Ask Richard: Of Mothers and Mothers-in-Law, Part Two July 1, 2010

Ask Richard: Of Mothers and Mothers-in-Law, Part Two

Dear Richard,

I’ve been an atheist for all my adult life. When I first came out to my Lutheran parents, they were surprisingly accepting, and now I regularly discuss religion and current religious issues with them respectfully.

A few years ago, I met a wonderful man I’ll call Craig. He was raised by Catholic parents, but never really considered himself a religious person. He is not as actively passionate about his religious opinions as I am; religion is more “irrelevant” to him than anything else. He has never discussed his secular preference with his parents the way I did.

I love his parents dearly, and I am thankful to consider them like family. However, I’m starting to get anxious about the fact that my atheism has never been mentioned to them. Craig and I are planning to get married and have children, and I know his mother will expect church bells, baptisms, and all the other religious rituals to which she adheres. For all her wonderful qualities, and there are many, I know that she has a tendency toward superficial judgment or narrow-mindedness. I don’t think she knows any other atheists (or knows that she knows them), and I certainly don’t think she’s eager to.

I am terrified of what will happen when I inevitably have to tell her I don’t believe what she believes. With her conservative, sometimes dated perceptions of various minority groups, I regularly hear her refer to people differently once she finds out they are somehow un-like her. For example, the “nice boys that just moved in” suddenly became “those gay fellows;” the friends Craig grew up with are referred to by their skin tone and not their names, occupations, or relation to Craig. There is no hostility in her voice, and she rarely makes comments that are openly racist or homophobic. But she always makes it glaringly evident that in her mind, everyone is either in the in-group (“like her”) or the out-group (“not like her”).

I know in the pit of my stomach that she will immediately oust me into her mental out-group once she knows I am an atheist. And yes, yes, I realize that as future family members we ought to have plenty of time to discuss and debunk any prejudices she may have, but honestly, I dread being referred to or thought of as “my atheist daughter-in-law” or “the atheist girl my son married.” I am so much more than that, and I agonize about her suddenly writing me off by slapping that label on me at every opportunity. She is truly a generous, warm, caring person who has shown me nothing but kindness from the moment I met her, and I hate to think our relationship might become suddenly strained because of her snap judgment. Since my coming-out with my own parents went over relatively well (they’re very progressive and open-minded), I’ve never felt so worried or anxious about anyone “finding out” I’m non-religious. It’s starting to feel like I’m deliberately hiding it from them.

I have seen your practical, respectful advice to so many others in similar situations, and I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts about this. Thanks so much for your time.

A loyal reader

Dear loyal reader,

Take a look at how intimidated you are by her. You use terms like anxious, terrified, pit of your stomach, worried, and agonize. It sounds a little like you think her opinion of you makes you what you are. But if she decides that you’re a codfish, you do not grow scales and fins. If your atheism is not a moral failing to you, then it’s not a moral failing whether or not she thinks it is. You didn’t have to face much adversity coming out to your own parents, so perhaps you didn’t have to really grow strong and confident about your views. Be sure that you are free of any less-than-conscious shame or guilt about being an atheist that might be aggravated by having to face her “judgment.”

Remember that the only power she has over you is the power that you give away to her. You are correct when you say that you are so much more than your atheism, or any of many other things that she might, from her lofty, superior level, find lacking about you. Question your image of her. You were very tactful and kind in your description, but the picture you painted is clear:

Your future mother-in-law is just a basic bigot.

You say that she’s generous, warm, caring and kind. Actually, all that good will is not broadly and generously offered. It is highly conditional, given only to people who fit very narrow criteria, all based on herself. She judges others negatively by their category rather than by their conduct. It is her disapproval that she broadly and generously offers, even if it is softly stated. A bigot with genteel manners is still a bigot.

Bigots are not usually monsters. They have been taught since childhood to belong to a group by excluding others from that group, so they are ignorant, provincial and brittle. The one mental skill they all have in common is their ability to disregard all the evidence that contradicts their biases. But their upbringing is not the only thing that can drive their bigotry. Sometimes their level of self esteem is much lower than the self-importance which they pretend. Some of them have a hard time liking themselves unless they can continuously look down upon others. Without an “out-group” to sneer at, they get depressed. So they have several.

Once you understand how sad and pathetic their state really is, they cease to be so formidable. They can infuriate or alarm you, but if you want to neutralize them in your mind, just feel sorry for them. Then you can challenge them with vigor, dismiss them with disdain, or simply ignore them, depending on whatever is advantageous to you. You need not fight every single battle, nor must you knuckle under and make nice every time either. You can do whatever works for you.

