Skip

I'm an adult, so why am I so afraid to stand up to my parents (specifically, my religious mother)?
January 7, 2009 1:29 PM   Subscribe

Lots of details below the cut, but basically it boils down to a plea for "this is how I handled it" stories about confronting parents about religion and different lifestyles--particularly when my "different" lifestyle is not so different at all.

I was raised in a fringe Christian denomination in a very strict family (I'm the oldest of four kids). I was taught to view drinking, smoking, divorce, cursing, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, caffeine, jewelry, mustard and pepper, watching television on Saturdays and eating meat (among a slew of other things) as sinful. I was not allowed to date or attend school dances or football games for the few years I went to public school. I had no privacy, and any possession of mine was up for their search and seizure at any time, including my diary. The music I listened to and the movies I saw were carefully monitored and inappropiate things were prohibited (I was 16 when Titanic came out, and my mother forbade me from seeing it). I was sent to church-affiliated boarding school in high school, where things were even stricter than at home (I could literally be fined for wearing a spaghetti-strapped top--immodest!--in my own dormitory). I went to a church-affiliated university because my parents said if I went anywhere else I would be cut off and I didn't know what options I had in terms of loans--I had no idea they existed. I was about as shut off from the outside world as it's possible to be.

I quietly lost most of my faith in high school and college and now consider myself either a militant agnostic, an apatheist, or a regular old atheist, depending on the day. I'm a jewelry-wearing, liquor-drinking former smoker who is all for gay marriage and legalized pot and abortion and, most of all, living and letting live. I am not a rebellious person by nature so as I discovered where my beliefs differed from my parents or the deans of my dormitory, rather than challenge anyone on anything, I just slipped by under the rules. When my college dorm checked each room to verify that we were attending church and not sleeping in (and yes, they did this!) I hung out in my car. I hid my pierced ears from my mom with my long hair for years. I went to a local clinic for birth control instead of using their insurance. I moved across the country right after college in part to get away from their oversight. I'm sure I have outright lied at times to encourage them to continue believing whatever they want about me, and it's worked so well that I don't know how to dig my way out of it.

Fighting them on these things simply never seemed worth it. I would get tag-teamed and reamed out for not being a "good Christian girl". My mother would accuse me of being on drugs, or ask me what she'd done to deserve such a terrible daughter. These screaming matches would last all night, and could be over something as innocent as my wanting to pay my tithe to an animal shelter instead of to the church. So I scooted by under the radar and let them believe whatever they want to believe about my lifestyle. In truth, it's not wild. I drink occasionally but rarely to excess. I smoked for eight years but recently managed to quit (yay me!). I tried pot in college but didn't like it. I've slept with three people in my life, all in the framework of long term, monogamous relationships. I work full-time and support myself, go to graduate school, have never been in trouble with the law, don't forget birthdays or anniversaries, call and visit my parents frequently, have great friends and a close relationship with my sister--in short, pretty much any parent would be thrilled to have me for a kid, except for my parents, and if they knew the truth, all they would be able to focus on is how I've failed them by rejecting their religion and choosing the sinful world instead.

But I'm tired of letting them believe that I support their apocalyptic and closed-minded views. I'm tired of being silent when they denounce homosexuals and people who drink. I'm tired of being someone I'm not around them and cherry-picking the things about my life they know. I'm torn about confronting them with things from my childhood that in retrospect look very much like physical, emotional, or religious abuse. I don't know how to set appropriate boundaries with them, especially with my mom who will continue to treat me like a little girl until I'm married, regardless of my age.

I'm also more and more concerned about their escalated involvement in their religious community and some of the bizarre beliefs my mother seems to have picked up. I don't know how on earth to confront them with this.

Yes, I'm therapy and it's hard and frustrating and painful and the best thing I've ever done for myself. And yes, I've looked for support groups or other people who've been through this, but most of the sites I've found focus on minor points of doctrine rather than figuring out how to get my parents off my back about my secular lifestyle (which, by the way, has give me much more peace than religion ever did). Therapy has given me the courage to begin to face this, but not the actual words.

