What Should This Atheist Couple Do? July 6, 2009

What Should This Atheist Couple Do?

We have a relationship that could use some help.

It comes from “Bob.”

The setup:

His girlfriend’s dad is subborn, conservative-but-science-inclined, and a partial geek. He doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but appreciates church for the community it provides and for “maintaining harmony in the household.”

His girlfriend’s mom is a very devout Christian — a Southern Baptist.

His girlfriend is an atheist. According to her dad, it’s just a phase. (Yep. You read that right. Her dad.)

Here’s Bob:

Not wanting to maintain lies with her folks, my girlfriend told her mom that I was an atheist to no real conflict. When she told her mom that she was an atheist, however, the sparks began to fly. Her mother insists that I’m a bad influence and insists that I was the one who led her astray, and her father (her father!) laid down an ultimatum: break up with me for her spiritual growth, or forfeit college support, medical insurance, and further contact with them.

How’s that for religious compassion?

It gets worse. Bob and his girlfriend can’t really support themselves right now… Bob will graduate in a semester and he will hopefully find a job. The girlfriend would have to put her college plans on hold until then.

The issue of medical insurance might force them to have to get married for financial reasons, and that’s not very romantic. But it might be necessary.

So now what?

Bob explains that using that Dad’s unbelief against him wouldn’t work. Furthermore:

Maintaining a relationship with her parents is an extremely high priority for my girlfriend, so burning bridges is out of the question, but she also knows that if she gives in here, she’ll just have to fight the same battle again down the road.

I don’t think she’ll ditch me for the education, logical as that would be, because she’s not willing anymore to live her life on their terms.

Do you or your community have any thoughts for us? I think we’re at an impasse and, barring renegotiation of the ultimatum, we’ll be striking it out on our own.

Instinctively, I would tell Bob to just give it a shot and try striking out on his own. It won’t be too long before he’s working (assuming he gets a job) and then he’ll be somewhat ok financially even if it’s really rough for a while. Hopefully, by that time, her parents will have come around.

My other thoughts involve a bank heist, a goat, and the World Series of Poker.

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  • Jodie

    It sounds scary because you are logical — you aren’t sugar-coating the financial part. That said, people do it all of the time. If you only have a year left of school that’s much easier to pay off than the whole shot. Health insurance? There’s medicaid; many states have a medicaid specific for women of child bearing years. It’s not going to be pretty or easy, but it can certainly be done.

  • Carlie

    I think the parents need to have a little time to calm down. Now’s not the time for the woman to keep confronting them; that will antagonize them more. It will be hard, but if she can say “We shouldn’t talk about this for awhile”, that might give them a little distance to get over the initial shock and rethink what they’ve blurted out. It may indeed be that in a few weeks they still decide to withdraw all financial support, and she should be ready to deal with that, but the most important thing is to not create a setup for an explosion that will make everyone say things they shouldn’t. She should try to keep communication open, or at least make sure the parents know that she’s open on her end. Keeping the high ground and all. Easier said than done, I know.

  • Epistaxis

    American health care strikes again!

  • Kaylya

    I see a couple possibilities here:
    Have Bob go to church for a while for the community aspects. Ideally they could satisfy this by going to a Unitarian-Universalist church (A significant chunk of UUers identify as atheist/agnostic) or some form of liberal Christian church and not the parent’s Baptist church, but the latter might be needed.

    But if that doesn’t work, while I’m not really an advocate of lying to ones parents on such issues, I would think that *saying* she’s breaking up with Bob and living a lie for a while is better than burning her bridges with her parents.

  • lurker111

    “I would think that *saying* she’s breaking up with Bob and living a lie for a while is better than burning her bridges with her parents.”

    Exactly. When people use the truth against you in an unfair fashion, you lie, and lie convincingly, and do it without compunction.

    Fake the break-up, date discreetly, like you’re dating a mistress or gigolo, and in a year “rediscover” yourselves.

  • Ben

    If it’s handled right, I think it’s unlikely that the parents will go through with the threat. The parents should know how important the relationship is for their daughter and how happy it makes her. It’s all about priorities. If their motivation is community and household harmony, then they shouldn’t want to break up a happy and stable couple, nor should they want to inhibit their daughter’s education and start in life.

    Also, what do the parents mean by break up? Are you not allowed to see each other at all? If the parents aren’t budging, humor them a little for a little while. Find some compromise while the parents cool off.

  • AnonyMouse

    I am reminded of this video on the subject of coming out to one’s parents. “Bob” (you ever notice how many atheists are named Bob?) and his girlfriend have gotten themselves into a very similar situation – the parents have threatened to completely disown their daughter unless she caves to their demands and gives up her “alternative lifestyle”.

    I would suggest that the girlfriend try and negotiate with the parents. It’s possible that they have just had a knee-jerk reaction and will settle down after awhile. If not, she may want to petition for a dependency override, which will allow her to obtain financial aid for college without the aid of her parents. (If they get married, that will also render her independent, to the same effect.)

    Under no circumstances, however, would I advise that she kowtow to her parents’ demands (unless they absolutely cannot afford to support themselves, in which case it may be necessary to separate until he gets a decent job). The parents are acting completely childish and selfish.

    (I say this as someone who is living with Christian parents and is forced to lie to them almost daily.)

  • VorlonGuyverOss

    I say since the ultimatum is from them then tell them you love them but what they are asking in unreasonable. They don’t want to see you walk away and that is there fear. Use it. Play a game of chess. Tell them the lines of communication are open but they will have to make contact but because of your convictions to yourself you will have to walk away.

    College is not that expensive but may take longer while working to pay for it, I had to. Going without health insurance can be risky but millions of people have to live this way. How is your health? Do you have any plan issues that are going to come up?

    Not to sound condescending but is it worth living free or by a leash?

    I personally choose free. Unfortunately I had the same type of problem and I don’t regret my decision one bit. Only you can decide for yourself…

  • I think this relationship is doomed – I’m sure they will try, but it isn’t going to work.

    Most of the time when one partner is forced to choose between family and relationship, resentment builds and kills the relationship.

  • break up with me for her spiritual growth, or forfeit college support, medical insurance, and further contact with them.

    That’s horrible.

