll get!”  He immediately went out into the garage and grabbed a couple of suitcases, returned and marched upstairs, tromping as he went while he continued his tirade.  I followed him up the stairs and tried to calm him down and asked him to be quiet so as not to wake the kids, but this was his moment to make a scene.  He went into the bedroom, tossed the suitcases on the bed and began grabbing his clothes from the closet and loading them up.  He grabbed his conga drums and other instruments, dragged them downstairs and began loading them and other favorite possessions into his van.

 “I’m asking you to leave until you can calm down,” I tried to explain. 

 “You said you want me to leave, so that’s what I’m going to do!”  

It wasn’t long before the kids were awakened.  When they came out of their rooms rubbing their eyes and asking about all the commotion, their father loudly told them that I was making him leave.  They all gathered together on the eldest daughter’s bed, held one another and cried, while I working to convince the man that he was being irrational (which didn’t go over too well) while simultaneously trying to assure the kids that everything would be okay. 

 After about 45 minutes of loading up his van, he came in and told me he was tired and was going to go to bed and would finish up in the morning.

 “Fine,” I conceded.  He went to bed, I was able to get our somewhat traumatized kids back to their beds, and I slept in the sofa-bed downstairs, where I had been sleeping for months. 

The next morning, I woke early and called my supervisor at work to let him know I would not be in, as my husband was moving out, and I needed to make some arrangements for the kids.  I got the kids off to school, returned home and was drinking a cup of coffee at the kitchen table when my husband slowly trudged downstairs.  Seeing me in the kitchen, he said calmly, “What are you doing home?”

“I stayed home to take care of the kids,” I reminded him, “since you’re leaving.”

He gave me an incredulous look and shook his head as though I had lost my mind.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I’m not going anywhere,” he said, and retreated back upstairs to take a shower.

I would like to say that I was surprised by the absurdity of it all at that moment, but I wasn’t.  My former husband had obtained pro status when it came to responding severely and irrationally.  By the final year of our marriage, the word I mentally used to describe our relationship was “insane.”  It was. Continue reading Lessons in Crazy-Making

The Sympathy Bond

It is a strange thing to comprehend:  most of us as abuse victims actually feel sorry for the person abusing us.  Why is that?  How can it be that, after all he* has put us through, we choose to see this person who treats us contemptuously as a fragile, hapless creature worthy of our patience and understanding?

In my own experience and having had the opportunity to work directly with many victims, there are several things that may keep us feeling sorry for the guy – and subsequently bound to him. Continue reading The Sympathy Bond

Say the Words

“Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part
You will make me know wisdom.”
Psalm 51:6

When my children were young, upon asking them to take a bath or clean their rooms or do their homework, there were those occasions when they would look at me with mischief in their eyes, and I knew in that moment that they were considering testing my patience.  I would just gaze at them and wait for a moment.  Then, before they could protest I would say, “I just need to hear two words.”  Almost without fail, a few moments of tempered silence would pass, and then they would quietly say the words I wanted to hear.

“Okay, Mom.”

There was something about just saying those two simple words that softened their will and almost miraculously set their feet in motion to accommodate my request.

Ah, the power of words.

Continue reading Say the Words

Did He Apologize or Not?

Apology:  [uh-pol-uh-jee]:  a written or spoken expression of one’sregret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, or wronged another.

One evening several years ago,  a woman with whom I had been corresponding sent me an urgent message.  Only minutes earlier, her estranged husband had shown up unexpectedly on her doorstep with a bouquet of flowers in hand.  The man tearfully professed his love for her, promised her that he would never harm her again and begged her to take him back.  The woman was stunned.  She wanted to believe his words and rush into his arms and receive him back into her life, but something cautioned her to hold back.  She accepted the flowers and calmly told him she needed to think about what he had shared and watched him go. Continue reading Did He Apologize or Not?