I guess my question is two-fold. I'm looking for been-there, done-that advice from people who have successfully left cultlike/high involvement religious upbringings and are "out" with their families about this (books, websites, personal anecdotes, whatever) and I'm also looking for advice in general on telling parents that my lifestyle is not up for their debate and scrutiny, or learning how to set boundaries. Specific ideas for how to bring up this conversation is most appreciated. Throwaway email: nolongersda@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
For those of you who don't know what "SDA" is in anon's email, it's "Seventh-Day Adventist," which may help some of you with Adventist-specific stories to tailor your advice.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:48 PM on January 7, 2009


"I'm also looking for advice in general on telling parents that my lifestyle is not up for their debate and scrutiny,"

"Mom, Dad, my lifestyle is not up for debate or scrutiny. The Jesus I know didn't judge or condemn, and I won't accept those things from you either. If you can't conduct yourselves in a loving, non-judgmental way, I can't continue to interact with you. That's all I have to say on the matter, and I don't want to hear a prolonged rationalization from you. Whether we continue to have a relationship depends on you."
posted by orthogonality at 1:51 PM on January 7, 2009 [10 favorites]


For me it took distance and time, and a tacit agreement to not talk about those hot-button issues - at all - when we're together. The distance and time were my mother's choice (her church strongly discourages contact with backsliders, and we lived in cities 1000km apart) but despite all that had occurred I was happy when she phoned after two years without contact, and during those two years I worked my shit out and there wasn't any residual anger left when we started talking again.

I accept, though, that I will never have a good relationship with her, and it will never be an honest, comfortable relationship. But that's because I would never, ever continue to associate with her if she wasn't my mother, and she with me (I think her beliefs are harmful and idiotic, and she thinks I'm riding the handbasket all the way), and so we make it work by limiting our conversations to safe topics. I now live 16,000km away, and we are the closest we've ever been.
posted by goo at 2:10 PM on January 7, 2009


Oh anonymous, that is rough. I was raised by an atheist and an agnostic, so can't offer personal experiences, but orthogonality words it fairly well, I think.

I have a friend who has struggled with leaving a fairly conservative Christian denomination, and he liked this novel quite a bit - Blankets by Craig Thompson . Don't be put off by the fact that it is a graphic novel.
posted by gudrun at 2:16 PM on January 7, 2009


Anon, I am assuming that you wish to continue your relationship with your parents. I don't know anything about SDA, but I am wondering if this is a situation where their church would pressure them to cut off contact with you if you tell them you are no longer practising/a believer? I guess I'm trying to get an idea of whether this is a situation where ultimatums could backfire...
posted by Joh at 2:28 PM on January 7, 2009


I'm also looking for advice in general on telling parents that my lifestyle is not up for their debate and scrutiny

Just remember that if you take this position, then you should probably also take the position that their lifestyle is also not up for your debate and scrutiny.

You're going to have to accept the fact that they, as your parents, have every right to worry about you living in a way that is inconsistent with their values, and that they also have a right (and, frankly, a responsibility) to act reasonably in spending their lives trying to help you to live in a way that they believe will make you happy. Them doing what they have a right and responsibility to do is not going to make your life easy, and that's just something that will not change, unless your parents either a) magically stop believing in everything they hold dear, or b) magically stop caring about you. While you might wish for (a), I guarantee that you do not want (b).

They will always worry about you. And that's ok. And you should tell them that that's ok, but that you also need to be able to live your life and make decisions that they think are mistakes. Assure them that you love them, even if you disagree with their worldview, and that you will never disown them, even if they are tempted to disown you.

There is so much more to say on this subject. But I think it can be summed up as follows: Be strong. Be reasonable. Communicate well. Do not get mad at them, even if you're mad at them. Do not belittle their beliefs, and do not tell them that their beliefs are wrong -- just that you do not currently subscribe to them, as the result of years of honest soul searching. Do not tell them they are closed-minded, stupid, evil, or anything else bad. Do not criticize them (unless you want to start a fight that might never end). Remember that they love you. Remember that you love them. Keep reminding them and yourself of those two things. If it does not go well, do not give up, and do not forget that, in spite of it not going well, you love them, and they love you.
posted by The World Famous at 2:42 PM on January 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


orthogonality's proposed script is good, so hopefully this doesn't come across as overly critical, I just thought about how that message would go over with some of my family members and had these thoughts.

In my much more moderate, but still conservative religious family, certain words (lifestyle, judge/judgmental) are loaded in ways one might forget about outside the fold. I think that, to some extent at least, you should try to find a common vocabulary so that your parents don't get hung up on your choice of words. I mean, of course they're being judgmental of your lifestyle and I'm not in any way trying to defend them, but phrasing it a little differently could save you from tapping into stored-up reactions against those terms. This is based on my religious background, so you may want different wording, but you could say, instead:

Mom, Dad, my beliefs and how I live them are not up for debate. The best thing you can do for me, as parents and as believers, is to treat me with love and respect. I will always love you unconditionally, but if you can't treat me with love and respect, then I can't continue to interact with you. That's all I have to say on the matter, and I don't want to hear a prolonged rationalization from you. Whether we continue to have a relationship depends on you.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:44 PM on January 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


My family is Catholic, mainly because my mother and grandmother are devout; the rest of us are basically agnostic and atheist. When my sister married a Jehovah's Witness and converted, it caused tremendous tension with my mother and grandmother. My mother swallowed and acted okay with it because she didn't want to lose a relationship with her daughter, but my grandmother did things like sending my sister letters about how she was tearing apart the family for an eternity in hell.

