How do you deal with family-in-law that's in a cult?
June 15, 2014 8:30 AM   Subscribe

Short version: my fiancé's family is involved in a cult. He left the cult while in college, but they don't know. Most people don't know, except me and a few other friends. He hasn't told his family that he left, and he says he never will. My question is, what do we do when/if they want us to be more involved in their lives, without either getting involved in the cult or letting it slip that we're not part of it?

"Don't rock the boat" is all well and good in most situations. People rarely come out and challenge your beliefs in day-to-day conversation. I'm looking for pointers dealing with awkward situations that might arise, e.g.:

-They want to babysit the kids when the kids are old enough to tell them "Mommy and Daddy say that's not true, it's just something people say to feel better"
-They want to visit, and possibly stay at our place, bringing along people from the cult that we're not comfortable having over ("But we're family, right?")
-They want us to attend some cult-related event
-They straight-up ask if we're doing some cult-related activity or hold some cult-related belief

I respect my fiancé's decision not to tell them, because there's no getting through to them or changing their minds. He's tried broaching counter-cultural ideas to a few close family members, with very bad results. They're not bad people, and they're not stupid either, but they believe that they know the truth, so apostasy doesn't make sense to them.

Are there any mefites out there who have had experiencing dealing with family members (or family-in-law members) that were/are in a cult? If so, how did you deal with it? Are they going to find out anyway, no matter what we do? What is the healthiest approach to these conflicts when they arise?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (43 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
They'll figure it out anyway, but also: don't expose any future kids to this level of tension and deception. My immediate family is made up of liberal, scientifically-oriented hippies, while my extended family is mostly creationists and missionaries. With everything on the up-and-up there were plenty of uncomfortable moments, but that was absolutely nothing compared to what it would have been like if I had known we were lying to them. If you're planning to have any contact with them long-term, I really think you're going to have to level with them (and probably make a we-don't-discuss-these-subjects list).
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:37 AM on June 15, 2014 [16 favorites]

Hmm, it would be helpful if we could start with what do you mean by "cult". What kind of cult are we talking about? I mean, is this the kind of cult that might theoretically go to illegal measures to get coerce your fiance to return to the fold? Or family members cut him (and you, by extension) off, which is upsetting but far less scary? Or just result in awkward conversations at holidays?
posted by arnicae at 8:38 AM on June 15, 2014 [15 favorites]

The answer to this question varies dramatically depending on whether by "cult" you mean something like Scientology, something like LDS, or something like a potentially dangerous Jim Jones style cult of personality.

I mean, this could run all the way from just teaching your kids religious tolerance to doing everything you can to ensure that your in-laws are never with the kids outside of your line of sight.
posted by 256 at 8:42 AM on June 15, 2014 [28 favorites]

I can't really see how this is going to work, assuming that you are planning to have kids. Is the idea that you're going to teach your kids from the earliest possible age to lie to their grandparents and other family members? How are you going to explain that to them? How are they going to feel if they slip up, reveal something they shouldn't, and cause massive family drama? Is that really how you want to raise your children?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:51 AM on June 15, 2014 [23 favorites]

I have a friend whose family are all JWs, but she left. She married a non-JW and had kids. Her parents of course were told to cut her off, but didn't. They would babysit for her, but babysitting meant showing JW videos to their granddaughter and talking about Jehovah. She ended up having to cut them off because when it came down to it, they wouldn't choose her over their beliefs. They wanted both, and would engage in all sorts of deceptive manipulative practices to try and get her back. If it really is a cult, then I'm sorry but I think at some point you just end up having to cut them off, usually after you have kids. You can try and draw a line about topics that aren't discussed, but I'm not optimistic about the chances when they realise they can use your kids to try and drag you in.
posted by Joh at 8:51 AM on June 15, 2014 [21 favorites]

Honestly, if your intentions really are to marry and have kids, your fiance is simply going to have to come clean with his family and let the pieces fall as they may. It's probably going to be ugly and difficult but, in the long run, it is going to make your lives (and those of your children) a hell of a lot easier. Otherwise, you're dooming yourselves to a lifetime of made-up excuses and uncomfortable avoidances and on and on.

If he doesn't come-out to his family now, there will be a confrontation somewhere down the line, and it's very likely going to be ugly and not at all on your terms. And you definitely don't want to have your kids in the middle of that.

