Dear Dr. Wes and Kendra:
My boyfriend and I have built a great relationship over our freshman year in college and are sexually active, but his relationship with his parents is equally strong. While I find that sweet, it hurts me that his mom and dad have been warning him that I might distract him from his studies and lead him into sexual activity that violates their religion. He’s conflicted about trying to please us both, and I don’t know how to help him while still protecting my own feelings.
Kendra: Funambulism (noun): a show especially of mental agility; tightrope walking. Finding the balance between family and romantic relationships is like walking a tightrope; balancing, but never balanced. Throw in religion and sexuality and you’ve got a trembling rope (and a potentially messy freshman year).
Fortunately, you already seem to have a sense of what’s most important: communication—the pole that will help you keep your balance and allow you to help your boyfriend while respecting yourself.
While his parents may have concerns about this relationship, it’s important for you to gauge whether your boyfriend shares these concerns. In a healthy relationship, this discussion should be essential.
Although religion may be a factor at home with his family, it may not even be relevant while he’s away at college. Family is important, but your boyfriend may not have the same spiritual practices at school as he had at home.
Whether he is meeting his parents’ expectations regarding his studies is more quantifiable. When parents send their kids off to college, they are putting their faith and money in the hope that their child succeeds.
Suggest your boyfriend have discourse with his parents about their academic expectations. If he is able to meet their standards while maintaining his relationship with you, they should have no concerns.
Wes: I agree with Kendra’s tightrope analogy. You’re in a tough and potentially unwinnable contest, not only with this young man’s parents, but with his faith in God.
I’ll start with some advice for parents in this situation: Take a deep breath and reconsider the very foundation of your belief system, lest you drive your child to the same place a lot of kids are ending up today — disinterested in faith, which they regard as a more like a straight jacket than a form of liberation and a chance for contemplation of their relationship to God and the world. In fact, we’ll address that in two weeks in another letter about religious conflict between parent and young adult.
Ironically, this is especially problematic for families who are close, as you describe this fellow and his parents. As we’ve discussed many times, in this culture, the whole point of growing up is to differentiate from one’s family of origin, not in a rebellious, angry way, but in a healthy, mature one. Your guy is conflicted between the roles of the adult — which require him to make his own decisions based on his own moral and ethical beliefs — and his desire to remain loyal to the ways of his family.
Since you’re both on the tightrope, everyone is watching and his parents may not be reading this fine column, you need to be very strategic in how you respond. As tempting as it may be, I strongly urge you to decide not to play on his parent’s field. Just be the nice, polite, ambitious young person that I hope you are and avoid every opportunity to demand your boyfriend choose sides. This is a lot easier said than done, but if you don’t sidestep this fight you stand a chance of either losing your boyfriend now or losing him later down the road, when he feels resentment toward you for the schism in his family.
And here’s some advice for your guy: Get thee to therapy. I’ve worked many of these cases, and they are rarely about religion and more about control and family enmeshment. Someone does need to help your boyfriend through that process. It just can’t be you.
—Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD & ADHD.” Learn about his practice Family Psychological Services at dr-wes.com. Kendra Schwartz is a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to email@example.com. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.