Reflections on Marriage and Children After the Cult

Lorna Goldberg, M.S.W.
New Jersey Institute of Psychoanalysis


Married life within a cult can impact on former cult members' post-cult experiences. Among the factors that may influence the nature and severity of problems that may arise are: the behavior of the cult leader, transference, and defense mechanisms of projection and projective identification. Although these processes are common to most marriages, they take on a particular hue in cult situations. A case example is presented to illustrate these processes.

This paper will address married life within the cult and the impact the couple's cult experiences have on their post-cult difficulties and reactions to one another. First, I will examine the influence of the cult leader on the married life of cultists. Next, to clarify understanding of some of the difficulties of interaction that married ex-cultists experience, I will consider the concept of transference and the defense mechanisms of projection and projective identification. These are processes that are observable in the interaction occurring between most husbands and wives, but they have a particularly destructive impact on the marriages of former cultists. Concerning transference, I will suggest that post-cult marital pairs often view each other in the way they viewed the cult leader. With respect to the defenses of projection and projective identification, I will suggest that former cult members may deal with conflicts about certain feelings by projecting uncomfortable or unacceptable feelings onto their partners. I will use a case example to further explain how these dynamics can have a negative influence on post-cult married life and how the therapist might intervene to help couples uncover these processes.

Since the early 1990s, I have noticed an increasing number of individuals who have left cultic groups after two or three decades of membership. Many of these individuals are married with children. Married former cult members have to deal with typical post-cult difficulties previously described in cult recovery literature—i.e., sadness and grief over a loss of a life that promised total fulfillment, anxiety about what will happen to them now that they no longer feel protected by their cult, shame about involvement and actions while in the cult, anger at their cult leader for having deceived and manipulated them, and confusion about their identity (e.g., Goldberg & Goldberg, 1988; Langone, 1994; Hassan, 1988). However, former cultists who are married also have to deal with their marital relationship and, consequently, with their cult-influenced reactions to their spouses.

Marriage and Children Within the Cult

Before we examine the issues related to post-cult marriages, we must consider married life within the cult. Typically, after entering a cult, the recruit quickly learns that his or her relationship with the cult leader must supersede all other relationships: Cult leaders need to be the most important figure in the life of each member. To achieve this, cult leaders need to control every significant aspect of a member's life. Often, cult leaders match members for marriage; or, at least, they are consulted before marriage between cult members is permitted. Furthermore, to ensure that the recruit does not form an authentic intimate relationship with other cult members (even after marriage), cult leaders often control the recruit's sexual life. The nature of this sexual life usually will be a reflection of the cult leaders' sexual predilections. Cult leaders will determine the frequency and promote the nature of sexual activity through the cult doctrine and rituals. For example, in some cults, members are encouraged to have sex with numerous partners; in others, celibacy is required. Occasionally, married members have to remain celibate for a period of time before they engage in sex. In several cults, certain "chosen" cultists (sometimes, married cultists) are required to engage in ritualized sex with the cult leaders or other members. In a few cults, cult leaders encourage parents or other adult members to engage in sex with children.

Cult members often do not have the freedom to freely choose marriage partners, and cult leaders sometimes exercise their will by matching members who are unsuitable. Matches might occur because of the sadistic whims of the leaders, who use matching to remind members of their lowly place. Occasionally, matches are made to give citizenship to members from other countries, and there is a language barrier between marital partners. Sometimes, matches are made to increase cult membership by encouraging newly formed couples to have children. In some cults, men are given complete control over their wives, and cult leaders sanction marital physical abuse or rape. Several ex-cultists have told me that when they attempted to report marital abuse to their leader, they were told either that they were responsible for the husband's abuse or that the husband was entitled to abuse them because of the group's doctrine.

In those situations in which the couples were mismatched, the partners might choose to go their separate ways after leaving the cult. However, when the union has produced children, separation can be complicated. Post-cult custody battles are common, particularly when one marital partner decides to leave the cult and the other partner remains. All of these marital situations cause additional stress on individuals who are attempting to acclimate to the outside world.

