Ask Richard: To Prevent Conflict with In-Laws, Know Your Spouse October 12, 2010

Ask Richard: To Prevent Conflict with In-Laws, Know Your Spouse

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

I am a young atheist, age 21. I am also the father of the most beautiful one-year-old girl in the world. I am also just recently married. And I am looking for some advice.

My wife’s immediate family is very religious. They are not quite fundamentalist enough to be scary religious, but the stories my wife has told me of the things they were and weren’t allowed to do when she was a kid (e.g. listen to certain music, watch certain movies / shows, etc) has made it clear that her mother in particular has become more liberal with the way she raises children (she currently has 3 fairly young ones).

My wife is agnostic, for the most part, I think. We talk often about religion, and she knows my views well, but when I ask her flat out if she believes in a deity, she will say “no… I don’t know…” I do know she believes in fate, and that everything happens for a reason, which indicates to me that she is not quite as skeptical about most things as I am.

It pains me to say that I am fearful that her mother and her family (while not meaning any harm) will try to proselytize to my daughter as she grows and learns of the world around her. While I’ve resolved myself to let her believe what she wants to believe throughout her life, I also find religion, when taught as an unquestionable and infallible truth, to be poisonous to a growing mind, which should be learning to find truths on its own.

On to the question: what can I do to preemptively steer clear of this situation?

My family’s (me, my daughter, and my wife) relationship with my wife’s mother’s is pretty minimal. We do birthdays, holidays sometimes, but we don’t visit often. My wife and her younger sisters do things together decently often, but not often enough to call them really close. Are my fears irrational?

Thank you so much Richard. Reading your thoughtful and enlightening responses to others in similar situations has really impacted my life in ways you would probably find surprising. I find it an honor to be able to openly and truthfully communicate with you, an inspiring and compassionate stranger.

Thanks for reading,

Dear Mark,

Even though your contact with your in-laws is minimal, There may be a potential religious conflict waiting to erupt in your home right now.

You need to discuss these concerns at length with your wife. There is an imbalance between how much she understands your views and how little you understand hers. You shouldn’t be guessing about her position on these important issues, especially with all the questions that will start to arise over a small child’s education.

You need to be crystal clear with each other before spending any time wondering what your in-laws might want to do some day. If the bond between you and your wife is not the strongest of all your relationships, then your other relationships have the potential of disrupting or even dismantling your marriage. That bond is not just built on love. It’s also built on accurate knowledge of each other. Sometimes marriages end not because the couple didn’t love each other enough, but because they didn’t know each other enough.

Before you approach your wife to discuss this, first consider that she might be privately wrestling with a dilemma that makes it difficult for her to be open and frank about her beliefs. It is risky to psychoanalyze someone from a third-person description in a brief letter, but I do have two ideas. Please take these two hypotheses as loose possibilities only:

1. When she answers your question about belief in a deity with “no… I don’t know…” in that hesitant way, it could be the simple and straight forward “I don’t know” of an agnostic. However, that insecure tone in her words, and her strict religious upbringing makes me wonder if she carries some shame or guilt about not being a devout and practicing believer. The emotional component of childhood indoctrination can linger, leaving young adults with a sense of failure in the eyes of their parents, or a sense that they are somehow not worthy and moral people. So, “no… I don’t know…” might actually mean “I feel guilty about this, and I don’t want to think about it.”

2. You could be right that her belief in fate and reasons for everything happening are the tip of a submerged set of beliefs in supernatural forces or beings. So when you ask her flat out if she believes in a deity, her response, “no… I don’t know…” might actually mean “Yes, I do believe, but I love you and I’m afraid that this will tear us apart, so I’m hiding it.”

So in one case, she’s avoiding an inner conflict, and in the other case she’s avoiding a conflict between the two of you. Assuming that either of these ideas have any merit, she is in great discomfort to say the least.

Approach her gently, telling her that you care about your marriage, and that you want it to be strong, open, honest, and free for both of you to fully express yourselves. Then set the example by stating frankly that you are worrying about what might happen with your daughter and your in-laws over religion, and you’re afraid it might become a wedge between the two of you.

