Domestic Violence as a Cultic System

Cultic Studies Journal, 2000, Volume 17, pages 42-55

Domestic Violence as a Cultic System

David Ward

Logan Counseling Centre

Brisbane, Australia


The phenomenon of domestic violence has been regularly explored in the therapeutic literature in recent years. The therapeutic community’s knowledge of destructive cults has also increased. However, little has been written comparing the knowledge bases from these two domains. This paper seeks to offer a brief investigation into some of the parallels experienced by victims of cults and victims of domestic violence. Theoretical concepts from both areas will be outlined first, followed by some specific parallels. Finally, some implications for therapy will be discussed.

Despite the vast and ever-increasing volumes published on domestic violence debate continues. Initially, pathology was located in the individual and presumably resulted from traumatic experiences in the formative years. As time passed, and particularly when systems theory gained widespread acceptance, dysfunction was explored, analyzed, and addressed in the wider psychosocial and socio-political arenas. This appears to have continued with increasing fervor, to the extent that pathology now is decreasingly seen in individual experience, and increasingly attributed to language, conversation and cultural discourse (Gibney, 1996). This paper seeks not to disregard the gains made by previous models, but to supplement our knowledge base by investigating principles of abusive power in one context, domestic violence, to help understand another, cultic abuse. I shall begin by outlining a brief review of cult dynamics.

Cult Dynamics

There are many definitions of "cults," including the following, which is appropriate to the purposes of this paper:

A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea or thing and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques or persuasion and control to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of the members, their families, or the community. (Tobias & Lalich, 1994, p.12)

Various frameworks have been put forward to explain the “unethical manipulative or coercive techniques” of cultic systems. Below I summarize a model advanced by Singer (1995);

Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how she or he is being changed a step at a time.

Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, prospective recruits for a cult are unaware of the dynamics involved in their recruitment. Whether it is a religious group that employs "bible studies," or a "self esteem" course offered by an organization, the goal is to entice individuals to commit to more and more group activities, while keeping them unaware of increasing entrenchment.

Control the person’s social and/or physical environment; especially the person’s time.

Contact with the group via phone calls and "unexpected meetings" continues to influence prospective members, until such a time that the recruits spend large amounts of time with the group. The more time individuals spend in cult-related activities, the more distant they become from their pre-cult selves.

Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.

Recruits eventually spend most of their time and energy in the group, and become very dependent on it. The group becomes the norm for what is considered true, just, or desirable. Internalization of group behavior and language further reduces the ability for reality testing and makes it very difficult to leave.

Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity.

Through a system of reinforcement, individuals are further distanced from their pasts. What is remembered of the past is radically reinterpreted. Life outside the group becomes inconceivable.

Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group’s ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors.

"Happiness" in a toxic group is through performance: comply and you will be rewarded; disobey, and you will suffer penalties. Should there be any discrepancies between what is promised and what is achieved, the individual is at fault; the group/organization/leader are above reproach.

Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.

Cults typically demonstrate a pyramid-shaped structure. All devotees are accountable to the leadership; the leadership is accountable to no one.

The above dynamics describe an environment that is both abusive and difficult to leave. The internal dissonance produced by the cult is itself alleviated by the cult, and this cycle of dependency can last for many years given the right environment. Those who have never experienced the thought-reforming environment of a cult often find it difficult to understand how an individual can "choose" to join and stay in such a group. This perspective holds that it is perfectly permissible to believe that an individual seeks out, joins, and remains in a destructive group by their own volition.

This outsider’s perspective is not unlike the responses given to victims of domestic violence where the questions are asked, “Why does she stay? Why doesn’t she just leave?”

Domestic Violence

Over the years researchers have investigated various facets of a violent relationship, including the following:

Pathogenic Familial History

Those individuals who themselves have experienced a violent childhood may acquire the belief that violence is a legitimate way to solve problems, and to expect the same in their adult relationships (Hilberman & Munson, 1978).


More often than not, to leave a violent relationship is also to enter a much more constrained financial situation. Fewer resources mean fewer options (Gelles, 1976).


For some, the dominant facet of domestic violence lies with stereotypical gender arrangements that have been internalized in the relationship and the individuals (Goldner et al., 1990).

Psychological Need

Earlier writers suggested that the constant violence stems from unmet dependency needs on one or both partners (Rounsaville, 1978).

