Ask Richard: Atheist is the Scapegoat in the Family May 16, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist is the Scapegoat in the Family

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

Dear Richard,

I came out as an atheist to my family eleven years ago (when I was seventeen). My family is Reform Jewish, and though I have relatives who had married outside the faith, my atheism caused a rift between me and my family which, while improved, has never been repaired. While I’ve been dealing with the situation for a while, I’m now finding it very hard to cope with their narcissism, bigotry, and disinterest.

Last year, I married my partner of ten years (also an atheist). He has made a strong effort to get to know my family, even being supportive to my brother (who has a number of disorders and social problems). Despite this, my mother grew very distant when we announced the engagement, and later told me that it’s not that she doesn’t like him, but she still always hoped I would end up marrying someone Jewish. This was nearly the end of my relationship with my mother, until a friend of hers told her how ridiculous she was being, and whether or not she still felt the same way, she started behaving a bit better.

I’ve come to the realization, though, that my husband and I will never be fully accepted into my family. We only receive invitations to come over when it is for some religious event (Shabbat dinners, Passover seders, etc.) and often do not receive invitations when the family just gets together for dinner for no reason, making me think that it is merely some sort of a victory for them if we attend these events (for which I also am guilted if I choose not to attend). My husband has made a great deal of effort to learn about their culture, but if he ever talks about his culture (or any subject other than Judaism, for that matter), their eyes glaze over, and they quickly change the subject or even walk away.

My younger sister has been seeing someone for about two years – also not Jewish, and quite a bit older than her. My mother didn’t like him until she found out that he came from money. She now fawns all over him at family gatherings, which is particularly hurtful to me and my husband, as she has never sat and talked to my husband for longer than a few minutes at a stretch.

My husband is currently dealing with depression, and he doesn’t want to be around people who make him feel bad about himself – something I completely agree with. We’re also sick of the disgusting bigotry we hear on a regular basis from my mother, my sister, and my maternal grandmother, who don’t even realize they are saying anything wrong. I have spoken to my parents honestly and frankly about their bad behaviour as recently as September, but they don’t seem to be mindful of it for more than a few weeks. I am sick of talking to them about it and don’t wish to do so again, but I don’t know how to proceed with a relationship with my family. Whether or not they mean to, I come away from most interactions feeling either hurt and overlooked or disgusted. I’ve been avoiding them for a while now, but making up excuses and carrying these feelings around with me makes me feel horrible. I would like to know what advice you might have about whether or not I should maintain a relationship with my family, how I should do so, and how I might better cope with my feelings.

My apologies for the long letter, and thank you for any guidance you may be able to provide.


Dear Isabel,

I recommend an extended vacation from your family so that you can gain some perspective. As it is, I don’t see much of a relationship left worth maintaining. It’s unloving, demeaning, abusive, and now with the advent of your husband’s depression, it’s getting downright unhealthy.

Sometimes individuals in families play stereotyped roles. Your family has cast you in the role of scapegoat. The scapegoat’s purpose is to absorb the rest of the family’s tension, anger and hurt that may come from sources that have nothing to do with you. By focusing on how “wrong” you are in so many ways, how disappointing, how aggravating, how rebellious and so forth, they can avoid thinking about their own failings and taking responsibility for them. This dynamic is often driven by one main perpetrator, and the rest of the family simply goes along. If they don’t, they run the risk of being scapegoated too.

The problem for you is that the scapegoat begins to absorb that identity, and to play the role well. Her self esteem is steadily whittled down until she begins to unconsciously agree that she is the not just the victim, but the deserving victim. Her imperfections are not attributed to simply being human; they are seen as evidence that she is a loser or a troublemaker. When that works its way into her own mind, the process becomes circular. In her hurt and frustration, she may begin to do things that might confirm even to outsiders that she is the “family problem.”

Your atheism might not be the root of this at all. The religion issue is just one of many possible issues that could serve as a justification for the scapegoating. This kind of dysfunction is found in all sorts of families, both religious and nonreligious. Alcohol and drug addiction, sexual, emotional, or mental disorders, tragic histories, or all sorts of things can cause a family chronic pain, shame and blame. They will often find a septic tank into which to dump it all. If it wasn’t you, it would have been someone else in the family.

Even without an immediate source of pathology, scapegoating can continue as a kind of family tradition passed down through the generations. In your family, it seems to congregate around the women. Your mother, sister, and maternal grandmother all practice not just the scapegoating of you, but in their bigotry, they do it to people they don’t even know.

You and your husband have tried very hard to form positive bonds with them, but you have been rebuffed. They do not reciprocate. You have patiently asserted yourself against their mistreatment of you several times, but it never has a lasting effect because the family’s need to dispose of whatever is the pain/shame/blame is too powerful. They are locked into this mechanism.

