Are Abusers and Cult leaders Similar?


I find that it is often easier for the general public to wrap their minds around how a person gets involved and stays in a cult then it is to explain why a person gets involved and stays in a violent relationship. There are many similarities between the two groups of  victims. Both go through very specific and similar experiences while being transformed into the person their leader/abuser wants them to be. The process of being remade into someone else with new beliefs, new goals and new thoughts is much like the proverbial frog that is boiled slowly. Most victims don’t even realize what is happening until one day, when they are already deeply indoctrinated and usually very unhappy, they wake up to the reality of their situation. Being slowly cooked, is not only an intellectual experience it is a deeply emotional one and because of this it is important that we share emotional support not just education with a victim.

The term “Thought Reform” or “coercive persuasion” is used to describe the process of manipulation and the techniques that are used to change a persons thought and behaviors. The techniques that are most often used in thought reform are the very similar across the board between cults, interrogation of prisoners and domestic abusers. The manipulative tactics are very effective in changing the thought process of the victim. These tactics successfully retrain and indoctrinate the person who is targeted. Much of the information I present here was taken from studies and websites that are about cults. The similarity between the process of joining, living in and leaving a cult is very similar to the systematic brainwashing a victim of Domestic Abuse goes through.

A commentary I once heard on how to set up a  cult or a following said “Present your organization like an onion. The outer peals are the benign, humanitarian and kind ones. Their outward appearances are what everyone sees and are led to believe as being honest and helpful. As you become closer to the inner core of the onion, your followers will be admitted into the more complex and bizarre teaching of the cult. Only let them past the outer peals once you know that they totally trust you and believe in you. Once they are indoctrinated into the inner core of the organization, they will go so far as to kill for you.”

Deception – Many domestic abuse victims will tell you that they ‘fell in love with a lie’. He started out kind, charming and loving. Abusers will pull the victim into their clutches by telling well thought out lies that put them into a positive light. Lies that make you believe that they are successful or happy or well adjusted humans. Their tricks are like vacuum cleaners designed to suck you in but once they do, you are left, trying to catch your breath in a huge pile of suffocating dirt.

There are 5 main types of deceptions that abusers use.

  1. Exaggeration-a statement that represents something as better or worse than it really is.
  2. Falsification- the action of falsifying information
  3. Omission-the action of excluding or leaving out someone or something on purpose.
  4. Equivocation-the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself; prevarication.
  5. Distortion-the action of giving a misleading account or impression.

All deception is meant to trick you and mix up your perception of who they are as well as what they stand for. Abusers create a very effective illusion surrounding themselves that is extremely hard to see through.  Many times, a woman will tell me that he was wonderful until the honeymoon. In my case, he was wonderful until the wedding night. As soon as they have you, own you, possess you is when they start to show their truth.

“Likewise, cults present themselves as one thing. As an altruistic organization, when in reality they are deceitful and abusive.

Cults trick new recruits into joining the group and committing themselves to a cause or lifestyle they don’t fully understand.

  • Cults mislead new recruits/members as to the true expectations and activities of the group.
  • Cults may hide any signs of illegal, immoral or hyper-controlling practices until the recruit has fully immersed himself in the group.
  • A cult leader may use members’ altered consciousness, induced by activities like meditation, chanting or drug use, to increase vulnerability to suggestion.” *

Isolation – Isolation is a specific tactic that every abuser uses when they are preparing their victim to give up control. Every abuser will isolate their victim in one way or another. Isolation can be physical as in moving the victim to another town or state or country. It can be emotional by creating wedges between family and friends and making it to emotionally difficult to maintain relationships outside of  the one with the abuser. It can be spiritual by breaking down the belief system of the victim or using their belief system to induce guilt and shame.  Whatever form it take, and it can be all forms at once, it will always result in isolation of the victim. Often, the victim will feel as though she has made the choice to severe relationships and cannot even see how the abuser manipulated her into isolation.

Isolation cannot be separated from the issue of domestic abuse. It always goes hand in hand. By keeping the victim from being influenced by outside sources and focused on the abuser they are teaching the victim learned dependence. Isolation breaks down relationships, creates mistrust of others and sets the abuser up as the hero who comes to save the victim from her faults, family, past, church or whatever else they choose to target.

“Cults cut off members from the outside world (and even each other) to produce intense introspection, confusion, loss of perspective and a distorted sense of reality. The members of the cult become the person’s only social contact and feedback mechanism.

  • Cults may keep new recruits from talking to other new recruits. They may only be allowed to speak with long-committed members for a period of time.
  • Cults may not allow unsupervised contact with the “outside world.” In this way, there is no chance for a “reality check” or validation of a new member’s concerns regarding the group.
  • Cults typically instill the belief that “outsiders” (non-cult members) are dangerous and wrong.”*


Induced Dependency -“Learned helplessness (dependency)is a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to believe that it is helpless in a particular situation. It has come to believe that it has no control over its situation and that whatever it does is futile. As a result, the human being or the animal will stay passive in the face of an unpleasant, harmful or damaging situation, even when it does actually have the power to change its circumstances. Learned helplessness theory is the view that depression results from a perceived lack of control over the events in one’s life, which may result from prior exposure to (actually or apparently) uncontrollable negative events.” Wikipedia

Abusers demand that their victim focus totally upon them. If anything gets in the way of the control of the abuser, then that thing has to go! The victim must meet all the demands of the abuser and those demands are often cushioned to sound very reasonable, even desirable although unattainable. This results in a diminished sense of self esteem and capability to survive without the abuser.

