The Trauma of First Love in a Cult

“First love is something that is strongest, greatest. Until your death, you will never forget about your first love.” Sung Myung Moon, Change Of Blood Lineage 1–18–1973

Sweat trickled from my scalp into the waistband of my shorts as we boarded the buses, smeared with mud after a service project. It was August in Miami. My mother had sent me away, across the country, for two weeks to join the Pure Love Alliance tour. It was a front group of the Unification Church where leaders bussed youth around the United States, promoting a purity culture-based abstinence-only curriculum that the Church was trying to get implemented in public schools. That afternoon we had been digging trenches for a new sprinkler system at North Miami Senior High School through sporadic Florida downpours that still never managed to break the muggy heat.

A boy caught my eye as he neared my seat. The late afternoon sun sparkled on raindrops that clung to his deeply golden-brown arms. Light glinted off wet spikes of his obsidian hair. As he blinked, droplets danced from his long lashes in a spray that looked like a celebration of his beauty.

Something in my stomach thumped pleasantly. I cut my eyes away and tried to tuck stray strands of damp hair behind my ears. My every sense was alert to him, shivering as he neared. Or maybe it was the AC blasting on my wet clothes.

The line to the back of the bus bottlenecked. He was nearly parallel with me. I risked an upward glance. Our eyes locked. Another shiver traveled down my spine and pulsated at the soles of my feet.

The line moved forward. His eyebrows quirked up. A small smile flashed like lightning across his face. I touched my cheek, hoping there were no remaining traces of mud.

He broke the connection and walked on. My entire body went slack, the soft cloth of my seat cradling my sodden form. Who was he?

Of course, I couldn’t ask. But for the next few days I kept him in my line of sight, the awareness of him lighting my nerve endings on fire. It was wrong, but I wanted to be near this new magnificent creature, and to make him aware of me.

Over the years that boy on the bus became my best friend, my confidant and the eye of the hurricane in a time when my family was tearing itself apart. Eventually he also became my first love. There was a time that I thought we might grow old together, if only we could find a way to convince our parents and Church leaders to allow us.

Forbidden Love in a Cult

“If your conscience was really alive, you could not say to me, “I don’t have a good fiancée; he is not the kind I wanted.” Your original mind should be saying, “Father, because I am so impure, I don’t really deserve any person as my spouse. But since I have received this spouse as a gift from God, I will serve him/her for the rest of my life. I want to deserve this great blessing with all my heart and soul.” Those who do not have the privilege of giving your first to your spouse must be repentful and at the same time most appreciative to God and willing to compensate. In this way you can restore your love and reach the same degree of Heaven.”

Sung Myung Moon; Blessed Family 6–20–82

We weren’t given a choice about who we would marry growing up in the Unification Church. Instead, Rev. Moon gave himself the task of choosing everyone’s spouses, and he taught us that we ought to be able to love anyone. (There was a short time he allowed parents to choose for their children, until he realized that gave members too much control and wrested the power back until his death.) But there were several years in my teens where that boy and I fought for our own choice, both covertly and overtly. It was a fight that pitted us against our faith, our families and community. It was one we would ultimately lose, and in that process we lost each other as well.

Those of us who had the audacity to fight for our own choices were shamed, abused, and sometimes expelled from the Church. We were taught that unless our first love was someone that was chosen for us, it was something from Satan.

In fact, according to Moon,

“If you marry whomever you want to, it is hell; but if you marry not according to your own will, then it is like the Kingdom of Heaven.” Sung Myung Moon; The Way for a True Child

So to find oneself with feelings for someone when the relationship was not sanctioned could be an incredibly traumatizing experience. We were supposed to somehow cut ourselves off from our own natural feelings and sexual development until the moment that Moon (now parents & leaders) decided that we were ready to be married.

When speaking about the matching and marriage of his own daughter, Un Jin, Rev. Moon said,

“She had no idea that she would be participating in this matching until eleven o’clock in the evening three days ago. She did not have any particular person in mind. She received the direction to come and prepare for the Blessing at eleven o’clock that night. There was no process of approval or agreement. We do not need this kind of approval or agreement.

We do this work quickly to make things crystal clear. It is not supposed to include thoughts from a third person. Whatever the decision, it must be done by True Parents, not by any third person. This should be done centering on True Parents. So I don’t take your parents advice into account at all.” Sung Myung Moon; The Way for a True Child

A red headed woman in a white dress with a blindfold pulls at her hair that is tangled in a bird cage while holding rusty scissors. Image copyright Jen Kiaba.
A red headed woman in a white dress with a blindfold pulls at her hair that is tangled in a bird cage while holding rusty scissors. Image copyright Jen Kiaba.
Lack of informed consent permeated many of the matchings conducted by Rev. Moon in the Unification Church.

