I heard from a Christian who described a pretty common experience. The Christian has a loved one who is gay and the relationship has deteriorated to the point that the gay person, as the Christian perceives it, is angry and demanding that if the Christian wants to have a relationship with them, they’ll need to affirm gay marriage and become an advocate for LGBT people. The Christian person does want to work on restoring the relationship, but also feels that what is being asked puts them in a position of compromising their Scriptural beliefs. The Christian is wondering where they can begin to try to open communication.
This is my response: You describe a common but difficult relational impasse with a gay loved one. There may be a number of inadvertent things you have communicated (through body language, tone of voice as well as words) over time that have built up the anger in your loved one. Anger is almost always a secondary emotion – it is often a protection for the pain that one feels. When you feel different in a way that you feel others perceive as wrong, immoral, broken, a problem etc. you develop a very strong sense of self-protection – and this can commonly manifest as anger. They may be angry about things that you are unaware of. Or their anger may be amplified by other matters that have nothing to do with you. So, if you can remember that their anger is probably covering a lot of pain – that may be helpful.
One way to begin to break down the patterns of hostility and distance, would begin with this kind of introduction:
“I feel really sad about where our relationship is. I would really like to repair our relationship. I’m sure that I don’t even understand all the kinds of things that I have said or done in the past that have contributed to you feeling frustrated about our relationship. I am sorry for the ways that you have felt hurt in how I’ve responded to you coming out. I want to acknowledge that I don’t really know what it is to walk in your shoes – but I would like to try to learn and understand more. Would you tell me about what this journey has been like for you?”
Note: you also want to admit to them that this is an area you’ve been trying to learn about – but that you will need their help to understand language usage. And you may need to ask them to point out to you when something you say feels offensive or alienating. Affirm that you don’t want to say things that are hurtful – but you may need their help in understanding what is hurtful to them.
An introduction like this demonstrates humility, care, a willingness to learn and a desire to understand more. There is a lot of rapport to build before there is enough trust to try to negotiate terms of the relationship. This rapport and trust is built as you learn to empathize with the experience and the pain of your loved one – without expecting that they will be able to empathize or extend grace to you. This is going the second mile for your loved one.
What you want to get to in your conversations together is the place where your loved one can reveal the pain that is underneath the anger …. That may require that you listen patiently to a lot of what may feel like political or pro-gay rhetoric before enough trust is built for them to actually share their feelings and emotions with you. You don’t need to express agreement with the rhetoric – but you don’t need to verbalize your disagreement either. What you can simply do is listen patiently and humbly – and where it feels appropriate you can ask the question, “How did you feel about that?” With this kind of question you offer the opportunity to connect to emotions. If they don’t go there … then you just go back to patient listening – and looking for the opportunity to again ask, “How did you feel about that?” Eventually, you will have built enough trust by listening that they may begin to tell you about the emotions behind what they have experienced.
Once you begin to be able to talk about some of their emotions – you can begin to demonstrate empathy for some of the pain, rejection, disappointment, loneliness etc. that they may have experienced. At this point, it would be helpful to not expect a mutual experience of sharing. Don’t expect to be able to share your feelings and for them to be empathetic. You may get there eventually – but it would probably be helpful to not expect that in the beginning of rebuilding the relationship. The more you can serve, extend grace, and simply seek to be present with them, the more trust can be built. If they ask how you have felt about things, by all means, be honest and share your emotions. But just don’t expect that.
As feelings begin to emerge – and you have opportunity to extend empathy, a focus will be on what you CAN affirm about your loved one. You can affirm that they are loved by God, created in God’s image and have inherent worth and dignity. And you can express regret and sadness for the ways that they have felt that their worth or dignity was compromised by you, people in the family, or people in the church. You CAN affirm that you value your relationship with them. You CAN affirm that you want them to experience love, joy, peace, and hope in their life. You CAN affirm them in the accomplishments in their life – school, work, ways they care for others etc.
As you feel the relationship is growing in trust, honesty and sharing (which may take months of intentional conversations and patience on your part) – then you can begin to broach the idea of how to negotiate your relationship regarding expectations. They may have expressed expectations that you will be fully affirming and an advocate for LGBT people and issues such as gay marriage – things that you may feel uncomfortable or unable to do. What you want to eventually communicate is that you hope that you will be able to have a mutually respectful relationship – that doesn’t demand that you both think exactly the same things or agree on everything – but that you trust and respect one another to give each other room to make your own decisions and clarify your own beliefs and values. For this to work – you have to extend that same space and respect to your loved one in their beliefs and values. If you have tried to influence them in this area in the past by being conditional in your love and care for them – you may want to apologize and tell them that you want to honour their autonomy even if you don’t share some of the same beliefs and values that they hold. You may need to acknowledge that Scripture is something that is viewed differently or prioritized differently by the two of you. And you may need to have some honest and caring conversations about how to navigate the boundaries that you will both need to be able to feel safe and respected in the relationship.
A healthy mature relationship will never happen in a context where there is coercion or manipulation. You may want to do some reflection on whether or not you are able to communicate in a kind, assertive manner – or if you tend to resort to passive aggression or overt aggression. And the two of you may need to commit to one another to strive for assertive communication marked by kindness, patience, humility and respect for the sake of the kind of relationship that would bless both of you.
Working through this relationship will require energy, intentionality, prayerfulness, and patience on your part. Your ability to love unconditionally may be tested. But in this opportunity, you will be able to live out Jesus’ example of incarnational self-emptying. You will be called to lay down your life for your loved one. But, God will give you the grace, patience, wisdom and love that you need. And if you persist in gentle listening, connecting to feelings, and extending respect for each other’s autonomy, you may well begin to experience a deeper and more free relationship with your loved one than you have ever imagined.
And you may be surprised by the capacity for love and grace that your loved one extends to you.”