Within the cult, even mismatched couples can be held together if their need to adhere to cult beliefs is stronger than their desire for personal happiness. Occasionally, cult marriages do become love matches, and these more fortunate individuals learn to care for one another. However, even in these situations, married couples may feel that it is best to hide their positive feelings while in the cult, because true affection between members can be perceived as a threat to the power of the cult leader.

In those cases in which sexual abuse took place, the abused spouse may have difficulty taking pleasure in sex. In other cases, when the cult leader had clandestine sex with a married partner, the spouse may feel betrayed. One former cult member told me that her adult son was the cult leader's child. She struggled over the decision to share this information with her family and finally decided to do so. Although this disclosure brought her some degree of relief, it was a painful process for the entire family.

Manipulative tactics can also be used on those members who were married prior to their cult experience. If only one partner enters the cult, the marriage often is doomed. Occasionally, one partner follows another into the cult and has difficulty adjusting to cult demands. Divorce often follows. Even when both partners are successfully recruited, the noxious nature of life in the cult often destroys marriages.

Cult leaders may interfere with the couple's ability to parent their own children. As a result of the leader's narcissistic need to be the most important relationship in the members' lives, as well as the fact that the parents' involvement with their children detracts from the cult business, cult leaders often discourage parents from involvement with their children. Parents may be separated from their children and have to spend long periods of time involved in cult activities. Children might be placed in dormitories or sent away to cult-related boarding schools. Often, the members who are in charge of those schools have no training in child education and no understanding of the emotional needs of children.

Even in those cults in which parents are allowed to raise their children in their homes, there usually is interference. In a large number of cults, children are instructed to address their parents by first names and address the cult leader as "Mother" or "Father." The parental role is thus reduced to that of a sibling to his or her own children. (Halperin & Markowitz, 1984) In another cult, parents are not allowed to give Christmas presents to their children. Instead, they give them to the cult leader, who then presents them to the children on Christmas morning.

Parents often are made to feel selfish if they acknowledge special feelings for their children. In one cult, members were told that parents always have murderous feelings toward their children. In another cult, members were told that parents pollute their young, so all parenting decisions must be left to the cult. These suggestions are an effective way to separate the members from their own children. Cult members are led to believe that the less time they spend with their children, the better it is for the child.1

The children of cult members often are not allowed to act like children in the cult. For example, a cult leader of a Bible-based cult used Bible passages to justify his attacks on a cult member for responding to her baby's cries of hunger. He demanded that she feed the baby only according to the cult leader's whims. This young woman, who left the cult when her child was one year old, felt guilty about giving in to the cult leader's dictates and not responding to her child's needs. Through therapy, she was able to recognize that she had been terrified to go against a demand that she believed came from God.

Upon leaving the cult, parents can begin to allow themselves to empathize with and respond to their children. Of course, there are many situations in which a parent's connection with his or her child helped promote the decision to leave the cult. One East Coast woman left her cult rather than accede to the cult leader's demand that her five-year-old daughter attend a cult boarding school on the West Coast.2, 3

Former cultists often experience difficulty taking a parental role after they leave the cult. Sometimes, this difficulty is related to the fact that they acted as siblings to their children, because the cult leader was the “parent” for all of them. Parents also may have difficulty assuming authority as a result of their guilt about having neglected and/or abused their children while in the cult. This guilt can lead to their having difficulty setting limits with their children. Other parents continue to hold onto the punitive or sexually stimulating practices of the cult, and they rationalize these experiences as having been “for their child's own good.” Some parents, struggling with their own post-cult issues, continue to be neglectful of their children.

After couples have left the cult, the unfreezing of their cultic personalities in post-cult life also can have an impact on the marital pair. In the cult, recruits were manipulated to suppress their individual reactions, conform to the group, and ultimately develop a new cultic personality. This personality was sustained by the tightly controlled system of rewards and punishments within the cultic environment (see, for example, Ofshe & Singer, 1986; West & Martin, 1994). However, when they leave the cult environment, former cultists start to recover their pre-cult personalities. Slowly, they might discover that their partners are unfamiliar to them in many ways, and the complementarity of the cult relationship might begin to fall apart as one or both of them shed the imposed cultic compliance.

