As humans, we’re joiners. Your average human is a member of several groups -groups of friends, social clubs, political parties, worship groups, workplace groups and more. Only a tiny fraction of those groups are actually high-control, coercive or totalist groups .
But what if someone you love is in one of those groups? First, make sure that they are in a totalist group – just because the beliefs are strange or new does not mean the group is abusive. There are many lists of how to tell if a group you’ve heard about is a destructive, high-pressure group, but one of the best around is Janja Lalich and Michael Langone’s checklist.
If you are reasonably sure your loved one is in an abusive group or relationship, it’s important to remember these Do’s and Don’t’s:
- DON’T assume it’s because of something you’ve done wrong.
- DO realize that this can happen to anyone.
- DON’T tell them ‘I think you’re in danger.’
- DO tell them ‘I want you to know that if you ever feel uneasy, you can call me .’
- DON’T condemn or demonize the group or person, even if you’re sure your loved one is being manipulated.
- DO ask them questions about their experiences, asking them to re-word their answers for clarity and collect more information – which will stimulate independent thinking. For more on this, see the questions below.
- DON’T focus on discussion of the group/relationship, especially if they don’t want to discuss it.
- DO talk about happy times, shared memories, hobbies and things they enjoyed doing before they joined the group or got into the relationship.
- DON’T give them cash or large checks that might be turned over to someone else.
- DO give them phone cards or a ‘disposable’ cellphone with your number already programmed in.
- DON’T turn your time with them into a nonstop discussion about the group/relationship.
- DO make sure they feel relaxed, safe and welcome around you. If you live with them, keep the communication open and encourage them to eat and sleep regularly. If they are only visiting, make sure they leave fed and well-rested. They should want to come back again, so that if they leave the group or relationship with nowhere to go, they’ll feel comfortable coming to you.
- DON’T come across as if you know more about the group than they do, even if that is true.
- DO ask them what they’ve learned, and how it has benefited them. They are the experts on their experience; ask them to teach you about it. You’ll learn a lot about what drew them to it and what they’ve been promised – or been made to fear. It always stimulates critical thinking when we describe our beliefs – as long as it isn’t in the rote way taught by the group or abusive partner.
- DON’T keep talking about the group if the dialogue between you becomes tense, even if you feel you shouldn’t waste an opportunity to get your message across.
- DO shift gears and focus on more neutral subjects as a way to maintain a more comfortable connection, and increase the likelihood for future discussions.
- DON’T feel you have to match your loved one’s serious, and potentially dogmatic and pressured tone.
- DO act respectfully, but also show warmth and humor. Be reassuring, kind and interested. This will feel a lot more comfortable to your loved ones than the tense conversations they usually have with people in the group, or the conversations they were told they’d be having with you. And don’t interrupt when they are speaking!
- DON’T yell, argue, or get angry.
- DO remain calm and keep asking questions.
- DON’T deliver ultimatums (“it’s them or me”).
- DO let them know that you will always be there to welcome them and listen to them, no matter what.
- DO call them, write them, send them jokes, photographs of old friends and family pets, tell them that you love them. Even if you’re being shunned, they will know you’re thinking of them.
- DON’T ever give up!
But now that you’re maintaining a relationship, what can you do to get them out of danger? There is no “magic wand” that works on everyone, but here are some simple questions you can ask your loved one to get them to start thinking for themselves – which is always a good first step.
What attracted you to your group in the first place? So often, I hear people who joined groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses say: “they were all so friendly!” Getting them thinking about what originally sparked their interest leads naturally to:
When you first joined, what did you expect to achieve as a member of the group? In answering this, ask for their personal goal, rather than the broader group goal (such as bringing about the New Age, or surviving Armageddon, etc). As a member, did they expect to achieve tranquillity? a better relationship with God? a better lifestyle?
What have you achieved? get your loved one to compare their goals in entering the group with what they’ve achieved. There might well be some gains, but it is vital that they themselves draw their own comparisons between what they’ve been promised and what they’ve achieved so far.
What do you hope to achieve in the future? is what they want as a member of the group different now to what it was when they joined? How far do they feel they still have to go to achieve what they want from their involvement in the group?
What have you personally witnessed others achieve? In groups which promise better health, personal power, or financial gains, or even in groups where there’s simply an expectation that those in it are happier or leading better lives, it’s good to prompt you loved one to look and see just what is being gained by their co-believers.
How long do you expect it will take for you to achieve your goals? In this case, you can ask this about both your loved one’s personal goals (how long will it take before they reach the desired level of enlightenment or success), but also, for example, how long they expect to wait for the group’s goals, such as the New Age, Armageddon, or the Second Coming.
It’s important to note that these questions are good to ask oneself from time to time as well, not only about any clubs or church you are involved in, but also your relationships, your work, and even your own broader aims in life. Whether we’re involved in an abusive relationship, or simply stuck in a place we never intended to be, a little self-examination is never a bad thing.
The vital thing to remember when dealing with a loved one in a high-pressure group or a coercive relationship is to keep the lines of communication open – patience, compassion, tolerance and understanding are the best gifts we can ever give.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about a loved one in a coercive situation you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!