Abusive Relationships And Cults: What They Have In Common
I survived both a religious cult and chronic domestic abuse.
These hazardous experiences did not occur simultaneously but transpired one after the other, a baton hand-off of the possession of my mind.
In retrospect, I see how these relationships operate from similar postulations and tactics and can have a domino effect.
The brainwashing from a religious cult groomed me to be less resistant to and skeptical of the brainwashing from a narcissistic abusive man.
I submitted to these powerful entities who claimed transcendence, unaware that undertaking these lifestyles would eventually take me down.
Domestic abuse is defined as “a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.”
This is eerily similar to definitions of a cult. The leader of a cult is described as controlling and charismatic. Rick Ross explains that cult leaders have “no meaningful accountability and become the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.”
The common themes between cults and abusive relationships include manipulative control, utilizing fear as a tool for dominance, and using a victim’s mind against itself. Both require our ongoing self-sacrifice.
After I escaped both a religious cult and later on narcissistic domestic abuse, it didn’t click right away. I was too disoriented by the ongoing trauma, confused about my altered reality to make sense of it all.
I had shapeshifted to be what each required of me: an accomplice to their beliefs.
I couldn’t label them for what they were in the immediate aftermath. Labels felt like a landslide into treason. Seeing the truth that this was sickness marketed as love would break my heart and implode my perceptions.
Yet, I grew aware of a consistent pattern of destruction of my sense of reality, sanity, and identity. I became exhausted from suffering. This awareness gave me the momentum to start inching towards the door.
Attempting to flee from an abusive relationship was not an average break-up experience. It was baffling. There was no clear way out because I didn’t know exactly what I was getting out of.
He was not a typical partner I needed to leave. He was the leader of my life, conducting our relationship like a cult of two.
Both experiences of a religious cult and an abusive partner had maintained their power by controlling my mind like a puppet on a string. In hindsight, the parallels are stunning.
Rick Ross describes the tell-tale signs of a cult leader as one “who persuades by coercion and exploits its members.” There is authoritarianism without accountability and no tolerance for critical questions.
Irrational fears are instilled about the outside world. Reasons to leave are inhibited by portraying anyone apart from the group as negative, misinformed, or even evil. The victims feel they can never be good enough. The formidable leader is always right, boasting of exclusive “truths” and superiority.
Alexandra Stein depicts that the onset in a cult begins with extreme, flattering attention and grandeur which can feel safe. Next follows isolation, being engulfed in a new system, becoming out of touch with our old familiar networks.
Emphasizing fear of the outside world leads victims further into attachment, clinging to the only “safe haven” we believe is available: the cult. As a victim turns to their leader for reassurance, there is no relief. Instead, suffering is increased which leads to dissociative reactions and confusion. This causes the inability to think rationally, as disorientation from alternative information undermines our ability to reason.
So the leaders “do all the thinking” for them, while a victim’s sense of identity and reality fades into the background.
I found these descriptions to precisely define the experience with a manipulative, narcissistic abuser as well.
The cycle is an illusion of love, infused with terror and indoctrination. We are subjected to the same mind games, and subsequently, lose our minds to their powerful grip.
When submerged under brainwashing and gaslighting, every red flag is redesigned as another excuse to stay.
Early on in my domestic abuse, I was effectively isolated. He didn’t overtly say I was required to cut all family and friends out of my life. Instead, with cunning technique, he coached me into isolation by portraying everyone else as poisonous. By bashing their characters, I felt fearful of them and believed his reasons to avoid contact. This serial deletion act was advertised as a benefit to my well-being. I thought it meant he loved me. I bought in.
This resulted in my need to cling to my abuser. He was the only one left, anyhow. I accepted his cruelty, it was all I had.
His entrapment tactics perverted my ability to identify the many red flags that followed, but being raised in a cult had already set me up to perceive warning signs as badges of honor.
I already associated hurt with love.
In a religious cult, I was told at 5 years old that I was an actual prophet. The obsession with my assigned elite status lost me every opportunity to have friends. Even in kindergarten, I cried to my parents about my loneliness and rejection, as other children scoffed at me, wanting nothing to do with me.
I was always talking about spiritual warfare and my visions of angels. I was only allowed to “befriend” kids within our religious group, but the adults forced me into the role of a mentor. I was expected to help, heal, coach, and train every child I had contact with, voiding any authentic friendships.
Rejection coupled with a fixation on my magical, spiritual powers could have been a red flag, a sign that something was amiss. But my parent’s response to my pain from non-acceptance, a product of their assigned role, was one of further propaganda. Their response: my rejection was the confirmation I was doing the right thing. To be “persecuted for the Lord” and suffering for his name’s sake was encouraged, it would “lead to further blessings.”
The more I sacrificed myself, the more I was praised as this special child minister to the world.
Red flags were advertised and re-purposed as victory flags.
I earnestly sought validation from my parents and that church, the people I had access to. I craved the attention that acting spiritually-anointed gave me, rewarded for the byproduct of isolation. I learned to earn my praise.