So what makes this particular garden variety bigot so much more fearsome? Why is her good opinion of you so important?

She’s the mother of your betrothed. I think you’re worried that she may have more influence with him than you know. Even he may not be aware of how much pull she might have in certain circumstances. Rather than simply having to face her disapproval, I think you’re concerned that she will be able to get a wedge in between the two of you.

If Craig were an opinionated atheist as are you, then I think you would feel less at risk, but he is simply disinterested and apathetic about it all, and that could still allow him to harbor latent beliefs that might emerge later. Sometimes such things change over time, getting stronger or weaker.

So this is the time to have a long, detailed talk with Craig, and get several things crystal clear. You’ve known each other for a few years, so you already have some understandings between you. But as a marriage counselor, I was often surprised by how many incorrect generalizations couples had made about each other, based on partial understanding and lots of assumptions. Far too many “mixed” atheist/religious couples assume that all sorts of things will just work themselves out, but they discover to their dismay that they have left unattended the single most divisive set of ideas invented by man.

Firstly, ask Craig’s advice about how and when to come out to his mother. He has had to live with her judgmental, conceited attitudes his whole life, so he may have some helpful suggestions, and the two of you can come up with a plan with contingencies.

Then begin to clarify where both of you stand on several issues, hammer out clear agreements with compromises that neither of you will resent, and write them all down. These things are complicated, and the details can get muddled in memory by the time they become pertinent. You don’t want to have quarrels over who did or did not agree to some detail. Here is an incomplete list of some of the things that pertain to religion:

The wedding ceremony: Agree on the vows, the officiant, who pays for it, who is invited, where it will be. Will you keep your present name, hyphenate, or take his name?

The roles you play in the marriage: Will anything fundamentally change after you’re married? Are you equal partners in all things, or does one defer to the other in some areas? Don’t assume things. Be explicitly clear. “Not talking about it” does not indicate love or trust; it only indicates foolishness.

Children: When and how many? What about birth control? Baptism? Confirmation? Church attendance and activities of all sorts? Education is a big topic, full of potential controversies. Formal or informal introduction to religion? How will you explain your and Craig’s slightly differing views to the kids, and what will you say to them about their grandparents’ beliefs? Establish ground rules for grandparents or other religious family members when they’re alone with your kids.

Family life: Will grace be said at the table? How about when your in-laws visit? How religious or secular will your holidays be? Details. If you’ll excuse the expression, the devil is in the details.

Loyal reader, although part of this is about you feeling more strength and confidence within yourself, the other part is about you and Craig forming a solid bond that can withstand pressures from outside. He needs to be willing and ready to stand up to his mother to defend his wife, if that becomes necessary. He may have been able to avoid a clash with his parents so far, but eventually he won’t be able to step around conflicts.

If push really comes to shove with his mother about any of these or other matters, you should also have clear agreements with Craig about what the two of you will do to assert yourselves against her. If you know because you’ve discussed it that you can count on his support, and that his loyalty is to you first and foremost, then you can feel more confident when dealing with your in-laws.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.

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  • JulietEcho

    Great advice, especially about making sure you have Craig standing by your side first and foremost. That sort of support makes all the difference, and the pit in your stomach might just disappear once you have a good, long talk with him. I’ve always found that if I have the outright support and love of the people closest to me, it’s much easier for me to be brave and handle negative attitudes from others.

  • I *absolutely* back that up. My fiancee and I had a situation like that. It became too clear that with his mother’s attitude and his family backing it up there’s no way our relationship will last. After a set of serious conversations it was also clear that we absolutely cannot agree on many things. Some of them were: I would agree with a church wedding – not with the standard vows, though. There is a special ritual for mixed couples. It wouldn’t work for his family and he cared too much. I would be able to take part in traditional ceremonies and holidays, as long as I won’t be made to take part in prayers, church going and other asserted rituals. These were of too great importance and he would have to be present without me. His mother actually said, when he tried to discuss the thing, “either you’re praying or you’re not invited”. I would not agree on placing religious symbols in my house, he’d like to have a cross. We weren’t sure about the kids, but he wanted them to be baptized (“they can change it later, like You did” – well, dear, that’s not an argument for me.)
    We have known eachother for years. We’re still best friends – hard to destroy friendship lasting that long, even with different sets of beliefs. We’re just not meant to be a couple – and it was mainly my decision. It had to be, because at first he believed it would “all work out somehow”. I can’t see how not being allowed to visit inlaws goes with “working out” (they go to church every sunday as a rule). I don’t see how not being able to accept any of my views goes with it. Now he knows I was right – when he told his mother we’re not together anymore, she was happy and said it would all work out good for him, he didn’t need “that morally questionable person” in his life. On the cold revenge side, that comment didn’t make us come back together, but it sure opened his eyes for her terrible attitude. He’s still a believer, we’re still not together, but he’s a much more open person. And his mother isn’t allowed to comment on any of his decisions ;]

  • Vivian

    Very good advice, Mr. Richard. This is a situation with no easy solution. It has to come from Loyal Reader first. She needs the confidence to face this type of bigotry. And best to get it all figured out now, while there is time. Good luck to Loyal Reader!

