Dear Annie

Compulsive religious behavior causing conflict

Annie Lane, syndicated columnist

Dear Annie: I am concerned about several of my six siblings. We were brought up very strictly, and we experienced shame if we missed church or sinned. We’re all adults with kids of our own now. Over the years, several siblings and their spouses have become obsessively religious. It’s their drug. No amount is enough.

They practice Catholicism compulsively, and religious conversation is infused into daily conversation. For them, it’s about practicing religious rules and expectations, more than the spiritual meanings behind the behaviors. They often cannot answer why they do their rituals but know they must. They ask strangers if they went to church that day and what affiliation they are. They embrace only people of their faith. They avoid anyone else. They seem to need the “spiritual high” from attending church: When they travel, finding a church is a source of anxiety.

Many of their children (my nieces and nephews) do not participate. Because my siblings feel that they have failed as parents, and they are in a constant state of fear their children will go to Hell.

They have become dysfunctional. They’ve lost their personalities to this disorder. What causes this? Are they filling a void with religion? Is it low self-esteem and fear? What can others do when too much of a good thing turns obsessive-compulsive by all clinical and professional definitions, but they see it as “growing in one’s faith”? — Outside the Bubble

Dear Outside the Bubble: Indeed, virtually anything can become toxic in large enough doses. It sounds as though your siblings may suffer from scrupulosity — which the International OCD Foundation defines as a “subtype of OCD in which the person’s obsessions have a religious or moral theme” — or another kind of OCD.

You can express your concern, citing all the troubling behaviors that you mentioned in your letter to me. They’ll likely write you off. But saying your piece might bring you some measure of peace.

Beyond that, I strongly encourage you to find a support group such as those organized by NAMI (https://www.nami.org/find-support) or Families Anonymous (https://www.familiesanonymous.org). You can find more information about OCD and relevant resources at https://iocdf.org. While you cannot change their behavior, you can find a way to maintain serenity even in the face of their dysfunction.

Dear Annie: You gave excellent advice to “Desperate Stepdad.” As a 76-year-old alcoholic with 39 years of sobriety, I’ve been around the block a few times regarding this type of situation. The one thing you should have mentioned to him is that until his wife realizes she is an enabler and takes action, the situation with his stepson will never change, no matter how diligent he is with his endeavors. — AA in NY

Dear AA: I appreciate your sharing the hard-won wisdom. The following reader had some additional tips for “Desperate Stepdad.”

Dear Annie: “Desperate Stepdad” could get some immediate relief in considering these facts:

1) His stepson is in no way capable of a job or self-help now. Let that go.

2) His wife likely feels so guilty and so distressed as to lose all logic. She needs love, not anger, nagging or threats.

3) If his wife won’t go to Nar-Anon, Stepdad still should. They could arrange an intervention for his wife. Once she sees love and support, and learns what to do, she will likely “join the team” and act effectively to both help her son and restore her marriage. If Stepdad will step up to help save his family, his reward will be great. — Old Social Worker

Dear Social Worker: I appreciate the expert insights and am glad to print them. Thanks for writing.

Editor’s note: “Ask Me Anything: A Year of Advice From Dear Annie” is out now! Annie Lane’s debut book — featuring favorite columns on love, friendship, family and etiquette — is available as a paperback and e-book. Visit http://www.creatorspublishing.com for more information. Send your questions for Annie Lane to dearannie@creators.com.


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