    I think she will at least need to talk to her parents. First of all, she should talk to them about what she feels, what she really believes, and why she’s an atheist. My guess is that that topic has been somewhat taboo in her family, so this conversation is probably long overdue anyway. Maybe she’d want to point out she’s still the same person, and point out that she still shares many of the values her parents taught her. Make it a long, serious talk, and give them time to think about it.

    Then later she needs to make it clear that they shouldn’t try and control her life in this way. Explain that if she gives in, she’d be forced into a course of action she wouldn’t have chosen for herself, which she’ll end up resenting herself for – and you can’t really call that “spiritual growth”. The other possibility is that she gives in, but still keeps seeing the guy – how are they going to stop her? That would mean that they’d have turned their daughter into a liar, also not exactly “spiritual growth”. And finally, are they really willing to ruin the girl’s chances of a college education (is that good for “spiritual growth”?) and potentially put her life in danger (no healthcare!), and on top of that never see her again? All because of a difference in beliefs?

    She may also want to point out, that when she is out of contact with her parents, they won’t be involved at all anymore in her “spiritual growth”. At the very least, she should point out that it is important to her to stay in touch with her parents.

    Of course, not knowing the parents, I have no idea if they’d respond to this kind of reasoning. But at the very least, you have to talk about it – you can’t ignore it. Best to not be too confrontational, though, but you’ll need to work it out somehow. Just be honest, and give it time.

    I’m afraid that’s all the advice I could give. Hope it helps some. Good luck to the couple.

  • stinger

    I wouldn’t recommend lying. The parents would find out sooner or later, and it would just reinforce the stereotype that atheists have no moral values. The girlfriend might try telling her parents that she will stop seeing Bob for X months (till he graduates), and during that time she will attend church as they ask, but her thoughts and beliefs (and eventual partner choices) are her own. She should not complain or whine during that time, but live up to her side of the bargain — she is getting a college education and medical coverage, after all — and show them that atheists can behave like courteous, respectful adults. If she’s willing to take their money, she should be willing to “live her life on their terms” for a bit longer.

  • Doreen

    I agree that a UU Church might be a good idea for the couple. It’s a compromise. Hopefully, it’s enough to appease the parents and atheists usually feel welcome in a UU Church.

    There can also be a sit down with the parents, explaining a bit what atheism is and where else they pull their beliefs from, whether it’s secular humanism, pantheistic notions or just on an individual level. That would be a good time to bring up the compromise of a UU Church.

    Hopefully, given some time, some effort at working things out and understanding each other, and some compromise things will work out.

  • stinger

    And, instead of using the term “atheist” (see post below), she could try telling them that she will go to church if they insist, but that she no longer believes. Sometimes it’s just the terminology that gets people’s backs up.

  • Amber

    I have little experience when it comes the parents not understanding thing, but a lot of it when it comes to living on your own. I was essentially placed in a situation where I a) live with my overbearing and terribly fundamentalist grandmother or b) move out and tough it out.

    I chose to leave, and it worked out well.. mostly. I’ve had some very hard times financially, and for a while I was relying on my sister for financial support while going to school and working, but it’s better now. My husband and I were recently married, and I’m still at school while he’s working. We’re taking turns.. once I’m done it’s his turn to get an education. It sucks, and it takes a hell of a long time, but it’s better than lying to your parents or yourself. What the girlfriend’s parents have done is absolutely terrible and downright selfish. 🙁

  • textjunkie

    What’s the context? Are we talking 16 year olds, 22 year olds, graduating from medical school, or what?

    If they are sixteen or so and Bob is graduating from high school–that’s one thing. If they are in their early 20s and he really could get a job and pay the last semester or so of her college–that’s another.

    But generally I agree with Stinger. Lying is not the way to go, here, but attempting to find a mature solution, that takes a higher road than does the fear-laden kneejerk reaction of the parents, is best.

  • Personally I don’t react well to ultimatums, I think they show a lack of respect and extreme pettiness. So I know my reaction would be to call the parent’s bluff and guilt trip them at the same time (how would you feel if I got in a car accident with no health insurance). However that may not be the best way to handle things.

    Whether her relationship with Bob works or not she has to deal with her parents wish to control their adult daughter and willingness to use coercion to do so. That’s not a healthy relationship by any means.

  • Matthew

    I can’t set this up yet (age reasons), but I would suggest we try to set up a fund for the two. Get some really influential atheists to put some money in and promo the heck out of it.

    Just my two cents.

  • The only advice I would give is to always be the party more willing to let the other party in your life… particularly if you two do strike out on your own.

  • Tom

    First, an important note to Bob: Do not get married unless you really want to be married. Marriage is a big deal. Divorce is a nightmare that can destroy your life. If you’re not really sure that this is the woman you want to spend your life with, don’t get married now.

    The next thing to understand is that the ultimate decision is really the girlfriend’s. It’s her who has to deal with the potential of losing her family. If she is not prepared for the possibility of losing her parents and never seeing them again as the price of the relationship, she should break up with Bob. It’s harsh, it’s awful, but since her parents are prepared to make such an ultimatum, they’ve forced her to decide, him or them. She has to make that decision, and live with it. If it’s really true that “burning bridges is out of the question”, then she’s made her decision: she will let her parents push her around for the rest of her life, and sooner or later, Bob will lose.

    But, here’s the thing: Bob says both “burning bridges is out of the question”, and also “she’s not anymore willing to live her life on their terms.” These things are now mutually exclusive. She has to choose.

    Now, if what she chooses is that she wants to be with Bob and live her life her own way, and is willing to lose her parents in the process, then she and Bob need to decide how to deal with it. The upfront way is to tell them that she’s calling their bluff and see what happens, and be prepared for the consequences if they cut her off. Make plain to them that consequences go both ways, so they don’t think they can abuse her like this and expect to ever see the grandkids. (hey, if they’re willing to emotionally blackmail their own daughter, turnabout is fair play, and they’ve earned it!)

    The more subtle way is for Bob to go to them and ask them bluntly what is the price of peace. Tell them that their behavior is outrageous and is harming their daughter and ask what he has to do to make them stop harming her in this way – and when they tell him to stop seeing her, tell them that’s her decision, not his, and he’s asking what HE can do. See if a truce can be negotiated. This may involve him going to a UU church with her or something like that. Or maybe he might agree that if they will stop interfering and withdraw their threats FOR NOW, he will agree not to propose to her until at least one year after she graduates college, so they’ll have time to get to know him, because he wants them to see he is a moral person and will be good for their daughter. But, a negotiated solution may not be possible if they’re too set on being unreasonable or pushing their ultimatum.

