Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

10 ways former Mormons can reconnect with devout family members

Mette Ivie Harrison
Mette Ivie Harrison

(courtesy of Mette Harrison)

Mette Ivie Harrison

A guest post by Mette Harrison

This post was inspired by those who responded to my post in November about how devout Mormon families can work to make family gatherings less painful for those who have left Mormonism. I’m looking at things from the other side this time, on how those who have left Mormonism themselves can manage family relationships.

Before I go into suggestions, I need to say that you should take the time and space you need to process your faith transition and feel comfortable about it. It’s best when you’re trying to reconnect if you can put aside anger or accusations of betrayal to family members and offer love and kindness. If you can’t do that, you may want to wait until you can. I recommend therapy and medication for mental health issues, if they work for you.

I like lists, so I’ve made ten suggestions of what you can do to help make things a little smoother:

  1. Meet beforehand individually with certain family members. If they are allies, you can ask them how to help you specifically, as in steering large-group conversations away from certain topics. If they are the people you are having difficulty with, try to make a clear list of what you need and present it in the kindest way possible. People listen better when it’s in their own best interest to listen to you. Aim to have a family meeting that is peaceful and loving.
  2. Send out communication to the family as a whole. Again, it’s important to do this in the spirit of love and kindness. Without pointing fingers, you might reference past family relationship problems and ask for cooperation to avoid certain topics. Suggest subjects that you think people can unite on or at least talk about without blood spilling. Sports? Catching up on the younger generation? Childhood memories (if those aren’t painful)? Games?
  3. Show respect when and where you expect it. This means doing your best to allow others to show love in the way they know how. This also can mean allowing them to talk about church-related things in general ways, so long as they don’t press them on you. For our immediate family, one concrete example of this has been my non-Mormon kids participating still in FHE. They listen quietly when other family members plan gospel-oriented lessons. They sing songs with gusto and plan their own lessons about music or history, or set up trivia games. And who can’t enjoy a family game and treat?
  4. Accept that things may never be the way they once were. This can be sad, but also liberating. Recreating the family from ground zero means that many things can also be better than they used to be, even if you are saying farewell to things that won’t come back.
  5. Plan breaks in between family events. If at all possible, this means not sharing a living space with others. You should always have a space to retreat to. Family mending is hard work and you’ll need to take a breather in between encounters with your family, just like you would between long workouts.
  6. Accept that other people are flawed. Most of the time they aren’t deliberately hurting you, but are simply limited in their capacity to see another point of view because they have so much crap of their own to deal with.
  7. Try to avoid “never” and “always” thinking. (This is one of my own biggest stumbling blocks.) Instead, try to think in terms of “for now” and “until I feel better.”
  8. Offer to help plan family events. Being part of the behind-the-scenes organizing can enable you to have more structured activities, if that’s what you feel like you need to make sure things don’t blow up. You can also end up choosing a neutral space for the event (not a church building, for instance) and you can be in charge of handing out other responsibilities to those you think will carry them out well. Those who are willing to do the work get to make the choices. If you don’t want to step up, shut up.
  9. Accept that other people may make unfair assumptions about you and your motivations for a faith change. Kill them with love in response. You know what a lot of the fears about ex-Mormons are. Out-casserole them. Out-card them. Out-give to them. When family members see that you’re not the stereotype of an angry ex-Mormon, they may breathe a sigh of relief and stop being on their guard.
  10. Talk about the elephant in the room with regards to your problems with the Church, from historical polygamy to truth claims, LGBT issues, or even specific ecclesiastical abuse. This isn’t always the right thing to do and I will have to leave it up to you to decide when or if you should do this. But explaining your reasons for leaving Mormonism in a concrete way, without any recriminations, can be a great opening for conversation. If you’re open to questions, even stupid ones, this can be a moment to move on and clear the air.

Love is my main message here. Showing love should be what religion teaches us to do best, but I suppose it is hard to show love to others in the way that they need to be loved, especially if their way is very different from ours. I’m not a big fan of the 5 Love Languages book, but at least it gets people talking about differences in receiving love.

Just because someone keeps saying “But I love you so much” isn’t enough. They need to be reminded that their feelings of love, if not translated into something others can experience, are rather self-serving. But on the other hand, if they can figure out how to show love in ways that can be received, the other problems may feel less pressing.

 


OTHER POSTS BY METTE HARRISON:


 

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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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