Posted by: shekinahp | May 24, 2010

Love and Friendship after Spiritual Abuse

John Knapp,   licensed therapist and cult recovery counselor wrote this very poignant article at his Knapp Family Counseling Facebook Page, I’d like to share it with you.  I’d like to thank John for  his continuous support to this blog and our cause.

Many of us spiritual abuse veterans left all our significant friendships behind twice in our life.

First, when we joined the toxic group, abusive church, or cult. All our old friends suddenly seemed so superficial. Stressed out. Of the world. Sinners. In their mind. Too much ego. They didn’t understand why we changed. Or our new group. Or our new goals: enlightenment, salvation, entrepreneurial success, psychological liberation.

Then, when we left, either our former group friends shunned us — or we may have shunned them. We may discover people we thought of as close friends were neither. Even though it once seemed they shared our quest for perfection, seemed to share mirror images of our values and passions, perhaps even intensely loved us.

They just didn’t understand why we changed. They might even see us as apostates, betrayers, enemies.

And while we were wrapped up in the grandiose schemes of our leaders for years, our old family and friends may have moved on—creating lives without us. Now leaving us with no one—not from the cult, not from friends we may have grown up with, sometimes not from our families of origin.

When I came back to my family after some 20 years in Transcendental Meditation, a simple, “Hey, I’m back! Missed you guys!”, didn’t create instant room in their lives that I expected for me to slip into.

Time did not heal all wounds. It created new, unfathomable ones.

Our cults got us coming and going. We were cheated of our most important relationships twice.

It can be hard to start over in mid-life to surround oneself with friends. But people do it all the time. People move to new cities. Teens go to college. Divorces break up friendships. Loved ones do die.

Many adults are successful in rebuilding their friend networks after a move or divorce. Why is it so hard for many of us spiritually abused?

It may spring from the very nature of the trauma we experienced. Many of us felt betrayed by our leader, our group, our friends. It can be extremely hard to trust after that. After all, we spiritual-abuse veterans have had vitally important people in our lives lie to us.

How will we know if someone new will betray us too?

For most of us, there were no boundaries in our groups. We were encouraged, even coerced to reveal to each other our deepest darkest secrets. Many times for the purpose of control. Scientology, for instance, reportedly keeps records of auditing sessions—similar to confession—in order to embarrass members if they choose to leave.

Our very concepts of love and closeness may have become warped while in our groups. To former members involved in group confession or confrontational psychotherapy, love may become confused with criticism—or listing each others’ faults. It may have seemed an expression of “care and concern” for another group member, but you may find most people in the real world don’t actually enjoy this. Imagine that!

Besides control, this imposed pressure to lower our natural boundaries created the illusion of instant intimacy among group members. Leading to only one level of friendship: “important,” intense, real, spiritual, don’t-waste-my-time-on-trivial-matters.

After that counterfeit intensity, relationships with people in the real world may feel, empty, hollow, trivial in comparison to our friends in the cult. For some, that sense of meaninglessness in real-world relationships may drive them back to their abusive churches—and the familiar fantasy of close, meaningful relationships.

It seems similar to the push-pull some domestic violence victims experience. If she can’t find an intense relationship to replace the abusive one she left, some DV victims may return to their abuser. “No one ever loved me like he did!”

It is hard for many of us to build intimacy with new people long after we leave. Sometimes our pace of trusting a new person is so glacial, they give up on us and move on. Sometimes we throw ourselves too deeply into a new relationship, trusting too early, revealing intimate details of our selves and our abusive experience to people we will ultimately feel betrayed by.

The trick is to maintain reasonable boundaries as you go along—to avoid feeling betrayed later when friendship fades.

Not every acquaintance must become an intimate friend. Friendships exist on a continuum. Sometimes you just need to have fun. Other times you need to pour your heart out.

The trick is to let others earn our trust before we spill our guts.

How do we know whom to trust? Trust your gut. If you feel any discomfort, examine whether you have allowed someone to get close whom you just don’t trust.


Be conservative in what you choose to reveal to new acquaintances. When I first left my group some 15 years ago, I found myself talking with complete strangers about the details of my cultic relationship. Literally in supermarkets! Unsurprisingly, this was far outside the experience of many people whom I spoke with. Perhaps making them uneasy. Perhaps driving away potential new friends who may have become intimates over time.

Earning trust is a matter of months and years. Not days and weeks.

Trust grows with time. You may not trust a new acquaintance today, but closeness can grow.

Everyone needs a variety of people in their lives to meet all our needs. No one person can share all our interests, have all our answers, be available all the time.

Not even our spouses.

Especially our spouses?

Too often former cult members seem to make one person the center of their lives after leaving. Most frequently their intimate partner. Perhaps this is a continuation of our habit of making our leader the center of our lives? Unfortunately this can lead to disappointment, resentment, anger, even estrangement when our partner can’t meet our impossibly high standards.

We are social animals.

Most of us need to feel easy with a variety of acquaintances. We need pleasant, but distant relationships with co-workers. We need casual, fun-time friends. And we need what I call “3-o’clock-in-the-morning” friends — people we rely on to answer the phone when we really need them in the middle of the night.

How many of us have a variety of friends in our lives? And how many of us know when we have “enough” friends?

What are you willing to do to fill this hole in your life?

Many of us are timid to reach out. Some of us carry great burdens of shame and guilt after cult involvement.

Client after client tells me that they can’t imagine what they have to offer other people. They suffer from such cult-induced, low self-esteem. Add to that the feeling of being a “stranger in a strange land” as we learn — as adults — to behave in and understand the foreign, real-world culture we are faced with after leaving the group.

Perhaps the cult-mindset lingers in us that outsiders are evil, not to be trusted, or won’t understand.

But the truth is, most of us feel alone. I know I do. Still. 15 years later.

To repeat: What are you willing to do to make friends?

Making friends later in life is work. It requires effort. Your effort. Others can’t do this for you. Being angry because the community around us doesn’t reach out to befriend us is not likely to get us what we want. In fact, it may make us feel even more isolated.

We will have to make the first move. And the second. And the third. Even with family!

What are some friend-hunting ideas? Joining hobby groups. Getting involved in local politics. Taking a college course. Playing Texas Hold ‘Em. Taking dance or martial arts lessons. The more interesting you and your passions are, the more interested others will be in you.

You might consider reading about learning to be sociable in such books as The Art of Mingling.”

And if reaching out to people in person is a hurdle we can’t cross at this time, online communities and forums may allow you to ease into intimacy before attempting it in 3D life.

But try to reach out to a wider community than fellow former group members. Or other cults for that matter.

Doing so can become a trap.

It’s too easy to allow cult orientation to remain the center of your life. To avoid this, balance out friendships with former cult members with people who share something with you, but not spiritual abuse.

Get some fresh perspectives and interests into your life.

Have you tried things that have been useful for you to reconnect with people after the cult? You might share them in the comments below.


  1. shekinahp, this is a wonderful article! Thank you so much for posting it. Its so full of uplifting and encouraging suggestions, I think it will need to be read many times in order to glean all the layers of wisdom from it.

    I don’t know about everyone else, but I did not shun my “outside” friends during the entire duration of my connection with MST. The internet and email is very useful for staying connected. And now, Facebook is just nothing short of phenomenal. I never asked permission to do stuff. I’ve always had the notion that it is much easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. That’s probably why I spent so much time in the principal’s office when I was a kid.

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