Psychological Conditioning

Other researchers have investigated the phenomenon of reinforcement theory and intermittency of the abuse (Long & McNamara, 1989; Dutton & Painter, 1981), while some have utilized the learned helplessness model (Walker, 1978).

The preceding are but a sample of the positions put forward to understand domestic violence. Obviously these positions overlap to some degree. Grigsby and Hartman’s (1997) notion of "barriers" is an interesting integrative model. These researchers say that barriers impede a woman’s safety and well being at the political, environmental and intrapsychic levels.

While this paper leans toward the environmental and intrapsychic domains, I acknowledge that any narrowing of focus on the intrapsychic at the expense of the socio-political domain will pathologize the victim.

Domestic Violence as a Cultic System

Some of the parallels between domestic violence and cultic systems are set out in table 1.

For brevity’s sake, I will expand only on two particular parallel themes that are pertinent to therapy: a strictly controlled environment and the breaking of the sense of self.

The Environment is Strictly Controlled

Environmental control is a central tactic of an abusive male partner. He may isolate his spouse from friends, family, and the wider community. He may dictate where his wife may go, the length of time she may spend away from home, and the clothes she wears while out. Often he will time her departures from home. Any deviance from the male’s dictates usually meets with more abuse. He may also escort her to again limit contact with others outside the immediate home. Such monitoring prevents the woman from experiencing the normal reality checks that would otherwise be available. The primary source of information comes from the abusive partner. Thus, the abusive male not only creates an environment that is conducive to behavior modification, but also creates the meaning of the situation. This situation is very close to the "child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome" experienced by abused children:

The child faced with continuing helpless victimization must learn to somehow achieve a sense of power and control. The child cannot safely conceptualize that a parent might be ruthless and self-serving; such a conclusion is tantamount to abandonment and annihilation. The only acceptable alternative for the child is to believe that she has provided the painful encounters and to hope that by learning to be good she can earn love and acceptance” (Summit, 1983, p.184). [emphasis added]

Table 1: Domestic Violence and Cultic Abuse

Domestic Violence

Cultic Abuse

Environmental Control

Perpetrators control who the woman sees, talks to, what she reads and where she goes; limits outside involvement

Environmental Control

Cults control whom the individual is allowed to see and associate with. Cults control reading matter, living arrangements, and lifestyle.

Economic Abuse

Perpetrators can prevent the woman from getting a job, make her ask for money, take her money, forbid access to family income.

Economic Abuse

Cults often expect a large proportion of an individual’s income, including signing over assets, getting money from family, moneymaking activities.

Using Children

Perpetrators can use the children to make the woman feel guilty, threaten harm to children, alienate children from Mother.

Using Children

Cults can emotionally, spiritually and physically abuse children. They can threaten to harm children to control the parents.

Coercion & Threats

Perpetrators threaten to hurt and can use guilt and fear and other emotional manipulations to control the woman.

Coercion & Threats

Cults regularly use fear, guilt, and other emotional manipulations to control members.


Perpetrators refuse to take responsibility for abusive behavior; they say it is the woman’s fault or ignore or make light of abuse.


Cults make sure if something is wrong, it’s the individual’s fault; no critical thinking about the group is allowed.


Perpetrators ensure that the woman is dependent on the male; a learned helplessness is established.


Cults systematically create a sense of powerlessness through a system of rewards and punishments.

Attack on Self

The result of DV can be a shattered self; a “hollow shell”: “I no longer feel like a person.”

Attack on Self

Cults destabilize the sense of self, reinterpret reality according to the group, and create a cult identity.

Performance Orientated

“As long as you do what you’re told, it’ll be ok”. “I’ll try not to upset him tonight.”

Performance Orientated

"Happiness" and commitment are measured through performance; measure up or suffer the consequences.

Residual Effects

Many battered women exhibit symptoms consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Walker 1993)

Residual Effects

One of the most common psychiatric disorders experienced by ex-cult members is PTSD (Giambalvo 1993)

A central technique common to cults is the systematic severing of ties with those outside the group. This severing can take numerous forms such as:

Discouraging contact with non-cult family members.

No contact with ex-members.

No reading materials critical of the group allowed.

The discouraging of certain trades or professions that would increase contact with non-members.

The expectation that a large proportion of personal time will be allocated to cult related activities.