Staying or leaving, present or not, you and your husband will probably continue to be used as scapegoats. If you were to immediately divorce your husband, reaffirm your faith, devote all your efforts to the welfare of the family, and in every way apologize and atone for all your alleged transgressions, you’d probably still be seen as the “family problem.” You see, it isn’t about you. The septic tank doesn’t create the crap, it just receives the crap.

So the way out of this is to change your own situation rather than trying to change everyone else’s behavior. There is no positive reason for you and your husband to continue attending only the religious family gatherings while being snubbed and excluded from the non-religious gatherings. There’s no point to showing up for your package of dismissal, contempt, and insults. You’re clearly not welcome at any of these, so don’t go.

Instead of making up excuses why you’re no longer coming, give them an honest explanation only once, to everyone at the same time, thoroughly and finally. Your letter here pretty much sums it up. Consider sending a form of it to everyone in the family simultaneously. That way no one is left out of the loop. Add that you won’t accept any pretending that they don’t know what you’re talking about. Yes, they do. You’ve spoken to your parents honestly and frankly about it several times, but their mistreatment persists. Make it clear that you won’t accept any more guilt trips in any form. They can disapprove of you to their hearts’ content, but they must not bring it to you.

They will most likely use all of that to further justify their scapegoating. Remember, your purpose is to change your own situation rather than to change their behavior. Only they can do that, and it’s not likely. Keep the channels of communication open, but do not accept any abuse or manipulation. If they start into it, immediately point it out and hang up. Until they are able to convincingly take full responsibility for their own behaviors and actually change them for a long time, don’t subject yourself to more face-to-face meetings where you can be belittled, discounted, humiliated, and all the rest.

As you get some perspective away from their negative influence, look into yourself to find what need has kept you coming back to them again and again. It was probably the natural desire of any child to have the love and acceptance of her family. Find a way to fulfill that need for love and acceptance without having to go to people who cannot see your true value. Build up the emotional health and strength of the family you are creating with your husband. Be glad that you had the awareness to see what was happening, the courage to try to fight it, and the wisdom to escape when fighting it failed. Remember that some of that scapegoating probably got under your skin. If some day you have your own children, be mindful that you don’t inadvertently continue the family tradition.

Isabel, You are worthy of love and respect, period. The fact that you haven’t gotten those from your parents does not negate that worthiness in any way. You have freed your mind and found your own way through difficult circumstances, and you are building a life to be proud of and to celebrate.


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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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Robert L.

    This is advice I wholly agree with. If the family is being abusive, I would cut ties with them. This applies to all cases of an abusive/unreasonable family, not just this one, though. Just a qualifier on that point.

  • Indeed, cut all ties with them. It’s unlikely that they’ll ever come around, but in any case that’s up to them. You’ve more than done your part.

    As an aside, I was raised Orthodox Jewish and always assumed that Reform Jews were more sensible about their kids marrying non-Jews. Obviously, I was wrong.

  • Michelle

    Great advice Richard.
    I have a similar problem with my step-mother, except, the whole family does not get involved. (I’m very lucky on that front). She uses my atheism, but would use anything else because the bottom line is I am not like her (kudos to me). She literally runs away if we are in the same physical area and will refuse to go to any family events if I’m there. For someone who is nearly 50 years old, puerile doesn’t cover it after almost 4 years. My crime was telling her I will raise my son the way that I see fit just as she will raise her children her way.
    She will either get over or or she won’t but as long as she refuses to have any contact with me there is nothing I can do about her behavior, only mine. My choice has been to do what I have always done. If other people choose to configure family events around her, that is their choice, if not that is her loss.
    It takes some time, but you will come to see them for how ridiculous they are once the hurt, then anger, starts to wear away. Good luck Isabel. I’m glad you and your partner have each-other on this one.

  • Steinberg

    Interesting to note, the term ‘scapegoat’ comes from an ancient Jewish tradition of placing all your sins onto a goat and either sacrificing it or letting it die in the wilderness. The More You Know ::rainbow::.

    This situation doesn’t shock me as this has happened in my own family. My father is jewish and my mother is lutheran and she was called ‘that shiksa’ for a very long time before they softened to her.

  • Thegoodman

    This is one of the few advice letters on here I have read that feel very whiny. My first thought is “Grow Up”.

    Its possible they do not invite you to family events because you are very negative, talk about your husband’s depression, and in general are very pouty about not being treated fairly. AKA A debbie downer.

    Your parents want you to be one way. You are not that way so they are disappointed and they are not sure how to relate to you or how to act toward you. Guess what? You are not a child. Their approve is worth very little so you need to choose which matters most to you. Being their perfect golden child or being your own person, you apparently cannot have both (few people can be both of these things to their parents).

    It sounds like your parents are selfish, short sighted, and incapable of seeing things from your perspective. It also sounds like they taught you to be the exact same way.

  • Sinister

    I try to not pay too much attention to anyone’s expectations because expectations are just someone else’s view of the way the world should be.

