I have been depressed off and on for the thirty years since I joined the Church and almost ten years before that when I wanted to join. I was a teenager at the time and due to opposition and threats from my parents, waited until I married. Since the time my husband and I were baptized, we have been obtusely criticized/put down, not invited to certain family gatherings but required at others, and our Church activity ignored.
I can’t believe we took this treatment all these years. It makes me wonder what is wrong with me. I can now see the effect it has had on one of our children and our family as a whole. Recently one morning I awoke and realized that I didn’t have to take the disrespect and unsupportive behavior. In fact, I told the Lord I can’t do it anymore. I am not speaking to my extended family – all whom have been involved in this to one degree or another. I never talked to a Church leader until last year as I had become suicidal. He was gentle and very understanding and said that I could “honor them from afar.” Am I sinning? My parents are in their eighties and I realize they will not change. Their opinions and beliefs are more important than a relationship with me. Where do I put my guilty feelings? I have turned into a pariah in the extended family but do not try to defend myself because I have seen that doesn’t change minds or hearts.
It is sad to hear when family relationships are a source of anxiety and depression instead of love and support. Unfortunately, in many cultures (including Mormonism) people choose their belief systems and traditions over the more important Christ-like acceptance of their loved ones. This happens all too often when family members choose something “different” within the issues of religious dogma, sexual orientation, traditional/cultural mores, prescribed behaviors, etc.
There is a great family theorist by the name of Murray Bowen who speaks of “differentiation.” This is where an individual can be comfortable within their individuality AND be comfortably connected to their family. It is where family members are mutually respectful, can set and adhere to appropriate boundaries, and the family system does not need to “fall apart” just because a member chooses to behave outside of the prescribed “family rules.” There is tolerance in this type of system. There is room for differing thoughts, ideas, beliefs and behavior even when disagreements are present. “I can be connected to you without needing to think, act and believe as you do.” The more differentiated we are, the healthier the family system.
The alternatives on both sides of this spectrum are individuality (only the needs of the individual are deemed important at the expense of the family) and enmeshment (the needs of the family take precedence over an individual’s). Families are in a continual dance somewhere along the fluidity of this continuum. When families are “rigid” then the system is not fluid. It cracks under pressure. When families are “disengaged” they are not connected enough to even know where they stand with one another. When families are “enmeshed” they cannot function individually without affecting the entire system. These are all terms that can be helpful in understanding family dynamics. We want to be shooting for terms such as “flexible” and “connected.”
We are commanded to honor our parents, specifically. So, how do we go about defining the word “honor.” Is it “honorable” to allow inappropriate or abusive behavior? Is it “honorable” to meet another’s needs at the continual expense of our own? Is it “honorable” to not be true to oneself? My answer to all of this is a resounding NO.
So, how DO we go about showing respect?
You have the right to set the types of boundaries you expect to be treated by along with the consequences if they are not respected (i.e. “I will not allow family members to put my religion down in front of me or my children. If they want to have a respectful discussion then we can do that in a setting that is appropriate. Due to the protection of myself and my children, I will sadly not be able to attend family gatherings if this is not adhered to. I hope you can understand why this is important to me because our relationship is also important and I would prefer to stay connected. I cannot, however, stay connected at the expense of myself or my children.”) We can make these types of statements in a direct and loving way – controlling our facial expressions, tone and volume of voice, and reactivity to their response. This can be done face-to-face, over a telephone call, and/or in letter form. It can be done with each family member individually that you need to address or in a family meeting.
You cannot control other people’s behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Your family may or may not respect your wishes. You need to be prepared that as you begin to set appropriate boundaries you are in essence changing the “dance” everyone is accustomed to. Toes will be stepped on and squacking noises will be made. Families react to unwanted change much like a toddler temper tantrum. But much like with toddlers, as long as you keep your cool and keep to your guns, the tantrums diminish in length and in volume over time. Defending self, begging and pleading are unnecessary to this process and are usually ineffectual.
We are respectful to others by allowing and insisting them to be respectful to us. When we allow others to treat us with disrespect, we enable incorrect behavior. This helps no one in the journey towards progression.
I will warn that people who choose a complete cutting of the ties, “cut-off”, usually do not find themselves in a healthy position either. It is amazing how much power an extended family can have over your psyche and your own family dynamics even when you haven’t spoken to or seen them for years. It may come to the point of not being able to speak to or have contact with toxic family members – however, the communication around boundary-setting should be tried first.
Honoring your parents includes respectfully standing up to them, disagreeing with them, being thankful for the things they were able to do for you, forgiving them for the things they fell short on, being polite, not disparaging them in front of others, treating them with honorable communication skills, etc. Honoring them never entails dishonoring yourself or allowing yourself or your children to be dishonored.
As you embrace this process you will find it much easier to let go of inappropriate guilt and levels of depression should improve. You will feel empowered in the knowledge that you are creating a healthier state for yourself and your family overall. Please be patient with yourself through this process. If you continue to have suicidal feelings, please get professional help. This is not a problem worthy of your self-destruction.
What advice do you have for this situation?
How have you dealt with similar situations in your own life?
How do you define the commandment “honor thy father and mother?”
Natasha Helfer Parker is a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist and a member of the Church with 13 years of experience working with LDS members. Here she shares with us representative cases from her practice and insights she has gained from her work as a therapist. She blogs at mormontherapist.blogspot.com.