It took several years of my sister doing her thing and not returning my grandmother's wrath for my grandmother to see that she was the one causing strife. Eventually she accepted my sister, apologized for being such a complete asshole, and now they have a very close relationship where they don't judge the differences.

So, my advice to you to is to follow something like Orthogonality's script, expect a lot of blowback from your parents (including ostracism, possibly), get on with your life as best you know how, and hope that one day, they'll understand, accept, and apologize.
posted by fatbird at 3:02 PM on January 7, 2009


The World Famous (above) makes some really good points. I came here thinking of something more like Orthogonality's thoughts, but with some mixed emotions about my stance. I changed my mind though, when I read what The World Famous had to say.
posted by KAS at 3:06 PM on January 7, 2009


I had a minor falling out of this sort with my family, but we're still very close and enjoy talking and debating about it, so my experience may not be that helpful to you.

I can add, though, that I debated with myself about how upfront to be about. In the end, I just decided to be clear about what I now thought, and I'm glad I did. I learned that I was comfortable with my beliefs, and I didn't need for my family to be. I'm responsible for me, and I'm an adult; I don't need my mom's approval anymore.

One thing that struck me about your post was:

I'm also more and more concerned about their escalated involvement in their religious community and some of the bizarre beliefs my mother seems to have picked up. I don't know how on earth to confront them with this.

What? Why would you want to confront them with this? You're responsible for you, they're responsible for them. Boundaries. Realize that you mom will feel the same about you when you tell her about your "de-escalated involvement in the religious community" and your "bizarre beliefs". Be clear about your beliefs, but don't try to change anyone else's.
posted by losvedir at 3:43 PM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


A warning: Adventists will NEVER give up on you.

My father was raised SDA (in a much less fanatical family, thank god), attended an Adventist college, and left the religion because (among other reasons) he became a biologist and the SDAs were Young Earth Creationists.

He maintains friendly relations with his brother's family, who stayed in the faith, but there's hosts of things we don't talk about with them.

He still gets evangelical mailings from SDAs, including newsletters that instruct how to prepare for the Last Days. I expect that we children will still get this mail.
posted by bad grammar at 4:28 PM on January 7, 2009


Well, you can't change them. This is the #1 thing you have to remember here. You can't change their behavior, you can only change yours.

I don't know how ah, wacky your family is, but you are definitely taking a risk of (a) losing them altogether if they cut you off, (b) letting yourself in for a lifetime of nagging (as bad grammar points out), and/or (c) tons of fights if you go for honesty. Are you willing to risk all of these things happening? Be sure you are before you say something, and that honesty is worth risking those reactions.

Also, how close are you to them, and how often do you see them a year? The less frequently you see them, the less this might be an issue.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:56 PM on January 7, 2009


I can't speak to the religious angle, but I can talk about boundaries.

Meg and Orthagonality have good scripts.

The tough thing will be to back that up and hard. If you want the things you hold dear to be respected - or at least treated civilly - that does mean that accusing them of religious and emotional abuse won't fly.

I don't see anything to be gained by confronting them - I realize you'd love for them to realize how awful they've been and all that, but that generally happens only in after-school specials.

They start attacking you or ranting about something you vehemently disagree with, and you calmly state your position. If they can't have a rational conversation without attacking you or your beliefs, they get two - and only two warnings.

sample script:

[insert hateful rant about teh gays destroying the Sacred State of Marriage here]

"Mom/Dad, I happen to think everyone should be free to marry whoever the love, but I don't want to argue with you. Let's talk about..."

They persist. "Mom/Dad, I'm sorry, I'm not having this conversation. Either we talk about something else or I'm done here."

They persist.

LEAVE/HANG UP THE PHONE.

Will they be really angry? Sure. Will they run after you to ran and rave or call back? Probably.

But you keep your cool, reiterate, "Sorry, I warned you. I'll talk to you later when I'm calmer." And you go. (If you turn back now, they know they can reel you back in. RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO CAVE!)

You might have to do this a few times before they realize how serious you are. But if you stick to your guns, I'll bet you that they'll realize very quickly that if they don't respect the boundaries you've set, you'll simply disengage.

