reprinted from the Nov/Dec 1996 Free Minds Journal

 When A Cult May Not Be Your Worst Enemy

by Randall Watters

Any study of the cult phenomena should have a chapter on understanding human nature, especially with regards to the family unit. If one can understand the dynamics of power and control in the family, one is much better equipped to help dissolve a family member's allegiance to a destructive cult. This is particularly the case where one's husband or wife is involved in a cult.

It is commonly accepted in all cultures that the family is the basic unit, the fundamental building block of human society. Within this miniature universe we call a family, there is one designated as the leader (typically the father). In reality, however, "leadership" is exercised in various forms by all of the family members from time to time. (Even young children can be quite adept at directing an evening's activities!)

Each member of the family finds a niche that he/she can comfortably operate in, and receive a measure of acceptance/approval from other members of the family. Each is allowed to exercise a certain amount of control over the other, though probably not in equal proportion. If members of the family are made to feel helpless, or they sense a lack of control ordinarily deemed necessary to remain sane and psychologically healthy, they may discover new ways to gain control as a form of protection.

Sounds complex, but it's not. Note the following example, based on a true story: The husband is a lawyer, the wife a homemaker. As the husband's career prospered, he found it necessary to spend more time working than formerly, creating a sense of abandonment in his wife, who finds she must raise two children virtually by herself. The husband was raised a Catholic, and although attempting to raise the family Catholic, the wife found a better source of friendship when the Witnesses came to her door. (A person that is lonely and insecure will sometimes overlook a good many critical questions when it comes to accepting new friends.)

Joan opened her arms to the friendly Witnesses at a time in her life when she was becoming increasingly unsure of her marriage, and felt a growing concern for the everlasting fate of herself and her children. She took the bait offered by the Watchtower and began studying with them, progressing rapidly. Though she was careful to keep her studying with the Witnesses hid from her husband, Joan began to feel a new sense of power and control in her life that she had not previously experienced. She now had hope for the future in a paradise earth, with or without her husband. If she raised up her children in the "mental regulating of Jehovah," they would be safe come Armageddon. Even if she fell short in the end, at least her children would be saved. This new hope, refreshed regularly by her association with the Witnesses at the Kingdom Hall and in her home study, became like a drug that enabled her to live a new life, and unlike chemical drugs, it came from within her, taking the form of spirituality.

Eventually her husband found out that she had been studying with the Witnesses and was indeed going to get baptized! He hired an exit-counselor immediately to get her out of the Witnesses.

One thing must be understood at this point, which is typically overlooked. If a loved one has "finally" found a way to cope with life (chemical drugs, alcohol, and even religion), and this new direction has the characteristics of a drug-like euphoria or greatly-increased sense of personal power (i.e., more confidence, stability, security), then

(1) one cannot just take it away from the person without a fight. Their newfound faith and world view have become their predominate motivation in life; everything else is subservient to it. All kinds of things can potentially be "swept under the rug" in order to maintain this euphoric sense of empowerment.

(2) more often than not, the frantic mate (or parent) is partly responsible for their loved one's embracing of a new control mechanism. Perhaps they were not trusted with any decisions, were verbally abused or ignored, or restricted by unkind or even unspoken rules. This gave them a sense of inadequacy. Or perhaps their mate is suspected of cheating on them, or no longer loves them, etc. Their new idealism brings a sense of meaning to life that appears to be the only thing that will enable them to keep their sanity under the circumstances.. And then, the one person who "caused" the unpleasant state of mind in the first place now wants to "violently take away" the only hope they have ever had? Not on your life, mister! A martyr is born.