Because most former members are recovering suppressed aspects of their pre-cult personalities, even former cultists who start new relationships soon after their cult experience might begin to mystify their partners. Both the former cultist and the non-cult partner need to recognize that the former cultist will likely be going through a dramatic period of change as new (or recovered) behaviors and outlooks are considered. In some cases, former members return to pre-cult assertive behavior. One non-cult partner said to me in bafflement, “I thought I had become involved with a quiet, gentle, religious woman. She has suddenly become a powerhouse who is questioning whether or not there is a God!”

I have worked with several cases in which the cult member was “rescued” from the cult by someone with whom he or she had become romantically involved. Initially, this rescuer was seen as heroic (as a powerful counter-force to the cult leader). However, over time, the former cultist had difficulty with the influential nature of the rescuer's personality and even began to experience the rescuer as a stand-in for the negative cult leader (see below).

Although married ex-cultists might be sharing the same post-cult difficulties, each of them handles these difficulties in a unique way depending on, among other factors, their pre-cult personality structures, the degree of support they receive from others, and the influence of their individual cult experiences. Therefore, as their pre-cult personalities emerge, the complementarity of a marriage based on cult values might begin to erode as both partners begin to establish their unique ways of viewing the world and individual systems. Needless to say, this dynamic also places a strain on post-cult marriages.

The Destructive Dynamics Inherent in Post-Cult Marriage

Cult members identify with their leaders, and these identifications supplant previous identifications made with parental figures early in life. Because cult leaders generally are paranoid individuals, they indoctrinate their members into a paranoid vision of the world. (Tobias & Lalich, 1994) That is, cult leaders tend to ascribe the worst motives to the behavior of others. When individuals leave the cult, some may continue to have the paranoid feelings of the cult leader. For others, an awareness exists that their trusting nature prior to the cult made them more vulnerable to cult recruitment. For most former cultists, at a time that their sense of self is quite fragile, this paranoid attitude protects them from being unduly influenced by others.

However, in marital relationships, this paranoia can be destructive. When an individual who has been in a cult starts a relationship with someone with no prior cult involvement, the former cultist might interpret his or her partner's behavior suspiciously or see negative motives behind the partner's behavior. When two former cultists are in a relationship, this situation intensifies. Let me give you an example of this dynamic.

If Judy arrives late for dinner at a restaurant because she was caught in a traffic jam, John might not accept this explanation at face value. John might consider that Judy did not want to have dinner with him, that Judy is angry with him, or that Judy is being manipulative in some manner. John could perceive darker motives behind Judy's lateness, either because the cult has trained him to look at behavior in this way, or because the cult has decreased his self-esteem to such a degree that it is hard for him to believe that Judy really wants to have dinner with him. If John does share his feelings with Judy, then Judy, who never was in a cult, might be annoyed that John is so suspicious. She might decide that it is not worth having a relationship with someone so paranoid. In contrast to this, if John is fortunate, Judy might begin to express how much she cares for John and that she really was looking forward to this dinner with him. However, if Judy also is a former cult member, it might be hard for her to show her positive feelings toward John. (As mentioned previously, in the cult, it was dangerous to show romantically positive feelings for other members.) Furthermore, Judy might respond to John's suggestion and begin to consider that there was, in fact, a negative motive for her lateness—i.e., she “created” (in cult terminology) this situation. Additionally, if Judy also has low self-esteem following years of cult mistreatment, she might believe that John's suspicions actually were generated from his dislike of her or his own wish to control or manipulate her.

The marital relationship, in all circumstances, including non-cultic situations, provides a place in which the internal conflicts of each partner can be externalized and, at times, expressed to one's partner in one's interactions. Therapists who work with couples use several concepts to explain the interactions within the marital pair (e.g., Ruszcynski, 1993; Scharff & Scharff, 1991). Three of the dynamics that operate between married partners are transference, projection, and projective identification.

The concept of transference operates in most important relationships, but it is particularly relevant to the interaction of couples. Freud originally defined the transference as containing “new editions . . . [that] replace some earlier person by the person of the physician [in the analytic relationship].» (Freud, 1905a, p. 116) This dynamic has been expanded and defined in the APA's book of psychoanalytic terms and concepts as meaning “the displacement of patterns of feelings, thoughts, and behavior, originally experienced in relation to significant figures during childhood, onto a person involved in a current interpersonal relationship.” (Moore & Fine, 1990, p. 196)

Those working with couples become aware that, at times, each partner views the other as a significant figure from early life, most typically a parental figure. However, in working with those who have left a cult situation, therapists observe that partners often begin to view each other in the way they regarded the cult leader. This is particularly true for those who have spent many years in cults.