Sorry. I wish I had better advice, but there's just no easy way to deal with this.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:54 AM on June 15, 2014 [11 favorites]

Yeah, we need a definition of cult. By my definition, I can't even conceive of how you hide the fact that you're not in one. Or how your fiancé was allowed to leave to go to college for that matter.

Lots of us have experience dealing with marriage and kids with extreme-but-still-widely-held religious beliefs among our in laws, but the issues are potentially different than hiding your identity which is what you seem to be alluding to.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:54 AM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

In other words, you would need to hide your identity entirely if you were to maintain a relationship with someone who values their own convictions over your identity. Do you want to spend your life doing this, really?

Yeah, you need to ask your fiancé to make a hard stand now and risk his family for your future, there's probably no in between. Maybe your fiances family will soften over time. Sometimes that happens when grandkids come along.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:59 AM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can't see how being deceptive about your identity can have any outcome but a bad one.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:02 AM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

*You are not required to accept babysitting from anyone who volunteers to do so. Tell them thanks, but you already have the babysitting taken care of.
*You are not required to invite anyone to stay overnight in your home, especially if they self-invite or invite additional people to your home. Tell them no, here's the local hotel info; or no, you don't have room; or no, we don't have time now to entertain visitors.
*You are not required to attend events just because you were invited. Tell them no thanks, we're busy; or no thanks, we're not interested.
*You are not required to tell nosy people what you are or have been doing, or where you've been or are going. Tell them that's private information, and change the subject; if they keep asking, leave.

This'll turn out best if you do not live within convienent traveling distance; for instance, you will want to live at minimum a day or two's drive away. If you visit them, do not stay in their home: stay in a hotel. If they visit you, they stay in a hotel.

Also, yeah: at some point, he really should tell them he's left the organization, and that he does not want to discuss it --- and if they still bring it up, say goodbye and hang up the phone/leave the room or restaurant and go home. He should tell them firmly that it is not up for discussion, then follow through: when they bring it up anyway (because they will!), he doesn't discuss it, he shuts down the conversation every single time and literally walks away.
posted by easily confused at 9:04 AM on June 15, 2014 [23 favorites]

In other words, you would need to hide your identity entirely if you were to maintain a relationship with someone who values their own convictions over your identity. Do you want to spend your life doing this, really?

Yeah, you need to ask your fiancé to make a hard stand now and risk his family for your future, there's probably no in between.

QFT. If you want to have a successful marriage and a happy family, your fiance is going to have to tell his family the truth. Otherwise, it's going to create an untenable situation unless he cuts himself off from his family completely. If you continue to be in touch with his family, the truth will out sooner or later. That will no doubt cause a huge amount of drama that will be bad for your own family. Not to mention, if you have kids and teach them to lie to their father's family - what sort of lesson is that teaching the kids about the value of honesty? You can't teach kids to lie like rugs to some people, and then be shocked - shocked! that they start lying to YOU, to teachers, to friends, because you have taught them that lying is OK.

Why does your fiance want to lie to his family? Is he financially or emotionally dependent on them? That is bad news for your future marriage. If he's dependent, I would really reconsider marrying him unless and until he cuts the apron strings. If it's just that he hates confrontation and doesn't want to hurt his family's feelings, I would show him that you had his back and that you are ready to create your own family with him, and yes, confrontation will suck and hurt but you are there for him.

tl;dr: your fiance really needs to channel his inner Davos Seaworth and tell his family the truth. No way can you build a happy marriage and family on a tissue of lies.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:11 AM on June 15, 2014 [19 favorites]

I mean this with as much compassion as I can muster: your fiancé is not really out of the cult.

He is able to dissent from it at an intellectual level, but is not able to live as though he has the power to dissent openly. The cult still has, in his mind and perhaps in reality, a great deal of power over him to punish his dissent if he voices it. I guarantee you there are people inside of the cult about whom the exact same things could be said: living in intellectual dissent but outward compliance with the cult's beliefs and rules.

One of the things that distinguishes a cult from a religion is the degree of openness it shows to outsiders. The cults that my friends have been in were very interested in presenting a particular face to outsiders while living a different way on the inside. It takes a lot of discipline to do this, and I'd guess your fiancé has internalized just this in-group/out-group behavior. He's applying it to the cult, presenting a particular face toward them, but it's precisely the sort of deception and compartmentalization that a cult fosters.