Environmental control also characterizes abusive political systems, such as that found in Communist China in the 1950s (Lifton, 1961; Schein, Schneier, & Barker, 1961). Although Lifton's notion of "thought reform" referred to high-control processes used on Chinese civilians as well as on American POWs, the term "brainwashing" is sometimes used only to describe what American pilots experienced upon capture by the Communists. The term is used somewhat flippantly these days to describe almost any process of coercion or control. However, the "original" brainwashing involved severe physical deprivation and torture. While there are some parallels between domestic violence and brainwashing such as intermittent psychological and physical abuse, Romero (1985) lists some important distinctions:

An unknown enemy abused POWs. Victims of domestic violence share an intimate relationship with their partner, and as such, sexual abuse is common, whereas there was none reported in the former.

The Chinese Communists had a specific goal, namely, ideological change. Domestic violence perpetrators have no goal per se in the control of their partners.

Because the Communists' goal was ideological change, there was a system of rewards for right belief. For the battered woman, there is no reward; she cannot accept a new ideology and then be set free.

Upon release, a number of POWs held on to the enforced political beliefs, though only for a time. In a new environment where critical thinking was allowed, any residue of political belief gradually dissipated. This mirrors domestic violence and present-day cultic systems, in that once the individual leaves the immediate environment, the traumatic effects gradually weaken. In other words, the behavioral and attitude changes that cult members experience are environment-dependent:

Once removed from such an environment, the person is able to interact with others who permit and encourage the expression of criticisms and doubts, which were previously stifled because of the normative rules of the reform environment. (Ofshe, 1992, p.214).

Similarly, those women who can leave the abusive partner tend to be able to reverse their learned helplessness, in contrast to those who stay and try to change the partner (Walker 1978). This highlights the importance of watching for a "window of opportunity" when dealing with a current victim of domestic violence or a current member of a toxic group.

The Sense of Self is Broken

Another parallel process that the author has noted is the thought-reforming environment's effect on the sense of self. Ex-members of destructive groups and survivors of violence have described the experience as a "rape of the soul," which leaves them feeling like an "empty shell with nothing inside." Given that abusive systems attempt to mold central elements of self, such as worldview, ego, and basic defenses (Ofshe & Singer, 1986), it should come as no surprise to hear experiences of self-fragmentation. Schein et al. (1961) described a tripartite process in their work with POWs:

Unfreezing – refers to the initial destabilizing of self through sleep deprivation, poor diet, threats, degradation, etc. Before the POW could confess allegiance to Communist ideology, previous alliances had to be severed or reinterpreted. As a violation of one’s beliefs and the desire to maintain internal consistency and integration collided, the sense of identity fragmented.

Changing – once destabilized, the individual needed to restore equilibrium. The induced "identity crisis" was resolved through the acceptance of new beliefs and attitudes. The prisoner searched the environment and found a new identity in the cellmates and interrogators.

Refreezing – the new belief system had to be constantly reinforced. As the sense of self is largely constructed via our interactions with others, the Communist interrogators demanded the constant reading of propaganda, competition between cellmates to excel in the study of materials, etc. The individual was thus "reborn" and his new identity nurtured and rewarded.

The results "brainwashing" were mixed; rarely did former prisoners retain Communist sympathies for long upon release. Their changed behavior was environment-dependent.

We see, then, the following important similarities between victims of thought reform (whether prisoners of war or cult members) and domestic violence:

A destabilizing of self

An instillation of new beliefs about self and the world

An environment that reinforces the new beliefs and a tendency to return to the previous self once out of the controlling environment (although the process may take years).

A significant body of literature suggests that victims of prolonged emotional and psychological coercion, such as outlined above, undergo a personality transformation to cope with the self-fragmentation (Herman, 1992; Cushman, 1986; Boulette & Anderson, 1985). West and Martin (1994) use the term "pseudo-identity" to describe this effect. Other terms, such as "identification with the aggressor" and "Stockholm syndrome" have been used to represent that radical transformation of personality in the face of overwhelming trauma. In the domestic violence literature the "battered woman syndrome" has been put forth as a regularly recognizable set of symptoms that are produced by a violent, controlling environment (Walker, 1993).

Is a domestic violence milieu a cult? If one defines a cult in behavioral terms, as I have, the answer is "yes," and it is appropriate to call battered relationships "cultic relationships." Moreover, other "nondomestic" relationships may be cultic in their dynamics, e.g., psychotherapy cults (Singer, Langone, & Temerlin, 1991).