For example, Rob had grown up in a house with a mother whom he experienced as caring, but somewhat intrusive, very talkative, and boring. He dealt with her by making his room into a fortress and escaping for hours into his books. While at college, he became attracted to an esoteric cult that satisfied his need to intellectualize. In the cult, his ability to distance himself served him well in that, after ten years, he was able to remove himself from the increasing demands of the cult leader and leave. When he married another former member of his cult, he experienced her as the malignant, self-serving cult leader rather than as the intrusive, but generally benign, mother. He would hide his thoughts and feelings from his wife, because he expected her to “rip them to shreds” in the manner of his cult leader. He came to recognize that although his wife often pursued him when he became aloof or secretive, and sometimes reacted with anger, she was not interested in cutting him down.

Transference reactions are intensified in situations in which one of the former cultists was placed in a higher position in the cult than his or her spouse. A woman who leaves a Bible-based cult often will experience her pastor/husband as stand-in for the cult leader, particularly when the husband continues to identify with the cult leader. In another example, in a new-age cult, the women were placed in an inner circle around the male cult leader. He gave orders through these women and engaged in secret sexual rituals with all of them. Their husbands were kept in the dark and took orders from their wives. After leaving the cult, one of these husbands told me of his difficulty agreeing with any of his wife's suggestions. He added, “I feel as if she was my cult leader, and I feel very resentful, particularly when she begins speaking with the same inflection as the cult leader.” It often is difficult for spouses to acknowledge and accept that the cult leader controlled their more powerful partner.

Former cultists also often fear that their present partner is going to use them as they were used in the cult. A cult leader may have told his or her followers that they were loved, but this was a hollow word used by a narcissistic and/or antisocial individual who lacked a true capacity to love or feel concern for another human being. Additionally, as mentioned previously, the cult leader destroyed the connection between love and sex, and former cultists may find it difficult to link the two.4

Many former cultists also rely on the defense of projection. Freud first defined projection as a defense in which “an internal perception is suppressed . . . and enters consciousness in the form of an external perception.” (Freud, 1911b, p. 66) Projection more recently has been defined as “a mental process whereby a painful impulse or idea is attributed to the external world.” (Moore & Fine, 1990, p. 149)

That is, if there is a conflict about certain feelings, those feelings experienced but forbidden often are projected onto the marital partner. The cult leader made members feel as though they were selfish for any expression of self-interest. The leader's attitude that a cult member should have no self-interest can be projected onto the marital partner. Former cultists may believe that their partners do not want them to have pleasures in life or that their partners will be unwilling to consider their desires. In part, this also is a projection of their own conflicts about the enjoyment of pleasure after the cult. They believe that they want pleasure, but because it was forbidden for so long in the cult, they unconsciously place their discomfort about their desires onto someone else. In effect, they think, “Although I want pleasure, he/she does not want me to be pleased.”

If we return to Rob and his wife, we can see projection occurring and intensifying if he becomes so guarded about sharing his thoughts that she angrily demands information from him (and, thereby, becomes more intrusive). Therefore, unconscious inner conflicts can be transferred and reenacted by one's partner in the marital relationship. Klein originally defined this process as projective identification (joining two of Freud's concepts together). Projective identification is not only a defense, but also includes perceptions of aspects of the way people act in the outside world. (Klein, 1940, pp. 330-331) In this process (closely related to projection), one partner not only disowns unacceptable thoughts, but also actively makes an inner reality be played out by the other partner. In this way, an individual can expel (projection) and remain in touch (through identification) with an unacceptable aspect of the self.

Case Example

Andrew and Barbara came for therapy after spending twenty years in a therapy cult, which had disbanded after the cult leader died. They had been out of their cult for eight years, but marital problems had persisted. Although they recognized that they had been in a cult, they had not entered into any kind of exit counseling. They also had not read any articles or books on cults or gone to any conferences.