    The final way is to lie about it, tell them she has broken up with Bob, and see him quietly on the side. This is ugly, and will ensure that the parents will be thoroughly irate when they eventually find out, but it may allow her to get the education and medical insurance she needs, buying time until the couple is prepared to support themselves… and if she’s angry enough with her parents, she might not care. I know it sounds awful, but it has been done. In fact, this is exactly what my grandparents did when my grandmother’s parents forbade her to see her boyfriend, the town punk, any more. They actually got married, and didn’t tell her parents for a year, until he saved up some money and bought her a house. Her parents were so irate when she told them what she’d done that they wrote her out of the will. (And never changed it back.) She had little relationship with them after that, although they wanted to see the grandkids of course. But she was happily married for 63 years, so she had the last laugh.

    Bob, you have an ugly situation on your hands. The best I can recommend is, decide what you personally are willing to live with, lay out the options you’re willing to accept to your girlfriend, and await her choice, since she has the hardest part of it.

  • The girlfriend in this story

    I am the girlfriend that this is speaking of. “Bob” told me that he emailed our situation to Mr. Mehta.

    Here are more details:

    I’m a 19-year-old (almost 20 🙂 ) college sophomore.
    He’s almost 23 and getting ready to graduate after the fall semester with a degree in computer science.
    We’ve been together for about a year now and have hit no major problems in our relationship aside from this. We have started to talk about maybe getting married here in the next year or two.

    I’m tempted to not take the money from my parents for other reasons besides the fact that, if I did, I would have to say goodbye to Bob. According to my mom, splitting up with Bob is just the first step and I also need to do other things such as attend church every Sunday while I’m in college (they have a specific church that they want me to attend- mom knows the preacher and plans on asking him regularly if I was in the congregation).

    Anyway, the point is that Bob isn’t the only reason that I need to break away. I don’t think I really want to jump through hoops for my parents’ money. I think we’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that we’re going to strike out on our own starting next semester and I’m just going to have to work and put college on hold until we’re married and I can apply for financial aid. Not happy about that part, but I think that (hopefully) I’ll be happier in the end that I stood up for our lack of religion.

    I completely understand how fortunate I am to have a guy who would stick by me when the obvious and easy solution would be to find another girl whose parents aren’t fundies.

    Also, Matthew, while I’m tempted to say otherwise, I don’t think we could, in good conscience, accept a fund when there are other people out there like us who undoubtedly have it worse.

  • Kimi

    My advice to her is to cut ties with her parents. Their job is to love their daughter unconditionally. If they can’t do that, they don’t deserve to be called ‘mom and dad’. Anyone can give birth, but being a parent is something you earn. Why would she want to lie to keep their love?

    Don’t live your life by their rules. Spiritual blackmail will only make both of you resent them. Do what you want, and if they come around, fine. Start making amends. If they don’t, then it is their loss.

  • Snuggly Buffalo

    Based on the girlfriend’s last comment, it sounds like her parents aren’t willing to treat her like an adult, even remotely. Seriously, asking the pastor if she’s attending church? If her parents won’t budge from their unreasonable position, I don’t think there’s any possible way to maintain a healthy relationship with them.

    And here I’ve always though my parents were fundy nuts.

  • AxeGrrl

    Noadi wrote:

    Whether her relationship with Bob works or not she has to deal with her parents wish to control their adult daughter and willingness to use coercion to do so. That’s not a healthy relationship by any means.

    This needs to be underscored.

    Don’t lie and don’t give in. What’s the expression…..’don’t negotiate with terrorists’. That might be a bit of an extreme analogy, but in my mind, if you give in to their puerile and damaging demands, it almost shows a level of respect for them.

    Be calm and honest but direct ~ especially in trying to communicate to them how upsetting and destructive their ‘ultimatum’ is.

    I wish you the best of luck 🙂 if you don’t give in and don’t lie (and by ‘you’ i mean the girlfriend), you’ll feel better about yourself in the long run.

  • I like Jeff’s idea.

    I think that if Bob and his girlfriend are serious about their relationship, and it sounds like they are, they should progress toward marriage on their own terms. Without such unfair penalty.

    I think it right that they be empowered to make such decisions and that the atheist community support them. Such financial support could be given after private verification that it’s all for real, and anonymity retained.

    A “College for Bob’s gf” fund. Let the parents keep their money.

    Some degree of feedback on how it all goes (if only for accountability reasons) would have to happen, and the contruction of an anonymous case study for future similar occurences would be ideal of course. There’d have to be no more obligation than that, I’d think – it couldn’t be exploitative.

    With such financial support, I’d suggest, short of actually burning bridges, that the girlfriend put her relationship with her parents on hold until they grow up and show her the proper respect. They are way out of line and as much as she loves her parents, she shouldn’t be under any obligation to deal with this crap.

    The moral burden lies with the parents. Let them handle the consequences of their ultimatum – a huge apology would be a good start.

  • Adults don’t get to impose their wills on other adults. You can choose to allow them to do so. My advice is not to treat it as an ultimatum at all but as a warning. If you do X then Y will occur. Forewarned (which is awfully good of them) you know the situation and can proceed with what you wantd to do without any nasty surprises. Remove the threat by not treating it as a threat.

    Does this change the situation at all? A little. Now you don’t have an if\then situation but an understood cause and effect. It removes confusion and allows you to move forward. The course of action if to acknowledge the cause and effect openly, express the genuine sadness in the result and leave the parents a way to reconcile in the future. I’m betting that this will be sooner rather than later.

  • KeithLM

    Well personally I know for me that I could just tell my parents that I guess they’ll never be having any grandchildren, at least that they’ll know about. I love ’em, but anyone that puts an ultimatum like that to me is going to lose. Granted it’s a lot easier for me to say that in my position because I’m well paid and I know my parents wouldn’t try that.

    “The girlfriend” you might try such an ultimatum though. I mean they are trying to push you around, and you should show them that you won’t let them. You say you have many reasons to let them cut you off, and I have to say from my experience of seeing people manipulated by parents who used both money and religion, it’ll suck, and debt would be better than that.

    But most importantly don’t rush to marry, and don’t marry to spite your parents. And look into what kind of financial aid is out there, there might be something you can get to cover school and living expenses.