  • The best advice was given in the lat section of the post, which had to do with communicating clearly with the fiance. I would ask him point blank, “If your mother pitches a fit, will you stand up to her? What ultimatums are we prepared to lay down?”

  • mkb

    Handling this right is so important for setting the tone of all of these relationships. Loyal reader may decide if/when there are children that she does not want her mother-in-law to characterize others by their skin tone within the hearing of those children. When it is time to confront that issue it will be a lot easier if the mother-in-law understands that loyal reader and her husband stand together and stand firm on matters that they believe in.

  • Ayesha

    Excellent advice, I think.

    It might also be helpful to consider this: anecdotally, it seems that sometimes people respond better to “I don’t have a faith” or “I don’t believe in a God” than “I am an atheist” which, rightly or wrongly, often comes with too many preconceptions. Your mother-in-law might more readily accept a daughter-in-law who doesn’t believe in God than an “atheist daughter-in-law”. Now, to you there might be no distinction, but it might help keep the peace a little more.

  • One strategy is to just stick to the line that you “are just not religious” and stop short of saying that you are “an atheist”. If she asks point blank “Oh my God, are you an atheist?”, you could tell her that you aren’t really sure what that term means (meaning you really don’t know what she thinks that term means) and ask her about it. If she proceeds to list out some common misconceptions (like someone who hates God, turns away from God, or acts immorally) then you can say that you don’t do any of those things. You don’t have any obligation to step into our out of any little box that she defines. Over time as the relationship grows stronger and more mature, you can slowly educate her on the strict (minimal) definition of atheism. (Just not believing in this one proposition). If she really presses, you could always say something like “I kind-of view religion like the founding fathers did. I’m kind-of a Deist. If she says “well at least you believe in God”. You can say “Well, I’m kind-of agnostic about that”. It’s a dance.

  • plublesnork

    Very solid advice.

    I think it’s also important to ascertain just how much Craig does/doesn’t believe re: religion.

    When you come out to his mother, it might soften things somewhat if he can then say to her “You know, I’m not really sure how much I really believe, either.”

    Good luck!

  • prospera

    Loyal Reader,

    I think your situation is unlike some of the heartbreaking letters I’ve read on other posts because of two very important points (in your own words):

    I love his parents dearly.


    She is truly a generous, warm, caring person who has shown me nothing but kindness from the moment I met her.

    You have mutual fondness and respect for each other. That’s a great starting point.

    I don’t often disagree with Richard; but in this case, I have to question his statement that your mother-in-law is a bigot.

    The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes a bigot as “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.”

    Your letter does not describe such a person. Instead, I get the sense that your mother-in-law tends to be overly uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. You say that she is never hostile and does not make offensive comments about those people but that she only puts them into the “not like her” category. Is that so much different from what the rest of us do, in varying degrees, when we encounter anything new?

    I could not help but wonder what your (and Craig’s) response has been when you hear her refer to people differently upon finding out certain facts about them. Is it possible that she would become more accepting of them if she had the opportunity and gentle coaxing to learn more about them? You also state in your letter that she does not know (or knows that she knows) any atheists. Well… you can introduce her to one atheist whom she already loves.

    Perhaps you can first attempt to dispel her misconceptions about atheism over a series of casual discussions. Once she has a better frame of reference, then you can reveal your personal views and help her understand that it has no bearing on your worth as a person or your relationship with her. From your description of her, I have no reason to believe that she would not be receptive. And I agree with the few commenters who advised that you don’t necessarily have to label yourself as an “atheist” from the get go.

    I know it’s incredibly hard to face the fear of rejection by someone you love. Whatever approach you decide to take, I hope everything works out well for you. 🙂

  • Richard Wade

    Thank you for your optimistic and hopeful comment, excellently stated. It is a very fitting counterpoint to my response, and I sincerely hope that you are right. I need to be reminded from time to time to dust off my optimistiscope.

    Also my thanks to everyone for their encouraging remarks to loyal reader.

  • keddaw

    It does seem it’s all about having your fiance back you over his bigoted mother.

