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'When to sever ties?' My parents' religion has shattered our relationship | Leading questions | Life and style


After a health scare 10 years ago, my father was baptised into an extremely conservative, fundamentalist Christian church. My older brother joined him shortly thereafter and after years of living with the threat of hellfire and damnation, my mother joined as well. I have attempted to keep the lines of communication open with them, to try to understand their perspective of the world, but their impossible standards mean my relationship with them is shattered. I am 36, married, have two children and own a small business. All of this to them is “worldly” and a barrier to me having the “right” relationship with God. When is the time to sever the cord with the parents who once meant the world to me?

That’s a lot of hurt and anger in a few lines. But the part of your letter that strikes me most deeply isn’t your understandable hurt and anger. It’s that you say your parents once meant the world to you. It makes me wonder whether you’re hesitating because it feels too severe to cut the cord with them, like you’d be serving them the sentence we use for abusers or toxic manipulators, when your parents are just the people who once felt most like home.

I wonder whether saying “enough” feels so harsh that you’re waiting for someone else’s permission to really feel the things you write: that you’ve tried to save the relationship, that it’s exhausted you to try, and that it might be a relief to cut the cord. Maybe it feels like that still isn’t enough to legitimate walking away from a relationship when you know it once contained so much good.

But letting someone go doesn’t mean letting go of all they were to you, or all the good there was between you.

It can be hard to see that, in the throes of breaking apart, because we often turn to anger to fuel our escape velocity. And anger moves in the fast, urgent way we need in order to get out. We cast other people as monsters. We chew off our friends’ ears with the next instalment of “can you believe what they said next”. If we’ve been lucky enough to have had relationships with some good in them, somewhere in the molten core of our exit-rage we know that anger isn’t telling the whole story. Somewhere we still remember the birthday parties and the moments of tenderness and the little rituals we shared before things went wrong.

If we’re not careful, though, we can get stuck believing that only one of these stories can be true, and then endlessly ride the pendulum between thinking anger insults the memories of tenderness, or that our memories of tenderness insult our righteous anger. In fact the challenge is to let ourselves feel both. This may take months or even years and what waits for us when we finally manage it is just the deep pelagic grief of having to let go of something that wasn’t entirely bad.

But almost nothing is entirely bad, and your relationship doesn’t need to be entirely bad for you to want to let it go. It will be hard, if you decide to. When we let go of things that had a little good in them we tend to leave fingernail marks behind. But we put our present selves through that pain because we think that what we’re doing is a service to our future self, and that’s enough. You don’t need any permission beyond that. Not even your parents’.

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