Wouldn’t life be so simple if one could change ones circle of humans as easily as one changes beliefs. It’s true, you can leave the organizations and external structures behind when you experience a crisis of faith or belief, but connections to those with whom you have shared experiences all your life are not so easily severed. And they shouldn’t be. Family love, is by design, something that should be unconditional and stable. It should be a point of safety for children, and reliable support for parents. We were not meant for island existence. Humans are structured for community. We can’t even procreate without a pair of people coming together in some way. Evidenced by biology alone, no one arrives by stork. Parents and children exist in all cultures.
There are moments in my own rethinking when I wondered if I shouldn’t abandon the “difficult” family relationships that were strained by my personal metamorphosis. At points, it was my children that kept me there. The frustration is real. When your theology changes, your whole world view takes a pretty substantial shift. For someone outside yourself to understand this is pretty insurmountable, especially at the beginning of your journey. Conversations are tense, and confronting dysfunction is uncomfortable.
I think the most important realization I had was that as it was my prerogative to change, it was their right to remain the same. They don’t have to move with me. They don’t have to agree with me. They don’t even have to agree to disagree. None of that means that a relationship doesn’t need to redefine its boundaries in order to function with some degree of peace in a time of upheaval. It is merely an understanding that expecting someone else to function outside their paradigm for my comfort is not love. When it’s an organization, an institution, or a relationship involving only you and one other person, physical distance and even cutting someone off is a possibility. When it is family, and you have children, a spouse, or even close family friends in the mix, it is not enough to label things toxic and then expect them to accept your position, or deal with your absence. Leaving religion is a bit like divorce. You can leave the relationship but the person you leave is still a part of you, and if you share children, they are never really gone. The human connection doesn’t tie you to the belief, but it does keep you entwined with the people.
Entwined, but not enmeshed. Ooo. That’s a whole subject in itself. There is overlap, like in the weave of fabric or a basket, but it’s not fused, like a nylon chord at the melting point when exposed to flame. One and independent. So you can say, same material, repurposed, no longer a part of the basket, engaged in a new role. You can also say, “here is what that looks like, for me,” but you can’t tell the other person how to make an accommodation for your absence in their framework. Believe me. I tried. I asked for some subjects to be silenced. I asked for some beliefs not to be challenged. I asked for some conversations to not be had in front of my children. I asked for some subjects to be eliminated from conversations with my children. I am aware of the trauma that asks for lines to be drawn. I have it. My kids have it. And some of my requests were very solidly backed by trigger issues. Some of them still are, and it is important to verbalize those needs so that healing can occur.
Healing. Love. Wellness. Wholeness. Here is where your personal growth and decisions are going to need to match your expectations of others if your relationships are going to survive. If you left religion because you could not find love in the institution, or you were wounded there, and could not thrive… and I think, for most people who have, and still believe in something, that is a big part of it… then the life you live now should be a reflection of your desire to grow. Not for others to grow to accommodate where you are now, to coddle you in immaturity, or cater to your wounds and “let you be,” but for you to grow. You will not gain the support of the people in your world with blame, name calling, and a general attitude that these humans who raised you, are, due to their own indoctrination and beliefs, toxic. They did the best they could with what they had. They are still doing the best they can. Granted, there is a space in which abuse should be addressed. And some behaviour in religious circles is definitely abusive. If that is going on, there is a need for a severance. However… in the context of family, where this is not the case, and there is just a degree of fundamentalism that strains peace, there is another approach available.
Set the boundaries. Ask them to focus on the Love of God for all if they need to mention God, and leave out the “but(s).” This can be especially helpful for grandparents who want to help your kids find faith, and feel like there is a piece of themselves they can’t share with you or your kids without it. Remember that this is their expression of spirituality. If you could control the narrative around what parts of your parents theology you want your kids to grasp, what would it be? I have a few things on my list that I want reinforced for my kids. They are loved without condition. God is a good Father, utterly trustworthy, and always loving. They are designed with purpose, uniquely and with specific gifts. They are never alone. God is one with all he made. There is unity, and oneness. We can see the beauty and ingenuity of our creator in nature. Ask for help with the positive role of relaying the common belief to your children.
If you lean more towards agnosticism, be honest with yourself about the reality that your kids might decide to believe in God at one point, and there are some positives that you would rather have them basing that decision on than the negatives that made you run from belief. Some people don’t want to use gender references in regards to God, or even see anything beyond a force. All of this is ok.
Have the discussions with your family, or close friends, about what your comfort levels are. But keep in mind, they don’t have any other language to speak about God with. This is still their paradigm. If you met a stranger and they were referencing their spirituality with you, would you expect them to use language that suited you? Would you require a vetting of vocabulary prior to their conversation with your children? Do you expect those who educate your children to explain everything they way you would? Or do you have conversations with your kids about what they learn from other people? Do you sort through your own conversations with others and decide what to let go or internalize? Or is everyone in your life, from stranger to intimate lover labelled toxic and abandoned if they don’t agree with you?
If that is the case, then working on yourself is the first order of business, because everyone on earth does not have it in for you. Every conversation cannot be the intentional “triggering” of your trauma. Strangers can’t do that. Someone telling their story can’t do that. The thing that makes everything a “trigger” is the unaddressed state of your own inner being. All of your relationships with humans will be unduly stressed if your own wounds need attention.
