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Today’s guest column was written by Samantha Garrison who writes the budget lifestyle blog PoorGoop.com, parodying Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop newsletter.
That night in the hotel room with my parents – they were visiting from out of town – I started fidgeting as they directed the conversation toward the question I knew they’d never ask directly. They asked if my boyfriend was still rooming with his college friend in their shared North Hollywood apartment. I took a breath, willing back tears into my eyes: “Actually, their lease was up, and Paul and I talked about it, and he’s staying with me. We haven’t decided if it’s temporary or not.”
Communicating to my very Baptist parents that I was cohabiting with my significant other – a man that they do not “approve of” because he and I don’t share the same religious beliefs – was honestly one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had. That moment took months of preparation — with my therapist, with my significant other, and with help from my friends. Perhaps because it’s regarded as such a taboo, cohabitation is rarely talked about in religious circles. It’s such a big decision, and with lack of support or even outright opposition, it can become a minefield for a couple from religious families. I’ve compiled a list of five key things I learned on this journey of “coming out” to my parents – things that helped me through this time, and have helped me to maintain a good relationship with my family, my church, my God and my significant other:
1. Make your living situation a “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenario.
Yes, this was a bad idea in the military, but your relationship is your personal life. You don’t have to disclose. Remember, though, that choosing not to disclose is different from hiding it or lying. If someone asks you directly, or, if, like my parents, they put you in a situation where you have to tell, be honest. This serves the twofold purpose of showing that you’re not embarrassed of your relationship and that you still have integrity.
2. Communicate with your significant other that this will be an issue.
Paul has known from the beginning that I am a religious person. I attend church on the weekends, I pray all the time, and I am involved in the occasional Bible study. He also knows that my parents are far more conservative in their Christian views. Part of our discussion when he moved in was the fear I felt about explaining this decision to my family. I had no idea how they would react, and I was actually quite fearful. He knew, having met them previously, that they would not be forming a Paul Fan Club anytime soon, and that our decision to live together would affect not only our relationship, but my relationship with my parents as well. Because he knew up front, he was able to help me through what has proven to be quite a life-changing moment, and his obvious support has made it difficult for anyone to doubt the strength and quality of our relationship.
3. Find a good support group, beyond your significant other, to help with this transition.
For me, that support group was my therapist, a really understanding friend from church, and a few close friends outside of the church. With my therapist, I had practice conversations with my parents, creating an approach that would allow me to feel confident in myself and maintain my autonomy. She also helped me with the shame I felt defying years of indoctrination. It’s hard to separate your personal choices from the politics of church, but my therapist helped me to see that my choice, my very personal choice, was not hurting anyone and was between me and Paul, and that my perceived defiance of faith was between me and my God.
My good friend from church assured me that I was not alone in my dilemma – that there were others in our congregation who are sexually active, in mixed-faith relationships, or living with significant others. It’s so reassuring to learn I’m in good company, and that I am not defined by this one action, even if it may be morally wrong to many.
4. Don’t get defensive.
It’s so tempting, when you’re being called out for sinning by a fellow church-goer, to immediately respond in kind. Don’t. Turn away. If you can’t turn away, turn the other cheek and let them keep going while you think of your grocery list or whatever else can occupy your mind. Tell them, if they persist in admonishing you: “This is between me and God. Believe it or not, we still talk.” Come from a place of goodness and love, even when you’re being confronted. Stay away from people who cannot see you behind your perceived sin. They’re not worth your time anyway, because you’re more than a relationship or an address or a non-marital status.
5. Remember that people enact their religious beliefs differently, even within the same religion, and that tolerance is a two-way street.
My parents will never agree with my decision. I can continually try to change their mind, repeatedly bringing light to our contention, or I can accept this, just as they accepted my decision without approving of it. We are moving on from that conversation – hell, we moved on pretty well that night, grabbing cocktails in the bar and talking about bad movies. I have several friends who are probably unhappy about my choice to live with Paul, but again, I know that we are friends for bigger reasons than an address and my choice of roommate. Unless someone is continually harassing you (see #4), don’t try to change their opinion. People will believe what they want, and as long as it’s not outwardly harmful (DOMA, all these birth control debates, etc.), it is best to live and let live.
This is still a journey in progress – the transition has not been easy. Every day, I question my decision; it’s so easy to fall into a guilt-trap. But following the suggestions above, talking to people I trust and remembering to love first and judge later, has helped me to be confident in my decision. I love Paul, I love my family, and I love God. I should not have to choose between them to have peace in my life – in fact, that is my choice. Creating my own peace is a tough process, but it has helped me to grow both in my relationships and my faith.
* Samantha Garrison is a creative executive and assistant at a production company in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a screenwriter and producer. Currently, she runs the budget lifestyle blog PoorGoop.com, parodying Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop newsletter.