Ask Richard: Respecting Beliefs Vs. Respectful Treatment May 3, 2010

Ask Richard: Respecting Beliefs Vs. Respectful Treatment

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Dear Richard,

I grew up in a seriously fundamentalist Christian home (e.g. we weren’t allowed to watch most kinds of TV or be good friends with non-Christians). Since leaving home, I’ve become an atheist and come out as a lesbian. My relationship with my mom has become so strained that it’s hard to carry on a conversation without either of these things being brought up. I want to be respectful of what she believes, but I don’t feel like she’s making the same sort of effort. She’s always blurting out prayers or casting demons out of me or telling me about a guy at her church that God told her I should date. I’ve discussed how her actions make me feel, but she believes that she’s right and I’m wrong, and I’m going to hell. It would be simple to not talk to her anymore, but I don’t want to isolate myself from my roots, and I’m hoping that eventually she’ll come around to at least respecting my point of view. I wonder if you can suggest any way that I can gain her respect without compromising who I am.

Thanks so much!

Dear Monica,

The first thing you should do is to sort out the important difference between respecting someone’s beliefs or point of view, and treating them respectfully. By trying to respect your mom’s beliefs and hoping that she will respect your point of view, you are asking for more than either of you can provide.

You can’t be respectful of what she believes. I’m sure that you find your mother’s beliefs absurd at the very least. Her behaviors that you described sound downright bizarre. You aren’t going to be able to respect those things. You can respect her Constitutional right to have those beliefs, and you can treat her respectfully, as in not losing your temper and finally screaming something like,

“Mom, spouting prayers out of context is crazy! You’re not an exorcist! Believing in demons is wacko! About homosexuality, you’re superstitious and ignorant! God is not running a dating service by whispering boy’s names in your ear!”

I’m guessing that statements like those are closer to your true opinions and feelings about her beliefs than something like,

“Mom, I really respect your beliefs about religion, demons, my sexual orientation, and God’s preference for whom I should date, and I hope that you respect my opinions about those things, which are of course, the exact opposite.”

That isn’t going to work, is it? Neither of you are going to be able to genuinely hold each other’s opinions in reverence or high esteem. You both think the other is dead wrong, and that is not going to change unless someone has a very powerful turnaround. On the other hand, letting fly with your frank disrespect for her beliefs is just going to provoke more conflict and hurt feelings.

You say you want to gain her respect without compromising who you are. You’re probably not going to get that unless she compromises who she is. That does not seem likely for the foreseeable future. From what you describe, it appears that rational discussion, informative instruction, reasoned persuasion, and heartfelt sharing have not resulted in her respecting you, who you are, what you are, or what you think and feel.

So instead, shift your efforts to aim for treating each other respectfully. Focus on behaviors instead of thoughts, beliefs and opinions. In both of your cases, this is going to be mostly about what not to say. Follow a regime of behavior modification:

When she brings up your sexuality or your atheism, quietly say something like, “Mom, that is not your concern, and we just fight about it. Instead, let’s talk about…” (Have some topic pre-selected that you can both share pleasantly.)

When she blurts out prayers in a disruptive way, or casts out demons, politely say something like, “Mom, you don’t do these things to guests visiting your house, and I expect the same respectful treatment as any other guest, so please stop.”

When she tells you whom you should date, (with or without the recommendation of the Almighty) gently say something like, “Mom, my friends have to be my choice. You don’t choose your friends in order to please me, so don’t ask me to choose my friends in order to please you.”

In all these scenarios, you’re not respecting what she’s doing or believing, but you are treating her respectfully, and you’re asserting your right to be treated respectfully as well. Keep your voice calm, without tension, irony or sarcasm in the tone.

Now here is where the behavior modification comes in. She’s probably not going to immediately stop that stuff. So when she persists after your polite and respectful request, you have to provide the reinforcement. Immediately stand up and quietly say, “Mom, I’m leaving now because you’re still doing that. I’ll come back some other time and we’ll try again.” Then quietly leave. Don’t storm out, don’t slam the door. Model in every detail of your own behavior the respectful, adult behavior that you want her to show you.

Drive off slowly, park your car around the corner and then you can scream your head off and pound the steering wheel, letting off steam. After you have vented, you may notice a sense of empowerment and validation. You have asserted your right for respectful treatment, and you have done it in a completely respectful way. The fact that she didn’t give it to you is not the point at this early stage. You have given it to her.

There is no guarantee that this will change her behavior, and if it does it will likely take some time. You will probably have to patiently repeat your respectful requests and repeat your respectful reinforcement many times. But each time you will also be reinforcing in yourself a calm strength, a gentle self confidence and a patient good will. Eventually, when you don’t have to reinforce by leaving, you may be able to stay and reinforce her better behavior with smiles, laughter and hugs. Even though your initial goal was to modify her behavior, the more important change will have taken place in you.