Note: “the Blessing” refers to the mass weddings in the Unification Church. “The Matching” refers to events where Moon would gather his followers and match them, often without them ever having met before.

This lack of informed consent underscored my own marriage experience, being married to a stranger with no notice. But the point that I want to make here is that we were raised to be so utterly un-formed from a romantic relationship standpoint, that we were expected to be ok with being married to a complete stranger with next-to-no notice and to be happy about it. And liking our marriage partner wasn’t even a criteria. In fact, Moon said:

“I may not give you a handsome husband, or a person with whom life is easy, but I give you the gift of true love.” Sung Myung Moon; Restoration of True-love; Chapter 5, The Matching

Now members of the second generation ex-Unification Church community are beginning to speak out about their experiences, going so far as to coin the phrase “first love trauma” in online conversations. It wasn’t a phrase I’d heard before, even as I’ve studied the intersections of purity culture and religious trauma. But boy could I relate to it.

So it made me wonder if there was any research on second generation adults who have left cults, and their first experiences with romantic love. It’s a pretty niche topic, and as I’ve mentioned before, there isn’t much research on second and multigenerational survivors to begin with. Therefore I didn’t find anything so specific as it related to first love trauma.

Instead I went broader, and decided to look a little more deeply at the psychology of first love, and see if I could make some connections to what I’ve learned about the psychology of and abuses within cults.

Please note that most of the research that I have found, especially that on Purity Culture, does not specifically address the painful ways that cultic teachings and purity culture have affected the LGBTQ+ community. In part this is because religious purity culture is often exclusively heterosexual. LGBTQ+ orientation and nonbinary gender identification were either condemned or ignored in the religious teachings that I grew up with, and I personally repressed much of my own identity at that time. Therefore I am not the appropriate person to speak to those experiences within that framework.

However, I will continue to seek out those voices and will link to research when I find it. In the meantime, in the final episode of the podcast Growing Up Moonie, Hideo Higashibab speaks beautifully to his experience as a queer transgender man growing up in the Unification Church.

The Psychology Behind First Love

Multiple studies have given us data about what our brains experience when we’re in love. The research suggests that romantic love can be literally addictive. According to an article published in the academic journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, scientists have draw parallels between the biochemical reactions in the brain associated with human love and the artificial stimulation that occurs from alcohol, heroin, or cocaine use.

Additionally, if we experience our first love during adolescence, which is generally a of period intense emotions, then the memories that we retain of it can be as intense. Jefferson Singer, a Connecticut College psychologist whose research focuses on autobiographical memory, is quoted in the Washington Post saying that most people have something he calls a “memory bump” between age 15 and 26. Data in another study indicates that our working memory peaks around 18. This can cause our memories formed at this time to be some of our most impactful.

There are a number of articles that go so far as to say that first love leaves an “imprint” on the sensory areas of our brains. But Nancy Kalish Ph.D. cautions that strong emotional memories are not imprints. She says that imprinting is a term used to describe bonds that form biologically, for all members of a species, such as how baby duckling imprint on whatever they see within a few hours of their hatching. She says that our first love does not prevent later bonds from occurring that are just as strong or stronger.

So to be safe, we can substitute the word “imprint” for “impression,” and we can conclude that based on the chemistry of our brains and our peak memory processing in young adulthood, first love leaves an incredibly deep impression on us.

A woman in a white blindfold and red dress has a birdcage tied to her back as she hikes through a misty forest while leaning on a walking stick. Image copyright Jen Kiaba.
A woman in a white blindfold and red dress has a birdcage tied to her back as she hikes through a misty forest while leaning on a walking stick. Image copyright Jen Kiaba.
First love leave a deep impression upon us in young adulthood due to peak brain processing & the chemistry of our brains.

The primacy effect of first love

According to Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern and author of The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, in our late teens and early 20s, we begin to solidify our identities by developing and internalizing an autobiographical narratives about our lives: who we were, are, and might be in the future. “These experiences give us natural ways to divide up the stories of our lives — episodic markers that help us make sense of how our life has developed over time,” he says.

This makes me question what happens to our psyches when we are told we are evil for our sexual development, sexuality and feelings of first love if not condoned within the cultic context. If we were forced to marry that person, because our Church community was afraid that we would “fall,” then we likely carried the burdens of that shame and pain into the relationship.