I mean this with great compassion; I think these are things he learned and came by honestly, possibly things that were beaten into him. But it suggests to me that he has not really processed, at an emotional level, what it means to break from the cult, because he is not living that break openly, with integrity, as a whole person who is honest about his choices and his beliefs. This strikes me as something you should be wary of, and that he should be wary of if he truly wishes to avoid replicating the cult or re-joining it. There are therapists that specialize in helping people overcome these things, and I would strongly encourage him to seek one of them out if I were you.
posted by gauche at 9:17 AM on June 15, 2014 [84 favorites]

Are there any mefites out there who have had experiencing dealing with family members (or family-in-law members) that were/are in a cult? If so, how did you deal with it?

Easy, don't plan to marry people who are in a cult or related to members of a cult, whatever it is.

Are they going to find out anyway, no matter what we do?

Unless you're actively doing cult activities, then yes, they're going to find out eventually. They will question your children, at the very least, to confirm your activities.

What is the healthiest approach to these conflicts when they arise?

The healthiest approach is to not associate with people in a cult, especially if they're family members.

Why? Because their cult beliefs will always override the familial bonds. They'll use and manipulate those emotional heartstrings under a the guise "we just care about you" or "this is for your own good".

There's exactly one relationship family members should be having with each other: As long as you're not hurting other people, they're happy and ok with what you're doing and aren't trying to change you. That's it, there is nothing better.

Cult people don't do that. They'll never, ever do that. You'll be spending your life constantly trying to hide parts of yourself to make them happy and for what? Not a goddamn good reason. Do you really want to have the sort of the life where you're worried about grandparents babysitting your kids? That's supposed to be one of the good things, where your parents take the kids for a few hours or few days and you and your spouse have a bit of quiet time together.

Think about this. You're not only willingly signing yourself up for a life of ongoing deception, tension and conflict, but you're also signing your children up for that shit. There's no reason to do that. If your fiance can't cut them off (i.e. he's still in the cult in some way), there's zero reason for you to stick around. No dick is that magical. Make the choice to be happy and walk away from this.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:24 AM on June 15, 2014 [18 favorites]

You're not only willingly signing yourself up for a life of ongoing deception, tension and conflict, but you're also signing your children up for that shit.

Yeah, this. Part of what you, and your fiancé, should consider is that this life of deception, tension, and conflict is, quite probably, exactly what your fiancé himself had to experience growing up in the cult, and without a clean, open break, this is how he will replicate it in his children.
posted by gauche at 9:30 AM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

OP, with respect...

This is a little frightening when I consider the wellbeing of yourselves and any future children.

Your fiancé has one foot in childhood, one foot in adolescence. Do NOT have children with this person while this issue is unresolved. Children deserve stable environments. What you describe is WILDLY unstable, even if the inlaws live a few thousand miles away.

Marry your fiancé when he is adult enough to accept the consequences of his choices.

You can not have it both ways. Lying (even to outsiders) is a poor foundation for a marriage.

I think you are asking the wrong questions!!

Maybe you can update the thread with the name & nature of this cult, the ages and locations of the people involved, and whether you are at all financially dependent on these inlaws? Thanks.

In general, you should not marry into this type if situation. The person you are marrying owes it to himself, you, and any future children to resolve this BEFORE committing to marriage.

He might need therapy. Most people who leave cults do.

He also likely has heaps of unexamined beliefs he picked up throughout childhood that will not serve him well, he needs to untangle all of that, too.

I hope you can update and the thread shifts into something more concrete that will help you navigate your next steps.

The plan you guys are contemplating as it is now will fall apart fairly quickly when pushback from the inlaws OR from within your fiance's internal landscape rears up to wreck this house of cards built on quicksand.

Apply more insight before proceeding, if nothing else.
posted by jbenben at 9:37 AM on June 15, 2014 [13 favorites]

Your question sounds like you could be my brother's fiancée. If so, welcome, future sister-in-law.

There is a wide, wide range of religions that have been called cults.

If you think your fiance's family is actually on the verge of doing something like selling all their possessions, stockpiling weapons, moving to a compound, kidnapping your fiancé and you and dragging you to the compound, and heading toward a murder-suicide situation, you should run away screaming cult! cult! cult!

