COLUMN By RICHARD WADE
Apr. 14, 2010
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Names are randomly changed for added anonymity.
I'm an 18-year-old girl from Sweden and in my last year in high school. Two years ago, I met the most wonderful guy and we've been together ever since. He 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 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.
My parents are browbeating me, telling me I'm "ruining their lives" and trying to turn my younger sister against me. They have never met my boyfriend, but they cite the Bible to qualify their hatred for him. Often their behavior frightens me–my mother will sometimes become hysterical and disappear from the house, and both my parents have mentioned committing suicide.
I've tried to hold my own, presenting logical arguments to reassure them that my boyfriend is a good person, but they are relentless in their irrational loathing and disapproval. I probably would have broken up with my boyfriend already just to have peace if it wasn't for the moral support of my friends and my grandmother, who approve of the relationship.
I'm under no delusion that my relationship with by boyfriend will last forever, but I feel standing up for the relationship is important for my own personal freedom, my right to write my own future free of my parents' expectations and prejudices. However, I also really don't want to hurt my parents and I'm still financially dependent on them. My question is, how can I assert my freedom to follow my own path without losing my parents, especially when my rational arguments cut no ground with them because they believe the Bible reigns supreme?
Your parents are acting like children, and emotionally they appear to be far younger 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.
Your parents are trying to get you to take responsibility for their hurt feelings and then use your guilt to make you comply with their wishes. 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 about their childish and selfish behavior. However, I don't get the impression that would work in this case. Your parents' tactics are shameless.
So another way to deal with this kind of emotional blackmail is to ignore it. Like the flu, you suffer at first, but then you become immune to it. 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.
To be clear, this is not about becoming cold and uncaring. You can care about someone else's feelings, but you cannot take care of their feelings. That's their job. Always include the "I love you, Mom and Dad" part of the message to show you do love them, you just won't play their game.
Completely disregard invitations to argue with them. You've already tried your best rational arguments and they didn't work. If they ask about something that is none of their business, act as if they didn't say anything at all. Ignore anything they say that's childish or antagonistic. Only respond to respectful adult speech and always speak to them as a respectful adult.
Free yourself from 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. Keep in mind that underneath their obsession with controlling you, your parents probably have an awful fear of losing you.
When things are less emotionally charged, you might be able to reassure them that you aren't rejecting them, you're just 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. That may take some time and it is usually gradual, so prepare to be patient.
Dahlia, you want freedom to follow your own path. That freedom is for adults, so play the part. 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.
Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.