They can only treat you like a little girl if you let them. You can either stick around and take it and smile and nod -- and know nothing will ever change, or you can brave the fire and let them know that you will not allow yourself to be treated like a doormat.
posted by canine epigram at 6:00 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


follow-up from the OP
Thank you to everyone who's responded here and who has emailed me privately--knowing that I'm not the only one going through this helps a lot.

To answer or elaborate on a few specifics:

I do want to be clear that I have no particular vendetta against the Adventist church. I just find it's not for me, and I now see the reasons it's often considered a cult, which I couldn't understand when I was in the thick of it.

My two-years-younger sister and I are very close, and we're in very close agreement on our current beliefs and concerns about our parents and the way we individually relate to them. Part of my hesitation about coming out about any of this is that my sister's currently ending a marriage she was pressured into, and my mother is having an absolute cow about it. Since I'm seeing the real results of what my "coming out" will be in the way my sister is being treated, it's even more scary to me, knowing the verbal assaults and ostracization I'll be facing.

We have each other for support and that's great, but it's not the same as feeling like our parents will love us unconditionally.

Anon, I am assuming that you wish to continue your relationship with your parents. I don't know anything about SDA, but I am wondering if this is a situation where their church would pressure them to cut off contact with you if you tell them you are no longer practising/a believer? I guess I'm trying to get an idea of whether this is a situation where ultimatums could backfire...

The church wouldn't require them to give up communication with me, but I'd probably be facing a lot of pressure in the form of emails and phone calls from family members who are pastors or otherwise highly involved. In a way, the pressure of them proselytizing would be worse than excommunication, but I don't want to lose them entirely either.

One thing that struck me about your post was:

I'm also more and more concerned about their escalated involvement in their religious community and some of the bizarre beliefs my mother seems to have picked up. I don't know how on earth to confront them with this.

What? Why would you want to confront them with this? You're responsible for you, they're responsible for them. Boundaries. Realize that you mom will feel the same about you when you tell her about your "de-escalated involvement in the religious community" and your "bizarre beliefs". Be clear about your beliefs, but don't try to change anyone else's.


Yes, yes, yes, I know! But in the last two years they've pretty much broken ties with mainstream society to work and socialize only with other church members. Around the same time, my mom started spouting off some really bizarre and often racist and homophobic thinking that she never exhibited before. More than anything I would like to live and let live, but the behavior is SO OFF from what I know of my mom, I do feel like I need to bring it up.

To be very clear, this is not doctrinal and is not really church related at all. This is vicious, nasty stuff about how a black guy with saggy pants at the mall might be the guy who robbed us (five years ago, four states away) or how cops are likely to shoot people at random because of the chemicals from cigarettes, coffee and donuts coursing through their veins (these are two very specific, real examples of things she has said to me in the last two years). The timing of these statements and her increased involvement in church makes me very concerned, but I don't know how to bring it up without it seeming like I'm criticizing her religion. It's probably something I need to address totally separately from a discussion about my personal beliefs and how I would like to see our relationship evolve.

Also, how close are you to them, and how often do you see them a year? The less frequently you see them, the less this might be an issue.

I moved across the country and see them maybe twice a year. I travel to see them; they have not been to my home in nearly four years by their choice (they don't like my city for reasons I still don't know). We talk on the phone a few times a month and email a few times a week. We're not emotionally close from my perspective, mainly because I feel like they don't know the real me--which is my fault.

They can only treat you like a little girl if you let them. You can either stick around and take it and smile and nod -- and know nothing will ever change, or you can brave the fire and let them know that you will not allow yourself to be treated like a doormat.

After my last visit home, I realized I cannot stay there overnight without access to my own vehicle and probably staying in a hotel. Up until then I'd been content to use their spare car to save money, but I was actually trapped there and trying to end a conversation that was going badly...and I just couldn't. I was at their mercy (their home and their vehicle in a town where I didn't know anyone else). I'm ashamed of the way I reacted to them (it felt like a high school fight all over again) but I learned my lesson to never be trapped by them again.

Taking small steps to prevent myself from being in a situation where I'm dependent on them is a good start, but it's intimidating to think about actually setting and enforcing those boundaries.
posted by jessamyn at 6:30 PM on January 7, 2009


You have to work through that intimidation when you visit, but don't arrange to stay there again, for your own sanity! You're an adult now, get a hotel when you visit.

