by Jon Atack
Helping Friends to Finding the Way Out
H aving the right guidance and information to understand the mechanisms of coercion, manipulation and trauma are key to helping people escape from abuse. It is better to foster a general understanding of manipulation, rather than criticizing the group or predator directly.
All too often, the surprise of learning that a friend or family member has become embroiled in a toxic group or relationship causes a confused or even hostile response. Asking “How could you be so stupid?” is a sure way of making the person turn away. Confrontational behavior often leads to disaster.
If your own relationship with the person has been difficult, look at improving your communication skills. John Gottman’s Relationship Cure is a good start.
The Honeymoon Period
In the beginning, relationships have a “honeymoon” period. The new believer is infatuated with the group or predator, and will hear nothing against them. A head-on assault will usually fail: showing the believer media scare stories, or even the strongest evidence, will result in cognitive dissonance: When our beliefs are challenged, we usually resist.
It is necessary to be more tolerant, more patient and more considerate to the believer. Be as good a friend as you possibly can when helping people escape from abuse.
Allow the believer to talk without interruption. We learn about our own beliefs by expressing them, but hold on to them all the more tightly when we are challenged.
Be curious, rather than confrontational. Ask what attracted them to the new group or relationship, and what they hope to achieve in it.
Understand the Mechanics of Manipulation
It is better to foster a general understanding of manipulation, rather than criticizing the group or predator directly. This is called “paralleling”: if someone is involved in a pseudo-religious cult group, use another group as an example. Jehovah’s Witnesses will not feel threatened by material about Scientology. Don’t explain the parallels – they will sink in, given time. The documentary Kumaré is particularly good, because it is not based on a real group, and shows how susceptible we all are to authority. There are many good books and movies that encourage critical thinking and expose the problems of authoritarian relationships. Recommend these to the believer, and encourage them to express their opinions about the material.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Most of all, keep the lines of communication open: the believer will need somewhere to go when the relationship fails. Be careful not to burn any bridges! If you have acted in a hostile way, apologize as soon as possible, and move on to more agreeable conversation, once your apology is accepted.
Stay in touch – through emails, postcards, texts or phone calls – and keep the conversation light. Maintain normal communication: ask about health and about interesting events, and remind the person of happy times you’ve spent together in the past.
Cults and predators tend to commandeer any available money, so give helpful gifts, rather than handing over cash. Gifts of food, clothing, and phone cards can make the believer’s life easier, but expensive gifts may simply be sold or handed over to the predator.
Most of all – don’t lose hope! Many people have spent decades in an abusive group or relationship, but nonetheless decided to leave – or been kicked out. Predators abandon victims who are no longer productive, so even the most dedicated believer may end up on your doorstep, looking for comfort and support. By understanding the nature of predators and their manipulative methods, you will be better able to help them to recover when that day comes.