Involved in a Cult?

For Families Who Suspect that a Loved One

May Be Involved with a High-Demand Group (“Cult”)


How can I tell if my loved one is in a High-Demand Group (HDG) or cultic relationship?

Deception is the key to whether a group or person is cultic or just more dedicated than the rest of us. Historically, groups and persons who have had a beneficial effect on the world have done so without disguising their beliefs or misrepresenting their practices. Every member of a main-line religious community is given lengthy exposure to the beliefs and practices of the community before he or she is permitted to make a commitment. Legitimate groups and individuals can do this because they are capable of delivering what they promise.

HDGs and cultic persons, on the other hand, promise what no one can deliver. Naturally, because they promise what can be had nowhere else, they can make extraordinary demands on their followers or partners, since the expected reward is also extraordinary. If these persons or groups could deliver on what they promise, we should all be members. Since they cannot, they have to build systems that trick people into joining and staying in the system. This is usually accomplished with a kind of “bait-and-switch” technique.

For example, a group promises eternal inner peace and then trains new recruits in relaxation techniques. The techniques, available in any library, are presented as the secret “wisdom of the ages.” The new recruit is actually able to relax using the technique. Their new ability is ascribed to the uniqueness of the group and proves it can deliver on its promises. When the new technique fails, the member can be blamed for not doing it right or can be commended for rising to a new level and needing more training in other techniques. Either way, guilt or praise, the group keeps its devoted without delivering anything else it promised.

Just because one believes strongly in, or commits deeply to, a cause, a group or a person, does not mean they are in a HDG. Through history countless devoted individuals, groups and intense belief systems have served to bring societies back from barbarism to respect for human life and liberty. All these groups have accomplished their lofty goals without indulging in the practices below:

  • The group, its leader or the partner expects unusual commitment of time and resources to the group. For example: Full-time college students are expected to spend in excess of 20-30 hours each week on group related activities.
  • The group, its leader or the partner expects more or less exclusive devotion or focus on its leader, its practices or its beliefs. Other relationships are discouraged, other honorable persons are overtly or subtly dismissed, and other ideas and lifestyles are ridiculed. The promise is that extreme devotion yields extreme rewards. Members are special, part of an elite, non-members are sub normal and ex-members are dangerous. Doubts are suppressed by enforcing the practices of the group in excess: chanting, meditation, speaking in tongues, singing repetitive lyrics, repetitive work regimens, endless study- looking up words, etc.
  • The group, its leader or the partner acts as if right and wrong are defined by what furthers or inhibits the interests of the group. The world is defined in sharp, black-or-white categories.
  • The group, its leader or the partner emphasizes attracting new members, collection of money or participation in the group’s practices to the exclusion of other activities necessary for normal emotional growth.
  • Thoughts, feelings and actions, however minor, of members are expected to be under the benevolent care and direction of the the leader or partner.

I think my loved one is in a HDG, cultic or abusive relationship, what do I do now?

  • Keep the lines of communication open. If initial concerns and doubts are not effective in helping them to leave, it is not necessary to label the group or partner as “cultic” or “abusive.” Remember, this is a cherished belief or person, your loved one may not be capable of rejecting the connection on first or second hearing. Instead, try to keep pre-group or pre-relationship memories alive, emphasize the care and love that exists in the relationship now.
  • Educate yourself. The International Cultic Studies Association  contains links to several organizations that can provide a wealth of information on specific groups and beliefs. Knowing what you are talking about can prevent miscommunication and promote real understanding of your loved one. Knowledge also prevents you from playing into the hands of the group. Most groups have been incorrectly blamed for things in the past. They will use the media’s misinformation and your misconceptions to make the group seem legitimate.
  • Create for the loved one a real place to go. More than a job or a place to live, important as these things are, your loved one needs an atmosphere of “emotional safety.” Extended family and friends also need to be educated in HDG/cult dynamics to minimize awkwardness.
  • Consult with a cult-aware professional when needed. They can assist you with support, understanding, and concrete suggestions to help yourself as well as your loved ones. Please do not take any drastic actions without first consulting a cult-aware professional or consultant.  ISCA can help you find the appropriate professional or consultant in or near your area. RETIRN can provide assistance in a variety of ways; please call us for more information.

My loved one just left a HDG, how can I help them?

The three concepts above apply. Educate yourself, keep the lines of communication open and try to create a real place to go. Here is where professional resources like RETIRN or Wellspring fit in the whole process. Once your loved one has decided it would not be in his or her best interest to return to the group or relationship, RETIRN or Wellspring can help.

Most importantly, your loved one may have questions and emotional needs you feel ill-equipped to handle. Not resolving these issues can result in much longer recovery periods and worse, some will not be able to recover on their own at all. There is an old saying: “Time does not heal the wounds of betrayal.” Your loved one may not be able to “get over” the experience the way he or she might overcome some other obstacle in life.

Most mental health professionals and clergy surveyed felt ill-equipped to meet the needs of the ex-cult member. Our experience is they are better equipped than they think. They just do not know how to apply their skills correctly for the ex-member.

Steve K. D. Eichel, Ph.D., ABPP
Current President of ICSA’s Board
Associate of RETIRN