Initially, I was aware of being reminded about how easily people could be deceived into entering cults. This couple had entered therapy when they were in their twenties, as I had, for many of the same reasons. However, instead of being referred to a therapist who had helped them understand themselves in a way that had facilitated their self-development (as mine had done), they were referred to therapists who were part of a cult, and, therefore, their initial difficulties were exacerbated. I also was aware that it must have been difficult for them to risk seeing a therapist after cult therapy.

In our first meeting, Barbara and Andrew explained that they had married after they left their cult, to have a child. In their group, members were discouraged from conceiving children, and only leaders were free to be parents. Upon leaving, many of the female members either married to conceive or adopted children on their own. Because Barbara was in her forties and found that she was unable to conceive, she and Andrew adopted a little girl from China.

I asked how they had decided to marry, and they replied that they had always liked one another. However, they informed me that they clearly saw their marriage as a business contract.

Barbara and Andrew told me that while they were in the cult, they had "dated," which, for this cult, meant arranging to meet for sex. They said that their cult encouraged sexual intercourse with a new partner nightly as a means of discouraging romantic ties. Barbara explained that continual sexual experiences with multiple partners with whom one felt no emotional attachment created a numbing effect during sex that persisted after she exited the cult.


Barbara had grown up in a working class family in Staten Island, New York. Her father was a truck driver, and her mother was a housewife. She had one younger sister. At first, she described her parents, who both were deceased, in disparaging terms. Her father was “a ne'er do well” who was away from home most of the time, and her mother was a “hysterical depressive.” I remarked that she probably had a difficult childhood, but the cult most likely had encouraged her to remember the worst about her parents. I questioned how she had seen them prior to her cult therapy. Barbara said that she had seen them as well meaning, but somewhat inadequate. Although her father was not financially successful, he had been hard working. Although her mother periodically became severely depressed, she was kind, and her mother's sister always had been involved with Barbara as a warm presence and positive role model. I hoped that Barbara would begin to see her family in a more complex and human way rather than in the negative, condescending, and stereotypical manner defined by the cult.

Barbara, a shy child, had escaped into books and schoolwork, and became an outstanding student. She received a scholarship to a city college and commuted from home. Upon graduation, she received a scholarship to graduate school in Manhattan for a doctorate in art history. She separated from home for the first time to live in an apartment of her own. She received high marks in her classes, but found herself to be intimidated by her classmates, whom she perceived as being more sophisticated than she. She felt lonely and decided to enter therapy to aid her in this transition. Unfortunately, she was referred to a cult therapist.

Andrew was an only child who grew up in Connecticut in an upper-middle-class home. His father was an attorney, and his mother was a housewife. His mother died after a lengthy bout with cancer while he was away at college. Like Barbara, Andrew described his parents in highly negative terms. His father was “cold and aloof,” while his mother was an “angry, critical” woman. After he left the cult and resumed a relationship with his father, Andrew was amazed at how fun loving and generous his father could be. He initially attributed this behavior to the influence of his father's second wife. However, in therapy, he began to consider that, although his father's second wife might have had some influence on his father's behavior, his father might have been more fun loving and generous than Andrew remembered, particularly prior to his mother's illness. Although he had described his mother in highly negative terms, he admitted that her death from cancer while he was away at college was very sad for him. I also pointed out that her physical pain from years of illness might have had a negative effect on her personality, as well as on his father's. In time, Andrew began to remember more positive memories from his earlier years, before his mother's illness.

After college, Andrew worked for a publishing company in New York, and he happened to rent an apartment with people who were in the cult. Because he also was attempting to establish relationships in a new city, with his roommates' encouragement he started to attend cult events. In a few months, he began therapy with a cult therapist.

When this bright, talented couple came to see me, they both were feeling unhappy and generally dissatisfied with their lives. Although Barbara had been able to finish her doctorate, she had spent the last fifteen years of her cult experience working as a computer programmer. Barbara wanted to return to art history, but she lacked the confidence. Andrew felt locked into his computer-programming job because he was doing so well financially.