This is where the abuser will often make silly requirements like telling the victim what she can and cannot wear. Where she can go and when. Who she can and cannot talk to and even what her opinions should be. She must align herself with his desires in order to keep the relationship stable. She is led to believe that any ‘bumps’ in the relationship are her fault. She is totally devoted to him and doing what he requires that she loses focus on herself. Often she will feel as though she is a rat running is wheel that never ends.

From The Basics of Domestic Violence by Megan Johntz

“When you look at learned helplessness in domestic violence, you see women who’ve been told by fathers, mothers, teachers, boyfriends, etc. that they can’t do it, that others’ problems are their fault, that they are not worth very much, etc. She starts to believe it, and can look very passive in abusive relationships. But there is a curious pattern when you look beneath the “passive” behavior… With battered women, she huddles up on the kitchen floor, not because she likes it, or she’s stupid, but because she knows her compliance will shorten the episode, or prevent her children from being involved, or maybe he won’t raise his voice and alarm the neighbors.”

“Cults demand absolute, unquestioning devotion, loyalty and submission. A cult member’s sense of self is systematically destroyed. Ultimately, feelings of worthlessness and “evil” become associated with independence and critical thinking, and feelings of warmth and love become associated with unquestioning submission.

  • The leader typically controls every minute of a member’s waking time. There is no free time to think or analyze.
  • Members are told what to eat, what to wear, how to feed their children, when to sleep … the member is removed from all decision-making.
  • Any special talents the member has are immediately devalued and criticized in order to confuse the member’s sense of self-worth.
  • Any doubts, assertiveness or remaining ties to the outside world are punished by the group through criticism, guilt and alienation. Questions and doubts are systematically “turned around” so that the doubter feels wrong, worthless, “evil” for questioning. The member is loved again when he renounces those doubts and submits to the will of the leader.
  • The member may be deprived of adequate sustenance and/or sleep so the mind becomes muddled.
  • The leader may randomly alternate praise and love with scorn and punishment to keep the member off-balance and confused and instill immense self-doubt. The leader may offer occasional gifts and special privileges to encourage continued submission.
  • The member may be pressured to publicly confess sins, after which he is viciously ridiculed by the group for being evil and unworthy. He is loved again when he acknowledges that his devotion to the cult is the only thing that will bring him salvation.”*

Dread – When a victim is living through the cycle of violence, again, for the umpteenth time, she knows what is coming. She totally understands that, at some point, the honeymoon will end, the tension will build and finally, an episode of abuse will happen. She lives her life attempting to keep the cycle from completing. No matter what she does, though, inevitably, that cycle will complete and she will be abused.

The dread that she experiences is debilitating. The trauma that happens to her psychologically is just as devastating as the trauma war victims live through. Her brain chemistry actually changes as she is in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. She lives in survival mode and that doesn’t allow her to think rationally. She desperately needs to be valued by her abuser and that keeps her spinning on her wheel. She believes that she is the one who causes all the chaos in their relationship and that it is up to her to save her marriage. This is often reinforced by the spiritual abuse she endures.  At some point, she will either lose hope or she will find the strength to leave. Since he is the one who rewards her good behavior, saves her, and the one who punishes bad behavior she has an ongoing love/hate relationship with him. It is confusing, debilitating and crazy making to live like this.

“Once complete dependence is established, the member must retain the leader’s good favor or else his life falls apart.

  • The leader may punish doubt or insubordination with physical or emotional trauma.
  • Once all ties to the outside world have been cut, the member feels like his only family is the group, and he has nowhere else to go.
  • Access to necessities depends on the leader’s favor. The member must “behave” or he may not get food, water, social interaction or protection from the outside world.
  • The member may believe that only group members are “saved,” so if he leaves, he will face eternal damnation.

Indoctrination, or thought reform, is a long process that never really ends. Members are continually subjected to these techniques — it’s part of daily life in a cult. Some adjust well to it after a period of time, embracing their new role as “group member” and casting aside their old sense of independence. For others, it’s a perpetually stressful existence.”*

Maybe by understanding the forms of brainwashing that happen in both cults and domestic abuse relationships, we can more understand why the victims do not leave easily. As a society, we seem to understand that to leave a cult is difficult. My hope is that we will begin to give victims of domestic abuse the same sort of understanding when they are attempting to leave. I want us to stop asking the victim blaming questions. I want us to stop acting like “it could never happen to me” or that it only happens to weak, damaged women. These are only a few of the techniques that are used against victims to get them into and keep them in abusive relationships. Going through ‘deprogramming’ or recovery is arduous. Abuse rips a person apart. They do not come out the same and will never be the same but with compassion and understanding, they can recover themselves and heal.  Instead of judgement, give grace, love and most of all hope to these victims!

Please take the time to watch the following video.


International Cult Studies Association

Cult Education Institute

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