You do need to set and enforce those boundaries, if you want to maintain any sort of relationship and your sanity - I set the boundaries by what makes me angry, and if when we talk I feel myself getting angry (the pointless arguments, about which we will never agree) saying "No ma, talking about this is stupid" which she understands. This accord has taken years though - years of acknowledgement that regardless of diametrically opposite beliefs we love and have to look out for each other - but she won't stay with me (because I'm living in sin) and I won't stay with her (because one of us would end up dead) and that is accepted by both of us.

Recognising and accepting you have different beliefs (and thus different priorities and motivators), and committing to maintaining your relationship regardless, is important if you want it to work. For me and my mum that was only possible after two years without contact, and perhaps you might similarly both need a break.
posted by goo at 8:35 PM on January 7, 2009


Marlene Winelle has a great book called Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion:
This one-of-a-kind self-help book is for people recovering from the harmful effects of religious indoctrination. It provides insight into the psychological manipulations involved in authoritarian religion, and Christian fundamentalism in particular. Drawing from her own personal experience as well as clinical expertise, the author gives step-by-step guidance for healing from confusion, fear, guilt, anger, and grief. Readers will learn to reclaim their right to think for themselves, experience freedom and self-love, develop inner resources and personal skills, and celebrate living in the here-and-now.
I don't remember off the top of my head if it deals with dealing with parents/pastors. If your family is pushing old buttons based on old religious fears, it will certainly help you get out of those old ways of thinking.

Another resource is the extian email list, which has lots of ex-Christian (of all stripes) members, who can share their experiences with dealing with Christian family/friends. I was a member for several years and they were quite helpful when I was telling family and friends.
posted by heatherann at 8:54 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just make it very clear that you will break all ties with them for a period of time whenever they fuck up. They're acting like children, so you have to give them a time-out.

I do this with my parents whenever I heard home (rural indiana). I hear someone throw out some obscenely racist remark, or "God created AIDS to kill the gays", or some other stupid shit and I just roll my eyes with a "WELL! It was good seeing you guys up until that. Talk to you later" and I head home. It helps that it's only a 2-3 hour drive to Chicago.

Even if it doesn't change their views, at the very least, they don't say stupid shit around me anymore.
posted by phrakture at 9:55 PM on January 7, 2009


Little* to offer on the main point of your post. But:

You say your mother has begun spouting views within the last two years that she would never have held previously. You don't say how old you are or how old your parents are. I know that you have reason to believe that this is associated with her increased activities with the church. However, your description of your mother and some of the new beliefs she holds set off alarm bells in my head.

A sudden "flowering" of new or more extreme or odd views, relative to what the person would have held previously, is often one of the first signs of dementia.

Even if your mother is relatively young, early-onset dementia is not so rare that you should completely disregard this as a possible cause. The things you mention she's said are not unthinkable coming from an older adult who is beginning to suffer from progressive cognitive decline. It's very common for an adult with dementia who already holds strict beliefs to try to knit these together (in what might seem like strange ways) with the confusion they may be experiencing neurologically.

I hope dementia isn't the cause, and that you're able to reconcile your and your parents' beliefs. But I urge you to try to get her to a neurologist for an evaluation if what I'm saying makes any sense at all to you.

* I have no experience with "coming out," so to speak, to fundamentalist Christian/Adventist family members. My own family is originally from another country where almost all children (adult "children" or otherwise) are raised in a similar way. Most of us choose to deal with it as you have by concealing nearly everything and moving far away because we do not have the alternative of discussing most aspects of our Americanized lives. Some of us could face threats of death or injury. It certainly does get old. And exhausting. I understand where you're coming from. I hope you post back to tell us how things go.
posted by jeeves at 3:08 AM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Congratulations to you for making your own decisions in life and demanding the respect you deserve. Knowing that you deserve this is a big part of moving forward with it. It's an unfortunate, awful position to be put in, but I commend you for taking the steps you have so far.

Good luck to you.
posted by odinsdream at 6:43 AM on January 8, 2009


Everyone has given you a lot of good advice. I'm only going to ask you a simple question:

Do you benefit in anyway from the relationship you have with your mother and father?

If your relationship with them doesn't help you grow as a person, bring you joy, give you some sort of cultural anchor or sense of identity... why even bother? Just because they birthed you doesn't mean you have to sit around and take their crap for the rest of your life.

Rather than struggle against their beliefs, which is a losing battle really since what they believe is completely irrational and absurd, simply live your life the way you want to live it and they can either be a part of it or not.

Don't stress yourself out and waste years of your life trying to deal with people who won't change.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 7:46 AM on January 8, 2009


« Older I'm arguing with a conservativ...   |  NSFW male private part.... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.


Post