Then tell her that she knows your views very well, but you don’t really understand hers, and you need more information.

Keep your questions open-ended rather than closed-ended. An example of an open-ended question would be, “Please tell me about your thoughts and feelings about god and religion.” A closed-ended question would be, “Do you believe in God?” Such yes-or-no questions don’t return much information, and they can feel like you’re grilling her. Do your best to make her feel completely safe to be frank about her views, and listen with more effort than you speak. Be very patient. It could take more than one sitting. Coaxing will get you much more information in the long run than interrogating.

If you discover it’s the first scenario, the inner conflict, you should be as supportive as you can, not arguing too much from a logical angle about why she “shouldn’t feel that way,” but just letting her know that you realize how uncomfortable that discord with her childhood upbringing must be. Show her how much you respect and admire her good character and how grateful you are for all that she does for you and your daughter. Encourage her to think carefully about it rather than avoiding thinking about it, and very gradually her inner tension will hopefully relax.

If you discover that it’s the second scenario, avoiding a conflict between the two of you, that will be more challenging for you. You will need to do some “soul searching” of your own. If she still holds belief in a god or has some kind of religious convictions, you will need to know if you’re going to be able to accept that and work with her on a wide variety of agreements. That might take some time for both of you to determine by talking it out many times and experimenting.

Once you are more equally aware of where you each stand, and you have worked out several agreements about raising your daughter, then the two of you can stand as a unified couple, able to graciously accept the good things that your in-laws will have to offer, and able to assertively decline the things that are not acceptable to you.

I wish you both the very best. Make your young marriage a place where two people can completely be themselves. More than passion, more than love, honesty is the stuff of life-long bonds.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Mark,

    It seems to me that from your letter that you don’t really have much to worry about. If both you and your wife are not actively raising your children to be religious, then any proselytizing by your in-laws will probably seem strange and a bit weird to your children. I would agree with Richard to always discuss religion with the attitude that there are no “right” answers. There is nothing wrong with perpetually being undecided or unsure about such things. Don’t pressure your wife to “commit” to a viewpoint if she doesn’t want to. That is a good approach to take with your kids too.

    In my family we just tell the kids that my wife “kind-of believes some of the stuff” and I “don’t happen to believe any of the stuff” that is in the bible. We kind of leave it like that. We have gone to church before as a family. Now none of us go. Have a little faith 😉 that the secular viewpoint will prevail if it is given a fair representation.


  • cass_m

    I’m going to agree with Jeff P in you don’t have much to worry about and I’m even saying it’s more important that you hold the same core values than you have the same religious ideals. Day to day, you probably won’t talk much about religion but your core values about discipline, learning, value of humanity will color everything thing you do as you raise your family together. By all means clarify how agnostic she is but don’t despair if she’s on the fence. I know I was mostly agnostic when I got married to an atheist but now am off the fence. It takes awhile to truly let go, even if you don’t come from a religious family.

  • sailor

    You are not going to be the only one to influence your kid. Other kids her own age will be very influential from time to time as will teachers and other people she meets.
    As father you have a lot of influence. Teaching a love of inquiry, skeptical and logical thinking is probably the best you an do. After all you should not want to brainwash here any more than you want anyone else to.

  • Having been married to a radical Catholic lady for 42 years (she abjures the power, wealth and corruption of the church, and instead values her social connections), and having raised three sons in the Catholic church, all three of which are now non-theists, I can suggest that setting an example of the non-theist life by their father is far more powerful than indoctrination by the “authorities” (YMMV).

  • My wife is religious and I have recently come to the conclusion that where there is such a mix and both parents act honestly and respectfully of each other – the children compare both sets of opinions and (un)fortunately the theistic beliefs haven’t a hope in hell.

  • stogoe

    The phrase “Everything happens for a reason” is problematic. In one sense, it’s true – causality seems to be a fundamental characteristic of this universe. “Why did I get into that accident?” Because of mechanical failure in your or another’s car, or because of inattentiveness or impairement, or because of road conditions.

    But another sense of the phrase, the “setting up the dominoes that will fall for you to find true love in the future” sense, clearly goes out the window once you lose the concept of protector aliens or divine intervention.

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