  • AxeGrrl

    *thumbs up to KeithLM’s post ^ *

    especially the ‘don’t marry to spite your parents‘ bit 🙂

  • Don’t make this about Bob and his “influence” over her, make this about what it truly is about – between her and her parents.

    If it becomes a choice between two people, then no matter what the outcome, someone will always be responsible for “what could have been”. If it doesn’t work out with Bob, her parents will use that against her forever. If it does work out, then Bob becomes the fall guy for her loss of her family when she’s angry at him in the future.

    The situation should not be which *person* is “better than” the other. The choice should be which path she wants her life to take and the people in question can then choose to join her on that path or not as they see fit.

    So, what is more important to her … being true to her own values even at the risk of losing financial comfort or is that financial comfort important enough to trade one’s value system and silence, even temporarily? Some people are willing to trade their ideals for a college tuition.

    Personally, I was not. Although my parents were never quite this blatant about it, they often attached conditions to their financial assistance. I took 2 years off and got a full time job and saved up for college, then I went back to school and by that time I was too old for the financial aid office to consider my parents’ income when assessing my financial abilities.

    So I hesitate to suggest which path she should choose, because I don’t know her and I don’t know what she values more, and I don’t know enough details of her life to say which sacrifice is worth the effort. That is something she needs to decide for herself.

    I only recommend that she make the choice about her life, not about choosing between people she loves. Pick the path that is most right for her, then invite everyone to come along and have patience, or not. If she chooses financial comfort, she can ask for patience from Bob to either “break up” while dependent upon the money or to lie and pretend to break up in order to have both. or, if she chooses to not hide her thoughts or her value system from her parents who have a different set of beliefs, then she can assert her opinion and say she welcomes her parents into her life, but that they have to accept her as she is or they don’t have to remain part of her life.

    I know I said I wouldn’t presume to tell her which choice, but I will say that I personally believe the lying option is not the most favorable.

    I believe that life rewards the path of greater courage, and that lying is rarely the path of greater courage. If the Nazis are knocking on my door, and I’m hiding Jews in my basement, I’ll say this is a good case for lying being the more courageous choice. But rarely are we afforded with these kinds of hard decisions.

    Lying to make life more comfortable is not a courageous decision, IMO, but there may be parts to the story that I don’t know that make this not merely “more comfortable”, but something more important. But I do believe that a person who stands up for their beliefs in the face of adversity will reap much bigger long-term rewards in terms of character and self-respect than a fist full of cash can provide, and although money can buy a lot of physical security, like a degree or rent or food, it doesn’t do very much to repair the damage to a relationship where the participants are forced to hide it and deny an integral part of who they are to the people close to them.

  • Harknights


    What makes you think your parents will ever stop controlling your life?

    If you don’t marry the right guy. They will cut you off.

    Don’t move to the right part of town (god forbid moving away.) they will cut you off.

    Don’t have the right amount of kids and name them after dead relatives. they will cut you off.

    My wife had to send a letter to her parents saying that if they can’t treat her with the same respect they treat a stranger then she doesn’t want them in her life. Going on 2 years of no contact…and she is better for it.

    It will never end…just remember that. They will never give up control.

    She will check with the pastor once a week…that’s love?

    I am sorry…I really am.

  • I had a similar situation in which I told my parents I was going to take a year off of school and they presented me with the ultimatum of finishing school with a major that I despised (a latent realization after three years committed to it) or they would never help me with the cost of school again (not that they helped so much to begin with). I refused to comply with their ultimatum and chose to take a year off school. I worked two jobs in that year off and then graduated in 2.5 yrs while working full time and with the help of student loans. I don’t regret that choice to break away one bit.

    Our relationship is different now – I’m less of a child to them, and I refuse to act the child for them. They have occasionally helped me out financially in the last few years, though it is always well wrapped in guilt. I’m afraid that I haven’t yet had the “I’m an atheist” conversation with them, seeing as how badly they reacted to my school situation. :/

    I definitely say do not comply with their ultimatum. I agree with other commenters that her parents are not willing to treat her like an adult who has a mind of her own and a right to her own beliefs (or non-beliefs). I don’t think it would be very prudent to lie to them, because that will more likely hurt the relationship between parent and child in the long run. And I don’t think you should have to make such a compromise like going to church, because that is just as much of a lie if your sure in your atheism. Playing a part isn’t going to get you much of anywhere in my opinion. I say break ties now, but make it clear that you are leaving the lines of communication open. If they really love you they’ll come around, though your relationship may not be the same afterward and it will undoubtedly take a long time for it to come back to a place to where it was previously.

    Obviously if you guys can come to a compromise with her parents, one that works for everybody, then go for it, but don’t be guilted or cornered into anything. Best of luck you guys. What a frustrating situation to be in.

  • Richard Wade

    This is an awesome post and people are giving excellent advice. Girlfriend, I agree with so many here who say that you should be true to your principles, and I also agree with those who suggest that you should not make your move too soon, but take your steps at your pace, for your purposes. Somewhere in there is the optimum plan.

    As far as the postponing of your college education, I’ve seen many people, including my daughter, benefit from a year or two of taking Life 101 and then resuming their college courses with a much greater maturity, discipline and personal responsibility for their decisions in life. Yours will be a life that you fully own. Congratulations ahead of time.

    On another issue here, I am amazed at the parents’ thinking that blackmail/bribery is a proper and pious way to approach Christianity.
    “Yeah, Mom and Dad, I’m gonna tell Jesus that I only worshipped him because my parents bribed me with the cost of rent, tuition, food and health insurance. Let’s see, we can add this up and see what God is worth in dollars. Where’s my calculator?”

  • I am sure we have all heard of stories that reflect this, whether because of religious affiliation or other family-splitting issues.

    I had a friend one year ahead of me in high school whose mom told her to quit being “gay” or she would not support her college education. This friend was just in her first year of college, able to leave the “small town” mentality where the university offered many opportunities to meet people from all backgrounds and from all cultures. She lived in one if the dorm buildings that had a “diversity floor”. This was mid-1980s, things were MUCH different then, even in a very “liberal” college where a floor was designated to combine people from all over, was a real “progressive” idea.

