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Cults, Controlling Relationships and Narcissism Part I: Common Threads

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

It's nearly Christmas and the experience of growing up in a high-control religious group is always on my mind this time of year. I was born into the Jehovah's Witness faith, as a third generation member. My Grandparents on both sides of my family converted into the faith in the early 1950s, and both of my parents were born into the religion. My nuclear and extended family are all quite active and devout in the religion, my younger sister left as a young adult, I followed a few years later after graduating from college. Jehovah's Witnesses practice shunning (both formal and informal), so my parents and siblings that remain in the religion have very little contact with my sister or me. My sister and I have come to terms with this, we have each other as well as strong circles of friends that have become our family. As a clinician I notice that there is a significant overlap between relationship dynamics in abusive marriages, high control religions, and any interpersonal relationships with narcissists. I believe that all of these scenarios can be described as high-control relationships. In this post I will explore the common threads and offer some tips and reading were you might find support if you can relate to these experiences.

There is an element of narcissism in abusive relationship dynamics as well as in high-control religions. Note: I speak of abusive or controlling marriages or romantic relationships, because this is an extremely common high-control relationship, however these same dynamics can occur in any interpersonal relationship. Abusive dynamics can occur with friends, siblings, parents, and employers and coworkers. In abusive interpersonal relationships as well as in high-control religions victims are expected to subsume their own will, goals, desires and needs to another individual or organization. The victim in both scenarios is also not allowed to determine their own boundaries. The controlling person or organization sets the victims boundaries, or decides what is and isn't ok for the victim. There is also usually evidence of in/out group dynamics, 'you're with us or against us' type of thinking. This can often be seen in the language that is used by high-control religions. In my years as a Jehovah's Witnesses I would often hear practitioners described as 'in the truth' and anyone outside of the group as 'worldly'. Members referred to each other as 'brother' and 'sister'. It sounds so Orwellian now, but prior to leaving it was just normal, I didn't think anything of it.

Rigid, or compartmentalized thinking is also a hallmark of controlling relationships. Rigidity of behavior, black and white thinking and adherence to a strict hierarchy are often common. As a kid growing up all of my clothes had to be ok'd by my dad. Nothing could be short, tight, or draw attention to me in any way, to do so was to be immodest. Similar dynamics can be seen in controlling relationships; my first spouse would watch the clock like a hawk, if I was home a few minutes late it was obvious that I was having an affair. On a related note, projected inadequacy and emotional blackmail are also common threads. The victim is never good enough, never does enough, is always lacking. The highly controlling individual or group is always raising the bar and withholding praise and affection. This emotional blackmail keeps the victim in a constant state of trying to be better and do more. The emotional debt can never be paid.

Attending religious events as a child, adolescent and young adult, I was constantly exhorted to sacrifice more time, more energy, more autonomy, particularly as a woman. The publishing arm of the organization printed literature prolifically, and members were expected to keep up with it. Simply reading the literature wasn't enough, it was to be studied and restudied. The bind that this presents is that the vast majority of people have jobs and families, and other demands on their time. It becomes impossible to keep up with the many demands, and failure to do so becomes evidence of lack of faith. Victims suffer in a constant state of: "I should be doing more, I hope that no one finds out that I don't do enough." Behavior becomes more centered on appearance, rather than reality, because the reality is impossible to achieve. As an active Witness I remember deliberately using a highlighter, rather than a pen, when I studied the literature, because the highlighter was more easily seen from a distance. I thought that one would question my faithfulness and worthiness if they could see that I had studied the literature. In my first marriage I never felt like I was a good enough mother, cook, homemaker, etc. I lived in a constant state of thinking that if I just worked hard enough, everything would be better.

If these dynamics are sounding familiar to you, please take a look at part 2 of this post where I detail some steps that might be helpful if you would like to reclaim your life as your own. Part 2 also contains additional books and resources that you might find helpful for healing. I am very interested in hearing others experiences, so if you can relate to this post, please feel free to share as much of your story and any sources of support that you are comfortable sharing. I am also listing some books and other resources that have helped me to better understand power dynamics, narcissism, and controlling behaviors.

The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer Ph.D. Available for free at This book describes common patterns of behavior and power dynamics found in high-control groups. Note: the website is a bit political, but the book and the research are not.

Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom by William Glasser M.D. This book describes common power dynamics in interpersonal relationships. I found this book extremely helpful for learning what I do and do not have control over. I list this book as a source of support in the second part of this post as well, because it's just that good.

Dr. Romani Durvasula hosts a series of talks on narcissism that is very interesting and informative:

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