A colleague recently asked if cults are patriarchal. Many do run along patriarchal lines and research suggests that the majority of victims are female (see, for example, Chambers et al., 1994, which found that 64% of members were female). While this aspect of the issue deserves a paper in its own right, it is noteworthy that many of the power relations that women experience in wider society are mirrored in the cultic systems we have discussed here. Although I have here highlighted the environmental and psychological aspects of the phenomenon, I reiterate the importance of including a political lens in addressing the problem. The parallels I have drawn in this paper do have limitations, and in both the domestic violence literature (Rhodes & McKenzie, 1998) and the cult literature (Zablocki, 1997), there debate continues.

Implications for Therapy

I have found three parallel issues that need to be addressed by both victims of relational violence and cultic abuse (Ward, 2000):

Concept of Self

As previously mentioned, cultic relationships attempt to modify that part of us we call "self." Largely molded by our interactions with others and the immediate environment during our early years, our self-concept can nonetheless be manipulated in adult life. This is forcefully demonstrated in cultic relationships, where an individual’s worth is measured by the degree of obedience to the leader/perpetrator. I have found again and again that women who have left violent relationships and individuals who have left a destructive group continue to demonstrate a strong sense of loyalty to the perpetrator(s). For the individual concerned, this can be a source of confusion and stress. How could they "choose" to remain in such an abusive environment, and what is worse, miss it? I have personally found it useful in counseling a victim of domestic violence to briefly go over cult dynamics and draw parallels. Initially, I may not use terminology that belongs to the cult literature, but instead talk about the experiences of others whom I have heard about. Not until the woman makes some link to her experience, do I mention that the information given draws from “brainwashing” and “cult mind control” theories. Women find it liberating to discover that she is "not going crazy," and that anyone else in the same environment may well have behaved and felt the same. Likewise, for some who find it inconceivable that they were in a cult, I might review some dynamics of violent relationships (environmental control, control of resources, manipulation with fear and guilt, etc) and gently draw parallels and implications.


Both populations have described uncomfortable situations, ranging from the annoying to the terrifying, in describing cues that remind them of the past abusive relationship. For the partner who leaves the violent spouse, it may be innocent mannerisms from a new partner. It may be conversations or behaviors from the children. It may be simply thinking about spending some money on oneself. For the ex-cultist, it often depends on the nature of the group left behind. For Bible-based groups, church buildings, bibles, or religious dates may be troublesome. The author once supported an individual who came out of a high-control group. She found that simply using modern appliances around the home and eating take-out foods created discomfort. With both populations, the author has noticed that language reminiscent of the abuse may be particularly triggering.

In each case, a series of educational sessions on the nature of cult/violence dynamics may prove useful. Once triggers are named for what they are, namely associated stimuli, the dismantling of the triggers can begin and new associations can be created. Once again, it is important to normalize such presenting issues as typical responses internalized from an abusive environment.

Grief and Loss

Individuals who have left a violent partner often feel:

Loss of financial stability

Loss of the ‘family unit

Loss of opportunities

Grief over the impact on the children

Grief over the "wasted years" while with the partner.

People who leave toxic groups have similar experiences of loss:

Loss over family still in the group

Loss over assets lost to the group

Loss over the sense of mission and purpose

Loss over finding out, "it was all a lie."

"Starting again" is a common presenting problem to both populations. For some, the pain will be around family issues; for others it could be finding a job and "starting from scratch." Here, however, is an opportunity for self-empowerment (Dahlen, 1997). With both populations, there is the risk that the therapist could fill the void left by the perpetrator/cult. It is, therefore, the therapist’s responsibility to help the client develop an internal locus of control and encourage all efforts at self-empowerment. As personal power increases and the authentic self resurfaces, the imposed views of self and the world will fade.


Working with female victims of domestic violence can be both a frustrating and rewarding task. Likewise, I have found working with those who have left a toxic group can be equally challenging and rewarding. Most therapists have worked with victims of domestic violence, and there is an increasing number of therapists who are assisting victims of destructive cults. However, there have been few attempts to bridge these two areas. In attempting to link these two areas of study and clinical work, this paper seeks to empower victims and help therapists better understand the dynamics common to situations in which one person tries to control another.


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David Ward is a social worker at a community-based counseling center that regularly sees victims of domestic violence. He is also a volunteer counselor for the Cult Information Service, which offers counseling and educational resources for those who have had involvement with cults.