Monica, this has nothing to do with either of you respecting beliefs or opinions that you find ridiculous or highly objectionable. It is only about what you and she are doing with each other. In the final analysis, that is what is real about people. We are what we do. We may think, feel, and believe all sorts of things, but our actuality is made of our actions, and our relationships are made of our interactions.


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  • Marjorie Ramos

    I am an atheist, lesbian AND vegan! Imagine what my mother had to absorb! I can say that, over time, sticking to my guns, allowing my mother the freedom to “evolve” in her own way and showing her through my actions and words that I am a healthy, decent and loving human being, that all will be well. I recently married my partner of 3 years and she was so happy and proud to share in that special day. She’ll never be the most progressive person on any issue but she has grown and become open to learning new perspectives. I am proud of her.

  • Killer Bee

    She’s always blurting out prayers or casting demons out of me.

    Next time, convulse.

  • Lyn

    Wow! Richard! You’re awesome! I do have to work on the “calmness” =] Thanks!

  • Richard,
    How did someone so young get to be so wise? Your advice on this situation is wonderful.

  • This is the most reasonable advice I have ever seen.

  • Brian E

    Funny – after reading this I likened the situation to training a new puppy not to shit in the house. When dealing with fundies the 2 situations are probably not very far off…

  • Jelena

    This is a perfect advice for anyone when dealing with parents – not just Christian ones. Good job!

  • Richard Wade

    Thank you for your compliment, but you may be giving me more credit for being precocious than I deserve. I was alive when Harry Truman was President.

  • Marsha in TN

    Good advice.

    The mother/daughter relationship is a hard one in just about any situation. Mothers “always” know more than their daughters. I dealt with it with my mom up until my 40’s. Finally I just sort of joked about it. “Of course I don’t know what outfit to wear, I’m only 45.” She finally eased off seeing the absurdity of it all. But the religion thing vs. the atheist thing, I think, is harder for them to handle than being gay. Just live your life as honestly as possible and take Richard’s advice and scream after leaving the house. Hopefully “Mom” will realize that she loves “you” and will learn to respect your decisions.

  • littlejohn

    The next time you visit your mom, first fill your mouth with green pea soup. When she starts casting out your demons, let fly.
    Seriously though, it’s amazing you were able, coming from that background, to come to terms so well with your own atheism and sexuality. As for your mom, have her destroyed. Humanely, of course.

  • I recommend following Richard’s advice.

    In desperation, though, you could jokingly tell her that God wants you to go on a mission trip to hell to convert the heathens… and He made you an atheist and a lesbian to guarantee that you will go there. Any time your mom brings up atheism or homosexuality just say “remember my mission trip”. You could wear her down with humor. 😉

  • Tizzle

    Here’s a couple specific things that helped me in a similar situation:

    1. After leaving the religion: I took a break from her. Even without big issues, lots of young people need to take this step. My ‘break’ was only a month, but it was significant. Even after that, I got kind of cold and distant to her. I was still angry about some things. But somewhere in that year or two, I learned that because I was willing to just completely walk away if she didn’t respect me, I had the power in the relationship. This was important, because of our dynamic. Discovering, and then not using, that power helped me grow towards adulthood.

    2. I moved away a few years later. That’s when I finally came out as lesbian, although everybody knew (many of them before I did). We had to go through another period of learning and growth and coming-to-understanding. I again considered washing my hands of the whole thing. It was a lot of work; it was tiring; I was irritated that it needed to happen.

    One method: email instead of phone calls. I made up some excuses like “no minutes”, “different time zone”, “can’t talk while driving”. I needed the distance provided by emails, it was my choice. Also, during this period, we talked a lot about weather, and our pets. Sometimes plants. Perhaps local sports teams? Pretend interest as necessary. Health became a big topic after she got older.

    Regular, although not frequent, conversations eventually helped us move past just talking about dogs. I’m still single, and we still don’t talk about sex or religion. But every now and then, I try to say (or write) something about a date I went on. You know, baby steps. Also, I would talk about my lesbian friends, just to get the words partner and girlfriend into her vocabulary.

    She came for a 4-day visit just a few months ago, and I freaked out for weeks beforehand: “omg, what do we talk about for 4 days?!?!11!” But we made it. I made it. I noticed for real that she was making as big an effort as me. Either she always had, or I finally noticed. This didn’t happen overnight, obvy.

  • @Marjorie Ramos
    I’m right there with you. I have actually found more people to have a problem with my food choices than sexual preference and atheism. It’s funny how parents/family like to rationalize all these personal choices by claiming they are “phases” or acts of “rebellion”. Distance works best for me.

  • isaac

    This is beautifully written, and the way that we should talk to and treat everyone – especially those we don’t agree with.
    It is so refreshing to find such rational words coming from someone – anyone – who has an audience.

  • JulietEcho

    My family isn’t trying to cast demons out of me, but they’ve pretty much condemned me as a sinner for not having a typical straight, monogamous marriage and for being an atheist. They’ve compared my polyamorous relationship to pedophilia, and they’ve yelled, screamed, and cried at me.

