Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“I’m Losing My Parents To Their New Religion”

religious_symbols

I grew up in a very open household. My parents were very adamant about raising my brother and me to be tolerant people. We learned about different religions (though we grew up loosely Catholic), different cultures, and were taught to treat people equally and kindly. I always valued my upbringing and always say that the way my parents raised me allowed me to have a much broader and accepting worldview than those that were much more close-minded and judgmental in the small town where I grow up.

Having said that, in the past few years, my parents have gone through some extended family issues and as a result, have gotten extremely involved in a non-demoninational Christian church in my hometown, for what I assume was some sort of support during a tough time (I live about 5 hours away). Originally, I thought it was a great idea, since even though I don’t personally follow a religion, I know church can be a place for community and support. However, during this time, they have gotten increasingly judgmental and began referring to me as a “dangerous liberal” and worrying that they won’t see me in the afterlife since I’m doomed for eternity according to their pastor since I don’t follow their religion.

Religion and my beliefs now routinely come up in our conversations and I have gotten off the phone with them many times crying and angry due to yet another fight about something else. I was yelled at for my volunteer work with Planned Parenthood because my mother, who was very much into women’s rights when I was growing up, is disgusted with my current beliefs and works for her church’s “birth crisis center,” which essentially hands out misinformation to very scared mothers who come to Planned Parenthood to deter them from making an informed decision. They also rarely stop at religion in these arguments and start spreading hate about those of different races and cultures, and it’s awful to listen to. I’ve also had many visits with them ruined by a horrible fight that breaks out. I’ve tried many times to ignore their comments or change the topic, but somehow, I get sucked into this spiral with them.

Basically, I’m trying to figure out how to maintain a relationship with my family, whom I once held very close to my heart, when they have become such angry, hateful people. Due to some very strong domestic abuse and untreated mental health issues that are rampant in my family tree, I have very limited contact with my extended family and I do not want to lose contact with even more people. I am very much someone who values family above all else, so this has been a heartbreaking development to deal with. Any advice you have on dealing with this would be helpful. — Losing My Parents to Their Religion

I’m sorry to hear about your parents’ sudden change in demeanor, attitude, and values. It has to be unsettling at best, and I imagine your heart is breaking at the thought of losing the relationship you’ve always enjoyed with your parents. Fortunately, there’s still a chance that your parents will come to their senses and leave what sounds like some sort of cult. But you don’t have any control over that, and you don’t have any control over their behavior. All you can control is the way you react to them and how you choose to conduct yourself knowing what you know now about their current lifestyle, opinions, and values.

You know, for example, that any expression of values that differ from theirs will be challenged. So, choose not to express your values in such explicit terms. Stop talking about your volunteer work at Planned Parenthood. Keep conversations with them superficial or focused on topics that are still common ground. (IS there still common ground? Do you have shared hobbies or interests? Focus your relationship around those “safe” topics).

If you know you cannot resist joining a fight with them (“I’ve tried many times to ignore their comments or change the topic, but somehow, I get sucked into this spiral with them”), you need to take some responsibility for the fighting. WHY do you get sucked into the spiral with them? Do you feel you need to defend yourself? Do you feel like your words are going to change their minds? If you know what the outcome of your defensive arguments will be, change tactics. Fighting obviously isn’t working. Joining them in the spiral isn’t helping your relationship. So, try harder to resist joining them there. And if you simply cannot, then you may need to take a break from speaking to your parents until you think you have better self-control in the face of their religious nut-baggery, or limit your interactions with them to public spaces and events where personal boundaries might be respected a bit more.

I wish there were more I could offer you. But when you’re dealing with what sounds like highly vulnerable and irrational people who may or may not have untreated mental illness (you say it’s rampant in your family, so it’s possible your parents may be included in that group), there’s not much in your power to change or improve the situation. Your best bet is to maintain some communication with your parents — enough that you aren’t totally estranged — but create emotional distance to protect yourself from their madness and avoid being completely alienated by them. And then just keep your fingers cross (and pray if you’re the praying type) that, if they do, indeed, need mental treatment, they get it, that they are able to see the light and pull themselves out of the orbit they’ve lost themselves in, and that you can begin to rebuild your once-close relationship.

***************

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

19 comments… add one
  • avatar

    eelliinnss March 12, 2015, 9:13 am

    “Mom, Dad, what happened to all that stuff you taught me about tolerance and acceptance and understanding? What happened to being non-judgmental and kind toward people who are different from us? You taught me those things, and we all valued them, and the drastic change in your views confuses and upsets me. Why would you have taught me all of those things if you don’t believe them? Please help me understand.”

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    • avatar

      simonthegrey March 12, 2015, 7:51 pm

      Having been around people like this, they will say that in those times they did not realize the sin they believed in and that now they understand that was wrong. They will dismiss the beliefs of a lifetime because people are not good at accepting cognitive dissonance and confronting it.