But that doesn't seem to be your issue. Your concerns sound like run-of-the-mill interfaith family issues, except that you've peppered your description with the word cult. The word cult is extreme, and if you're using it to apply to a religion that isn't doing Jim Jones / David Koresh level stuff, it's insulting to be equated with that. The word "cult" shuts down interfaith dialogue.

May I suggest that you use search terms like "interfaith." Look for resources for Jews who marry and raise children with Catholics, Episcopalians letting their parents know they are atheist, and so on. Treat fiance's family with the same respect, and using the same sorts of boundaries, that you would any religious people.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 9:45 AM on June 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

Honestly, I'm not sure it entirely matters whether the group in question is a cult or not. I mean, it does, but there's still a problem even if it's a totally normal religion or political organization. The issue is with signing on for a lifetime of lying and teaching your kids to lie. I don't think it's a good idea to sign on to lie about being a Methodist, either.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:48 AM on June 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

Having been through something similar with a sibling who joined a faith that some call a cult, and dealing with the tension and shakeups that resulted in a new relationship forming that was ultimately healthy... this is absolutely an area where honesty and candor pay off.

Ultimately, your fiance needs to tell his family that he's not a member anymore, and together you need to set boundaries to address the inevitable onslaught of witnessing and interventions, and set the groundwork for being able to say 'Please don't bring X to our home with you, he makes us uncomfortable' and 'We don't want your babysitting services because we don't want our child getting cult teachings'. Your constant retreat can be to "we want to have a relationship with you, but only within boundaries we set, and if you don't respect those boundaries, we won't have a relationship."

This is ultimately what worked for my sibling--letting my grandmother exhaust herself, not responding or engaging, until my grandmother was faced with a choice between her grand-daughter and her behaviour (NOTE: not her faith, her behaviour. Millions of people of different, even conflicting, faiths, get along smoothly, and it comes down to deciding to get along).

It sounds like his family will need to learn that lesson, and you'll need to teach it to them by being firm about your boundaries. You leave particular doors open and close others. You invite them to use the open doors, and you don't compromise on the closed ones. It'll take a while, but this way is vastly better than doing some "change the subject if they ask if I still believe!" dance.
posted by fatbird at 9:49 AM on June 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

I respect my fiancé's decision not to tell them, because there's no getting through to them or changing their minds. He's tried broaching counter-cultural ideas to a few close family members, with very bad results.

He doesn't need to change anyone's mind or expand anyone's understanding. He just needs to make clear that he's no longer participating in the cult, and that it is not open for discussion. When people try to discuss it with him, he needs to remind them that the topic is not open for discussion, and then leave/hang up/walk away if people persist. Every time.

When Dan Savage gives advice to adults concerned about coming out to their parents, he often says that the primary leverage adult children have is their presence in their parents' lives. If they cannot accept you for who you are (e.g., gay, trans*, not in a cult, etc.), and behave in a civil and caring manner, they don't get to be a part of your life.

To answer your last question: What is the healthiest approach to these conflicts when they arise?

If these kinds of conflicts arise, it is a huge red flag that the situation is not healthy. Lying and hiding who you are is not healthy. Your fiance needs to be honest about leaving the cult. He needs to be prepared to cut off contact with people (even family! even parents!) who are bullying, manipulative, or aggressive about not being in the cult.

And I'd encourage you to think about why you would be willing to accept this kind of life for yourself and your future children. And what it says about the character of a person who would ask you to do so.
posted by jeoc at 9:55 AM on June 15, 2014 [23 favorites]

I respect my fiancé's decision not to tell them, because there's no getting through to them or changing their minds.

Telling someone you're no longer the same faith as them is not the same as trying to get someone to change their mind. Your fiancé is a grownup. If his family has an issue with his no longer being a member of their faith, they can choose not to see him. They can't force him back in.

It's also not appropriate of him to ask you to keep silent. Be honest and upfront. If his family has an issue with it, what can they do, not invite you to services or dinner? You can be courteous and when discussions come up, remind them that you and your husband don't share those beliefs and if anyone is insistent, you leave.

You can be firm without being confrontational and you need to be able to stand up for yourself and your children.
posted by shoesietart at 10:06 AM on June 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

On preview, what jeoc said.