    Not everyone makes the choice that you’re making (and that I ended up making) by being patient and kind with your family. Honesty, I wouldn’t say that parents like ours *deserve* that kind of treatment. But it sounds like what you *want* is to stay in her life and perhaps grow closer – and Richard’s advice will help you with that.

    Distance and breaks can be very good, and you might need one (or both) as a coping mechanism. Use them.

  • Nakor


    Are you still having fun? If so, you’re still young. 😉

    And I agree with the above, that was great advice.

  • SmittyTheKitty

    I would advise against kicking, screaming, or other methods of venting, as there is evidence to suggest that it actually increase aggressiveness rather than providing an outlet to “get rid” of the anger [1]. While it might make you feel better at the time, it can have negative effects in the end, and might actually make the writer more likely to respond aggressively to her mother in the future. Richard Wiseman talks about this in “59 Seconds” (p. 190-5) and suggests, as an alternative method of coping, taking some time to think about the benefits you might have derived from the frustrating experience. He cites a study in which subjects who used this method were “less avoidant, more benevolent, and less vengeful toward their transgressors as a result.” [2]

    Other than that little bit about venting, I thought everything in this response was on the mark. Great advice, keep it up – I really appreciate these posts.


  • Parse

    “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”
    Monica, so long as you continue to subject yourself to your mother as she piles on the abuse, she’s going to keep doing that. It’s noble to think that if you can say the right thing or act the right way your mother will eventually accept you for who you are. And you may be correct, there may be some magic phrase that opens her eyes.
    Personally, though, I doubt it. Your mother won’t stop subjecting you to impromptu prayers and exorcisms, because to her, there’s no cost. You get angry and annoyed, and try explaining things to her, but that’s not so much the cost as part of the erosion conversion process. If you argue enough with a reasonable person, either you or they will concede just for the sake of ending the argument.
    I agree with Richard and practically everybody else here, in saying that you should stand up for yourself. Though I haven’t done anything so drastic as what Tizzle or JulietEcho have done, my relationship with my parents improved greatly since I moved away and was able to enforce that distance.
    Consider this: If your mother continues to heap unwarranted abuse upon you until the day she dies, is that really a relationship you want to maintain? When completely losing a relationship isn’t the worst possible outcome, you’ve got nowhere to go but up.

  • Heidi


    Any time your mom brings up atheism or homosexuality just say “remember my mission trip”.

    You win one internet. Possibly two.

    I’m not sure whether my parents had more trouble dealing with my atheism than with my sister coming out as a lesbian. I think they probably did. I doubt that my sister has ever gotten “you know, Heidi’s not gay!” But I’ve definitely heard “your sister believes in God!” My dad still says that once in a while.

  • muggle

    I liked Richard’s advice but I liked Jeff’s even more. Make her laugh. Laughter is the best medicine.

  • Richard Wade

    Yes I am still having fun, more than ever, and playing with all of you here is a big part of that. You’re right, youth can be measured by the amount of fun we create.

  • I agree with this advice completely accept the part about screaming after you are elsewhere. There’s a pop psych belief that letting out aggression somehow helps but the evidence actually suggests it is the opposite. After such behavior, people are generally more aggressive rather than less so. See for example J. Bushman’s 2002 paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

  • fiddler

    @Killer bee
    I did that once when I got tired of my in-laws casting out demons on me. Their reaction really was the most priceless thing to see…

  • I think it’s important to note that when using classical conditioning and behaviour modification techniques on negative behaviours, there is likely to be an extinction burst (or two, or three). Basically, when you deny your mother the response she is expecting, her behaviour is likely to get much, much worse before it begins to get better, and the behaviour is likely to flare several times before it goes away. Giving in and responding during one of these extinction bursts is likely to set the elevated state of the behaviour as the new norm. So if your mother hires an exorcist and a preacher to come convert you, it is even more important to keep your cool lest this become a commonplace behaviour. Just a thought.

  • Have you actually tried thinking through this from your mom’s point of view? She really believes that you might spend an eternity in the worst possible torture in Hell. The fact that she’s doing whatever she can think of to keep you out of that terrible place shows how much she loves you. Instead of being angry and annoyed when she does this, maybe you should be grateful that you have a mom who cares about you so much. I know you’re probably absolutely convinced that there is no hell, but what if there is? No matter what your opinions are, the fact is, you don’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no hell. Before you judge anyone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.

  • David B

    @openmind, considering that “Monica” grew up in a fundamentalist home, I think she does have some inkling of an understanding of where her mother is coming from. That doesn’t make it easier to put up with, though.

    I think Richard, Tizzle, and skepticalProgrammer all have pretty good advice and points-of-view. Being respectful toward her, and denying her your person when she can’t return the respect is probably the best way to get her to (probably (very) slowly) get used to your way of life, your beliefs, and to get your relationship back on a good footing.

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