Yet the more magical thinking I implemented, feeling super-human, the less I could connect with reality or function in society as I aged.
The requirement to be perfect insidiously smothered out my genuine love and joy, until all that was left was a rigid, entitled, anxious, exclusive shell of a human. I ruthlessly judged anyone outside of our circle, towering on my pedestal. I couldn’t recognize the toxicity because these beliefs were portrayed as truth and enlightenment.
I didn’t know how to get off of my cultish pedestal to join reality, human kindness, and experience peace and love.
It would take more than bravery to jump from the top.
So how can someone escape these mind-warping experiences? How does one break away from the powerful grip of abusive relationships and cults?
What I know is that the first shift is in awareness, by identifying numerous signs and patterns.
From an outside perspective, alarming and harmful behaviors seem obvious to everyone except those within it. Attempts to “get someone out” can feel impossible.
When indoctrinated, the victim’s role is maintained with extensive gaslighting. To keep the prey, the predator must be convincing that the world they created is the right one, the chosen way, and never to be challenged.
They are wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing, who cannot stop talking about all the other wolves closing in on you in the forest.
They market their “truths” with shiny grandeur. Their shameless superiority is a constant sign.
The opportunity for escape begins in questioning our source, which is an act of treason. This is the most difficult step.
Questioning and challenging the core concepts from a powerful abuser or cult feels foreign, dangerous, and discombobulating. It leads to questioning our very own identity.
Their layers of answers used to dispute our critical inquiry further demonstrate such impenetrable control. Therefore, the only way to dodge the gaslighting used to trap us is to venture out, considering that perhaps we do not have to believe them. We have to question the foundations upon which we stand.
The dynamic of narcissistic abusive relationships and cultish groups is one of exclusivity. You are either in, or you are out.
There is no open-mindedness to another way of life, to another flow of thought.
A victim has to notice the pattern of targeting everyone outside of them as “the problem,” including the victim. In an abusive relationship: “they’re trying to tear us apart” or “you’re a disaster, nobody else can love you like I do.” In a religious cult: “everyone else is sinful and trying to pollute our minds.” Or even “demons are attacking.” These are red flags.
A victim has to ask themselves: am I always hurting in this relationship? Am I always suffering? This is a loud signal.
Victims loop round and round within their elite circle, an endless spiral.
But real love, peace, and truth are not encasing like the circle of a hamster wheel. The hamster wheel is a trap, an illusion of progress.
Real love is inclusive. Real love does not require suffering or chronic self-sacrifice, it does not hurt. Love is safe. It has direction and movement, it has no need to condemn those who do not understand or have the same view.
It seeks understanding, commonality, empathy, and connection.
There is unconditional value in the self and in each other. There is a deep respect for all mankind. There is humility when we make mistakes.
There is no need for pride to mask flaws or arrogance to claim we know better than others. Real love and connection within a relationship or group have no need for boasting, blaming, or demeaning.
Cults and abusers operate this way and erode our sense of identity, security, and worth.
They use fear, strutting it with pride, and suffocate love which causes daily suffering.
Sensing these patterns of emotions and exploring these truths is part of the painful awakening.
Sometimes hurting, traumatized, or mentally ill people will find and latch on to other people with similar struggles. This can be one avenue by which we land within abusive relationships and cultish groups.
We all need social support. Social relationships with a healthy mentality operate from a place of safety and love. Toxic bonds do not.
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in “The Body Keeps The Score” that “the critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.”
As traumatized people seek connection in others with similar traumas, sometimes this can lead members to conform to a “common code,” an easy drift into the trap of exclusivity.
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk touches on the topic that some victim groups can become isolating and “promote a view of others as irrelevant at best, and dangerous at worst, which eventually only leads to further alienation.”
We see examples of this in gangs, extremist political parties, and religious cults. These groups provide an illusion of solace but do not foster mental flexibility. Therefore, individuals cannot be open to what life has to offer or be freed from their traumas.
And in my experience, it produces more trauma.
In abusive situations, maltreatment is rationalized and excused. Gaslighting and love bombing are used to confuse and disarm every defense a victim would have, blurring the reasons and directions for escape. I had been led to believe I couldn’t trust myself nor anyone else.
Acknowledging that I was suffering within these containing Petri dishes and considering that another perspective just might be acceptable, would be the only path out to a better life.
I had to consider that there were goodness and worthiness in other people outside of my toxic relationship and my childhood religious cult.
There was an opportunity for love and peace beyond my rigid circles.
“Well-functioning individuals, relationships, and groups are able to accept individual differences and acknowledge the humanity of others.” — Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk
If within our relationships there is chronic deprivation of love, worth, and security, this is a signal of toxicity.
Feeling unabating worthlessness and pain in any relationship is enough reason to question our exclusive circles.
Believing that real love is safe, calm, and unconditional will change the course.
It is enough to crack open delusional mindsets, bypassing the common codes and deceptive beliefs that keep us confined in suffering.
Because the truth is, we all have worth and we are enough.
Break the circle open. It’s a trap.