    I at the time was a bit of a non-conformist, and was horrified, and couldn’t imagine a parent threatening a child this way. To add more emotional understanding to this situation, my friend’s parents were split and she was living with one of the grandparents and had been for years, so the “split-parent games” were on big time, and my friend truly needed economic help. Even though she was a good student got scholarships, none would cover the majority of the college costs, even when she was making money, because she was also working.
    Like I said, I was a non-conformist, was telling my parents to “F” off for years, moved out as a teen a few years earlier and could NEVER see myself accepting an ultimatum!

    THAT BEING SAID (can anyone tell me why “that being said” is being used to much now, I often used “however”, I guess I am less of a non-conformist now, seeing as I use “that being said” now), if there is anything I regret doing, and there is NOTHING I ever regret from my past…that being said/however, I often wonder how different my life would have been if I had just kissed my parents asses, and let them rule my life, at least the part they could see, until they finished paying for college, (at that time, a 4 year degree actually meant something). I understand that MANY college students, as well as co-workers and friends have “two-sides” to who they are, say there “public” and “private sides.

    In “Bob’s” situation, I guess it would all boil down to how much time the girl needs to spend with her mom, telling her she is going to rot in hell. In other words, to be blunt; use the parents for their money, maybe over time, the relationship between daughter and parents will survive and flourish, sometimes time does soften our “views”. If when all is said and done, college is behind her, parent s live in another city or state and aren’t intruding on her/their everyday life, then so be it, Bob’s girlfriend has a college education, (which may or may not mean much in today’s economical strife, but having a “degree” is, for most people, a better chance at getting a job, and/or a job that would be willing to send you back to school to better educate them), and Bob and his girlfriend can have an “adult” relationship with their families.

    Bob’s girlfriend needs to be prepared for a time that her mother may just disown her for not being “saved”, but allowing her mother to control her life, when she is an adult, only means to me that, her mother may use any means to try and control her.

    In other words, Bob’s girlfriend can “pretend” to be “saved” just to get through college, and when she believes it is “safe” to come out again as an atheist, her mother may still hold it against her.

    Sad story makes me hate Christian Fundamentalists, and all other religious fundamentalists, more and more. If a religion can make a mother threaten a child, (the bible is full of this btw), then it is truly a horrid dogma and maybe Bob needs to give his girlfriend any book by Thomas Paine, to give her some words to throw in her mother’s face.

  • stephanie

    I think it sounds ‘knee jerk’ too, and what’s worse now the parents have issued an ultimatum, causing a fuss about it won’t allow them to back down if they do come to their senses. I say let the whole subject drop unless they keep asking.
    Then it’s a matter of level-headedness. If she loses financial support, they also lose a dependent on their taxes. If she loses her parents, they also lose their daughter and possible grandchildren. There is no positive outcome in forcing their hand.
    If she were my friend I’d advise her; “Smile, tell your parents you love them, then go live your life the way you mean to do.” There’s no need to rush into things or be rash and the longer the dialogue remains even slightly open, the closer to the end of college and dependency anyway.

  • The general consensus is that bowing to parental pressure is not a good thing but I want to explore the other side of the equation for a moment.

    As a father it is my joy and responsibility to instill certain values into my children and provide them with a range of skills useful for their survival and prosperity. I imagine that the parents of the “Girlfriend” enjoy a similar role but in their case they wish to instill slightly different values and skills to their daughter, namely Christianity. How must they feel when their “little girl” has chosen to reject these values? They must enter a state of reflection about what they did wrong and have chosen to identify “Bob” as the cause. I would imagine that parents who view homosexuality in a negative light also have similar feelings.

    There is nothing wrong with feeling this way and taking the time to reassess the beliefs that lead to the conclusion that they have failed as parents. In another situation it may be that “Girlfriend” has been led into destructive behaviour and interference is justified. Perhaps she’s developed an eating disorder, is being hit by “Bob”, is being exploited financially, has developed a drug problem, etc. Sometimes though the beliefs that cause the parental consternation are at fault. You cannot dictate who your child falls in love with or who they befriend. If “Girlfriend” had fallen for “Wendy” it does not indicate that you have failed as a parent, merely that your views on same sex relationships might need reassessing. The same holds true for those with different religious beliefs.

    I enjoy the company of my children who are now entering their teenage years. Within the next five years I will see them grow into adults and make all kinds of decisions that I do not like. I will see them make mistakes that I will want to fix. Sometimes I’ll help and sometimes I’ll make things worse. The important thing, from my point of view, is that I still get to enjoy the company of my children. If that means putting up with their latest boyfriend\girlfriend even though I find him or her utterly contemptuous then I will. Who knows, I might get to enjoy their company as well.

    My advice to “Bob” is to extend an olive branch to “Girlfriend’s” family, through her, so that they can see that their fears for their daughter are unfounded. Don’t try to sell yourself, just let them get to know you. And avoid the topic of religion entirely. That isn’t what this is about.

  • Benoit

    You hold the big end of the stick. It’s called grandchildren.

    Nuff said.

  • Simply Sane

    Isn’t there any decent form of family therapy available? Professional, secular, I mean psychotherapy. If there’s a way to talk some sense to her ‘parents’, that would be it IMHO.

  • Steven

    Bob, I’ve been dealing with in-law issues for almost ten years now. The issues have nothing to do with religion but they have put serious strains on my marriage and my relationship with my parents and my mother-in-law. Considering the challenges inherent in any relationship, are you fully prepared to add more stress, more worry, and more things to argue about?
    The upside is that the new family I’ve formed with my wife and daughters is the centre of my life. Despite the costs, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
    I hope that your girlfriend’s parents will come around – it is possible as even my parents have admitted fault at times. My mother-in-law is another story.
    Best of luck to you and your girlfriend.

  • J. Allen

    Whatever you do, don’t let the theocracy win out over love.

    Either pretend to break up and have your affair in secret(totally ethical given their unethical demands) or defy the parents and ask for help from others, and possibly take whatever loans you can.

  • Miko

    Imagine the same scenario, but with the roles of the parents and the boyfriend reversed and the solution becomes obvious. Use the same principles to find the correct solution in the existing scenario.

    Life is the only irreplaceable commodity in this universe; as such, surrendering to coercion is sacrificing your ultimate good for a few trinkets. Each of us has it within us to make it on our own (if necessary), if only we have the courage to try and the strength of character to resist the Faustian bargains offered us.

