Difficult Conversations

The following is a homework assignment I submitted for my Conflict Management class. I’m so fortunate to have classes at Notre Dame that offer me ways to look at my life through new perspectives.

I hope to write a more personal response on this conversation later


Topic and Background

My boyfriend identified as an Atheist when we started dating, but I never believed he was actually an atheist because he said he was highly spiritual. Later, I learned that he was raised in the United Church of Christ (a branch of Christianity), which does not believe in the Holy Trinity or the Holy Spirit. This is why he thought spirituality and religion were completely separate. After he got into a car crash, he went to the adoration chapel at his local Catholic church (the church I was raised in) and I sat with him there. He told me that when he was a child, he was angry with God because his parents’ relationship didn’t improve, no matter how much he prayed as a child. No one had asked him why he lost his faith until I came along. Only a couple months after our first date, he identified as agnostic. Every time he visits me at Notre Dame, he asks if we can go to mass. When we go to mass, he sings, receives communion, and says the Our Father (all of which he did at his Christian church), but doesn’t participate in the rest of mass. I’ve been trying to be respectful, allowing him to move through his journey on his own, but he kept telling me, “I have to do more research. I have to read the Bible again. I have to read official doctrine on the Catholic Church.” I understood this, but I’ve also felt offended and left out and worried. We are so close, so I wanted him to want me to be his primary resource on Catholicism. Besides, there is so much about my Catholic faith life that has nothing to do with Scripture or doctrine, so he is actually uninformed without me. Today, I decided to try to solve this previously unspoken conflict.

Conflict as it pertains to Difficult Conversations Framework

  • The “What Happened” Conversation?
    • I began the conversation with establishing my appreciation for his going to mass with me and helping me actually get to mass. I clarified how important it was to me, and how much I appreciated that his expression of how important it is to him. I know this conversation is all about his faith life, so I forced myself to ask questions to really understand where he was in his journey before bringing up my feelings about being left out.
  • Listening
    • I discovered it was kind of hard to listen to him for so long before I could get my feelings out. I really did want to know where he was in his faith life and where he is now, but there was so much back story that I didn’t feel like my needs were ever going to be met. However, somewhere in my questions I learned perspectives I never knew. He looked at Christianity and Catholicism as completely different things because of how unhappy he was with his Christian church as a child. This meant that he wasn’t a Christian deciding on whether or not he wants to be Catholic, but he had to start at the very beginning with the concept of faith in general. At this point, when I knew I was getting information I didn’t know before, it was much easier to listen to and I forgot about my feelings for a moment, really focusing on understanding his feelings.
  • Restating for clarity
    • Faith is a really difficult topic to describe because you’re talking about intangibles. To make sure I understood how he thought and felt about faith, I made sure to restate his claims in my own words, often using metaphor and verbal models to connect his point to a tangible model. For example, I explained my belief in both God and science using a who/what/when/where/why/how model. Science can answer the what, when, where, who, and ultimately, how, but no one really knows why. God, in every religion, tends to be the answer to why. I also equated the Catholic sacraments to the stages of psychological development. He is big on science, so explaining my faith through a scientific lens helped our communication.
  • Feelings Conversation
    • Verbal “I” Statements
      • When I fully understood his side, I told him that I was feeling hurt because he did not seem interested in using me as the primary resource for his analysis of Catholicism. Because I was trying to be respectful and not push him to believe what I believe, I had never told him this before. I clarified that I totally understand and support him if he decides he doesn’t believe what I believe, but I want him to understand what I believe before he rejects it.
      • In response, he told me that he felt he had to go through his faith journey alone looking for outside resources, because that’s how he’s had to learn in every other situation throughout his life. He has never had a serious relationship. He was overjoyed to hear that I wanted to be such an integral part.
    • Nonverbal
      • I am not much of a nonverbal communicator. I’d rather tell him that I love him, where he would rather hug me to show that he loves me. I don’t find it important to hold hands while we walk around campus, but he finds it very important. As the conversation became deeper and more personal as we talked about how we feel about divinity, the afterlife, alternate religions, and personal doubts, he put his hand on my knee – a sign that he wanted to feel supported and feel close in his own nonverbal communication style. In response, I held his hand, which he clarified was very important for him to feel supported with these intense subjects.
      • He was feeling vulnerable, so I showed him support.
    • Identity Conversation
      • Religion and faith are primary identifiers for one’s personality. Because we are in a very serious, long-term relationship, this conversation wasn’t just about whether he was Catholic or not. We were also inadvertently talking about what kind of husband and father he would be. The way I handled this conversation was inadvertently giving him information on what kind of wife I would be. We talked about how he felt about raising our kids in the Catholic faith. Ultimately, we were discussing whether or not we could maintain a long-term relationship.
    • The Third Story
      • From the outside, one might say that his faith journey is none of my business and I don’t have a right to influence him without being asked.
    • Framing
      • It was important for me to frame the conflict first as, “How are you feeling right now, not including me? Because I know this is about you, not me.” Then, as “I would like to help you, and I feel that I am not currently helping.” Instead of accusing him of not including me, I kept the focus on him and his faith out of respect and understanding.
    • Outcomes
      • The conversation ended having an extremely positive outcome. I now deeply understand where he is in his faith, I understand how he’s proceeding through his faith journey, and he understands and fully appreciates me as a resource for his faith journey.
      • As a result, he asked me a few foundational questions that he had after attending mass with me so many times. I was able to provide deeper explanation that he never would have known without this conversation, which strengthened his interest and identification with Catholicism, Christianity, and faith itself.


(Written October, 2016)

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