Current Situation

Over the seven years of their marriage, Barbara and Andrew continued having a problem sharing romantic feelings with one another. In the cult, displays of affection had been forbidden, and they had learned to hide their interest in others. Both experienced revealing affection as “too risky” and as making them “too vulnerable.” In therapy, we began to explore the meaning of these feelings, and it soon became apparent that they saw each other as enemies who would be quick to attack any revelation of authentic or vulnerable emotions. They saw each other as being highly critical, controlling, and depriving. For example, Andrew felt that Barbara resented the time he spent bicycling and seeing his old college friends. Barbara believed that Andrew resented her consideration of a job in the art field.

One of my first tasks was to help them to see how the attitudes that they had formulated in the cult still were permeating their present lives through their transference reactions, projections, and use of projective identification. I needed to help them to become consciously aware of these unconscious processes.

Because they were not interested in attending conferences or programs for former cultists or in seeing an exit counselor, I believed that my initial purpose was to help them gain a better understanding of the mind-control processes of their group. They described feeling ashamed about having gotten involved in a cult and having remained there for so long. I told them that because they blamed themselves for their predicament, it was important for me to help them see how their cult therapists and the cult leader had manipulated them. I felt that their shame had a great deal to do with their avoidance of other former members and their need for secretiveness about their experience.

In early sessions, the focus was centered on their personalities prior to the cult and on how the cult had gradually changed them. Although she had felt intimidated in social situations, Barbara had been an excellent student and had done outstanding work in her field of study. She had loved working in a museum, but her success and enthusiasm had threatened her cult therapist. She was made to feel that her pleasure in her work was selfish, and she was pressured to change her focus to computer programming, a field that would be both lucrative for the cult and minimize her relationships with people in the outside world. Andrew had loved working as a writer for a small magazine. He also was discouraged from his chosen field and pushed to increase his salary by switching to computer programming so that he could pay for numerous hours of cult therapy and other cult expenses. We slowly reviewed how they were made to feel selfish, indulgent, and disloyal to the group by pursuing their own interests.

I also was aware that this couple approached seeing me with some degree of trepidation. That is, they also were having a transference reaction to me. After all, I was a therapist, and they had left a therapy cult in which therapists held the tools for manipulating patients into accepting a destructive and distorted belief system. In contrast to my work with some other clients, I believed that some degree of self-disclosure was necessary to help this couple begin to feel more comfortable with me and to come to understand that this therapy was different from the charade of therapy that they had previously received.

Therefore, I wanted to make therapy less anxiety-ridden for them by attempting to challenge their negative transference reaction to me. First, I told them that I viewed therapy as a collaborative effort. (I wanted my role with them to contrast with the idealized and narcissistic role that their cult therapists had played.) I did not want to be seen as the all-knowing expert, and I made it clear that they were the experts about their own lives. I might make observations, but they need not validate my impressions. I could be wrong, and when they disagreed with me, I hoped that they would tell me so. Second, I wanted them to know that I, too, had sought out therapy in my twenties and had been fortunate enough to have begun seeing someone who was not in a cult. Therefore, it was only by chance that I was able to pursue my chosen profession. I viewed it as simply their bad luck that they had been referred to cult therapists who would systematically manipulate them without their conscious knowledge. I hoped that if they had any questions about what was happening in the room, they would ask me. Third, I disclosed that I had developed an interest in cults because of a family member's involvement and that I could have easily become involved in one. I had been involved in social and political activism while in school and in my twenties. However, I was fortunate that none of these groups had become a cult. Fourth, I admired their courage in deciding to see me after all the painful, pseudo-therapy they had experienced. Fifth, I believed that they had shown tremendous potential prior to the cult experience, and that this history bode well for their futures. (I was optimistic in the face of their disillusionment and pessimism.) Sixth, although I was cautious not to make promises as the cult had, I believed that once they learned how cult mind control interfered with their post-cult lives, they probably would begin to feel that they had more control over their lives. They most likely would lose the sense of powerlessness with which the cult had left them. Finally, I told them that they could see me for as long as they felt our talks would be useful to them. They were free to stop sessions whenever they wished.