  • Another Atheist

    Having gone through college without any parental support and being broker than broke for years, I would disagree with many of the posters on this board. Just pretend to go along with your parents. You will be independent soon enough. By spending a couple of hours at church every week, that will be like getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to go to school. Right now you have no idea how hard it is to make it on your own. It is really really really hard, especially in this economy. You are going to suffer and your relationship is going to suffer if you both have to suddenly support yourselves. Just get through college and get a job and then you can have it out with them, once you are already standing on your own two feet.

  • jemand

    I think partly what girlfriend should do depends on whether or not she 100% knows what major she wants, and what job she wants to do. If she is unsure, taking a year off to work, would be good on it’s own terms. If she IS sure, any time off is NOT a good idea and she will get a better job after getting a degree… (here’s the other thing, is SHE studying a higher income subject like engineering, medicine, or comp sci? Is she likely to actually get a job given a degree? We’re talking money here, we should look at the particular prospects of her particular degree.)

    On the other hand, she is (I assume) not living at home, she should ignore the parents until they bring it up again.

    And as for ultimatums by parents, I got one myself, and it’s surprising because again my father doesn’t even believe himself but goes to church for community and family peace (a lot of peace that actually causes!)…

    But he went along with my mother’s ultimatum that if I didn’t go to church I’d have to move out that night. Yeah, I was stupid enough to live at home for college, but I paid my own insurance and tuition so they had much less to hold over my head– I did move out in less than 3 months.

    Oh, and for the people saying she could just go without health insurance, that’s true if she’s not in school, but schools require coverage or you can’t go.

  • Christy C.

    This reminded me of my fiance’s fundy parents. A couple of years ago his mom wrote him a letter bidding him “farewell” because she opposed his parenting methods and agnosticism. It lasted a few months, then they were back. This girlfriend’s parents sound more decisive than my in-laws, but I still think they are unlikely to follow through on their threats entirely. They may well withhold financial assistance, but I can’t see them severing the relationship for good.

    I’m assuming this girlfriend is over 18 and has graduated high school. She is an adult. Her parents want her to remain a child. I don’t think there is any compromise between the 2 roles. My advice is that she politely and respectfully assert her independence and leave the ball in her parents’ court to adjust to reality. This has always been my advice to my fiance. By living life on her terms, she is not burning bridges – her parents are doing that. If she were to “get in line” by dumping the boyfriend or some other compromise, she’d sacrifice her integrity as an adult to temporarily alleviate pain and discomfort.

    There are many who work and get loans to pay for college. It will take longer and there will be debt, but those are material issues. In return for those inconveniences, the girlfriend gets what really matters in life: the relationship she wants and a healthier sense of self.

    And about college: getting it done right away does not always provide a significant financial advantage. I personally recommend that “kids these days”, if possible, work and take a few classes for a year or 3 while they get some experience in the world that will give them a better sense of what kind of career they want. Being in college from 18 to 22 sharpened my intellect but told me very little about what kind of job would make me happy. I have ended up fumbling around vocationally for several more years and at 31 think I finally know what I want and what I excel at. Until recently I didn’t make more money than I could have without a finishing a bachelor’s.

    I definitely recommend against getting married for financial reasons. I did ok without medical insurance for a while, though I’m healthy. A little medical debt isn’t the end of the world either. Hospitals and doctors are usually reasonable about creating payment plans should you end up with a bill. In my state, there is a public health plan for low-income adults that has helped least one friend of mine.

  • Christy C.

    Oh, and for the people saying she could just go without health insurance, that’s true if she’s not in school, but schools require coverage or you can’t go.

    Just noticed this. It’s not true of all schools. Also might depend whether you are a full-time or part-time student.

  • Cherie M

    I went through a similar thing with my now-husband only with both parents being highly religious – mormon, to be exact. I put off college for two years, moved away for several months to live with him and was mentally and emotionally prepared to not have a family when I came home. It was extremely difficult emotionally and financially, but it was worth it to me at the time. Looking back I wouldn’t change much, if anything. It’s made me stronger (which I badly needed) and allowed me to grow outside of their rules and expectations.

    On the other side I’m still trying to repair my relationship with parents. Three years later and I get along well with my mom so long as religion is left out. My dad is embarrassed by me on the few days a year I voluntarily attend their church and it’s incredibly difficult. I’ve been cut off from any of the financial help they afforded my brother for school (despite my costs being less due to a scholarship.)
    What has to be decided is what’s worth it to each of them at this time. Is putting school off for another semester going to be extremely detrimental? Would her parents -really- not communicate with her at all? Would she rather stay with her parents and use their insurance/financial support when she has the intention of moving out shortly and staying with her boyfriend? They really have to look at what is worth it to them to do without or to deal with.

  • Cherie M

    On medical insurance I forgot to add one thing: see if her school has student insurance plans you could be a part of until it was feasible to get other insurance.

  • Carlie

    It’s mostly true, but can be covered by insurance that the school provides. High cost and low coverage, but bundled in such a way as to be covered by student loans.

    I third or fourth the idea of taking time off if needed. There’s really nothing wrong with spreading education out over a few extra years. I’m a college professor, and I see a lot of students who would benefit from some time out in the world first. If you live together and can save all or most of one income, that’s a lot of money for school right there. Will living together enrage your parents further? Probably, but even they can see they forced that choice on you, since it’s not a good idea to get married now. You can talk them through the alternatives – if they stop supporting you, then you will have to make certain changes (including living arrangements).

    You could frame becoming independent as an act of good faith- tell your parents that you are going to refuse to let them support you any more, given that they don’t support your decisions, and you don’t want to lie to them or take anything from them in bad faith. You want your relationship with them to be open and unsullied by any financial entanglements, because all that matters is communicating with each other. It’s difficult to keep being petty in the face of that, and if they do, you’ve still left things open.

  • nani

    Being currently stuck in a somewhat similar situation, I have a lot of sympathy for Bob’s girlfriend. My situation doesn’t involve a boyfriend (though my ex was instrumental in my leaving Christianity). Now that I’ve told my parents about I’m not longer a Christian, they are refusing to fill out the parent’s section of the fafsa, so I can get the financial aid I need. It’s a rather frustrating and upsetting situation, and if they are serious, will probably lead to me taking a couple years off of college. I don’t know what her parents are like, but I’ve found my mom to be ridiculous and unreasonable, and responds to most things that I say by telling me I’m just a rebellious child who’s been liberally brainwashed by a state college. It’s… very frustrating, to say the least.