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  • avatar

    Laura Hope March 12, 2015, 9:20 am

    Our family gatherings started getting so heated (fists almost started flying) that we made a rule–no politics or religion. That means I have a list of topics in my head to go to if anyone brings up forbidden topics. The list includes family memories, family history, movies, books, travel, health etc. If that doesn’t work, games like charades or Dix-It (great game that promotes emotional intimacy) or any game that involves interaction. If someone still tries to bring up politics, we have a go to phrase— “You’re not allowed”. I don’t know if this would work for your parents but it might be worth a try if they don’t want to lose you.

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  • FireStar

    FireStar March 12, 2015, 9:42 am

    How disappointing…and just plain sad. Maybe just have one last conversation on the topic and say “the values and beliefs I have are the ones you raised me with. I understand you’ve decided to embrace a different set of values now but I’m going to keep the ones you originally gave me. While the change in your values is distressing to me I understand that you are free to make your own decisions. As am I. My values aren’t up for discussion anymore.” Then sorry LW, you have to enforce that boundary. Which means changing the topic when they even hint at any of their nonsense, dismissing their point quickly and moving on, or hanging up the phone when they attempt to engage you. I know it is aggravating to have someone say something ridiculous that goes unchecked (I have a hard time with that too)…but you have to prioritize here. Is it more important to keep some type of relationship with these people (and secretly hope they leave their cult) or is it more important to insist you are right? FWIW I’m a huge fan of the ‘validated’ dismiss and move on. “We aren’t going to spend eternity with you because you believe in women’s rights!” “Yeah that sucks. Did you see Judge Judy this week – There was a woman on there that looked just like Aunt Irene!”

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  • avatar

    csp March 12, 2015, 10:03 am

    LW, I have dealt with this on a much smaller scale with my parents. I have found that as people get older, they get more jaded, scared, and conservative. I know that my mom voted for Bill Clinton and now she will make comments about President Obama that just make me shake my head. I think Fox News is rotting their brains. But, I just stay away from those conversations and realize that I love them more than my need to be right.

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    • avatar

      Miss MJ March 12, 2015, 12:12 pm

      Fox Rot is definitely a thing.

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      • othy

        othy March 12, 2015, 1:52 pm

        Yep, totally agreed. My dad suffers from it.

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      • Portia

        Portia March 12, 2015, 2:05 pm

        Oh my grandpa too! It’s terrible.

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  • avatar

    absurdfiction March 12, 2015, 10:11 am

    I don’t have much advice aside from try to avoid touchy subjects – and I like @eelliinnss’ script if you think it’s worth bringing up with them – but I can maybe offer a glimmer of hope? You said your parents joined this church in the midst of some sort of crisis. Has that crisis passed? It’s possible that in time they will not feel the need to be as involved in this church, once they feel more stable in their own lives. My mother joined a (slightly less rabid) evangelical church when I was a teenager when she and my father were separated. It was difficult to relate to her, because teenage absurdfiction was going through crisis at the time too, and reacted rebelliously. Whenever I got upset, she’d calmly reply, “I’ll pray for you,” which was maddening (again, teenage emotions…); if I swore with a “Jesus, Mom!” she would smugly reply, “He’s listening.” And forget talking about social or political issues. This was a big change from the casual, open-minded United Methodist upbringing they’d given me. Fortunately, my parents ended up reconciling a few years later, and while she still attends that same church pretty regularly, she is a completely different person. She questions her church’s stance on women in leadership roles, is an outspoken feminist, voted for Obama (after voting for Bush TWICE!), is open to gay marriage, and will have funny conversations with me about teenage hijinks (drug experimentation, sex, dumb decisions, etc.). I obviously can’t promise that will happen for your parents, but don’t lose hope that the people you have always known and loved are lost forever. You can’t force them to change back, but with time, patience, and maybe occasionally testing the waters by challenging them gently (if you’re up for it), you may be surprised.
    .
    I’m sorry you’re struggling with this. Good luck!

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  • avatar

    Sue Jones March 12, 2015, 11:05 am

    Maybe this website has some info. Mostly for parents to protect their kids from cults but maybe there are some tips for kids whose parents join a cult.
    http://www.familiesagainstcultteachings.org/

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  • Lyra

    Lyra March 12, 2015, 11:46 am

    Oh man. I’m one to defend organized religion, but this DEFINITELY is a cult with the guise of “non-denominational Christian” attached to it.
    .
    I’ve never gone through what you’re going through, but in my opinion you need to put your foot down. Have a conversation like people above have mentioned, but if you’re on the phone with them and they bring up the values discussion again and WON’T LET IT GO, calmly tell them you don’t want to talk about it. If the persist, tell them they knew you didn’t want to talk about it anymore, say goodbye, and hang up. If they won’t be rational, get yourself out of the situation by either hanging up or physically leaving their house if you’re visiting. They will probably notice and think that you’re being rude, BUT at the same time THEY are the ones who are being incredibly rude towards you right now. You need to get some space from them. Good luck!

