I'm 26 and live across the country from both of them, yet my (divorced) Christian parents are still finding ways to make me feel bad about, among other small issues, premarital sex (of which I have had very, very little). But currently, I am in a serious relationship with a European guy who will be living with me this winter as we both finish our respective graduate work. After that, it's highly likely that I will move to be with him.
Like most unmarried, cohabiting couples in their 20s, my partner and I are very happily getting it on. But with the holidays approaching (we will go visit my folks) and my relationship with my parents always becoming more distant, they are saying and doing passive-aggressive things to let me know that if we were having sex (they've convinced themselves we sleep in the same bed and do not?), they would not approve.
In my late teens, I was in a sexually abusive relationship with an older man that my mother doesn't know about. My father knows, but if I ever tell Mom, she will additionally find out that Dad knew all along and kept this from her (also encouraging me to do the same). My parents' marriage ended with my dad cheating on Mom, so to say they have a healthy grasp on sex would basically be a lie. I've been in therapy since high school and currently have a progressive, wonderful therapist I treasure who has finally helped me push past lingering guilt that an abusive relationship would hand to any young woman, and for the first time in my life, I'm truly in love and having really great sex. I feel lucky to have come so far and deeply, deeply resent them for holding their conservative views over my head when they have no idea how much additional bullshit I have had to overcome, their oppressive ideology aside. I should also point out that despite not adhering to their belief system over the years, I have been reasonably respectful and tolerant. I'm just finally at a breaking point.
My question is not so much how do I get them to stop acting this way -- they never will really grasp that sexuality and sexual practice can be separate from morality and that I'm not a bad person if I wanna do it with my boyfriend. But I have come so far personally, so much more than they could ever understand, that I feel deeply robbed of the freedom I have spent my own money, time and energy to achieve. How do I shake off their ignorant judgment and maintain any relationship with them at all?
Dear Happy Heathen,
How indeed do you shake off your parents' ignorant judgment?
You do it by standing in the hurricane. You do it by remaining conscious in the moment, by feeling but not acting.
In doing this, you realize that your parents are not robbing you of your freedom. You are just having feelings in their presence.
Perhaps when they say certain things you feel powerless, like a child again. Perhaps you hate them for having this power over you. Perhaps it feels as though they are robbing you of your freedom. But these are just feelings.
You have attained much. You have attained adult status, independence, freedom. In attaining this you had to struggle. So you love very much what you have attained. You love the feeling of being an independent adult. But when you go into your parents' house the old feelings of dependency may come back, and you may hate that. You may feel panicky, sick, disgusted, angry, crazed, filled with a desire to flee, to lash out, to scream and climb the walls. Yes. That makes sense. We feel these things when we go into our parents' houses again! In the midst of these reactions, you may fear that they are taking away your much-loved feeling of independence. But that cannot be taken away from you. It will not disappear.
It's odd to think of this now, but it is my understanding that infants go through a phase where they have not learned yet about the persistence of objects, about physical permanency, and so if you hold up an object and then remove it, it is gone from their universe, and they become upset, thinking it is gone forever. But then eventually they learn that objects persist beyond their senses, that time exists, that there is a future full of the same objects that exist in the present, and their little infant lives become a tiny bit more serene. Well, this power and adulthood you have attained may still be in its infancy; your grasp of it may still be so fragile that you fear it could disappear if you stop practicing it for even a moment. So listen to me: Your parents can't take this freedom away from you. It is yours. It will be waiting for you outside your parents' door when you walk out of their house.
So what can they do? If they cannot actually rob you of your freedom and independence, what can they do? Well, they can insist that certain rules be followed inside their house. And their mere presence can rekindle old habits and old memories. It can induce feelings, such that you want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them and shout in their faces, "Look at me! See who I am! I'm not a child! I'm a sexually active, happy 26-year-old woman! See me! See me! I'm not a child!"
Sure. Who doesn't want to grab their parents and shake some truth into them?
But since you are now an adult, you don't get to do that.
That sucks. Yes, it does. It totally sucks. But that's the trade-off. You get to be an adult, but then you have to act like one.
Consider one other aspect of this. When we are angry at people, certain little revenge scenarios pop into our heads. When we feel powerless and unjustifiably hurt, our vengeful little minds seize on whatever power we may have. You have in your possession a certain damaging secret. You may be contemplating, in a sort of I'm-not-really-thinking-about-this way, how you might use this secret. It may be tempting to lay this secret angrily at their feet: Look at what happened to me under your very noses! You did nothing to protect me! Look at the secret I have kept to protect you! Look how I have played your game! Did you help me when I needed your help? No! You are bad parents!
This too is understandable. We find ourselves seeking power and revenge.
So what do we do with all this anger toward our parents? We live with it. It would be great if we all had wise, strong, generous parents who could absorb our blows, who know now as they knew when you were 6 that they've just got to let your tantrum play out. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could just beat our parents with sticks and be done with it, if we could run at them with mad fury as if we were children, and beat our little fists on them without fear of hurting them, knowing they are invincible and can absorb our blows?
But we can't.
What do we do with our grown-up knowledge when we have, through no choice of our own, learned to mimic with great skill their passive aggression? What do we do now that our parents are weak and we are strong, now that we could damage them if we attacked them in childish fury? We don't want to become them, with their simpering, poisonous comments. And we don't want to lash out at them either. How do we learn to just hold our ground?
Well, we learn through practice. We learn to stand still in the hurricane by standing still in the hurricane. We just keep at it and get better at it as the years go along.
You've been doing pretty well so far with this therapist of yours. So I suggest you work with her to come up with practical, concrete tactics for surviving your holiday visit. Identify actions you can take -- going into the bathroom to look in the mirror and do a silent scream, taking walks around the block in which you shake off your murderous rage, breathing in lungfuls of fresh air, uttering empty meaningless phrases in the living room, etc. You can do this.
And remember: What you have, they can't take away. You might feel crazy at times, but we all feel a little crazy at times.
Your parents can't rob you of anything. You are not a child, even if they treat you like one.
What? You want more?