In an article on Psychology Today, science writer Jay Dixit says that it is the “primacy effect” of the firsts that help them stay as vivid and clear in our memories. This is another reason why our first love leaves such a strong impression on us. Some articles on first love posit that our first love is important in this regard, because it becomes the foundation for our future relationships.

According to Dr. Niloo Dardashti, a couples therapist based in New York, the feelings we experience with our first love do become a blueprint for how we approach future relationships.

Susan Andersen, a psychologist at NYU, says, “Powerful first relationships can stamp a template in your mind that gets activated in later interactions.” Therefore, our first love can become a lens through which we see future relationships.

But the loss of our first love, Dixit writes, differs from later losses, because it makes us face the cold reality that we are in constant danger of losing people that we love.

According to Robert Neimeyer, a psychologist at the University of Memphis who studies how people draw meaning from loss and grief, “We’re wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. How we negotiate that tension shapes who we become.”

Jeffery Singer, the Connecticut College psychologist, says that early loss can poison one’s ability to trust or feel safe, or give oneself over fully in subsequent relationships. Dixit writes that while many people find that they emerge more resilient from surviving a painful loss, there is also a strong link between early loss and depression, and early loss is also associated with diminished ability to form later attachments.

So for those of us who grew up in a cult, if we had a first love and were not allowed to be with that person, what does that do to our future attachments and future relationships?

Dr Luisa Dillner, who writes the popular “Love by Numbers” column for London’s Guardian, wrote

“There probably should be a post-traumatic love syndrome. It would be a much lesser condition than post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it might share symptoms, among them reliving the moment, avoidance and emotional numbing, and being hyper-vigilant in case it happens again. In layman’s terms, you’ll be less open, more irritable and anxious.

Being traumatized after any event is linked to not being in control — a University of Colorado study of 144 people found that those who didn’t initiate the split were likely to suffer more afterwards.”

So again, if we weren’t allowed to be with the person that we first fell in love with in the cult, then according to Dillner, we probably have experienced something along the lines of PTSD.

What if our first love was a trauma bond?

Because I wasn’t allowed to be with the young man I was in love with in my teens, most of our relationship was carried out online via AOL’s Instant Messenger. Yes, I know I just dated myself there. I remember logging on in secret, hoping no one in my family — or later at the Church boarding school — would find out who I was talking to. And as I waited for his screen name to appear, my palms were sweaty and I shook in fear.

Yes, I was afraid of being caught. But my physical reaction was coming from something deeper. I knew that every time we spoke, we fought. It had started even before we were in a relationship; we would send Moon’s quotes to one another, trying to prove how the other was out of line. Over the years it escalated to verbal and emotional abuse, to the point where many days it felt like psychological warfare.

But this was also love. At least it was to me. This was how my parents and my faith community showed me love. I didn’t realize it then, but we were using the same tactics to control one another’s behavior that the group used to control us. Now I look back and can honestly say that beyond love, I believe that we were trauma bonded.

According to licensed psychologist Liz Powell, PsyD, a trauma bonding relationship is reflective of an attachment created by repeated physical or emotional trauma with intermittent positive reinforcement. Dr. Powell says that trauma bonding can happen in relationships, as well as dynamics that include fraternity hazing, military training, kidnapping, child abuse, political torture, cults, prisoners of war, or concentration camps.

As I’ve written about before, Dr. Alexandra Stein’s research posits that the closed, fearful world within a cult is designed to promote a relationship of disorganized attachment to the leader or group. It is the combination of terror and ‘love’ that emotionally traps and cognitively disables followers.

Michael Samsel, who has a master’s degree in Child, Couple, and Family Therapy at Antioch University, runs the site https://www.abuseandrelationships.org/, and on it he writes about something called communal abuse. He says,

Communal abuse is a type of abuse that is exerted, in part, by victims (survivors) upon each other in the course of aspiring for something good within a intentional community”

He identifies it as a kind of cultic abuse, and says that the abusive proclivity itself comes largely from the psychopathic qualities of the leader, which pre-date and usually explain the formation of the group. The cult then perpetuates what he terms survivor-on-survivor abuse. However when he uses the term survivor he is referring to victims who are stuck in the abusive system.

This not only explains the behaviors that young man and I engaged in during our relationship, but much of the interpersonal dynamics within the group itself.