    I agree with those who suggest trying not to rush into it. Plan for the worst, but give them some time to calm down. My parents threaten a lot, but I can never be sure they’re serious until they actually go through with it. I don’t know if her parents are similar at all or not. I do hope it works out for her though, and that some sort of civil relationship can be salvaged with her parents.

  • SarahH

    Lots of good advice here already, and hopefully some of it helps.

    It’s horrible that there are parents out there like this, who hold their love and resources (health insurance!) as leverage to control their children. That’s not love; that’s being a puppeteer. My advice, like that of many others, is to find a safe way to stop being their puppet ASAP. Move out, take a break from college and work, do whatever’s necessary to break away from their sphere of control.

    My parents knew that I was an atheist when they helped me finished paying for college, but I knew I was in a position where I could pay off student loans instead if they cut me off, and I was living a few hundred miles away.

    My husband and I did get married earlier than we might have otherwise, because we knew my parents wouldn’t like it if we moved in together, but we knew that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. It would have been nice to have longer to plan a wedding, but I don’t regret our decision, almost four years later.

  • thiolsulfate

    It’s all up to the girlfriend.

    Neither she nor Bob is financially independent which means that they are both on a seriously tight leash. If the girlfriend can manage to get a student loan then I suppose there is some hope but short of that I don’t see much hope of doing it the honest way.

    I suppose it might be utilitarian to lie to her parents for four years and say they’ve broken up but the two of them would be walking on egg shells for the duration.

    Rock and a hard place, really.

  • Katsu

    What I would say is if the girlfriend is willing to put off school for a semester or two, you work out a deal. She works while Bob finishes school to support them. When Bob graduates, he works his booty off to get a good job, and supports his girlfriend while she is in school. (My boyfriend and I had a similar deal, though not for the same reasons. I supported him when he was unemployed for a year after first moving to the US, and he’s supported me while I’ve been in school. Once I graduate, if he wants to go back to school for a second degree, it’s my turn again.) Every university I’ve ever been at has had a student healthcare plan, so that might be the way to go with that. Take out extra loans if necessary; if you’re in that much financial trouble, you’ll probably be able to get grants and/or work study. (Though I also understand that this is rougher for people under 25 who still have to report their parents’ income on the FAFSA even if they’re not giving you financial help.)

    It’s do-able. You guys just have to be willing to compromise and live frugally, and committed to making this work – and committed to each other.

  • Sebeka

    My two cents on a lousy situation.

    Girlfriend’s parents need to understand two things:

    (1) Their daughter’s atheism is her own choice and will be there whether or not “Bob” is in the picture.

    (2) Their daughter wants to be a part of their lives regardless of religious differences or financial assistance. If they disown her, that is their choice and she will keep a communication line open for when they change their minds.

    I think getting married for medical insurance and attending a church in name only are dreadful ideas. Instead, move in together to save on rent and attend pre-marriage counseling to figure out finances. (A two bedroom place would work if premarital sex is an issue. This alone might scare the parents into changing their minds!) Talk to university housing about your situation and ask if you and “Bob” can live in their married and family housing (effiency apartments with all utilities paid).

    Girlfriend, no matter what, you should immediately declare yourself an independent at your school and fill out a new FAFSA. There are scholarships (including atheist ones) out there for first-time students and this is a GREAT time to get a Federal school loan. Don’t quit school until you know how much money you need and have talked to your school’s financial aid office. Consider co-ops (working every other semester, with your employer helping with tuition) or attending community college for a few classes if your university will accept the transfer credit. If your parents have any IRAs in your name, you can withdraw money from them without a penalty (save taxes) so long as it goes toward tuition.

    And ask for assistance. Like others have mentioned, you might qualify for foodstamps, housing help, or medicaid. Talk to your doctor’s billing department — these days, declaring yourself a “self-pay” can cut your medical costs down to 1/7th of what you’d pay with insurance, especially if you promise to pay within 30 days. That plus “catastrophic” insurance might tide you over for a few months.

    You have my sympathy, but I have been where you are and this is not as bad as it seems right now.

  • Jodie said “people do it all of the time.”

    trust me, it’s not that bad… man up and take the L (take the loss)

  • Stephen P

    Is there a trusted third party available? Someone a bit more mature than these particular parents, who they respect and who can talk them into seeing some sense? Perhaps a neighbour who has seen a bit of the world? Or a more distant relative?

    I appreciate that in fundie-land everyone tends to be divided into (1) other fundies and (2) agents of Satan, so there may not be anyone available. But I would start with that approach if at all possible.

  • littlejohn

    I can lend an old man’s perspective on this: Ignore the girl’s parents and elope. My in-laws (some of them, at least) were, and are, quite religious. After my skeptical, later fully atheist, wife and I married, most of the in-laws came around. We went through some tough times, especially financially, but my family (atheists) were able to help a bit. Only a couple of my in-laws have continued to treat us coolly, but that’s their problem. What your in-laws think of you is, in the scheme of things, one of the least important things they’ll need to worry about. If they’re really in love, go for it. Besides, the in-laws may realize they’ve lost this power struggle and give up. They’re being assholes, and they might realize it. Just be polite.

  • Ryan

    Girlfriend: You’re going to have to fight this battle sooner or later and should do it because you wants to and not because you’re being forced to.

    Bob: Run fast and run far. There are other women out there!

  • WCLPeter


    There are a lot of good suggestions here, which ones you go with are your own decision. I would however like to point out some things that people seem to have avoided mentioning.

    You’ve only just recently turned twenty, consider living by yourself for a while. Depending on where you live, a small one bedroom apartment can usually be had for a fairly cheap price. If you need to, get a two, or three, bedroom and ask some of your female classmates if they’d like to room with you to share expenses. If they’re living in the dorms, living off site and sharing rooming expenses can often save money.

    While it is possible to get married at a young age, it worked for my parents who stayed happily married until my father died at 50, early marriages don’t always work out in the long term. They have even less chance of success when they have a cloud of “necessity” overhanging them.

    By taking your time to be by yourself, and showing that you’re perfectly capable of taking care of yourself, it allows you to grow as a person. It will show your parents, if you so desire, that you are fully capable of being a mature and responsible adult, while also giving “Bob” the chance to see that you don’t “need to be taken care”. He will have the opportunity to finish his schooling without the added pressures of trying to take care of his new wife, juggling school, paying ever increasing bills, and dealing with fundie parents blaming him for “stealing” their little girl and judging his every decision; this kind of pressure would be the fastest way to kill your fledgling relationship.