We began to explore how they treated one another. They characteristically appeared to be kind and gentle individuals, but they each would imagine that the other had harsh attitudes that were not being expressed. I helped them understand the transference; that is, each of them was putting his or her partner in the cult leader/therapist's place. I explained how they also were using projection and projective identification. That is, the cult had trained them to feel uncomfortable whenever they had wished to satisfy their own needs, aspirations, or pleasures. They unconsciously would take their uncomfortable or negative feelings and place them into their partner—i.e., “She doesn't want me to spend time with old friends,” or "He doesn't want me to spend time in art museums or galleries." I noticed that they would believe that their partner was depriving even in the face of their partner's denials. They would look for proof of their negative attitudes in their partner's behavior. Understanding how they would either place the partner in the cult leader's place or on the negative, uncomfortable side of their ambivalent feelings helped them begin to have more positive feelings toward one another. I also encouraged them to continue to check out what their partner was actually feeling instead of making assumptions.

I next focused on my experience of them as basically well suited to one another, and I asked how others viewed their relationship. They verified that relatives and friends seemed to feel that it was a good match. I asked why, and they told me that they shared the same value system and had many common interests. I asked if this was why they had chosen one another, dismissing the "business contract" theory. I emphasized how they had freely chosen one another over other members of the cult. They began to admit the qualities that they had liked about each other. He viewed her as pretty, sweet, and intelligent, while she viewed him as intelligent and thoughtful. As they focused on the positive attributes of their partner, they began to come alive romantically. They finally shared a “secret” with me. While in the cult, they had spent a country weekend together, and each had enjoyed it tremendously (although neither of them acknowledged this fact this while in the cult). I pointed out how this secret revealed that they were attracted to one another, and they had been reluctant to acknowledge it to each other and to me because of their cult training.

Their Child

In their second year together, they were able to adopt a child from China. Both of them had poured all their affection and positive feelings into this little girl. I noted how much easier it had been for them to be affectionate with their daughter than with one another. In the group, only the leaders had children; and these children had been overindulged and spoiled by all the members, who treated them like royalty. That was this couple's model and was one of the reasons why they were having difficulty disciplining and placing limits on their six-year-old daughter. This approach had allowed her to become an adorable, self-confident princess who, at times, could turn into a tyrant.

As they described the dynamics of their involvement with their daughter, it became clear to me that all their love went to their daughter, and all the anger, particularly anger toward their daughter, was deflected onto their partner. As this pattern was clarified, they could begin to limit her more successfully and even become angry with her when her behavior warranted it. Clarification of this pattern also allowed them to consider how their positive feelings toward one another were displaced onto their child.

Dealing with Their Pre-Cult Selves

As the cult-related problems were rectified, we began to focus on the pre-cult personality dynamics that interfered with their relationship. For example, Andrew, who always had been an outgoing person, began renewing relationships with friends made before the cult. Barbara, who had been shy as a child, once again became quieter and somewhat unsure of herself among Andrew's old friends. Andrew at first interpreted this behavior as Barbara's disapproval of these relationships. It was true that Barbara was uncomfortable in these situations, and Andrew was correctly interpreting Barbara's reticence. However, Barbara explained that her reluctance had more to do with social shyness than with disapproval. Later, when Barbara was able to see that her shyness was similar to her father's, she began to consider that his quietness may have been attributed to his social awkwardness rather than to aloofness—her cult therapist's interpretation. (Andrew also came to understand that, in some ways, Barbara was reminding him of his mother who, at times, resented staying home while her husband went to business functions.) Next, Andrew insisted that Barbara seemed particularly reluctant to spend time with a female college friend of Andrew's. Andrew was astonished when Barbara admitted that she did not enjoy being with this woman because she flirted with Andrew.

In a later meeting, Barbara began to discuss how cold and aloof Andrew could be. At times, she thought that he really must be quite unsatisfied with her. Andrew responded that his coldness often was a reaction to feeling rejected by her. For example, when he returned home at night, Barbara often failed to greet him warmly. Barbara explained that she often was distracted by the need to prepare dinner or help their daughter with her homework. Andrew began to understand how he had a readiness to seeing Barbara's behavior as rejecting. He later began to understand his “cold” reaction as an identification with his father, whom he had remembered as being cold in the face of his mother's rejections. However, Andrew also reported that his father had become warmer as a result of his second wife's interest in him.