A woman in a red hood stands wrapped in red bandages and a red skirt. Image copyright Jen Kiaba.
A woman in a red hood stands wrapped in red bandages and a red skirt. Image copyright Jen Kiaba.
Communal abuse explains much of the interpersonal dynamics within the group, even in love relationships.

“The Blessing is forever. It is eternal.”

In Jin Moon spoke those words on November 20, 2011. The timing is ironic, because she was then pregnant with the illegitimate child of another Church member, which ended his marriage. (If you want to read a well-written summary of the Game of Thrones -esque saga that is the Unification Church, check out this article by The New Republic from 2012. Hopefully someone will update it someday with the newest “episodes” that have come from this cult-family feud.)

Despite her personal affairs, the phrase echoed the Church’s stance on the marriage ceremonies. Not only did you have to forgo all personal preferences (unless you were a Moon, I guess?) in the Matching and Blessing, but then you have to continue to accept that other person. Forever.

Most of the Church families that I saw growing up were unhappy. My own parents were deeply unhappy and incredibly abusive towards one another, although I didn’t realize that their behavior qualified as abuse. I simply normalized it for many years. I also heard stories of violent husbands who sent their battered wives to the hospital with broken bones, only to have those wives return again and again. First generation would cluck and shake their heads, but what were they to do? After all, the Blessing is forever.

Some of these abused partners were even told that it was their fault that their partner was harming them. Somehow they weren’t loving their partners enough, they weren’t setting the right conditions with spirit world. It was their job to heal and raise up their spouse. The line we were given was that God would never give us something that we couldn’t handle.

It wasn’t until I left the group and started talking to other survivors that I realized the depth of the abuse. I read In the Shadow of the Moons by Nansook Han, and realized that the Moons empowered their abusive son to beat his wife. This behavior likely empowered other abusers to harm their own partners in the Church.

Purity Culture as a Form of Sexual Abuse

Ok, but what if someone got Matched and Blessed and was lucky enough to end up with a nice spouse? What if they were lucky enough to have never loved someone before meeting their spouse. Is their first love a traumatic one? Maybe.

The Unification Church co-opted evangelical purity culture when it came into the American national consciousness in the 1990s. (Although I think it’s safe to say that the UC had it’s own brand of purity culture long before they started co-opting language and ideas.) My mother tried to get me to read the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, by Joshua Harris, which popularized the concept of “courting” as an alternative to mainstream dating and as a foundation for a happy marriage.

For many, this book was a lynch pin in the purity culture messaging they received as teens, which has contributed to deep emotional traumas that they have around sex and sexuality. The book itself was criticized for being an example of belief in ‘benevolent sexism’ and ‘women as property’, as promoting ‘rape supportive messaging’ and ‘sexual purity teachings’ that emphasize a ‘hierarchical father-daughter relationship’ and reduces the agency of adolescent girls.

(Harris has since divorced his wife, reconsidered his views on dating, apologized to those whose lives were negatively impacted by the book and directed the book’s publisher to discontinue its publication.)

Alice Greczyn, founder of Dare to Doubt and author of Wayward: A Memoir of Spiritual Warfare and Sexual Purity, wrote an article Is Purity Culture a Form of Sexual Abuse? for ICSA Today, the International Cultic Studies Association magazine. In it she says,

Purity culture taught me that my love life would unfold in three ways: (a) I would remain a virgin until my wedding night, and I wouldn’t so much as hold hands with a guy until I was engaged to him; (b) As a girl, I would dress modestly and be faithful to my husband all the days of my life, including before I knew him; and c)I would never date, but I would know who my future husband was because God would confirm it through my spiritual elders, and especially through my dad.

She goes on to define purity culture as being based on the belief that the acts of sex should only occur within a heterosexual marriage, and that all lustful thoughts before marriage are sinful. In the Christian churches she grew up in, not only was having a crush on somebody a sin, but it was also a betrayal of her future spouse. In that sense, her experience with purity culture was exactly the same as mine within the Unification Church.

One of Greczyn’s youth pastor told girls that they were like white porcelain dishes, and when we gave ourselves away, we let people spit all over our dish. What man would ever want to marry us and eat off a dirty dish? Growing up I heard variations on that metaphor. I was chewed up gum, crumpled and torn paper, a cup that had been spit in.

Like me, Greczyn was also taught that men’s lustful thoughts about her were her fault. In purity culture, women were cautioned not to be “stumbling blocks” for their brothers in Christ. In the Unification Church we had different language for the same concepts. The shame of that experience left her with long-lasting scars, Greczyn says, and instilled her with a fear of her own womanhood.

