How Do I Talk To My Orthodox Relatives?

Posted by on June 6, 2011 in women | 11 comments

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.

Diplomacy.

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.

Love Yourself.

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.

Celebrate differences.

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.

Perspective.

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.


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11 Comments

  1. Love this. Thank you!

    I recently “outed” my unorthodox self to my mother over a hours-long car ride. And although the conversation went fairly well/respectfully, I left it feeling depressed. Even when you’re being true to yourself and respectful of others, the whole situation still (for lack of a better phrase) just sucks sometimes, doesn’t it?

  2. I definitely know what you mean, Lacy.

  3. Oh, Thank you! I feel this way every time I go home or hang out with my conservative friends or family (I guess facebook exchanges– when I post an article I love and people freak out– count too).

    My problem is that I don’t feel unconditional love. I feel (and it has been made clear via GC talks to prove their point nonetheless) that because my parents believe in the church so strongly, that unconditional love doesn’t exist. Because if I am not a temple going LDS member the rest of my life I might not make it to the celestial kindgom with my family and that would cause great pain and so parents (including God) can’t love children who make bad choices.

    UGH. This line of thinking is so painful for me. I’ve wanted my whole life to be loved, for me. Not because its a duty or God said or I’ve done what’s right, etc. I just want to be valuable and lovable because I exist, not because I’m “worthy” of it. Mostly because my faith wavers so treacherously that I rue the day that I will no longer be “loved”. This understanding of love is a huge deterrent to me in both seriously considering leaving and in wanting to raise my daughter in this religion.

    On a happier note, it has been really good to have little opportunities each time I visit my family to talk about different things I believe. At first my ideas are usually met with reluctance if not straight out horror, but by the time 6 months has rolled around I can tell my parents have spent a lot of time thinking about what we talked about. They might not ever come over to my perspective, but they aren’t as quick to judge or see black/white distinctions. That has been really nice to see. Similarly, it has been really helpful for my younger siblings and friends, especially ones who struggle as well. They’ve felt like they have someone to talk to and I relish that role.

  4. I’ve really been trying to accept what people can give me rather than what I think I need from them.

    This has been key for me. Learning to spend more time appreciating what I am given and letting go of the disappointment about what I have not been given has calmed some of my relationships strewn with anxious and hearty differences of belief. It’s hard when it’s someone whose opinion of me matters so very much, but it’s worth the effort of making that transition.

    So, well said.

  5. I have to go to a family reunion in a month and I’m going to try a new approach myself.

    I’m going to do a lot of repeating and of what they say to show that I actually do understand them. In our last fairly heated conversation, this was a major stumbling block- the fact that they didn’t think that I understood. The real issue is that I understood what they were saying, but I was coming to different conclusions for my beliefs. So I’m going to try, when a statement about how my children are going to be led away, reply with, “It sounds like you’re worried that my children won’t be taught the gospel at home. This is something that is dear to me as well: I hope they grow up to be honest people.” That way I show that I’m understanding their point and I’m not negating or attacking them- I’m actually agreeing with them about that important point. I hoping this will disuade some of the defensiveness. We’ll see how this works.

    But I’m also going to call them on their personal attacks and remind them that they cannot negate my experiences (at least out loud to me).

  6. Zenaida,
    I think there’s a lot of wisdom here. I must admit that I’m a bit amazed that families are as open about these issues of religion and ideology as I see implied in your experiences. My family of origin is very closed-lipped about this stuff. We don’t talk politics much and we certainly don’t talk religion. My awesome and rather private mom would feel very uncomfortable trying to guide me in any way religion-wise, so the subject of my feminism/unorthodox approach to Mormonism rarely comes up. And when it does, mom wouldn’t dream of criticizing it or pursuing it. I think it’s a bit strange that we’re so private about this stuff, but I’m also grateful for it, since i know so many out there have felt intense criticism from their families who aren’t afraid to voice opinions.

  7. My relationship with my parents was stormy and even somewhat violent for several years as we went through the process of breaking apart as individuals rather than a neatly coherent parent-child symbiont.

