2007-10-09

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (7): avoidance of responsibility

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by Neil Godfrey

I used to think that the best thing I could possibly do to get along with my spouse was to stay close to, even closer to, um, someone else!

Having a God who fills all our emotional needs can be great when it comes to our relationships with others. We can all claim the status of being “children” and focus on our own personal relationship with our heavenly Parent — and pray for one another, and our growing children. Easy. Or if we don’t like it sounding easy we could rather pray with sweat and tears and great agony of love for others. Make ourselves as saintly as possible.

But then when we return to our families we can feel closer to God than to them. Hey, that’s good. That means we love God more like he said we should. It’s like having a guilt-free affair. Feeling the distance from other family members growing because of our affair with God? Maybe the solution is to spend more time with God and ask him to sort it out, and ask him to help others share the same intimacies with our third party. I’m sure he’d love that, to have us all, not just me.

Each person is held responsible for working out their own relationship with God. God is the one who fills our needs. Emotional needs are filled through a personal relationship with Jesus.

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” — Do you have a “personal” relationship with God? These mantras are known well enough. As Marlene Winell comments: “there is a central emphasis on individualism” (p.123).

Result: many parents appear to feel they are not themselves responsible for the emotional needs of their growing children. If their older children choose not have a relationship with Jesus then that is their fault. “Emotional needs are dismissed and the individual blamed for refusing God’s love” (p.123)

“In families that are uncomfortable sharing feelings, even about Jesus, the contradiction between personal and interpersonal experiences can be dramatic. The relationships with Jesus are all treated as separate intimacies with God, kept secret, in a way, as if everyone was having an affair” (p.123).

Result: in such very religious families there can be a “strange alienation” between the members; confusion from feeling close to God but distant from one’s closest kin.

Avoiding the responsibility of teaching interpersonal skills:

By interpersonal skills Marlene specifies:

  • communicating needs clearly
  • listening
  • resolving conflicts

So what does it mean when a child gets moody, screams abuse, shows resentment, anger? For many religious people such “negative” behaviours are “fruits of the flesh”, Sin, vibes from the devil.

But what if such behaviours were really coming from kids who really do have — have never even lost — their good intentions? Maybe they are merely trying to cope.

And if they are only trying to cope and going about it in such a retrograde way, maybe they need help, life-skills. Maybe to equip them with those someone needs to understand them far better than anyone else seems to at the moment. Maybe that will take more patience and unconditional acceptance than our fear and hatred of “sin” will allow us to give.

Maybe the worst thing anyone can give them is the message that they are “sinning” or “sinful”.

By devoting energy to asking “God for help — for patience, love, understanding — and to be humble, open, and receptive if and when he bestows them” it is too easy to avoid making the effort to find out how and to actually teach life and relationships skills to our children.

And maybe we are in this bind because we were never taught them ourselves. If so, all the more reason to spend more time finding out how. Work, effort, but not on one’s knees.

Winell’s concluding paragraph in this section is indeed a sobering one:

This simplistic formula typically results only in repeated failures. Individuals go through cycles of guilt, renewed intention, failure, and more guilt. Bad habits continue and are replicated across generations. Self-respect falls lower and lower. Over time, this may produce an entire family of individuals with low self-esteem. The buried self-hatred and mutual disrespect undercuts their hope for loving relationships. In a perverse kind of way, the lack of interpersonal and intrapersonal development perpetuates a dependency on God that can be truly dysfunctional. (p.123)

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (7): avoidance of responsibility”

  1. It’s nice to know that at least someone understands the American Christian Fundamentalist Family… i rather choose the label “Christian Exteremists.” I think it’s definitively more accurate. Anyway, while my father was the quintessential master at regaling lofty sounding prayers that impressed the unlearned minions of some little blue collar church in Ohio, I’ve since learned that he’s more akin to the New Testament Pharasee who Christ described in contrast to the soft spoken believer w/ little yet much to say.
    He’d spend hours upon hours pouring over his King James bible just to prepare for his Sunday Shcool class as if he were the full time shepherd of that flock…never taking us on family outings because after all, he HAD to study for his Sunday School lesson. And, don’t ask him to go see his son play football on Saturdays…he’s off knocking on doors to see how many kids they could borrow from their parents to make our church’s numbers get bigger so the boasting could be even greater to draw the unchurched and impress those who, by the way, were never invited to our house to fellowship…that just was something my parents never did…fellowship outside the walls of church was just too dangersous!! seems he felt the same about really communicating w/ his two sons as well!! You nailed it with your description of the entire family who have no self esteem and grew up to be firmly enslaved to co-depency issues that almost wrecked life. Thanks for calling a spade the color it truly is… in this case, black as “SIN”.

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