ICSA Today Vol. 12, No. 1, 2021, pg. 2-5
Unique Ways to Reach Out to Loved Ones Involved in Cultic Groups
This paper is based on a presentation at Support for the Pacific Rim, a conference cosponsored by ICSA.
I am happy to be able to share with you these thoughts on communication with loved ones involved in cultic groups…
Cultic groups, as I use the term in this paper, refers to groups that exercise high levels of control over members’ behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and that tend to separate members from the world outside the group, including families and friends. Some of these suggestions are the result of my own research over the years. Many arise from working with families who have tried different phrases and techniques to communicate effectively with their loved ones in cultic groups, and then were able to evaluate which ones worked better than others. A significant amount of information has also come from former cult members who shared what worked, what their loved ones tried with more success, what phrases felt comfortable to their ears, and which approaches felt safe.
Former members also shared what approaches made them dig in their heels, made them shut down, made them feel hopeless about ever reconnecting safely with their families, or reminded them about how conversations had gone off the rails with their loved ones in the past and further motivated them to keep a distance from them now as adults. As often is true, therapists learn so much from their clients.
The reason it is important to offer unique ways to approach communication in this context is that, typically, the ways people would intuitively and naturally respond don’t work as well with people in cultic relationships, and in fact can be polarizing and quite damaging. Those who are being controlled in relationships, within cults, or both can be tense and wary communicators. They can be ready for battle. They may have to say things to you that they don’t understand themselves or fully believe, but they still need to say and say with conviction. Usually, they are also expected to report back to their controller about the conversation they had with you; so they often have to make sure to have the kind of conversation with you that their controller would be proud of. So during the conversation or email thread or text dialogue, they may show defiance; they may be accusatory, defensive, cold and distant, or humorless; or they may pontificate or try to bait you and pick a fight. They may try to convince you that they are happy where they are, that their situation is the best thing for them and has saved them in one way or another. Remember that, as I have learned from former members, while they are trying to convince you, often they are also hoping to convince themselves.
The ideas I am offering are counterintuitive for the most part. For instance, it is vital for loved ones to know that a trap has usually already been set for them by a controller or by a cult leader; and the trap is that the most natural and expected ways worried and emotional family members or friends will respond to finding out their loved one is being manipulated are used as proof that you actually don’t care. As with nearly everything in a cult or controlling relationship, the opposite of what you expect is the norm. Anyone who speaks against the cult leader or the controller or questions their loved one’s allegiance is to be mistrusted and seen as abusive, uncaring, and manipulative. Those who question are to be seen as those who cannot let their loved ones be free, who don’t truly love their friend or family member and never have, and who are getting in the way of the cult member’s happiness, success, or salvation. I sincerely hope the following ideas help you avoid this emotional mine field.
The truth is, is it highly likely that your loved one already knows how you feel about the cult or relationship they are in and have, either on their own or with the guidance of their controller, planned their defense. They have already been given responses to recite to you, or they have formulated their own responses to all of your expected criticisms; and that’s not a way to have a conversation. In fact, that’s not really a conversation at all. It will be a tense point/counterpoint and will create more distance between you, or, at the very least, it will yield no progress. It has the potential to be a very frustrating and lonely interchange because you are not connecting or making the impact you want to make.
The following are suggestions that I hope can help you connect, reconnect, and heal a communication rift or stalemate:
Be ready to listen and learn. Treat your loved one as the expert in the conversation at first, even though the people within controlled systems are honestly the ones truly in the dark who have the least actual information about it. Convey to them that you are open to their ideas and their feelings; to the (possible) validity of the group and its teachings; to the love and its specialness that they feel from their controller; to their interpretations and justifications; and to their meaningful or “life-changing” experiences within it. Don’t argue. Don’t try to prove them wrong. Don’t tell them about all the evidence you’ve found to the contrary. There will be time for that later on.
If they are yelling and ready for battle, were prepped to prove to you or to the person they will be reporting back to that they took control of that conversation with you, don’t take the bait and yell back. When they’re done yelling or when they have just come up for air and take a break, ask them if they’d like to talk at another time when it might be a little easier to discuss things. You can also ask them what is making them upset, especially if there’s nothing you have said or done during that conversation to invoke their loud or aggressive delivery. Let them know you don’t have any interest in fighting and that it’s not necessary for them to defend themselves because there is no battle here.
Don’t blame them or accuse them of hurting you by not coming to a significant event, by not being in touch with you, or by having been cruel to you or said mean, accusatory and distancing things. They have usually not made those decisions on their own, even if they state they did. Please know then that if you accuse them of being cruel, you may be accusing the wrong person.
If you can tell that they have been prepped for this conversation and are using language and phrases that don’t feel like their own, it is likely because they have been given a script for their conversation with you. If it feels formulaic and there is the feeling of great distance, then change it up. Engage them in a different way, a way they are not prepared for and could not have planned ahead for. Take them by surprise. This is not meant as a trick. This is in an attempt to help them stay present in the conversation and not emotionally hide behind a script. You can even let them know you’re not interested in talking about any of that, and then talk about other things. This can serve to remind them that there are other things in life to focus on, and to give them a feeling of relief that not every conversation will be about the situation they are in. And if you want to talk about the group, you can just ask a question as though you are wondering out loud; and then let them know they don’t need to answer it, but it was just something on your mind. When people are given permission not to answer, they sit with the question that was asked and replay it in their mind. It can be absorbed and potentially make more of an impact.