Don't be a coward in your own life. Change is scary but maintaining a false face is no way to live. Do you really want to pretend to be a cult member for the rest of your life? Tell the truth and move on. Free yourself to live and create the life you want for you and your children, which may not include his side of the family. And that's OK. Also, you might be a beacon to others who also want to leave.
posted by shoesietart at 10:12 AM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm one of those "why rock the boat when you don't have to?" kind of people and I am now 20 years down this road, more or less, with my own parents. In our case it is not discussing past abuse in a religious (and family) context. My kids are 8 and 3. Nothing horrible has happened.

However I am seeing more and more that the life energy I spend in navigating around basic family truths costs me and my immediate family. It has affected almost every family holiday. My spouse (that would be future-you) has had to deal with my emotional state every time. My kids don't know what it is to have, say, an Easter dinner with my parents without tension before and during and after. This all got remarkably harder after my kids bonded with them. I would have a hard time if this involved teaching my kids to lie which it sort of sounds like you might have to do if you are maintaining that level of fiction.

In return yes, I have maintained a relationship with people I love and care about and certain kinds of support have been available, like showing up at the hospital. Other kinds, like them really knowing who I am or being there to babysit, have not. That leaves little toxic puddles on the landscape. My therapist counselled me to think about cutting contact a long time ago and I felt -- still kind of feel -- that it wasn't necessary. But now I see why she was so clear about it.

All of which is to say, I think this might be worth a few joint counselling sessions with your fiance to access the experience of someone who's seen people grapple with these issues. Feel free to memail me if you want more specific examples.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:12 AM on June 15, 2014 [10 favorites]

I think that if the very bad results are very bad, you need to consider cutting off contact with the parents. If what is going to happen is there will be really ugly yelling at every meet-up, constant mean/scary remarks, harassment by phone or letter, or worse - and your fiancee has a realistic sense that this is what is going to happen - then what I would do is figure out a way to broach the "we are not in this organization any more and don't want to debate it" thing and be willing to cut off contact immediately if things go sideways. In fact, if you think it's going to be bad enough, you probably want to time this in such a way that the parents don't have a way to find you, or a way to reach you by phone.

I'm familiar with compromising on very big parts of my identity in order to keep certain kinds of peace. It does take a toll, but sometimes you decide that it's worthwhile. Sometimes the best option for you really is to keep the peace, even if that's not a choice other people make. If what's going on is that your boyfriend is afraid that the parents will cut him off - if there's unavoidable financial dependency in the short term, for example, or if one parent is seriously ill - and there's not a lot of threat of yelling/stalking/violence, maybe keeping the peace is worthwhile at least in the medium term. If you can live far from the parents and avoid having them visit you, for instance, you might be able to pull this off - reduce contact, be busy, etc.

But if I were your boyfriend, I would go to therapy (yes, we all recommend therapy!) to sort out just why he feels he has to preserve this relationship. A good therapist will be able to help him decide whether it's worthwhile and/or support him while he breaks it off. I think it's very easy to feel that Large Amounts of Lying are normal if you grew up in an environment where making trouble was not allowed. Large Amounts of Lying are not normal. Sometimes you decide that you have to do them for real genuine reasons, but it's important to keep your head right about that fact, and to only do it if the reasons are real enough and important enough and the cost is not too high.
posted by Frowner at 10:29 AM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

His choice to keep the fact that he's left the cult essentially a secret would make me very nervous. I'd consider his inability to tell the truth to his family a risk to my future family. And, it will make it very hard for him to take a firm stand against babysitting, participating in cult events, and visits from other cult members. I'd also consider it an unnecessary risk to the well-being of my future kids. At what age will they have to lie? What sorts of compromises will I be asked to make with the kids in order to preserve the illusion of husband still being in the cult?

He is not as far out of the cult and its influence as he thinks he is if the thinks that this is a reasonable approach.
posted by quince at 10:57 AM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Apostasy doesn't need to make sense to them. None of it needs to be something they are okay with. The thing about adulthood is that your family no longer needs to find your choices acceptable. That doesn't mean you have to invite unnecessary conflict, but I think the coming-out-as-gay metaphor seems to be a good one. Ordinarily? No reason to tell people stuff that's just going to create drama and isn't going to improve your life any. But once you reach the point where you have a committed partner and are planning to have children, you have passed the point where this is a secret you can reasonably keep without cutting off contact entirely. At that point, you don't need to convince anyone that your life is okay, you just need them to be aware of what it actually is. You then make these decisions about things like trips and letting your kids stay with them depending on how they've taken the news.