    Firstly I’ll admit right away that I can take equal blame for the anger and suffering that both sides caused each other. They wouldn’t have been so harsh, if I hadn’t been so harsh. They wouldn’t have acted like they didn’t care about me, if I hadn’t acted like I didn’t care about them. Maybe some people’s experiences are more one-sided. But, it probably never hurts to look at it from the other person’s perspective.

    If you’re arguing and you feel they don’t love you anymore or as much because of what you are saying, maybe it would help to ask them flat out “Can you still love me like this?” because if they say they can, then you can be content, to know that you will still be loved. If they fumble, then that’s a deeper issue that may need gentle and careful exploration. But honestly, even without knowing any of you, I don’t think they really love you less, or your “problems” wouldn’t pain and trouble them. Even if they say so, it’s just emotional distancing from their pain.

    Maybe they feel if they don’t try their hardest to re-convert you, when you fall away into lesser glory in the afterlife, you will resent their better station and resent them for not saving you. Maybe they just fear being separated in any capacity from those they love. Reassuring them always of YOUR love for them no matter what happens may help. As Christians and Mormons we often have that eternal perspective that perhaps we don’t have to solve problems in this life because we can do it in another life. I made the decision to never “go to bed/the grave angry” with my family by making sure they knew I cherished them and respected them even when I didn’t agree with them.

  8. “My problem is that I don’t feel unconditional love.”
    Whoa-man, I know this feeling. Very well. Perhaps what I meant by unconditional love that doesn’t look exactly what I thought it would look like is my own willingness to look past the GC talks and look at my family’s actions. This would be much more difficult if their actions were focused on tough love or trying harder than they are to “reconvert” me. Yes, they use their resources to try to lead me back to the unquestioning, doubtless person I thought I was, but they also show tremendous support of me as a person. I am really trying to keep that in the forefront rather than worry about the pressure.

    “I rue the day that I will no longer be “loved”. This understanding of love is a huge deterrent to me in both seriously considering leaving and in wanting to raise my daughter in this religion. ”
    This is the kind of paralyzing fear the I have been trying so hard to leave behind. How do you manage it? I feel like I’m making a lot of progress, but I’m curious how it affects you, and how you deal with it?

  9. Freida:
    Thanks. I said that to a friend one day and realized how relevant and profound it is. One might even say it was inspired. ;)

    “It’s hard when it’s someone whose opinion of me matters so very much, but it’s worth the effort of making that transition.”

    I completely agree!!

  10. TopHat, I learned that from the Quakers. :) At a retreat, there was a workshop in reflective listening. We did an exercise in which one person read a personal-narrative short story they had written, and then after a minute of silent reflection (there’s always a lot of these when you hang out with Quakers), individuals in the group were encouraged to respond to the story. We had been given instructions to reflect back what we had heard, offer encouragements and criticisms, and just generally offer our own responses to what was offered. Of course it’s different in live conversation, but that key element of reflecting back what was heard was kind of amazing. It was interesting to hear points that had been misheard, misinterpreted, or just interpreted differently, followed by clarification and understanding. Also, this process felt very safe because we were in a “safe space” to allow for that, and it was somewhat ritualized so it didn’t ever feel like personal attacks (at least from my perspective). I’ve noticed that I’ve incorporated a bit more of it in my interpersonal interactions.

    I’d love to hear how that works/doesn’t work for you! Best wishes!

  11. Such a helpful post for both sides, Zenaida. Thanks!

    In my experience, I’ve noticed that each generation deals with the difference of belief to varying degrees. I hardly notice the beliefs or lack thereof with my siblings and cousins, but when it comes to my parents, aunts, and uncles, I sense more discomfort, and with the generation before that, I don’t know that it’s possible to have a conversation that isn’t completely fraught with emotion and largely unproductive. Have others noticed this?

    I wonder (hope) this is a sign that we, as Mormons, are getting better at dealing with varying stages of belief in our families.

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