Why An "Information Onslaught" May Not Work

When you realize that "strong drugs" such as mentioned above may be the glue that keeps your loved one stuck to their newfound faith, you can also appreciate that trying to pry them loose may be counterproductive, and even destroy your chances of reaching them later. For if their involvement is partially a consequence of your failed relationship with them, feelings of anger, resentment and even "psychological rape" may surface on their part. I have worked in cases where the wife knew exactly why she had gotten involved with the Witnesses and later told me so. One said that she wanted some vestige of independence and self-esteem to prevent her from going crazy. She had five kids and her husband wouldn't even allow her to pay the bills! He made all the decisions, he determined the religion and the church. Resentment over this lack of control was relieved the only way she could see how, by becoming a "somebody" to at least someone, and that just happened to be the Witnesses who ventured across her path. They made her feel respected and loved, something she had never experienced before.

Typically, the reaction of the husband was to get all the information and resources he could muster, and the priest, and go after her with the Bible and Watchtower errors. When that didn't work, he hired two exit-counselors. Yet, as in many situations, he was really the one who needed counseling the most! He needed to grant his wife some power and respect in her own domain. I am convinced that if he did, she would have dropped the Witnesses like a hot potato. But to her, it kept her sanity in the midst of his unbearable domination over her life. His attack of the Witnesses only made her more resentful that he did not see just what his real problem was. No way would she leave the Witnesses, it was the only thing keeping her from giving up.

I have found that in the majority of husband-and-wife scenarios where one joins and the other wants to get them out, that helping them reconcile their personal differences is THE MAJOR STEP that must take place before the intervention can be truly successful. With cults there is never a shortage of information to damn them. The problem may not be demons, false doctrine or even brainwashing. It may be you.

Counseling is the best arena to bring problems to the surface that underlie the cult experience. When assessing a case for a possible intervention, I think it important to ask if they have seen a marriage counselor. The answer often tells you if there is a problem, without asking any further questions. "I've tried, but I can't get her into counseling." "He is very stubborn, he wouldn't go even if I threatened him with divorce." "She/He won't change, it's that d____ religion." Answers such as these are like a red light flashing in my head. Communication has broken down, and they want you to clean up the mess. In this case, a marriage or family counselor is usually the best first step to take. If it "only" succeeds in improving the communication between the two, it has done a large part of the work left to go. One can hardly expect a loved one to give objective consideration to evidence that they are taking a foolish course, if they harbor hidden resentment against you!

What Can Be Done

If you have determined that your loved one is, in fact, involved with a destructive cult, be aware that they will probably believe that you and anyone else that attempts to dissuade them from their religion is misled by or even directly led by the devil. They have found "the truth," and it is the best thing that has ever happened to them (they think). You are the one who has come to take that new and precious thing away. That is all they can see. Try to understand how they see you, and pray for God's grace to give you the empathy for them to weather this storm without losing them. You will need a lot of patience, and help. Don't call them stupid or deride the religion. Assume a curious yet concerned posture. If you are their major antagonist, try to enlist other members of the family or old friends so as to allow them greater objectivity. Find a marriage or family counselor that has read Combatting Cult Mind Control or other similar works, and who understands at least the basics about cults and their techniques. The advice of an exit-counselor can be sought as well. You are seeking to rehabilitate a person that has lost his/her way. If you show them warmth and love rather than building a bonfire under them, the cult may no longer be useful to them.


Do's and Don'ts


... attack them verbally (or physically!), creating walls to communication. They have a persecution complex inherited from the cult, believing that all non-members are agents of Satan. Don't feed the complex! Have a curious yet cautious attitude, striving to get them to see things from another perspective.

... argue the Bible (the most common mistake). Their problem is not lack of knowledge, but the inability to process it correctly! They must be taught how to process the facts consistently, and before you can teach them, you need to gain their confidence and respect.


... educate yourself in the area of cult mind control techniques, through books and seminars. Talk to former members of any group, as cult techniques are all quite similar.

... enlist the help of others, either professionals in the field, or by educating friends and family members and soliciting their support. Long-time friends of the victim are the most effective.

... pray for them. Ask God that He grant you the wisdom and circumstances to accomplish the intervention, and that if it turns out they are not yet ready, that He grant them the circumstances necessary to prepare them for disillusionment with the group and the desire for something better. Ask for patience and wisdom for yourself as well!

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