This is part two of a two part blog. Part two explore ideas about starting new friendships after loss. It looks at how healthy relationships form and offers ideas for determining trustworthiness and compatibility. Part one explored the nature of friendships in healthy and unhealthy communities.
Normally trust takes time to develop. But, in spiritually abusive situations relationships form in unhealthy ways. Group teachings rush people through natural processes in relationship formation. Here is an example from my own life. When I was 12, some new people of our same religion moved into our town. Shortly after moving there, they were taking a trip to Canada and did not want their child to be on the trip alone, and asked my parents if I could go as a companion for their child. My parents said yes, and off I went for two weeks into a foreign country, with people my family barely knew.
My parents knew little about this family. They knew that they were members of the faith, and that was enough. Fortunately for me, the trip turned out to be an adventure that I remember with fondness. In retrospect, the act of trust should have grown over a significant amount of time as my parents interacted with and observed the other family. Their child and I should have spent small amounts of time at each other’s home to see if we even got along. Over time small risks and conversations would have revealed whether or not trust was warranted. Observation would reveal information about the family’s honesty, how they drove (obeying traffic laws or not), and how they handled it when their child made a mistake. Time would have showed my parents whether or not there was risk involved with me going as a companion. Their personal discernment was weakened by all the teachings of the religion.
A false sense of safety leads to unearned trust. This can set up a haven for pedophiles and abusers. At a minimum, member’s choices of associates are restricted and people are encouraged to build relationships primarily on the basis of faith affiliation.
For people who have exited spiritually abusive groups, starting new relationships may feel overwhelming. Aside from feeling betrayed and going through grief and loss, one must go against years of training and make friends with people on the outside (the same people that may have previously been labeled as wicked sinners, destined for destruction). Discerning who to invite into your life will take time and risk. Two elements to consider are compatibility and trustworthiness. They are key to healthy relationships.
Previously relationship choices were limited to people in the group, and people in the group who were most active and most compliant with group norms. These people may or may have not had much in common other than beliefs and activities. There may have been tension and dislike that was overlooked for the sake of keeping the peace, but outside of group expectations, the people would not have willingly chosen to interact. Compatibility is about much more than common belief or activities. Compatibility is enjoying each other’s personalities, having similar interests, and ease of getting along. Compatibility results in increased joy and feelings of safety. Compatibility involves intellect, humor, and shared interests. Compatibility is when people click and naturally get each other’s person, but it also involves willingness to grow together, forgive, and accept each other.
Compatibility cannot be a replacement for trust. Trust is the basis for meaningful, lasting relationships. Here are some indicators of trustworthiness:
Trust also comes when you are able to express your needs and wants and the person respects those boundaries. If you say, “I am not ready to talk about that,” how does the other person respond? If they try to get you to disclose it anyway, they are not respecting you. No one should belittle you for your history, tease you for what you believe or do not believe, or shame you for anything you need to make you feel safe.
Trust and compatibility contribute to relationship formation. But relationships come in many types. Some relationships last a life time. Some relationships last for a short period of time. Some relationships are shallow and others are deep. Some people help us think and others help us play. Some may mentor us, and we may mentor some. Relationships change over time. We may drift away or outgrow a relationship. Sometimes the only self-respecting thing to do is to let go. With time and discernment we can replace what was lost with relationships that have integrity and meaning.
[i] Sharing a story is something women tend to do more than men. Men may offer advice to show their care. This would not be a problem unless the person expects or pressures you to follow the advice.
This is part one of a two part blog. Part one explores the nature of friendships in healthy and unhealthy communities. Part two will explore ideas about starting new friendships after loss.
In spiritually healthy groups, there can be a sense of camaraderie and belonging that may lead to the formation of friendships, however the individuals involved have choice about who they want to be friends with and are not pressured to give up old companions. A person in a healthy group will be able to get to know the other person and decide what level to incorporate them into their life. They will use caution and may only welcome someone into their home after observing their behavior and discerning their trustworthiness. They can listen to their gut, and if their internal alarm issues a warning, they can limit their involvement with the other person. They are also free to choose companions based on personal compatibility.
In a spiritually abusive group, relationships are developed in an artificial way. Many of the safety mechanisms described above are bypassed due to teachings about the group. Strangers are welcomed in, and fully immersed into the group, and outsiders are usually viewed with suspicion. The group may make comments like “We have the true brotherhood. You can trust the people you meet here and not worry that they will harm you. It is because we have the spirit of God.” At the same time, they may be saying things like, “Unbelievers follow the devil and live in sin.” Rather than using his or her own discernment, the individual is taught to accept anyone who is in the group, and reject anyone who has left or has never joined the group.
This is because in spiritually abusive situations, there is an agenda behind the “love” that is offered. Members are subtly (and boldly) encouraged to embrace all insiders and reject all outsiders. Thus, once the person is in the group, all of their social needs are expected to be met through the group, and only the group.
Think about how the wording impacts the individual:
No discernment based on an individual’s merit or behavior is allowed. If a group member errs, questions, or somehow steps out of line, he or she can quickly be excluded from the group. He or she can go from being called beloved and faithful, to being labeled apostate or unrepentant.
Being labeled or excluded is extremely destructive. Having family or friends suddenly separate themselves from you, is shocking and hurtful. It can make you wonder if they ever loved you at all. In one moment, or because of one action, a person can lose their community and their reputation. He or she can offer no defense to this kind of attack. The level of betrayal is like no other.
It is impossible to predict the pain and the betrayal you may feel over being outside of the group. If you are excluded due to a “sin” it is difficult to understand why no mercy was shown. If you are excluded for having a new opinion or asking questions, it feels disrespectful. You character may be attacked and your history of fine works be dismissed.
When you come to the understanding that others have choices about how to treat you, and that they choose to exclude, gossip about, or judge you, it can make you to feel like you can never trust anyone again. The agenda becomes clear; conform or be cast off. But remember, the people who exclude you have made their choice. For example, they could listen to your questions and what you have learned from study, observation, or prayer. When they don’t, and act like you never existed, it is also a choice. If you erred, and are repentant, they should be able to see it, but when they do not, and they want something more, it is a choice. They chose judgment and not love. In essence, whatever reason is given, the truth is they abandoned you in your time of need.
How do you get over the grief and loss? How do you begin to trust again?
To get over this kind of heartache, and systematic abuse, it is important to acknowledge it. Do not judge yourself for your feelings or otherwise downplay the hurt. It is important to get support from someone who can listen and try to understand. A therapist may be able to help you process grief and loss. Ex members of the group may be able to relate to what you are going through and provide validation that your feelings are normal, and that an injustice has occurred.
If you have recently experienced loss, you are vulnerable to exploitation. There are people out there who may try to convert you to a new group by discrediting the old group and recommending their group. It is wise to give yourself time and the freedom to not commit to a major life decision while still dealing with loss and abandonment. There are also people who may want to take advantage of your innocence in order to “corrupt” you a bit. It is important to use your voice and say no to anything that you are not ready or able to consent to doing. Consent is freely given, and requires the absence of any coercion or shaming. Use caution because even if the person means well, it might not be the right choice for you.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1(800) 273-8255