Dahlia wrote a long and eloquent letter which I have edited and paraphrased for space reasons. For greater anonymity, I have changed her name.
I’m an 18 year old girl from Sweden and I’m in my last year in high school. I’m not really an atheist myself, but I have read Friendly Atheist for quite a while now and know that you give good advice. I’ve always found ways to solve my problems myself, but this is such a difficult problem at least for me.
You see, two years ago I met the most wonderful guy and we’ve been together ever since. He is the sweetest person and a really great guy who has been with me despite a lot of hardships, and if it isn’t already obvious I love him very much. The problem is that he is a Muslim and I come from a deeply fundamentalist Christian home. (Yes, we actually do have a few fundamentalists up here.) I’m not a fundamentalist myself, but my parents are, and they aren’t too happy about my choice of boyfriend.
They have grilled and browbeaten her, using emotional blackmail and have turned her younger sister and the whole family against her. They act distraught and say she’s “ruining their lives.” They have never met the young man, but they use the Bible to qualify their hatred for him. They have even mentioned committing suicide. The mother becomes hysterical and sometimes disappears from the house, forcing the father to go out searching for her.
Her grandmother has met him and thinks he’s a really great guy, saying she understands why Dahlia loves him.
Dahlia has tried to hold her own with her parents, presenting logical arguments to reassure them, but they are relentless in their irrational loathing and disapproval. She is still financially dependent on them and doesn’t really want to lose her family. Without the moral support of two friends, she thinks she would have broken up with her boyfriend just to have peace.
I’m under no delusion that my relationship with him will last forever anyway, but this isn’t really about him for me, it’s really about my own personal freedom, my right to write my own future free of my parents’ expectations and prejudices. Not that they could technically stop me, but I don’t want to hurt them. I don’t even want to think what would happen if on top of all this, they realized how I’m finding it harder and harder to believe in God, especially a personal one, but that’s a problem for another day.
I guess my question is how can I gain my freedom to follow my own path through the strange and varied forest that is life instead of the path of mundane predictability neatly laid out before me by my parents, without losing them, when rational arguments cut no ground and the Bible, which really isn’t on my side, reigns supreme?
I wish to extend my most gracious thank you in advance for helping people whom you don’t even know and likely never will know with problems which are none of your concern. So thank you for that, it is most altruistic.
Your parents are acting like little children. They appear to be far younger emotionally than you are. When grownups act like children, others can easily slip into acting like parents in response. It is important for you to respond to them as an adult but not as a parent. That would be stepping into a trap.
All these histrionics and other manipulations by your parents fall under the category of emotional blackmail, just as you have correctly labeled it. The basic idea is to try to get you to take responsibility for their hurt feelings and upset, and then use your guilt to make you comply with their wishes. In their more extreme attempts, they escalate to trying to get you to take responsibility for their actual safety, as if they are helpless children and you are the parent. This is the dynamic underlying the oh, so melodramatic tactics such as their remarks about suicide and your mother’s disappearing out of the house, essentially running away like a spoiled little girl. She vanishes thinking that you and your father will be alarmed, he will say something like “She’s in danger and it’s all your fault,” and you will cave in just to protect them from themselves. In a twisted way, that ends up putting you in the role of the dedicated parent and them in the role of your vulnerable children.
Sometimes this kind of manipulation can be stopped by confronting the perpetrators directly and overtly with the childish and selfish nature of their behavior, essentially shaming or embarrassing them into stopping. However, I don’t get the impression that that would work in this case. Your parent’s tactics are shameless.
So another way to deal with emotional blackmail is to ignore it. Like the flu, you suffer at first, but then you become immune to it. It only works on the victim if she keeps taking that first step and agreeing that she is more responsible for what goes on inside someone else’s brain than they are. This is not about becoming cold and uncaring. It’s about staying inside your head and taking care of your feelings. You can care about someone else’s feelings, but you cannot take care of their feelings. That’s their job.
When your parents try to provoke you or guilt trip you, maintain your equanimity. Show no frustration or upset. Respond as if they just said something that has nothing to do with you, and is of no interest to you. Say something like,
“Uh huh. Okay I’m going out now and I’ll be back in the afternoon. I Love you, Mom and Dad. Bye.”
Have no hint of disdain or contempt in your voice. You must sound emotionally neutral, as if you were discussing what to pick up at the market. This is what I mean by playing the role of adult instead of the parent or the child. Always include the “I love you, Mom and Dad,” because that is still an important part of the truth you’re saying. You’re just also showing that you’re not going to play their game.
Completely disregard their invitations to argue with them. You’ve already tried your best rational arguments, and they didn’t work. If they say something that is none of their business, you act as if they didn’t say it at all. Ignore anything childish or parental or antagonistic that they say. You only respond to respectful adult speech from them, and you always speak to them as a respectful adult.
Free yourself of the fear of “losing them.” That vague, scary idea could run you around like a frantic slave. Whatever “losing” actually means in real terms is probably not that likely when you really look at it. Keep in mind that underneath their obsession with controlling you they probably have an awful fear of losing you.
When things are less emotionally charged, you might be able to reassure them, in adult-to-adult terms, that you aren’t rejecting them, you’re asserting yourself. If there is to be real peace in your family again, it is not going to be because they accept a boyfriend. It will be because they accept you as an independent adult. Be patient. That may take some time, and it is usually gradual. The last growing up that parents do is to relate to their children as adults. Even if they never do, you must relate as an adult to them.
I think you are wise to acknowledge that your relationship with your boyfriend is not likely going to last forever, and that this is really a larger issue about your independence in general. You’re also wise to not discuss the matter of your fading belief in God until that process runs whatever course it will, and it becomes much clearer in your own mind.
Dahlia, You want your freedom to follow your own path. That is for adults, so play the part. You said that they can’t actually stop you anyway. You’re not yet financially independent, but you can be emotionally independent. Regardless of whatever dramas others choose to play out, walk your path with the composure, poise and dignity of a woman who is her own person. I think you have all that it takes.
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