Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
Thank you for taking the time to read my email, I sincerely hope that you are able to answer it.
My situation is this, my fiancé and I are both in our mid-twenties, and atheists. He is an only child with parents who are not religious in the slightest. My family….well, they’re Mormon. Very Mormon. I have been openly atheist to my family for three years (took two years to get the courage to do this, and to get out of their financial influence) and they still don’t respect my beliefs. They claim to love me, but they continually mention their religion around me and mock my principles both political and religious. Recently, I asked my mother with utmost kindness and respect that she speak to the family about respecting my opinions when my fiancé and I are around. She grudgingly, after much uncalled for theatrics, claimed that the family would do so.
Here is where I am in the wrong: I didn’t trust that my mother forwarded my message to the family because, well, I expected to be getting some angry calls/emails about it despite how much I labored over that message to make it respectful and non-combative. So, in my weakness and suspicion, I hacked into her email and saw that she wrote an extremely offensive, condescending and outright petty email about me to my siblings claiming I had gotten very angry with her and that my demands were “childish” and that if the family showed me Christly love, that I would eventually “come around” and that she “wanted to strangle me” sometimes. I find this deeply offensive, especially given how I have made special efforts to be kind to her ever since I moved out a few years ago because I still wanted a relationship with the family. My fiancé and friends all think I am too nice to them, and I think I agree now. I obviously can’t reveal to her what I read, as reading her email was absolutely and utterly wrong of me to do, but I can’t exactly believe her or my family anymore when they say they love and respect me ….knowing how they REALLY feel about me.
I feel as if I do not have a family of my own anymore. I have my fiance, in-laws and friends, but I love my parents and siblings and nothing can replace them, but I cannot be around toxic people who do not respect me…respect is very important to me…and I don’t see myself having a relationship with them without it, but I can’t make them give up their deep felt hatred of me and my atheism either.
Any advice to help me deal with this loss would be appreciated.
There’s an old saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
I can understand your wanting your mother to act in the role of a diplomat, using her credibility and influence to appeal to the rest of the family to treat you and your fiancé with courtesy. Unfortunately, to do that she would have to actually want there to be a reconciliation based on mutual acceptance instead of a reconciliation based on you complying entirely with her wishes.
Instead, she mischaracterized you, and it appears that she was more interested in gathering more family agreement with her opinion of you than in fostering understanding. Her suggestion that they show you “Christly love” may be why you didn’t get the negative blowback from them that you expected.
One very important thing to sort out is the difference between respecting your beliefs and treating you respectfully. Let go of the former, and demand the latter. They’re never going to respect your beliefs, any more than you will ever respect theirs. You think their beliefs are absurd, and they have a similar opinion of yours. However, you can still treat them respectfully as persons, and they can show you the same courtesy.
Remember, you are not your beliefs, any more than you are your clothes or your other possessions. You were a person before you had these particular beliefs, a person just as deserving of respectful treatment as you are now. Your beliefs are important to you, but they do not define you, they only distinguish you. What you actually are is what you actually do.
Live, act and behave respectably, and respect others for their respectable behavior. In this way, agreeing or disagreeing about beliefs becomes unimportant. They can be set aside in favor of being loving, warm and respectful. Those are all doings, actions, behaviors. You are what you do. Thoughts, opinions and beliefs cannot tilt the most sensitive scale. They are insubstantial. They are not you, they are not others.
During the time that has passed since you wrote to me, if their “Christly love” has manifested itself as treating you and your fiancé with graciousness and decency, refraining from the mockery and deliberate emphasis of touchy subjects, then great! Enjoy the affection of a mature family that can value people over opinions. Then there’s no need to read further.
However, the family gatherings may still be filled with passive-aggressive remarks or thinly disguised disdain, or “the chill” may still be difficult to tolerate. At the end of your letter you speak in a tone of grief, as if all hope for any relationship is lost.
Perhaps not quite yet.
Your relationship with your mother seems to be currently entangled in a power struggle. She wants you to comply, to obey, to return to the faith, and that is simply out of the question for you. So she will be the last person to give up the manipulations and the divisive tactics. Your siblings on the other hand, may be more open to accepting you.
If you still wish to, you can still take action on this. You can make another attempt to express yourself, but this time directly to the whole family. The fact that you know about your mother’s misrepresentation by hacking into her email doesn’t matter. Yes, it was wrong. Now forget about it. Your explanation for taking this direct action would simply be because nothing has improved. Don’t even mention the conversation you had with your mother. If someone asks, say that you had spoken to her about your concerns, but for some unknown reason, nothing had changed. Then leave it alone.
A direct, all-at-once letter to every person in the family would prevent anyone from being able to mischaracterize it to others. Revise your original respectful and non-combative message, the one that never got forwarded to them. Tell them that you love them and that you would like to be able to feel loved and accepted by them. Make it warmhearted, but not pleading. You come with open arms but not on your knees.
Tell them that your love for them does not require that they change their beliefs, and that they should not require such a price of you.
Explain how all of you can treat each other with respect and warmth even if you disagree on certain things. Include some specific suggestions about how you can “get along” at family gatherings, such as by talking about the things you have in common rather than the things on which you differ. Conclude with your hopes of being part of a family that supports each other without demanding that everyone see things exactly the same, a family that simply gives love freely, rather than uses love as a way to persuade someone about an opinion or belief.
Of course, it may not work. But since you sound like you’re about to declare your relationships dead at the scene, you don’t seem to have much to lose by trying. Maybe one of your siblings will become more relaxed and accepting of you, maybe others will follow suit in different degrees. Maybe in time they will prevail upon your mother to soften, rather than the other way around, as you had originally hoped.
Alice, you are creating a new family that is quite different from the one that created you. This says a great deal about your intelligence and strength of character. I applaud your values of kindness and respect, and I am sure that you will bestow those values onto all of your loved ones, and everyone who comes into contact with you. How much they let in is up to them.