As their pre-cult personality dynamics emerged, both Barbara and Andrew were able to see how their identifications with their parents and other significant figures from early life continued to live within them. Also, in gaining a sense of their pre-cult identifications with a parental figure, they began to seem more differentiated from one another. This discovery also served to further lessen the tendency to see one another as the forbidden parts of themselves, as their cult leader, or as a parental figure. As their pre-cult selves emerged, although some personality dynamics created new frictions common in most marriages, their post-cult values and life desires generally remained aligned with one another. Their marriage was able to withstand these stresses and improve because they shared common goals, as well as a strong desire to work toward more satisfaction and understanding in their marriage.


After seeing me for about one year, Barbara and Andrew terminated their weekly therapy sessions and for the next year saw me on an as-needed basis. Barbara presently enjoys her work at a museum. Andrew continues his work as a programmer. However, he has moved into a more creative area and has begun writing during his free time.


Ideally, therapy should attempt to provide a safe place for former cultists to express their uncomfortable feelings—feelings that would have been dangerous to express in the cult and that continue to be experienced as too dangerous to express within the post-cult marriage. When those uncomfortable and unacceptable feelings are transferred or projected onto their partners, the therapist can focus on the concept of transference or the defenses of projection and projective identification to help ex-cultists take ownership of uncomfortable emotions. This acknowledgement will lead to seeing their partners in a more positive way.

Therapy also should attempt to show former cultists all the ways in which their cult experience (as well as their pre-cult experience) has had a negative impact on their present lives. It is important for former cultists to know that all marriages have difficulties. In part, these difficulties occur within the intensity of the marriage relationship because individuals begin to experience their partners as new versions of significant (usually parental) figures from their past, or unacceptable parts of themselves. Former cultists also can begin to discover in themselves harmful (as well as positive) identifications that were made with their parents. Everyone is influenced in his or her understanding of how married people behave by watching his or her own parents. (Even when we consciously or unconsciously strive to be the opposite of our parents, we are being influenced by them.) If we also view our partner as a more recent parent figure—the malignant, controlling, narcissistic cult leader—an additional burden is placed on the marital relationship.

Therapy, unlike the cult, should not be seen as a magical place where a relationship is transformed. It is crucial that the therapist explain that the goal of therapy is for the couple to transfer the experience of benign investigation of behavior and emotions into their relationship outside of therapy. The goal is for the couple to have a relationship that allows for them to talk over the difficulties that emerge between them.


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1 In contrast to these examples, children of the cult leader usually are treated as royalty. Cult members serve as maids, baby-sitters, gardeners, cooks, chauffeurs, and bodyguards to the “royal” family. However, because of cult leaders' inability to feel empathy toward their own children, or lack of desire to spend much time with them, several of these children have described feeling quite distant from their parents (Hong, 1998).

2 Presently, many of the grown children of that cult are suing the organization. They report that they were the victims of physical and sexual abuse that took place in those schools. Additionally, I worked with a nine-year–old girl who was rescued by her non-cult father from one of those schools. She reported that when she wet the bed, she was taken out of bed at night and expected to wash and dry her sheets prior to returning to sleep. She also reported that she was locked in a closet as punishment for misdeeds or minor infractions.

3 Parents also have described moments of loving behavior shown toward their children that occurred in secret defiance of the cult leader. For example, one mother who was told to beat her children for fidgeting during a prayer meeting would take them into an adjacent room and pretend to hit them.

4 This difficulty is often particularly acute for those who were sexually abused in the cult. As a coping mechanism within the cult, many sexually abused individuals learned to dissociate from their feelings during sex. After the cult, it is difficult for them to respond to their partner's sexual interest with sexual desire of their own.

This material was originally prepared for a presentation at AFF's annual conference, June 14-15, 2002, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Orlando (FL) Airport.

Lorna Goldberg, M.S.W., L. C. S. W., a therapist in private practice, has co-led a support group for ex-cult members with her husband, William, for over 25 years. She is on the faculty of the New Jersey Institute for Training in Psychoanalysis, where she also is the Director of the Child and Adolescent Program. Mrs. Goldberg has written extensively for social work and AFF publications.