In this article, I focus on adult grooming, the grooming strategy that perpetrators implement to ensnare and ultimately abuse their adult victims. While I largely address therapist and clergy abuse, I don’t think this grooming formula is unique to therapists and pastors. Grooming involves a complex set of manipulation tactics, but in this article, I describe the basic framework therapists and/or clergy employ, a playbook of sorts. In its simplest state, the grooming formula is this—to establish trust with the victim, uncover and then meet an emotional need(s) that the victim lacks, and then abuse that trust while holding out the victim’s newfound sense of hope and optimism as collateral.
Now, let’s look at each stage in a little more detail…
Step One in Adult Grooming
A predatory therapist or pastor seeks to uncover victims’ voids. (These voids are often subconscious, and are typically rooted in childhood).
This process is accomplished via a counseling or mentoring type relationship. We all know and accept that counseling is done in a private one-on-one setting without outside observation. We also know and accept that the patient or the one seeking help is expected to be vulnerable and transparent so the person in power, aka therapist or mentor, can better assist them.
Predatory therapists/clergy will take the most time during this phase as they learn what their victims are lacking in their lives, uncover what childhood hurts and voids they still carry, and discern to what degree they are isolated. Whom do they confine in? If they are married, are they close to their spouse, and if so, is there a way to create a rift between them? Do they have close family or friends or are they loners? If they have close friendships is there a way to discredit those friendships?
How do predators uncover their victims’ voids? Well, let’s look at how therapy works. After patients establish trust with the counselor they begin to open up and share intimate details about their lives. For the predators sitting across from them, this provides a treasure trove of material with which to use against them.
Step Two in Adult Grooming
Once the abusers have discovered their victims’ weaknesses and voids, they will then attempt to “mirror” or fill said voids. They will play whatever role is necessary to encourage an intense attachment on the part of the victim. If victims have daddy issues, the abusers become the father they always dreamed of but never had. In fact, father-figure is one of the roles most frequently implemented by predators in adult therapist/clergy abuse.
These women are seeking help and many are there to work on issues that at least stem from significant childhood relationships. Now just imagine that the counselor is also a pastor or a church leader. Add the spiritual component of pastor/representative of God to the father-figure image and you can see how this can become a powerful draw for the unsuspecting women.
This stage of the grooming process will not feel ominous to the victims. Quite the opposite. It will feel intoxicating, and exhilarating as their (subconscious, deep-seated voids from childhood) are met possibly for the first time. Love bombing will also be in full swing at this point, the abusers flooding the unsuspecting women with love, attention, praise, gifts, flattery, really whatever is needed to ensure the victims become emotionally invested. If the perpetrators go too fast or pour it on too thick, they slow down and back off a bit. When they see their victims have adjusted, they proceed.
Love bombing is an insidious manipulative tactic because it preys on our human nature. “…it taps into our innate need for attachment and validation. As social creatures, humans crave connection with others. When someone showers us with attention and affection, it can activate the pleasure centers in our brains and create a sense of euphoria. Additionally, the intense emotions and feelings of attachment created by love bombing can reinforce our sense of self-worth and make us feel special and valued.”
Step Three in Adult Grooming
The abusers continue the love bombing process until their subjects exhibit signs of being addicted to the relationship and the healing it provides. Once victims are adequately attached, predators can begin upping the stakes, requiring incrementally more while holding out the victims’ fragile sense of hope as collateral.
During this time, the depression lifts as women ride this emotional high—a newfound sense of connection, meaning, and hope. They may notice small red flags, but the positives in the relationship far outweigh any negatives. Besides, they trust that mental health professionals and/or representatives of God have their best interests at heart.
Also of importance, the women are the ones sitting in the “broken” seat so if they notice something seems awry, they will always assign more weight to the person with power than they will themselves. As a result, they will minimize the negative or hurtful actions and even accept the blame for them, assuming something defective in them allowed it or even caused it to occur.
Step Four in Adult Grooming
In this stage, the victims find themselves sinking deeper into this abyss—crossing boundaries they would never cross, allowing behaviors they would never allow, accepting scenarios they would otherwise never accept. They notice more red flags at this point, but their “adult” conscience is at war with the “child” in them who finally feels heard, seen, and loved.
This childhood need is so intense that it often trumps logic and reason and as a result, victims struggle to walk away. They wonder how something that seemed good, healing even could be so bad and harmful. The abusers insisted the relationship was heaven-sent, blessed by God. Was it? How is this man who seemed so kind and gentle and compassionate in the beginning now exhibiting signs of cruelty?
They contemplate leaving but walking away would mean losing everything, at least, everything they thought they had—a source of support, the feeling of unconditional love, a deep and meaningful connection, the sense of feeling intensely special in another person’s eyes, not only that but a person who holds power and therefore more value than they do.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Victims would have to accept that what they experienced—the belief they were turning the corner on depression, finding joy for the first time, maybe achieving the healing that had always eluded them was all a farce. Not only did they not obtain healing, but they were tricked and used by someone they shared their heart and soul with, someone they trusted with every fiber of their being.
The Final Stage
Once women have reached this stage, they are trapped. They know they are being harmed, and at the same time, they believe they can be saved by the person inflicting the harm. By this point, abusers have isolated victims from the outside world, limiting their sources of support. So the women turn to the only other person in their inner circle—the abuser.
Even so, women don’t want to reach out for help because they fear the judgment that awaits. They will be mocked, judged, and very likely blamed for the abuse. They are adults for heaven’s sake. They know that society does not accept that adults, as opposed to children or the elderly, can be victimized. They aren’t sure they accept it themselves.
They also know that the abusers have widespread, loyal fan bases willing to run to their defense if they are ever accused of abuse. Perpetrators don’t go after a victim until this fan base has been firmly established. Victims know that in speaking out they risk losing everything—friends, family, churches, communities, spouses. How will other people understand what they allowed, what they participated in when they can hardly grasp it?
Were they a willing participant? They stayed. They didn’t leave. They didn’t have a gun to their heads. Well, they most definitely had a proverbial gun to their heads, but will others recognize that? It’s unlikely. It will be their word against the doctor, pastor, and/or mental health professionals. If they report, will the therapists claim they are mentally ill?
Victims also accept that while they may not have wanted the sexual advances or the emotional affairs that were being offered, they did like the way it made them feel—special, cared about, cherished, noticed, heard, seen. Did the fact that they enjoyed feeling special make them responsible? Did this need in them make them culpable? What if they enjoyed some aspects of the relationship and knew they had to comply to keep those things? Did that mean they participated?
When victims escape and break the emotional hold their captors had over them, they may find themselves utterly alone. If they are married, they must consider telling their spouses. Will their spouses see them as victims or see them as cheaters? It’s quite a risk to take.
Regardless of how the women see their role, they are flooded with shame and self-hatred. Victims can’t comprehend the level of control these abusers had over them. A gun to the head is easy to see. Emotional manipulation is equally powerful yet almost impossible to spot. If only the women could see that proverbial gun sooner, they could ask for help without the accompanying shame.
When adults are groomed and abused, it leaves a baffling set of issues to be sorted through once it’s over. After all, how does a person become both abuser and comforter, the inflictor of pain as well as the antidote to it? And how did the women stay so long in this mind-boggling scenario? The answer is simple. They were adequately groomed.