If he's just nervous about doing it, I think that's fine. If he's firm on the "never", and I say this as someone with family members I may well never come out to, then I would not under any circumstances have children with this person. But I think maybe he's just not thought things through very well. Hell, even if we're being the most generous possible and your mutual idea of "cult" is just moderately conservative evangelical Christians, then it is going to be obvious within about two minutes that you are not raising your kids in the church, and forget babysitting. Religious groups, coercive and otherwise, have shared language and habits that you don't have, that your kids won't have. Somebody, at some point, will ask your child a question about some equivalent of Sunday school that they can't answer. And that's assuming that the two of you can actually get married without marking yourselves at the least as Inssuficiently Faithful, which seems... improbable.
posted by Sequence at 11:02 AM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

To me this all depends on what we're really talking about.

I mean, are we talking about the kind of cult where terrible illegal things are going on and your fiance is at constant risk? In that case, the answer is for him to cut off his family and for you guys to never ever have them in your lives or the lives of your children, under any circumstances.

Or are we talking about the kind of cult that amounts to "religion/lifestyle people think is weird"?

I mean, if there is real danger here, the choice is clear. They, and by extension the cult, can't be in your lives, period.

If there is not real danger here, it's the same as any family where people don't see eye to eye on anything. You just have to be open and agree to disagree and become very good at changing the subject.

I grew up in a family that is about 50/50 liberal secular types vs. right-wing bible thumpers. You just learn to live with not everybody being in lockstep on every issue, and having certain things that aren't good dinner table conversation. My parents kept me pretty insulated from the crazy, to the point that I'm still putting two and two together about some of my beloved family members' toxic political beliefs. I think that's about the best possible compromise: I wasn't aware of the deep ideological rifts, I had my grandparents in my life, and they left it to me to negotiate what it means to love someone who has very different priorities from you.

But, again, none of that is really going to be possible if your fiance's parents are in an actual honest to god dangerous cult, as opposed to being Scientologists or Moonies or something.
posted by Sara C. at 11:14 AM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

You need to get to the point where his family are dealing with the fact that he's out, and getting over it. Don't leave that debt in your future. This could be a minor issue, or it might take years to work through. The sooner you start, the sooner your children might be able to salvage some sort of honest relationship with their extended family.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:56 AM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

The definition of cult is important.

I was spiritually abused outside of any organized religion (mostly my dad worn wierd beliefs that I won't get into). It seeps into your brain and takes years to untangle. This is not something he will resolve in a year or two or three. It is a lifetime of self awareness and noticing when beliefs don't line up because in childhood all the stuff wad normalized to stuck a degree that it is hard to see how pervasive it can be without some sort of contradiction.

That being said, this is a hard choice (share nor to share and the consequences of both) and no one here knows the consqeuences of either choice.

The fear of reelection and actual rejection is very powerful.

I think it is possible but you do have to prepare and expect intense emotional fallout at any time.

Good luck.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:01 PM on June 15, 2014

Also he had been likely taught for years about the fallout and what leaving spiritually means.(death of soul, afterlife consequences, isolation, lack of ability to be happy) and I would not be surprised if that plays a role in the not going to tell.

Some people I know have taken some religious things very seriously and told people and acted like so-and-so was dead and mourned his death in his spiritual community. It is treated like a real death with actual morning involved not some acting tearful thing. It can also bring great shame within the community for the parents of the wayward child. For example so and so's parents weren't godly enough or whatever. Your fiancé may be thinking these things in his mind and unable to communicate it.

Of course as I don't know you this is pure speculation and based off my religious non cult experiences.

Sorry for all the typos. On my phone.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:09 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the purposes of my answer I'm assuming this cult is something like Scientology.

No, you cannot raise children with the expectation that they will pretend to belong to an organised religion/cult and lie to their grandparents and other family members about it. That is not a thing that can happen.

If your partner is independent and mature enough to be a father, he needs to also be mature and independent enough to stand apart from his parents, secure in his own identity and adulthood. Furthermore, he needs to put the emotional and developmental needs of his kid)s) first and not fuck them up for life to make his relationship with his own parents easier.

Welcome to adulthood: it's hard and often sucks.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:24 PM on June 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

I know what you're talking about. I left the church / cult I was raised in when I was a young adult. The conversation is scary, terrifying, difficult. The thing about cults or super-intense immersive religions is that they are everything to the followers -- not just religious dogma but friends, education, socialization, world view and, in my case, right down to the food that you put into your mouth.

