Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What Awful Marriages & Cults Have in Common

Know someone stuck in an abusive relationship?

People often wonder why abused men or women stay in terrible relationships.

It seems like a completely absurd notion. Yet, it happens every day.

Domestic Violence & Cults: The fact is that abusive relationships have a lot in common with cults. In both, victims feel completely demoralized, injured and trapped. Follow along; you'll see that cult behavior can shed light on why abuse victims feel stuck and desperately unhappy. And, of course, it is not uncommon to have domestic violence within a cult.

Mind control and abuse are not unique to any one situation.

Consider the words of two cult survivors:

  • Anyone, no matter how intelligent and strong they are, can be drawn into a cult under the right circumstances. Most people who have never had it happen to them would not understand this. Brainwashing is like the "boiling frog" theory, it's very subtle and you don't know it's happening to you until it's too late.
  • Cults are designed to keep a clear separation between those inside and outside. The more faithful a follower, the more reliant the person is on the group. It becomes everything--family, friends, church, home, work, dwelling, community. Extracting oneself from that after decades is difficult, and sometimes impossible. It is both terrifying and isolating.

And, here are the words of a domestic abuse survivor:

  • My therapist asks how I had managed to numb myself for so many years, but amazingly I did and now I am feeling all the anger, depression and I am so filled with these feelings. But mostly I feel robbed of my myself I feel so reduced to this tinny person that I was not and I look at myself now and I am like how did this happen? How did I become this small person who at all put someone before them and in the process my happiness was jeopardized ad chunks of myself were taken away.

Or as abuse expert, Leslie Morgan Steiner tells us:

  • [Domestic violence is] a carefully laid physical, financial and psychological trap.

Note how much they have in common. Both domestic abuse and cult brainwashing involve the loss of a person’s sense of power. You are trapped and afraid to leave, lest something awful will happen to you.

Our Leader, Our Guru, Our Priest: Cults usually have a leader, or a core group of “teachers” who offer “love” but will punish you on a whim; particularly if you dare to have your own thoughts. Thinking for your self is a form of disobedience. So, if you are in a cult, your desperate need to be loved trumps your wish to be your own person.

The cult leader – often a man – will punish your “disobedience.” He will call you evil and wayward. He is so convincing that a part of you starts to believe him. He may even create a theology that keeps you in place. It’s a form of brainwashing. What’s good for him is what is good for the religion.

Here’s how cults usually work:

1. First, there’s usually a charismatic leader (or "teacher") who draws you in.

2. Next, the leader sets up an in group vs. an out group.

3. Control is maintained: Abuse keeps in you line, as well a love and praise.

4. To leave is to be cut off or put into danger.

In an abusive relationship, the abuser – also, often a man (but, not always) – will demand fealty to his needs. He may offer stability and a home. He might even offer a sappy sort of closeness, but watch out. If you obey, he may refrain from attacking. You may even be praised. If you don’t, you’ll be on the receiving end of self righteous outrage – and the physical, sexual or verbal abuse that goes with it.

Cultic Mind & Child Mind: So, why don’t you leave?

The answer lies in the cultic mind. Abusers use two ancient techniques of mind control.

  • Deep within, most adults want to let go and have someone take care of them. It is often unconscious. Adult life is scary; work, bosses, health care etc. Deep within many people hope that someone will offer protection. And, these abusers often do just that. Despite what you may think, a malignant abuser often will offer attention and warmth; at least in the beginning.
  • Then, abuse erupts, suddenly, and without warning. You are made to feel that there is no safety and no consistency in this world. And, like a child, you hope that this time will be the last time. He confesses or simply acts nice and you hope beyond hope that it won’t happen again. You stay, both out of loyalty and fear. Maybe he’ll hurt me if I go?

Why not just call the police and leave?

It’s not so easy.

The Power of Regression: When we have an intimate relationship, even an abusive intimate relationship, we enter the Field of Intimacy, a place where we are regressed and childlike. At its best we feel validated and loved. At its worst, we feel vulnerable and desperate.

The more regressed, the more we lack the courage to leave. And, that is cultic. They can’t leave either. The cult robs the devotee of his or her basic belief in himself or herself. So too with the abusive relationship.

1. First, there’s usually a charismatic leader who draws you in. The abuser is often very compelling. He cares about you, and may be quite vulnerable himself. You feel an unusual sense of bonding with him; but this sets you up for a dependency that will hurt you.

2. Next, the leader sets up an in group vs. an out group. You are cut off normal life. He beats you; or she berates you. She wants no one to know about her power over you. Slowly, your social life dwindles to a world that he can control.

3. Control is maintained: Abuse keeps in you line, as well a love and praise. He will tell you that he loves you. Many abusers do, in fact “love” their wives (or husbands), only to abuse them when frustrated or when under the influence. Your child mind hopes the storm will be over soon. And, he’ll hurt you if you stand up for yourself.

4. To leave is to be cut off or put into danger. An order of protection is no guarantee of safety. Abusers often act out in desperation. They have dependency needs too, but manage it by control and dominance. Many women are frightened of coming forward for fear of retaliation. And, often they have something real to worry about.

Conclusion: The likes of Jim Jones, David Koresh and Charles Manson are a whole study all to themselves. Cults involve a mixture of mind control, abuse, and "loving" acceptance which, in a split second, can turn into rejection. Plus there's the beloved (and feared) “spiritual” leader. And, when "wronged" such a person can be very dangerous.

It’s a toxic, scary mix. Arthur Deikman, MD writes convincingly of this type of evil. His book, The Wrong Way Home (1990) is a must read for those who are interested in learning more about cults and their adherents.

Yet, the narcissism of a malignant abuser has much in common with these cults. It’s just without religious overtones; and it’s a smaller scale. You are adored, then punished. You lose you equilibrium, because he is so sure of himself. You are cut off from your family and loved ones, and keep the secret to protect the relationship.

And, over time, you lose a sense of adult competence. You worry that you won’t be able to live without him. Or, that he will come after you. Or, that you are responsible for his safety. After all, he may do himself in without you in his life. Abuse requires outside help. If you are enduring it without seeking support, know that you may be trapped in a cult like world.

• Seek help and understand what you’re involved with.

• Seek help and consider how to safely escape.

• Seek help because the danger can be real & you shouldn't deal with it alone.

• And, seek help to realistically deal with your fear.

It's scary inside an awful relationship. And, its to deal with it alone.

There are no easy answers. But, the trap of abuse is an awful thing in this world.

Consider a good therapist, or a domestic violence counselor. Be planful. Have hope.

We all deserve our piece of happiness.


For more from Dr. Banschick:

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Kindle)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Amazon)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself (Kindle)

The Intelligent Divorce- Taking Care of Yourself (Amazon)

Course - Raising Healthy Kids Despite Divorce: Sign Up


Sign up for our newsletter here!