    If you find your financial situation won’t let you live by yourself, or with some roommates, while going to school, work full time and take correspondence / night courses while saving to go back full time. Many correspondence / night courses can be used as full, or partial, credits towards your University / College degree if you go back to full time studies within a certain number of years. The night / correspondence classes also tend to be much cheaper than full time school and if you plan it right, you might be able to earn enough credits to go back full time for one or two final semesters and finish your final studies.

    Or you can take a totally different track. Drop out of school, work for a year, save like crazy and then see if you can take your final year, or two, in a different country. Its more risky, since you would be effectively cut off from everyone for the time away, but it could be a great opportunity to expand your horizons while leveraging a better exchange rate for your savings, assuming you go someplace where your currency is worth more.

    In the end, you’re going to have to decide what is best for you and “Bob”. Just make sure you think it through first and don’t do anything too rash or out of spite, it’ll certainly come back to bite you later.

  • @Girlfriend,

    May I offer this video by Dan Savage as advice? Hemant was kind enough to post it here a few weeks back. It’s about how to come out as gay to evangelical parents, but the parallels with atheism are striking.

    Some of the key points:

    –The only real leverage you have over your parents is your presence in their lives as an adult.

    –Tell them they have X amount of time to come around, or you won’t be in their lives anymore.

    –You have to be the adult, the reasonable one. Don’t lie, don’t be submissive, don’t act like you’re just rebelling for its own sake. State your reasons like an adult.

    –STICK TO YOUR GUNS. Weakness plays into the hands of the blackmailers.

    My own thoughts parallel those found above. I think you should throw a little good old-fashioned guilt back at them. Tell them that while the Bible says “Honor your father and mother,” their demand that you change the way you think is making that impossible. Or better yet, tell them that the Fourth Commandment is null and void unless THEY show YOU equal respect and honor your adult decisions. Hammer them with the Prodigal Son argument: The father took back his sinning son without any compunctions at all. Ask them why they are putting such draconian conditions on your “return.” And tell them that while you love them, you will not subject yourself to blackmail, and use that term, because that’s exactly what this is.

    Grandchildren are an abstract–YOU are tangible. So is your right to live without coercion from this type of behavior. And it’s a gut-wrenching decision under any circumstances, but you need to steel yourself to the possibility that the only way you can live happy and free is be COMPLETELY free of them.

    And above all else, marry who you want because you love them, not to spite anyone else.

  • Anonymous

    It’s sad, really. How many more casualties have to pile up before we retreat from the Out Campaign?

    Exactly. When people use the truth against you in an unfair fashion, you lie, and lie convincingly, and do it without compunction.

    Fake the break-up, date discreetly, like you’re dating a mistress or gigolo, and in a year “rediscover” yourselves.

    Or don’t “come out” in the first place and save yourself all of this hassle. It’s just a whole lot of grief… and for what?

  • GG

    [girlfriend] why would you compromise your integrity just because your parents made the ultimatum they did? A few people are advocating lying, but what good does it do you to not be true to yourself? You’ll have to cross the atheist bridge eventually with them, and now is just harder because they hold reins on some financial stability.

    I have multiple friends who worked their way through school and did splendidly well. It is possible to be a successful and viable adult without relying on one’s parents.

    But since money is a major motivator, it’s truly up to you. I don’t think this is about Bob at all–it’s about your parents being afraid of losing you to something they fear. they’re lashing out with chains when they could use hands. They’re overreacting in a terrible way because they want control.

    I agree with the users who suggested watching the Dan Savage video.

    The best of luck to you (both)! Be true to yourself. Make this your life!

  • Heidi

    Girlfriend, I agree with GG. This is not about Bob. Bob is a scapegoat in this situation. Just like with Jesus, they’re trying to pile your sins on him and sacrifice him to “save” you. Not the most sane or rational behavior, but then fundies aren’t very good with rational anyway.

    When I was your age, a month before I turned 20, my daughter was born. Now she is your age (she’ll be 20 in August). I’m feeling your pain here on both levels. It’s a scary, difficult situation that your parents have put you in, and it’s completely unfair to you. Personally, I couldn’t live the lie, and I really don’t understand why your parents would want that from you. How would their pastor or the rest of the congregation feel about having you hostage there? Are they ok with that?

    Do you have an Advisor/Guidance Counselor person at school? If you do, go talk to him/her. It’s his/her job to help you complete your education. Let him/her advise you. S/he will know a lot more about what you can do at your school than any of us here will, be it financial aid, health insurance, housing or what have you. That gives you an ally and a plan if you decide not to cave in to their demands.

    The only other advice I have is about the above offer of help. If people want to help you, let them. It makes people feel good to be able to help each other. In a church situation, the congregation might get together to help a member who is having a hard time. We don’t have a church or a congregation, but we have somewhat of a community, and you are both part of it. With or without being a couple, might I add. So please don’t rule out letting people help you.

    And as Matthew and Bruce said, your situation could serve as an illustration of what we have to deal with as non-believers. So you could be helping even more people that way.

  • Finlay

    I am so glad I am not American. I keep reading American articles on the difficulty of coming out as atheist but here in the UK it’s different. I assume any educated person to be non-religious until offered evidence to the contrary. Some people with whom I work aren’t what you might call great thinkers and it comes as a shock to me to witness them wallowing around in a swill of horoscopes, fortune-telling, mass on Sundays, ghosts, spirits etc.

    As to what this couple should do, well, arrange to be born this side of the pond would be the best option – not only less religion but free health care too!

    Sorry, not very practical.

  • Anonymous

    …not only less religion but free health care too.

    Hmmm. Less religion, more healthcare. More religion, less healthcare? Coincidence or correlation?

  • viccro

    I had to do a similar thing when my parents found out that I am an atheist. It turns out that many schools are willing to accept the fact that you are independent from parental aid, and will take that into account when giving help. Part time jobs will cover a lot of day to day costs, and loans will often not begin accruing interest until graduation.

    It is indeed possible, though difficult. It’s even possible to continue a relationship with parents after this (though I severely had doubted that myself). That’s only a matter of time.

  • I see this sort of thing happen so often, and read of it even more.

    The obvious conclusion is “don’t tell the truth to Christians – they sure won’t respect you for it”

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