Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
I grew up in a seriously fundamentalist Christian home (e.g. we weren’t allowed to watch most kinds of TV or be good friends with non-Christians). Since leaving home, I’ve become an atheist and come out as a lesbian. My relationship with my mom has become so strained that it’s hard to carry on a conversation without either of these things being brought up. I want to be respectful of what she believes, but I don’t feel like she’s making the same sort of effort. She’s always blurting out prayers or casting demons out of me or telling me about a guy at her church that God told her I should date. I’ve discussed how her actions make me feel, but she believes that she’s right and I’m wrong, and I’m going to hell. It would be simple to not talk to her anymore, but I don’t want to isolate myself from my roots, and I’m hoping that eventually she’ll come around to at least respecting my point of view. I wonder if you can suggest any way that I can gain her respect without compromising who I am.
Thanks so much!
The first thing you should do is to sort out the important difference between respecting someone’s beliefs or point of view, and treating them respectfully. By trying to respect your mom’s beliefs and hoping that she will respect your point of view, you are asking for more than either of you can provide.
You can’t be respectful of what she believes. I’m sure that you find your mother’s beliefs absurd at the very least. Her behaviors that you described sound downright bizarre. You aren’t going to be able to respect those things. You can respect her Constitutional right to have those beliefs, and you can treat her respectfully, as in not losing your temper and finally screaming something like,
“Mom, spouting prayers out of context is crazy! You’re not an exorcist! Believing in demons is wacko! About homosexuality, you’re superstitious and ignorant! God is not running a dating service by whispering boy’s names in your ear!”
I’m guessing that statements like those are closer to your true opinions and feelings about her beliefs than something like,
“Mom, I really respect your beliefs about religion, demons, my sexual orientation, and God’s preference for whom I should date, and I hope that you respect my opinions about those things, which are of course, the exact opposite.”
That isn’t going to work, is it? Neither of you are going to be able to genuinely hold each other’s opinions in reverence or high esteem. You both think the other is dead wrong, and that is not going to change unless someone has a very powerful turnaround. On the other hand, letting fly with your frank disrespect for her beliefs is just going to provoke more conflict and hurt feelings.
You say you want to gain her respect without compromising who you are. You’re probably not going to get that unless she compromises who she is. That does not seem likely for the foreseeable future. From what you describe, it appears that rational discussion, informative instruction, reasoned persuasion, and heartfelt sharing have not resulted in her respecting you, who you are, what you are, or what you think and feel.
So instead, shift your efforts to aim for treating each other respectfully. Focus on behaviors instead of thoughts, beliefs and opinions. In both of your cases, this is going to be mostly about what not to say. Follow a regime of behavior modification:
When she brings up your sexuality or your atheism, quietly say something like, “Mom, that is not your concern, and we just fight about it. Instead, let’s talk about…” (Have some topic pre-selected that you can both share pleasantly.)
When she tells you whom you should date, (with or without the recommendation of the Almighty) gently say something like, “Mom, my friends have to be my choice. You don’t choose your friends in order to please me, so don’t ask me to choose my friends in order to please you.”
In all these scenarios, you’re not respecting what she’s doing or believing, but you are treating her respectfully, and you’re asserting your right to be treated respectfully as well. Keep your voice calm, without tension, irony or sarcasm in the tone.
Now here is where the behavior modification comes in. She’s probably not going to immediately stop that stuff. So when she persists after your polite and respectful request, you have to provide the reinforcement. Immediately stand up and quietly say, “Mom, I’m leaving now because you’re still doing that. I’ll come back some other time and we’ll try again.” Then quietly leave. Don’t storm out, don’t slam the door. Model in every detail of your own behavior the respectful, adult behavior that you want her to show you.
Drive off slowly, park your car around the corner and then you can scream your head off and pound the steering wheel, letting off steam. After you have vented, you may notice a sense of empowerment and validation. You have asserted your right for respectful treatment, and you have done it in a completely respectful way. The fact that she didn’t give it to you is not the point at this early stage. You have given it to her.
There is no guarantee that this will change her behavior, and if it does it will likely take some time. You will probably have to patiently repeat your respectful requests and repeat your respectful reinforcement many times. But each time you will also be reinforcing in yourself a calm strength, a gentle self confidence and a patient good will. Eventually, when you don’t have to reinforce by leaving, you may be able to stay and reinforce her better behavior with smiles, laughter and hugs. Even though your initial goal was to modify her behavior, the more important change will have taken place in you.
Monica, this has nothing to do with either of you respecting beliefs or opinions that you find ridiculous or highly objectionable. It is only about what you and she are doing with each other. In the final analysis, that is what is real about people. We are what we do. We may think, feel, and believe all sorts of things, but our actuality is made of our actions, and our relationships are made of our interactions.
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