When speaking of "groups" you'll sometimes get a very personal question: can a family be a cult?
Under a broader view of cults - yes.
A family unit is capable of displaying many of the common signs and mechanisms of coercive control.
For people who struggle to break free from such families, leaving is one of the most difficult decisions they'll ever make.
Our hope is that the information on this page can offer support, guidance, and hope for anyone in such a situation.
Potential Models of Controlling Family
Using the word cult when speaking of families is understandably tricky.
In our experience, it's worth using the term here to describe how these groups use coercive control and undue influence to exert control over individuals. The label often helps victims understand and contextualize their experience, even though for many the term implies religious abuse.
It should be noted that many of the individuals who perpetuate coercive control and undue influence in families may be victims themselves.
Cycles of family abuse are often passed through generations, as are hereditary personality disorders that may affect how an individual process information and acts.
Common Symptoms of "Cult-Like" Families
Isolation from the outside world
Difficulty engaging in healthy relationships or developing friends
Blind spots in life skills
Mental health issues
Poor sense of self | self hatred
Lack of boundaries
Parentification of children
While this list is not exhaustive, it's a good place to start assessing your experience and discovering a path to recovery.
Narcissistic Family Cult
A narcissistic family cult usually involves a narcissistic parent on some level - although it's possible that the "cult leader" is a member of the extended family. This could be a grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, sibling, or other family member.
Narcissistic families are often characterized by an imbalance of power that favors an abuser, over-emphasis on family image or participation, and lack of space for members to develop their own identity or grow their own family.
In many cases, these families can be broken into distinct roles that each member plays in reaction to narcissistic abuse:
Narcissistic parent (Narcissistic mother | Narcissistic father)
Golden child | golden children
Research on understanding, contextualizing, dealing with, and recovering from narcissistic family members is ongoing.
If you believe that your family fits into this archetype, we recommend speaking to a therapist or trusted professional to help you learn more and find a path to recovery.
A familiar archetype of the narcissistic family cult is a "crime family" - although this is far from the only way a narcissistic family can exert coercive control on its members.
As noted in the section above, members are allocated roles within the narcissistic family unit. Victims may find that these abusers are also able to avoid detection as a covert narcissist.
The issue deepens as such families exert control over people in the outside world. Whether the motivation is financial, religious, political, or something else, crossing the head narcissist of such families is usually met with swift and decisive reaction.
If you find yourself involved in a crime family (whether intentionally or not), you may consider avenues for safe exit.
Polygamy | Polyamory Cults
Polygamy is when an individual has more than one husband or wife at the same time, and is currently illegal in many places. Despite this, some groups do still encourage or require their members to engage in polygamist relationships.
A more common (and legal) alternative to polygamy is polyamory. This is an arrangement where an individual engages in multiple intimate relationships (often romantic) simultaneously with the consent of all involved.
For many, both polygamy and polyamory are aberrant and a sign of "brainwashing" - but it's dangerous to use such broad strokes. Many societies throughout human history have encouraged, survived, and thrived with these family structures as legal alternatives to monogamy.
That said, it's worth mentioning that these arrangements do have the potential for abuse to occur - similar to a narcissistic family system.
The power dynamic within intimate relationships involving multiple adults can be difficult to manage, and pressure from within to create a "big happy family" can lead to unhealthy or coercive practices.
While this type of relationship can be successful, it requires clear communication, shared power, connection to the outside world, and room for each individual to self-actualize.
If these dynamics do not exist, it's entirely possible for polygamist and polyamorist families to present as mini cults.
Recovery For Family Members
If these issues sound familiar and you suspect that you may be part of a narcissistic family dynamic, it's worth exploring further.
If you find that your situation aligns with this type of coercion, you have our sympathy. You are not alone in your experience.
Removing oneself from the coercive environment is typically recommended, but family is an arena where estrangement isn't always possible.
Healthy or not, family ties and love are powerful, complicated things.
Honing your ability to understand reality, listen to your authentic self, and avoid coercive dynamics can help.
Learning how to navigate a narcissistic family, how to protect your true self, and the potential pitfalls of breaking free are all great starts.
You may also find that working with someone to create and map coercion on a genealogy chart (sometimes called a pedigree) can be helpful tool. If other family members can help you, all the better.
Talk to us!
Everyone's situation is unique.
If you are interested in resources, curious about intervention, or want to help spread cult awareness, get in touch!