Your fiance needs to have that conversation. I found this website a few months ago; I wish there had been such a resource ten years ago.

The conversation will serve to shift the location of the pretense. Instead of you, your fiance and your future kids acting like he didn't leave, his family is going to pretend he didn't leave as a way to minimize his decision and try to keep him inside.

My experience has been that . . . this is just the way my cards were dealt with when I was born. It's how I was raised, how I chose to live differently as an adult and how I just factually have a parent who is still mostly in denial after 10+ years of me not pretending. It was liberating when I left the church, but it felt like I grew wings and flew when I stopped pretending, started saying "NO" to invitations to the functions and stopped having conversations about how I'm wrong, why I left and why it would be so much better if I went back.

Your fiance needs to have the conversation to be a truly liberated adult before you marry him. You're going to bear the blame from his family. But do it now or suffer through what -- a fake hybrid wedding that satisfies his family but means nothing to you? Complicated holidays tiptoeing around and pretending you went to services across town?

So, to answer your question -- what do you do without getting involved or letting it show that you're not involved? You: (1) drink the Kool-Aid; (2) don't drink the Kool-Aid, but lie about how great it is and carry fake Kool-Aid everywhere all the time for a fake Kool-Aid mustache in case you run into an in-law at the grocery store; or (3) say that thanks, but you don't drink the Kool-Aid anymore, and that's all there is to say about that.
posted by mibo at 1:10 PM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you think the way this can possibly work is that he keeps up the charade for life, you have kids, his family stays under the impression that you're all in the cult when you're really not, and there are no detrimental side effects on your marriage or your kids ... then I'm sorry, but that seems pretty naive.

You can assume his family is smarter and more perceptive than you're giving them credit for. You can assume your kids will be very smart and perceptive. Sooner or later, they're all going to figure everything out. And the later they figure it out, the more betrayed they're likely to feel.

You seem to be contemplating the idea of entering into a marriage founded on elaborate deception, under circumstances that are predictably going to lead to a traumatic blowup down the road. Can you really not do any better than that?

Tell him he needs to be an adult. An adult doesn't carry around lifelong fear of the opinions of family members. An adult communicates directly and honestly with loved ones, even if the conversation might be a little awkward. If he's unwilling to be an adult, maybe he's not ready to get married and have kids.

Or maybe, as other commenters have pointed out, he's not being entirely accurate when he tells you he's out of the cult. What's the difference between a member of a cult, and someone who goes through life acting like a member of the cult whenever he's around members of the cult? The difference would seem to be a pretty subtle one.

As others have suggested, it would be a bad idea to raise your kids in an environment that's based on lying to family members. Kids will internalize that fundamental principle: this is how you get by in life — by deceiving your family. They may apply this in ways you hadn't intended. Think about it.
posted by John Cohen at 2:17 PM on June 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

+1 Fatbird.

This is a problem of setting clear boundaries. Your fiancé is unwilling to inform his family that there are any boundaries in the first place. You can't set boundaries when the parties on both sides of that boundary aren't acknowledging/aware that boundaries exist. Something's gotta give.
posted by adamrice at 5:29 PM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, sorry, this plan won't work. It won't work because the logistics are impossible, but more importantly, because your fiancé isn't ready to be a reliable husband to you, because he is unwilling to stand up to his parents on this totally, 100% fundamental thing.

He doesn't have to try to change their mind. Nobody's going to change their mind. What he needs to do, and to be ABLE to do, is stand up and tell his parents that he's an adult and that his life, and his family's life, is Out Of The Cult. If he can't or won't, that means his loyalties and his maturity level are just not where they need to be to start a new life in a primary partnership. Doesn't mean you can't marry him -- just not yet, not until he comes around on this. I'd give it a deadline of six months, and consider using professional help. I believe there are therapists that help with cult deprogramming and its ramifications.

Good luck, this must be very hard for you and for him too. But believe me, you really really don't want to become a wife to a man who's more afraid of his parents than he is invested in living an honest life.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:49 PM on June 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

Your fiance's plan to never tell works until you get married, and then completely breaks down once you have kids. At that point, protecting your children is infinitely more important than his relationship with his family. I couldn't even consider letting a child be in the same house as a cult member, let alone a crazed relative who might decide they need to "save" their nephew/grandchild/etc.