This tracks with the data. According to David J. Ley Ph.D., in a 2017 article Overcoming Religious Sexual Shame on Psychology Today, “across the country, therapists are now seeing a tide of young people, feeling immense shame and pain about their sexual urges, desires and behaviors” because of the programming of purity culture.

One of the first therapists to notice this epidemic was Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers. Author Linda Kay Klein interviewed her for the book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. In it Schermer Sellers told Klein that the symptoms she was seeing were exactly the same symptoms she might see in someone who had been sexually abused. However, many of these young people claimed that they had never been sexually abused.

According to Greczyn,

The timing of this surge of people seeking help for sexual trauma, sometimes with no sexual experience at all, pointed Dr. Tina to the boom of purity culture in the mid to late ’90s. This was the era of promise rings and purity retreats, of abstinence-only sex ed, and books such as Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This was the era of my youth. Klein describes in Pure… how my generation was bombarded at home, at church, and at school with the message that sex was wrong and our bodies were sinful.

She says that some of these repercussions resemble post-traumatic stress disorder: Panic attacks. Paranoia. Nightmares. Dissociative states. Depression. Eating disorders. Self-harm. These symptoms may remain dormant until they’re triggered, by sometimes something as harmless as kissing, or even just talking about sex.

For women, one of more devastating effects of purity culture that Greczyn describes is a condition called vaginismus, which causes an involuntary tightening of the muscles around the vagina, making sex extremely painful and often impossible. Sometimes vaginismus is a symptom of sexual assault. Other times it’s a symptom of purity culture.

She goes on to describe the story of one virgin bride who discovered she had vaginismus. This bride was actually looking forward to having sex with her husband, but every time they tried, her body shut down in pain, blocking him from entering her. According to Greczyn, this bride had unwittingly trained her body to shut down this way through years of shutting down any sexual thoughts or sensation, and that sex was so painful that she ended up having to have surgery. Author Deborah Feldman describes a similarly painful and humiliating experience with vaginismus in her book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.

So taking all of this into account, my guess is that even if one’s first love is supported by the cultic structure, it is still traumatic. Because how can one be raised with strict beliefs about one’s sexuality and sexual development as being evil, and then simply shed those beliefs once in a condoned relationship?

Getting accurate data on Blessed couples who are in the Unification Church would be difficult, if not impossible. But in the anecdotal conversations that I have had with people who have left the Church with their Blessing partners, I’ve heard that despite loving their partner and choosing to stay with them, there is deep trauma that needs to be healed within their relationship.

A woman in a green cloak kneels in a cave looking up at light coming in through a crack. Image copyright Jen Kiaba.
A woman in a green cloak kneels in a cave looking up at light coming in through a crack. Image copyright Jen Kiaba.
Don’t go it alone. Finding community can make all the difference in your healing journey.

Healing from Purity Culture and First Love Trauma

As there has been an uptick in reports of sexual trauma within a religious context, there is also an increased number of therapists who are informed on this subject. You can now search sites like https://www.inclusivetherapists.com/ with keywords such as “purity culture” and find therapists near you who can help with this kind of trauma.

Therapists who have experience with evangelical Christianity and religious trauma may also be able to help with cult-specific abuse. International Cultic Studies Association also keeps a list of cult-informed therapists here: https://www.icsahome.com/support/counseling-resources. They also run support workshops for those born or raised in high demand groups or religions.

There are also resources like the Reclamation Collective, which hold recovery support groups. The support groups are designed to be need-specific, and therefore they have deconstruction and spiritual abuse support groups for men, women, immigrants, the queer community, and the BIPOC community.

There is also a strong community online of people who are recovering from purity culture. For example, if you follow #purityculture on Instagram, you’ll immediately be connected with many accounts run by people who are on their own healing journey or are assisting others in their healing. Instagram is where I found the sexuality educator Erica Smith. She runs the Purity Culture Dropout program, an eight week intensive sexuality education and coaching program for folks who were raised in purity culture and who are seeking queer inclusive, shame free, trauma informed, medically accurate, and comprehensive sex education. She also runs Purity Culture Dropout Queer Support Groups.

All this to say, if you’re suffering from the trauma of love in a cult the damage from purity culture, you’re not alone and you don’t have to go on your healing journey alone. There are many of us here, ready to walk beside you.

Originally published at https://www.jenkiaba.com on May 14, 2021.

Artist, Educator, Childhood Cult Survivor