Why Men and Women Fight, Part 9.0: Religion Gone Awry

The Religion App

My mother tells me that the only thing she wanted to be when she grew up was nice. And she is. Her “nice” ethic is now the drive behind how she interacts with my 4-year-old niece. When I’m around them for just an hour, I hear the word “nice” at least a handful of times: “That’s not nice.” “Be nice.” “Is that nice?”

This was the central ethic of her upbringing, it became the central ethic of her parenting, and now it’s the central ethic of her grand-parenting. It’s interesting that for all the “nice” training and practice that her childhood afforded her, the home she and my father fashioned was anything but nice. It turns out that nice all by itself doesn’t cut it in the real world.

Religion Gone Awry

This, however, is an example of the echo of religion-gone-awry. My parents were members of a religious community where abuse was met with the injunction of wives to “submit” or to “obey” or to “win him over with your meek and quiet spirit.” Strange how with all that “nice” training, our home was characterized by bitter fighting.

That said, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that being nice was so burned into my psyche that it became the reason I enrolled in counseling six years after I married. My presenting complaint: I could be nice to everyone but my husband and I wanted to figure out why.

The religious extremism app was downloaded into my brain from the time I was born. I want to say that most religious training is beneficial for a child’s character development, but I don’t know if that’s statistically true, and I think it would be nearly impossible to measure. Regardless, religion is one of those early apps that program our way of seeing the world and relationships.

Making Amends – Religious Character Education

I once attended a Jewish synagogue for a year, and learned that before the Day of Atonement, there are “Ten Days of Awe” which are reserved to right wrongs committed in relationship. I was in awe just from learning this. You mean there were religious communities that valued a process by which relational wrongs could be identified, apologized for, made right, forgiven and the relationship reconciled? I had learned in my religious upbringing about the Day of Atonement, the day when animals were sacrificed in a show of justice for sins committed against God. Nothing had been said about making relationships right as its own form of justice, though. Wow!

The Difference Between Nice and Kind

Many years and much healing later, I now distinguish between “nice” and “kind.” In my book, “nice” is about me—it represents what I do to get a favorable response from the other. “Kind” is more about the other and my own principles—it’s a gift I give the other based on my understanding of the real needs of that individual. This can be the difference between ignoring the acting out of character problems (being nice) which creates monsters, and addressing them (being kind), believing that the other desires and has the capacity to be a humane person, which creates responsible individuals.

The religion app with that got downloaded into your worldview may be different than mine, but most people in our culture grow up with some kind of character education, often in the context of a religious community. Those early lessons stick with us, and we have to decide whether or not they serve relationships in the way we were told they would.

Common Religious Residue

In my work with couples, some of the most common residue that religion leaves includes free-floating guilt, questions of personal worth, and conflict about what constitutes right and wrong. Many with strong religious training struggle with the idea that what’s right in relationship may simply be what works. Sometimes an elaborate system of morality confuses the uncomplicated dynamics of healthy relationship, such as mutual respect, honor, care, responsibility and accountability.

Furthermore, how to repair any breaches of relationship is often treated superficially in religious training (e.g. “say you’re sorry.”). I don’t know about you, but the practice of accepting one’s responsibility to others, owning up to failures of kindness, and making amends for harm done was absent from my religious education. I didn’t learn these practices until my late 20s as a result of my own commitment to learn what I hadn’t been taught or modeled as a child.

That process helped me unlearn some of the early programming of a harmful religious environment. Solid religious training, on the other hand, can help children develop into adults who are responsible for themselves and to others. I hope that was your experience. Otherwise, your religious training and that of your partner may be causing you some difficulty. Perhaps you could open up some dialogue with him or her about this?

More tomorrow on how a “religion app” can divide couples.

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