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  • avatar

    MsMisery March 12, 2015, 12:13 pm

    I have no advice for you as I’ve gone through this, too, though not w/MY parents. My BFF of over 20 yrs, her parents joined a Baptist church seemingly out of the blue a few years ago after being life-long agnostics (her mom was raised Catholic, though, but didn’t raise her own kids with any particular religion). They’ve known ME for so long I’d called them mom and dad also. I used to go to secular Easter, Xmas, and Thanksgiving dinners at their house, just to escape my own crazy family. Then one day I am an “agent of Satan” who corrupts their baby daughter. There was no arguing with them, reasoning with them, or bargaining with them. My friend and I were going to hell because we were unbelievers and it was their new job to convert us at every turn. There was almost a whole year where we didn’t speak. They have calmed down a little, but it was very sad. Her dad used to be a very prolific and talented painter, but when he converted he got rid of all his paintings, knick-knacks, and books (thankfully I got some lovely original artwork and crystals). Now he only paints when moved by the spirit, and ironically the crystals I got from him are “evil.” Their personalities aren’t the same. They have numerous grandchildren but their lives are CONSUMED by church activities. My friend and I still hold out hope that whatever neural flicker caused this inexplicable overnight change will flick back and we will get our old parents back. Maybe it is getting older and a fear of death/the after-life. However, as I have explained to them, I feel even as a non-christian, I don’t live my life in a horrible sinful way. Atheists can still have morals and values. I am not afraid of what is going to happen when I die. I am sorry that they are so in fear. And I am even more sorrowful for the current state of our relationship, and their relationship with their actual (now estranged) family members.

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    • Lyra

      Lyra March 12, 2015, 7:07 pm

      Ok, playing devil’s advocate here…plenty of artists feel connection to God. Painters, musicians, etc. It’s not abnormal. I mean it sucks that their personalities have changed, but I’m pretty sure this wasn’t as out of the blue as it may have seemed to you. Maybe they retired and saw their friends being involved in church activities and they want that same connection.

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      • avatar

        MsMisery March 13, 2015, 11:22 am

        I am not trying to dis religious artistry. I just thought it was sad that he felt the need to get rid of all his old, “sinful/non-god” art. I mean, he was churning them out, too. And like almost everything else in their lives since getting involved in the church, it is something he almost never does now. Joining a church shouldn’t be at the expense of all other activities in life including seeing your family and BC friends.
        .
        And it kind of was that out of the blue. Sorry, I don’t know how to explain it to you any better, but he said he came across a *youtube video* regarding young earth creationism and decided, “yes, let’s be that.” It was nothing that was even close to his beliefs the previous day, week, year, or during the lifetime I’ve known him.

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  • avatar

    lurker March 12, 2015, 3:06 pm

    Two thoughts: The Dance of Anger and The Dance of Intimacy, both by Dr. Harriet Lerner, who was a psychologist at the Menninger Clinic for decades. They’re pretty much handbooks for exactly the situation you describe (and two of my go-to psychology books). Good luck!

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  • avatar

    va-in-ny March 12, 2015, 4:06 pm

    My brother recently married a woman and joined into her Fundamentalist church. (For those that are keeping track at home, my brother was the heroin addict, in and out of rehab one) I had never met this woman before he suddenly married her, but in order to keep a relationship with my brother, I accepted and have tried to make efforts to keep in touch. I thought that him joining a church with strict rules might help him to stay on the sober path. This, I told myself, is better than the alternative.
    .
    The other day, the SIL made several comments online about how shameful it is for women to wear pants, as it was “blurring the lines” of the rules that God put into place for men and women. That was my first real glimpse into the life that my brother has adopted. With this relationship, comes the intense relationship with God. What that means for the relationship that he’ll have with us, I’m not entirely sure. She hasn’t made any direct comments to me, but she has said inappropriate things to my sister, regarding things like short hair, red lipstick, shorts, etc. I do know that if there were ever a time where I was directly approached with comments about my “sinful heart” or “pant-wearing shame” I know that I would respond in a way that points out the sins of self-righteousness and judgement.
    .
    Basically, to your questions, I would simply try not to react, and if they pull you in to a debate, just respond with something like, “I appreciate your beliefs and support your choice to worship how you choose. I hope you can offer the same for me.”

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  • fast eddie

    fast eddie March 12, 2015, 8:08 pm

    As the child grows up and forms principles by which to live so do parents. The LW has to allow her folks to follow their own beliefs no matter how much she disagrees with them. This may not be apparent until she has children of her own. In the meantime the drama will continue unabated.

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  • avatar

    Anna March 12, 2015, 10:19 pm

    I’m sorry you’re going through this. My parents are the same way and they have always been this way. I began to have my own beliefs when I was in high school and it completely diminished our relationship because they’re too worried about trying to save my soul to think about having a relationship with me. Now that I live 600 miles away, we only talk on holidays and only about superficial topics like work and what everyone else in the family is up to. I hope for your sake that they start using their brains again and find the human compassion they used to have. Until then, prioritize your mental wellbeing and stop engaging these battles that can’t be won.

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  • Pheebers

    Pheebers March 13, 2015, 1:34 pm

    One of the most upsetting things in the world to me is parents turning their backs on their children because of religion. While I don’t exactly give someone a pass because of their upbringing, I try to be understanding…but when they used to be tolerant and then become rigid and judgmental? Short of the parents having mental illnesses, I will never understand or accept that.

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