Don’t be afraid to ask what good things they feel they get from their group or relationship: what is appealing about it, what they were searching for that drew them to it, or what they feel they have found that they can’t get anywhere else. Be open to hearing what they like and what they’re excited about. See if you can also find out what they’ve been promised. You want them to hear themselves say what they’ve been promised out loud or express it in writing to you, because very often those promises are not fulfilled; and when people remember what they were promised, they also can have a moment where they evaluate whether those promises have ever been kept.
If they say they will only talk to you with their partner or another member of the group there, try to be open to that. It’s not the kind of interaction you want, I realize, and it will probably be uncomfortable; but it’s a way to bring them to the table (or to the phone, or to the video chat); and it’s also a way for you to prove to the person who is watching over them that you are not a threat.
Although it may be hard, if you haven’t spoken to your loved one in a while, you might need to have somebody else make contact first. If you have been demonized by the group or its leader, or if you know your relationship with this person in the past has been tense, then it might be best to have someone else, another relative or a friend, be the one to have a conversation with them, and hopefully become a bridge back to you. It would be good for you to speak with that friend or that family member first to let them know what you hope that conversation will accomplish, and let that person know that part of their goal will be to try to arrange another conversation after this one so there will be the possibility of ongoing contact.
Be careful about your tone. We can sometimes share how we feel in unspoken ways. If you are working hard to have your words not feel critical, make sure your tone, and your facial expressions, and your body language match your words.
If humor is something that you have enjoyed with your loved one in the past, try to use humor with them now. Not sarcasm, though, because they will all too easily feel attacked by it. Humor releases endorphins and will lead to a greater chance of having a good memory of your conversation when they think back on it. Hopefully they will also become aware of how serious and humorless their life has become and how long it has been since they have smiled or laughed. Humor is also a way for people to connect with their true and past selves; any opportunity you have to help them do that, absolutely go for it.
Don’t use the word cult. It will get you nowhere. It will become a debate, or you will get lost trying to define what a cult is. In addition, if your loved one is already struggling with their own doubts, your attack may motivate them to dig their heels in further, instead of opening up about how they might be actually feeling closer to the way you feel about the group. Give them a chance to hint about their own concerns, which is more possible if you seem neutral.
Try what I call Talking About Talking. Before you get into a conversation that could become tense, work together to come up with the rules of engagement so there is a greater chance for it to go more smoothly. If your loved one is defensive and you are worried that you’re going to hit a nerve, then say that you want it to be calm and safe all around, that you want to find a way to be able to broach this subject in a way that works for both of you. And let them know that if you say the wrong thing, according to them, you want them to give you another chance because the only way you will know it was the wrong thing is if they let you know. Then hopefully you can start the conversation again and incorporate their feedback.
Communicate that is nonverbal is often a great adjunct to a conversation. Communication can happen in multisensory ways. Sometimes it’s important to have a conversation in order to connect; but other times it’s just as powerful to send them music that you know they would like or that reminds them of a good memory, or to send them copies of photos or mementos that evoke positive memories of a time before the cult or before they were in their relationship—something that reminds them that most of their life before they got involved in this group was not as bad as the group wants them to believe it was.
Come across as curious and open by being willing to look through the group’s materials and their websites, or even being open to the idea of attending a workshop or meeting people in the group in person. The more you are open to checking out what they are learning and what they are following, the more likely they will be to look at information you want to show them down the line.
Send them forever messages. What I mean by forever messages are those vital reminders that you will always be there no matter what; they will always have a home and family to come back to even if they don’t want to be there now; you will love them unconditionally no matter what; and you will always respect them. So many people stay in bad situations because they feel they have burned their bridges and they have nowhere to go back to; or they know they have hurt the people they loved, and they worry about whether the only people who love them anymore are the people in the group. Some people have also told me they stayed in their relationships or groups to avoid being shamed or feeling shame; so letting them know you will always respect them can be very reassuring. They won’t feel that they need to stay away from you and stay hidden because of how they may feel in your presence.
There are many more ideas, but I will end with this one:
If you have done what is intuitive and protective and parental with a loved one, you have probably already had arguments with them and have said things that have triggered anger and more distance; and have said you don’t trust the person they are with, or that they are in a cult. Let them know the reason you talked that way was because you were scared, and that sometimes when people get frightened they express themselves that way because they hope the volume and severity of their words will make an impact and save their loved one; but you see it has just created more division, and nothing is worth that.
Let them know that you want to be able to hit a restart button and try again, that you both could benefit from a greater and more open sharing of information, that you came on so strong because you didn’t have enough information and because you didn’t have contact with them and couldn’t see or find out if they were really OK. The message is, therefore, that the more communication you have, the better the communication will be.
Rachel Bernstein, MSed, LMFT, has been working with former cult members for nearly thirty years. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and educator who lives in Los Angeles, California. She has been a member of ICSA for many years and has presented talks and moderated panels at ICSA conferences. Rachel previously ran the Maynard Bernstein Resource Center on cults, named after her father. She was the clinician at the former Cult Clinic in Los Angeles, and also the Cult Hotline and Clinic in Manhattan. She now treats former cult members and the families and friends of those in cults in her private practice. Rachel has facilitated numerous support groups for former cult members, for people who were in one-on-one cults, and for the families of those in cults. Rachel has published many articles, made media appearances, consulted on shows and movies about cults, and has been interviewed for podcasts and YouTube videos. Rachel is the host of her weekly Podcast, IndoctriNation, about breaking free from systems of control. RachelBernsteinTherapy.com; firstname.lastname@example.org