I don't think you should have children or even go through with the wedding until he cuts ties with his family. Yes, that is explicitly asking him to choose you over his parents. Anyone who can't do that has no business getting married.
posted by spaltavian at 6:47 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

As others have noted, this 'plan' is doomed to failure, and the fact that both you and your fiance believe that it's viable speaks very loudly to your lack of maturity and your naïveté about how families interact.

You can't live a lie.

Your boyfriend needs to be man enough to tell his family the truth about who he is, not because he needs to live in truth (although that's not a terrible thing) but to demonstrate that he is autonomous and standing on his own two feet. You can't marry a man who won't tell the fundamental truth about himself to his family.

By not renunciating the cult and by not being honest with his family, he is as emired in that belief system as a true believer.

Also, there's something about the way you define 'cult' that makes me think that you're talking about mainstream religion, and that you two are athiests. If that's the case, then I think you may need to reframe your thinking on this.

Go to couples/premarital counseling, because as it stands now, this is doomed to unhappiness and failure.

When you marry, you intermingle families. So these 'cult-members' will also be family members.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:07 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Forget future kids that don't even exist yet - what about you? How will you handle it when these people start trying to bring you into the fold? Especially if your fiancé may not be willing to stand up for you against them?
posted by cadge at 8:06 AM on June 16, 2014

I think it's really important to be clear on whether this is a "cult", as in, scary group of people who actually practice unhealthy practices, or a church that's a little bit weird.

The advice for the former is to break all ties, change your name, etc. The advice for the latter is not to sweat it too much. Kids are pretty good at not mentioning that stuff if you give them a heads up that "Grandpa and Grandma have a different religion than we do. Just nod and smile."
posted by corb at 8:17 AM on June 16, 2014

Bottom line: you (and your SO) cannot have your cake and eat it too.


1) Spend the rest of your life lying, forcing your children to lie, and eventually being caught out in the deception, with ugly consequences for all involved.

2) Your SO screws his courage to the sticking place, tells 'em he's out, and that if they cannot accept that (and the conversational/behavioural boundaries that must go along with that acceptance), then they have lost him in their life. If they claim to accept these facts, they need to be informed that one--as in one, with no rationalizations or excuses--step over the line and they have lost him and any putative grandchildren from their lives permanently.

Not an option: do not marry this man, let alone have children with him, until these issues are fully resolved.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:22 AM on June 16, 2014

Crap, forgot to add: by buying into this 'not telling' nonsense, you're letting this cult control you.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:22 AM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Kids are pretty good at not mentioning that stuff if you give them a heads up that "Grandpa and Grandma have a different religion than we do. Just nod and smile."
I think that's true about some things but not about others. If it's just a matter of not mentioning that you don't believe in God, then that's probably not a huge deal, unless it's something that you talk about a lot. But if they're going to have to pretend that your family goes to church regularly, for instance, then that's a bigger issue.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:39 AM on June 16, 2014

Kids are pretty good at not mentioning that stuff if you give them a heads up that "Grandpa and Grandma have a different religion than we do. Just nod and smile."

That only works sometimes. The more off-piste the religion, the harder it is to disguise non-conformity. God is a fairly generic concept; Xenu, less so.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:02 PM on June 16, 2014

My question is, what do we do when/if they want us to be more involved in their lives, without either getting involved in the cult or letting it slip that we're not part of it?

As many others have said, the answer really depends on what is your definiton of a cult. What strikes me, is that you do not mention the wedding.

As a former member of a fundamentalist Christian church, which met many of the standard criteria of a cult, and which my family (who were not members) definitely labelled a cult, I would think that the immediate question right now is not future children but the wedding.

You are engaged, but have you met your future in-laws? Do they approve of you and his engagement to you?
I ask because many cults or cult-like groups closely govern and/or restrict choice of spouse, members may only marry members and permission of leadership to marry is required.

Once you meet, I would expect them to try and establish whether you are a member of the cult yourself most likely by direct questions of how and where you were saved if this is some sort of christian fundamentalist group, and if you prove not to be saved, put pressure on him to leave you.

I assume you have not met them yet, and he has not told them about you.

So if your fiance has not told anyone, do you plan to marry without his family, keeping it secret from them?
In this case all the rest of the questions answer themselves: once they find out they will likely expell him or shun him, simply for marrying you, a non-member.

best of luck,
posted by 15L06 at 2:46 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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