By Joan Grayson Cohen, Esq., LCSW-C, and Gail Lipsitz, Jewish Community Services
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio really got people to sit up and take notice a couple of weeks ago. Boy, has he changed! Was it possible that this was the same man who, while serving in the House of Representatives, co-sponsored a 1996 law to prevent same-sex marriage? Now, he was announcing that he supports that choice.
Portman’s explanation: “At the time, my position … was rooted in my faith tradition … Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love … and my belief that we are all children of God.” (Columbus Dispatch, March 15). He added that he admires and is proud of his son.
Like former Vice President Dick Cheney in 2009, Portman is the latest public example of the truth that personal relationships can change even long-held, strong or unshaken views about issues on which people disagree, because they matter deeply. This has been called the “friends and family” effect, wrote Robert P. Jones in The Washington Post (March 17), noting there is an almost “30-point gap in attitudes on same-sex marriage between those who have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, and those who do not.”
Fraught with a great deal of emotion, same-sex marriage has been very present in our minds and hearts in this country. But there are many other issues besides sexual identity that cause strain between young adults and their families. Personal relationships actually can open the door to making changes in views about any of these. We’re talking about life choices such as the religion and background of the person you marry, adopting a child of another race or ethnic group, the lifestyle you follow, choice of career and political views, to name a few.
Maybe you and your parents have profound differences in some of these areas. Perhaps at times it feels like you’ve come up against a closed door. But take heart. Barriers can come down, dialogue can happen, people can change. It does take time, and it’s different for each of us.
Here are some thoughts about how to navigate this journey.
1. Before approaching your parent(s) and opeing a conversation, ask yourself: Why are they thinking the way they do? Try to understand (not necessarily accepting) where they’re coming from. What value system and life experiences have shaped their views? Factors like cultural background, religious views and worry that their child might face serious challenges could be making it difficult for a parent to accept your choices.
2. Now ask yourself the same questions. Why do you feel the way you do? How did you get to this point in your life and reach the decisions you’ve made?
3. Choose an opportune time and place to hold the conversation.
4. Have a support network. You might ask a sibling, close friend or someone who has been in a similar situation to join you when you speak to your parent(s).
5. Set a realistic goal for what can happen as a result of the conversation, knowing your parent(s) as you do. Keep in mind that this is a process, and this may be the first of many conversations. Try to help your parent(s) understand your perspective and the values, which may differ from theirs, that have led to your choices and decisions. Don’t expect them to change their views right away.
6. Help your parent(s) see who you are, and understand why your life makes you feel happy and fulfilled. Consider inviting your parent to meet your partner, or to come to dinner in your home. Invite them to come watch you in your chosen work if it’s not what they expected or wanted for you.
7. Think about how this conversation went. Use what you’ve learned to decide the next steps to take.
Sometimes it does happen that the door is still closed despite several attempts to bridge any gap and communicate. This would be a time to seek some individual and/or family counseling, or to bring in another family member or friend who is supportive.
Love may not always “conquer all,” but it can go a long way toward opening dialogue and changing minds and hearts.
For more information, visit JCS at jcsbaltimore.org.