If you have moved past that, here are some healthy suggestions to make use of the conversations that happen in relationships you don’t want to let go of, but have a tendency to get awkward from time to time.
Learn to separate the person from the belief. Chances are you do this with strangers all the time. It’s easy to believe that someone we don’t know has the best of intentions… why would this person who raised us and protected us from burning our hands on the stove suddenly have it in for our kids because they present a differing world view? We think it’s heinous, they think it’s love. And they’re also scared that our rosy, relaxed outlook is robbing their grandkids of eternity. If something you don’t believe comes up at school, we talk to our kids about it. If we think our neighbour’s political views are wrong, we talk to our kids about it. We don’t teach the kids to think the neighbours or teachers are toxic or dangerous, we teach them to think for themselves. The same principle applies when helping kids sort through the religious views of the unavoidable people in their lives.
I’ve used the debrief from conversations significant family or friends have had with my kids to teach them how to separate people they love from beliefs they hold. To accept that some people speak a certain way because their world view has made their focus narrow, or beliefs unbending. It’s reality that can happen to anyone, and is not limited to religion. Every time we abandon commonality and unity for the comfort of our own personal soap box, we leave space for discord and disconnection. The content of specific conversations might not even be a reflection on their holistic world view, and might reveal a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. This is a great place to begin discussions about the result of drawing isolated conclusions and forming behavioural expectations for other people based on the thoughts or interpretations of others while disengaged from context, logic, or reasoning. It can also be an opportunity to talk about how to ask intelligent questions in moments of misunderstanding, and receive answers without taking them personally. It’s part of learning critical thinking skills rather than just engaging in criticism. It creates empathy to learn how to put oneself in another's shoes.
Fear of being misunderstood has created a wave of individuals creating borders where boundaries should exist. People are perpetually adamant in our present era, and quick to judge each other despite the cultural push for inclusion of every identity possible. Think of the recontextualization of history, some valid, some absurd, but all set in motion by a new awareness of race and gender issues. Most people look for balance, but we all dance around the politically incorrect phrases we used to use flippantly. It's changed the use of idiomatic expressions. Assumptions are made about our heart attitudes all the time over verbal slips. We have moved from being just male or female to having a myriad of gender identities and sexual preferences, all seeking specific acknowledgement and affirmation. How we respond to that creates connection or division depending on our bubble. The Covid virus started another culture war between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. The polarization is so distracting that the general populous doesn’t even see the potential loss of rights, another sub category of division and dissension. People need someone to be right or wrong. And we need to fit. We need our position justified. It’s almost a desperation because we don’t know how to go within for security so we look for external boundaries. Actually, we call them boundaries, but they are really borders, clearly marked lines one is expected not to cross at the risk of offending someone else. Enforcing protection of such lines, is the relational equivalent of a country’s border control, except trespassers are just labelled toxic and abandoned, never understood or quite heard.
I used to think boundaries were things you announced and expected outside action on. I’m finding that to be only part of the conversation. Boundaries are internal lines we make for ourselves which we will not cross. They are the result of the assessment of our own worth and value. The expression of the needs of the self to the heart of the self. An invisible, spiritual wall, penetrable only by our granting permission. They are the result of heathy self awareness and emotional intelligence. Learning their role is part of becoming a mature human, and teaching children how to use them helps them build appropriate intimacy in their relationships so that they learn how to properly listen to, and know others. If we have poor boundaries, we tend to require borders… and sometimes people require borders to deal with our bad behaviour. Our trauma does not give us permission to run roughshod over everyone who disagrees with us.
Good boundaries are about where I belong in the context of my relationships. I alone know my needs. I know which wounds are in need of healing. I know which people help that process, and which people make me want to run and hide. I don’t share everything with everyone. That’s like stopping and hazard signalling in the middle of a controlled intersection and expecting people to miss you. It’s not even that they’re habitually bad drivers if they don’t… it’s more that you parked in a bad place… they’re trained to watch for the intersection lights.
Take yourself where you need to be, for you. If you need to heal so everything is not a trigger, get yourself into therapy. If you need to be apart from your family for a while so that you can delineate between their belief and the relationship, and see your interaction clearly, growing increasingly able to see your part in conflict (even if that has been in placing your personal boundaries in unpleasant places, constructing borders instead), than do it. Resist the urge to slap a “toxic” label on loved ones and run. That tends to box both of you into poor patterns. If you weren’t parented well, learn to parent your inner child well. You know what he or she needed to hear, You know where the lies were placed. You know where your wounds are. Heal. Nothing banishes dysfunction like healing from it.
Let your own wellness flow into your parenting. Teach your kids about internal boundaries. Emotionally train them to separate the judgment of others from their view of self. You are having to do it in your healing process. Let them learn it with you. Teach them that growth and change is healthy. Beautiful. Teach them that relationships are worth preserving, not because you agree with people, but because you LOVE them. Teach them that when you followed Love out of the bounds of the institution you left to survive, you also began to thrive. Your boundaries are in pleasant places. Let them see it. Life is actually simple. And people are just people. Everybody thinks something about something. Even you. Border patrol is exhausting. Let your boundaries fall in pleasant places, and then thrive within them.