I came out as an atheist to my ultra-Catholic parents about a year ago. Surprisingly, my Dad has been very understanding. I had to move back in with my parents because I am in my last quarter of undergrad. My mother, despite her knowledge of my atheism was under the impression that I would be attending church on Sunday. Needless to say, we’ve had many fights about it. She’s pulled out many neo-con hot words like how I’m undermining “the Family Unit” and that I “Hate Family.” She constantly victimizes herself claiming that I’m allowed to be an atheist, but that my refusal to go to church is a “slap in the face” to her and how she thinks that I’m claiming that she’s wrong (which I do think, but, there is always the chance I’m wrong, no matter how much evidence is on my side). To be frank, this is why I don’t debate Christians like many atheists do, in my experience it is always a losing battle. With those who are committed, I’ve found, there will be NO changing their mind. How do I avoid this incredibly harmful and annoying conflict? I have committed myself to my family in nearly every way, always being there and helping as best I can. Yet, I’ve been told that my request to have this one area of my life left to my discretion is “wrong,” a “slap in the face,” and “selfish.” What do you do when you feel your parents are less emotionally mature than you are? I only have a few weeks left before I leave town for good, but my girlfriend and I (both atheists) will be getting married soon and I am weary of a renewed conflict. Basically, how do I create a safe space for myself, my worldview, and my spouse in the face of mounting intolerance?
Thanks for any help.
I’d rather call you Facing it Bravely.
The best thing for you to do is exactly what you’re about to do. Move out and build your own family. Physical distance and financial independence will help a great deal in creating that safe space for you and your spouse to be true to your own views and values.
Definitely don’t give in and go to church if you don’t wish to. You’re on the eve of establishing your independent life, and you should start drawing clear boundaries now. Otherwise, your mother will continue to try to intrude and to boss you and your spouse around about a hundred things, not just church. The family you will create will be a sovereign country. Others are welcome to visit only on condition of their acceptable and respectful behavior. You can probably continue to have contact and interaction with your parents, but only within the limits of common courtesy, which you will need to enforce consistently.
Your mother is attempting to control you and to win a power struggle with what is probably her favorite technique, the guilt trip. I suspect that she has done this for many years with all sorts of issues, from eating your vegetables, to now your religious views, and if it hasn’t happened yet, perhaps even your choice of spouse.
By portraying your personal viewpoint as if it’s a hateful assault on her or others, as if it’s hurting the family or even the institution of family, she is attempting to put you on the defensive, having to prove that you’re not the villain she is saying you are.
Think of it as a bear trap with crap for bait. Don’t step in it!
Arguing with her will only feed her doing it more. Any angry reaction, or a detailed argument back means you’re defending yourself, and by defending yourself you are, in her mind, confirming your guilt. As you have very correctly said, once you engage in such an argument, you’re in a losing battle. By reacting to it, you’re just asking for more.
Instead, develop a couple of single-sentence dismissals that you repeat in a calm voice whenever necessary. Something like, “That’s an obvious guilt trip, Mom, and I’m not buying a ticket.” or “That’s a silly thing to say, so I’m not going to argue with you.” It’s not an argument, it’s a dismissal. It is essential that you deliver it word-for-word, exactly the same each time without any anger or contempt or tension in your voice, just a quiet tone of calm disinterest. Then walk away.
This will take patience and practice on your part. She knows all your buttons and she may try to push any of them. For instance, you said “I have committed myself to my family in nearly every way, always being there and helping as best I can.” You rightly gain some self esteem from knowing that you have been a good and helpful part of the family. Any insinuation that you are derelict or disloyal will hurt your feelings, and will tempt you to react. Don’t! Just use your calm, cool, emotionless dismissal sentence and then walk away.
Having been brought up by a guilt tripper, you probably know how to do it yourself, and you might be tempted to reciprocate. Don’t, don’t, don’t!
If she changes her tactics and tries a more grown up approach, consider responding in kind only if she is being respectful. But be careful to remain calm, and the moment she reverts to the guilt-tripping or the button-pushing, use your unperturbed dismissal sentence and then walk away.
Your goal is not to change her opinion, only to change these specific behaviors of hers. It is basic behavioral modification: The organism eventually ceases the behavior if there is no more satisfying reinforcement. Reacting to her with anger or argument is the reinforcement. That’s why it is very important to be consistent and not slip into that. Giving intermittent reinforcement really slows down the process of extinguishing the behavior.
Now we should take a moment to try to empathize with your mom. I’m not talking about the church attendance, but about an underlying issue that may be giving at least some of the passion to her attempts to manipulate and control you.
Even when we are in a conflict with someone, if we can empathize with them, understanding the emotions and needs that drive their behavior, we can be more patient with them, and we can respond with more effective ways of resolving the conflict.
You are graduating. You’re leaving. You’re growing up and starting your own life with your own spouse, your own home, and your own means of support. Your mother can no longer play the role of parent. She senses that she is losing her control of you, so she’s increasing her efforts. But from now on, you will only respond to her as an adult to an adult, rather than as a child to a parent. That is very often an extremely difficult thing for parents to do, to stop behaving as parents and to transition to relating to their children as adults. The parental instinct to protect, provide, teach, guide and control their offspring is extremely strong, and even the most enlightened parents can have some difficulty adjusting when their kids grow up.
So it’s important to remember that just as you are not a villain, neither is your mom.
She is caught up in a cherished role that is being taken away from her, she is caught up in beliefs and prejudices that cause her anguish, and she is caught up in old habits of manipulation that worked in the past but are no longer workable.
This is where the teaching and guiding starts to flow in the opposite direction. By consistently responding to your mom and dad as an adult to adults, and by not responding to them when they try to relate to you as parents to a child, you will be subtly but powerfully helping them into their new relationship and role. This is often a very slow and bumpy process, so expect gradual results.
Facing it Bravely, loving your parents does not necessarily include liking them. Sometimes there are just too many differences for a friendship with someone whom you love for very primal reasons. The essential ingredient of such a familial love is not agreement but understanding. Treat them respectfully and expect respectful treatment back, but you must live true to your own principles. Perhaps there will eventually be a more amiable bond between you.
I wish you and your spouse all the best as you embark on your voyage, and I wish your parents contentment and serenity as they settle into their new roles of adults relating to their adult son.