As someone who has a less orthodox view, I offered to write up a post about how to communicate with True Believing Mormon family members, and in typical form, I blanked, and avoided, and mulled, and false started, and gave up, and started again, and here I am am more than a month later. The truth is… I don’t really know.
I’ve always been the type to try and see both sides of an issue. This usually elicits a comment from my mother on my suitability for a career in politics, and by her tone, it’s not a good thing. If a conversation leads to conflict, then there is bargaining and defensiveness. I always end up feeling like a bully, a disappointment, or a lost soul drifting down toward outer darkness. So many things in our family are “solved” by simply not addressing them. We just don’t talk about stuff. There’s such a high premium placed on lack of contention in the home in the church. I think that when conflict does arise, the highest priority is to stamp it out, and so there’s no resolution, at least in my home. And how do you live with conflicts that can’t be resolved?
You get what you give.
Create opportunities to talk about things that are comfortable, creating trust. I need a more solid base of love and trust to be able to venture into more precarious conversational topics. I pulled away when hard things came up, like Eve’s role in the temple ceremony, the position of women in the church, blacks and the priesthood, (whatever’s on the laundry list). I didn’t want to hurt my mother just for being who I am. So, I just stopped communicating. I am still judicious about what I share, but I am definitely making the effort to be more open.
Get to know the individual.
I’ve been making an effort since visiting my family at Christmas time to make more meaningful connections with my family. Focused, with intent. I wanted to be able to talk with them about things that did not involve the elephant in the room. It’s such a big animal, and gets in the way of comfortable conversation. I spent a large portion of my life living in my parents’ home, so it seems like I should know them pretty well, but making the transition from child to adult child is always interesting. I’m still getting to know my parents. There are always new things that surprise me that I didn’t know about my parents, and many things that I am not surprised I didn’t know. So, I continue taking an interest in my parents’ lives. Granted, my parents are not the kind to be overly involved in my life, and I live 1,000 miles away from them, but even so, knowing your family as the people they are rather than just “Mom” or “Dad,” etc. can be very helpful in communicating with them. I mean, I’m more comfortable in conversations with people who know me well, and show a clear interest in my life. And, it has paid off. I feel more confident in knowing what kinds of communications will be comfortable, and which ones won’t.
Know the limits.
No one can do this perfectly, but it is helpful to recognize the breaking point in a conversation where it disintegrates in a yelling match, or turns cold to resentful anger. Sometimes you can redirect and master the emotion, and sometimes you have to revisit after emotions have cooled.
Give credit where credit is due.
My therapist heard me say, “I’m not taking responsibility for their pain anymore,” and wrote it down for me to pin on my wall, which I did. Let me explain. I can’t control anyone else’s emotional response to my actions. I can do my best to be a responsible human being by not running around inflicting pain and damage, but I can also accept that I can’t please everyone all the time, and this includes the people closest to me.
Trust that they love you. Even when you’re unlovable.
Yes, we are a family, and there is unconditional love. But, it may not always look exactly like the kind of “unconditional” love I imagined. And, there is also conditional love. I get stopped by fear that I will lose my family’s love for having a different worldview, a different opinion. I know there are people out there who have lost all connection with their families because of religious or other choices, and I am infinitely grateful that this has not happened in my case. But, letting the fear that it might happen paralyze me into sequestering myself from their influence produces the same effect. I’ve thought about this in terms of the disciplinary council and how it is meant to be a court of Love: that love can be tough love? This is a whole separate post, but I can say that my fear of church court is exactly that. Fear. It doesn’t feel like love at all.
If you’re anything like me, you have amazing parents who truly feel that they are doing the best thing for you when they send those Ensign articles or conference talks; they’re almost always the ones that deal specifically with a topic that I have trouble with. Accepting this as one way that they show love is so difficult. I add it to the stack of Ensigns on the shelf. Sometimes I read them right away, sometimes I don’t. I’m still not sure how to respond. I don’t want to start arguments over doctrine and theology. There is so much deep emotional involvement. I really want to avoid the kind of conversations that will spark resentment, worry, and fear. I know those topics will eventually come up, and I admit that I still shy away from them quite a bit. Being prepared for the storm that will inevitably come doesn’t make it easier, and can you really prepare for that, anyway? But, I hope that through it, I can remember that they’re only trying to do what they think is best for me out of love.
I had to learn to love myself (and believe me I’m still working on this, and will my entire life). I’m learning the balance between feeding my own fire, the fire of others, and allowing others to feed my fire. Allowing oneself to be open to others is difficult, especially when experience has shown that those others could possibly hurt you. And family relationships are so close, that it’s so easy to cause hurt, intentionally or unintentionally. So I continue to try and give. My family has definitely given me far more than I could possibly repay, so removing the scoreboard is essential. And, just living life with the intention to give. To others, to friends, to family, and to myself. (Something about “the least of these” seems to ring true.)
Accept what they have to offer.
I’ve really been trying to accept what people can give me rather than what I think I need from them. My family will not change their view of how I should be, so I have two options. I can conform, or I can be true to myself. I can’t force them to accept me any more than they can force me to be other than what I am, so I re-evaluate what it is that I need from them. And, I re-evaluate my own needs, and the sources where I meet those needs.
There are so many things that I gained from my parents: my body type, my love for music, my belief that women are equal partners and not subordinates of men. But the way that I express those things is just as different as it is similar to the way my family expresses them. I want my parents’ approval and support. It’s my job to accept it when it is offered. The trick is to allow myself room to be different in the way that I express myself even when that is contrary to the way my parents would have me be.
I’m not addicted to hard drugs or alcohol. I’m not a prostitute. I’m not a thief. And, even if I were all of these things, there is still room for me in the gospel of Jesus Christ, so I need to give myself and them a break. I can continue being an ethical and good human being, anddisagree on certain points. I’m different, not hopeless.