    Remember that the only power she has over you is the power that you give away to her.
    This is so true. I know things are somewhat different in America, but whenever confronted with a believer I am always very forthcoming about my non-belief. I laugh at them. Being secure in your social position and intellectual credentials means you can ignore (if not downright ridicule) people’s beliefs and put them on the back foot.

    Never deny your true self for the comfort of others.

  • Loyal Reader

    Just wanted to pop in and thank you all for your wise words of encouragement and advice! And Richard, thanks again for yours, especially. Prospera, I really appreciate your insight and suggestions; you’re so spot-on, I kind of suspect you have been spying on me. 🙂 I really do fear her rejection, but I also know I need to grow a spine and be confident in who I am.

    Everyone, all your suggestions will be so helpful to me when I have these conversations, first with Craig and (eventually) his mother. Thank you for your support.

  • Anne

    In all of Loyal Reader’s letter, nowhere do I see the word “love” when she refers to Craig. Instead, I see worries about her mother in laws’ attitudes, the words “planning”, and “relationship”, but nowhere do I see the most essential word for merging your life with another human being’s.

    As someone who has been married (happily, if that matters to anyone) for 28 years, I’d like to tell Loyal Reader that, beyond anything else, the single most important quality that will pull you through tough-times, financial collapse, funerals, babies, family pressure, flood, fire, and fights, is how much love you have for Craig. And -not to be forgotten – how much love he has for you. No matter what anyone else tells you or what kind of high-minded idealism you bring into the marriage regarding atheism or religion alike, marriage is compromise. Anyone who tells you it is not is either fooling themselves, lying, or unmarried. A marriage is a union of two people, not an erasure of one person’s individuality into another’s. As such, you will HAVE to make compromises in some areas to meet your spouse ha1lfway, and some of those areas will be religion vs. atheism. If you go into this marriage expecting all matters of children, holidays, home and family to be done entirely your way, you’re headed for a rocky road. As much as it may seem a fine idea to you to raise your children atheist, you have to consider that if Craig thought it was a good idea, he would probably be atheist too by now. Children excite strong emotions in parents. You have to be prepared for Craig to change his mind when the fond theory of children becomes the reality of children and you wish to raise them atheist. This may ping on some very primal emotions for Craig, which must be considered beforehand. He may find he can’t compromise in this area once his love and caring for these future children is engaged. Then what?

    Well, if you love each other very much, you will find a way, because one of you will have to give. It may be him after all, who knows? But you have to think about the fact that it -may- be you. Are you willing to sacrifice your (still theoretical) family for an ideal or principle? Are you willing to see Craig walk out and sue you for custody on the grounds that you are an atheist? What about his parents suing you for the same issue? Don’t say it won’t happen, because you don’t know. And then there are the curve balls: what if your child grows up believing in god at an early age, and you don’t want that? You yourself are proof that a child can have independent beliefs from their parents, despite whatever the parents planned for them. Will you allow the child to go their own way according to their conscience, or will you push the issue? What if Craig intervenes on behalf of the child?

    *sigh* Yes. All theoretical. But very possible. There are only two questions that matter here: How much do you love Craig, and how far are you willing to compromise to stay together?

    Everything else is window-dressing.

  • Carol B

    I agree with Richard and others who stress the importance of talking things out with Craig first and foremost. You need to know exactly where he stands on important life issues (raising kids, church, education, grace, grandparents, etc etc) as well as exactly where he stands on sticking up for you to his family. It’s not enough for him to sit quietly (uncomfortably?) while his mother vilifies you (or whatever she’s going to do). It’s not enough for him to shrug his shoulders and say, “Loyal Reader just isn’t into religion, I don’t mind” – because it might be construed as “You and I know, Mom, that religion is the true right way, but Loyal Reader is awfully stubborn and I’m not going to fight her on this.” He needs to actively and vigorously defend (both of) your right to live your life the way you two choose. He needs to defend you publicly and privately, because I think his mom might try to get him alone and see if maybe “that crazy atheist girl is ruining my good son.” If he doesn’t stand up to his family (which is admittedly really hard to do sometimes), it could absolutely drive a wedge between you. He has to be on your side, all the way. It doesn’t mean he has to agree completely with your views, but he does need to defend you personally from attacks, and make it clear that the two of you are moving forward, together, in your chosen direction.

    In fact, I think perhaps Craig should be the one to broach the subject. Maybe make an off-hand comment to his mom that the two of you aren’t particularly religious, and won’t be attending church (or whatever you decide). Then it’s not Loyal Reader who is leading her dear son astray, but (surprise!) the two of you together, united in your views. Let Craig take some heat too. 🙂

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