  • Stephanie

    Wow, I saw this exact thing happen in my good friend’s family but for another reason. And the ‘religious victories’ are instead whether she brings her son (the only grandchild) or not.
    The family is being inappropriate. There needs to be boundaries from this sort of bad behavior. Only a bit of distance will show just how bad the damage is from years of small abuses and give this poor couple a chance to heal.

  • Heidi

    Great advice once again, Richard.

    Isabel, I’m really sorry that your family chooses to act this way toward you and your husband. Sometimes you have to purge your life of toxins, and I’m thinking that they’re currently a toxin to both of you. Judging by your letter, it will be their loss, not yours.

    @Michelle: Wow. Just… Wow. Good for you, not letting a woman who obviously hasn’t managed to grow up herself after 50 years try and tell you how to raise your son.

    @Thegoodman: And my first thought after reading your response is “wow, that guy’s a jerk.” But under most circumstances I wouldn’t have said it.

  • i apologize for saying something distasteful and bigoted. but really? if this were my mom? i’d probably say, “wow, what a fucking stereotype you are acting like, caring about the family’s religion all the way up until a gentile’s big bank account is coming into the family.” i bet that would get the mom’s attention.

    and i disagree with thegoodman. i don’t think this letter is whiny at all. i have a very difficult relationship with my mother, and believe me, if i could end it, i would’ve done so a long time ago. but i can’t. she’s my lifegiver and the bond between us is too real, and too strong, for all it causes me pain from time to time. a mother isn’t the same as a lover or friend one can easily dislodge from your life and thoughts.

  • Isabel,

    Realistically, the problematic individuals in your family are probably not going to change. You either have to purposefully add distance between them and yourself and your husband or somehow get your minds to a place where they don’t bother the two of you. I wish you both luck. Hopefully things will get better down the road. I can only leave you with the expression WWWAD (What would Woody Allen do?)

  • Tina in Houston

    My family has always made me the scapegoat and I finally put an end to it. I’m almost 50 so it was time for me to grow a back bone. I decided not to contact them anymore, they would have to make the effort if it was important. After 2-1/2 years I had a small party which they came, walked on egg-shells around me, then left. That was 3 months ago and haven’t heard a peek out of them. It was so worth it to sever these ugly ties and to be at peace with myself.

  • jon

    Isabella, your family does not deserve your love.

  • Ali

    Wow, this was a GREAT post.

    Thanks, Richard!

    Thegoodman – I cannot comprehend the level of your insensitivity!

  • Claudia

    I’ll admit I was relieved with Richard’s answer. He’s so good at seeing the good in people, so to speak, that I was afraid he’d advise Isabel to try hard to salvage this abusive relationship. I’m so glad I was wrong.

    Let’s face it; some people are not good people. Some people are more than just “afraid” or “ignorant” or “need help”. Some people are just assholes. Isabel has the misfortune to have a family rich in assholes. She seems to have made every civilized attempt to reason with them, but no shining will render this turd a diamond.

    I just want to add that Isabel should include, in her letter outlining why she is cutting off contact, a sentence that tells the reader that every member of the family is recieving the same letter. That way, no one can pretend they heard a different version. Also email a copy to every family member whose email account you know, and defriend every one of them on facebook.

  • Siristone

    I can certainly relate to Isabel. My husband was a lapsed Catholic and an atheist before we married. His family tried in many ways to actually sabotage our wedding! After 25 years of politely going along with the entire family treating us as scapegoats, disrespecting us so much as a couple that we received Xmas and even anniversary cards addressed only to my husband, were gossiped about in our presence, and denied a monetary gift after my husband’s father died (which all his siblings received), my husband (a very forgiving and obviously patient man) broke off all contact with a letter sent simultaneously as Richard suggested to do. Immediately we both felt a heavy load was lifted from our shoulders. It was hard at first to give up so much family but as they are not loving, supportive, but only mean and judgmental it gets easier everyday. I wish Isabel all the luck in the world and to create the life she wants with different people. We did and we have no regrets.

  • Dakota Bob

    A Jewish woman fawning over a wealthy man? sounds like a setup to a joke.

  • Trace

    “I recommend an extended vacation from your family…”

    Me too!

  • Tom

    Apparently money means more to Isabel’s mother than her religious ideals.

  • Jon

    I gotta comment on another letter? Here goes.

  • You can’t choose your family but you can choose when (and if) to spend time with them. “Isabel” has her own life. Time to live it for herself rather than live it for her parents.

  • Nick

    A very good response, though I would suggest you don’t analogise people to septic tanks in future. Especially when you’re trying to make them feel better about themselves.

  • I am going through a very similar situation with my in-laws right now. Thanks for posting this letter. It’s always nice to know you are not alone 😉

  • T-Rex

    Gad damnit! Religion just sucks…I’m sorry but it’s shit like this that just pisses me off to no end. All because of some stupid fucking superstitions. I have no tolerance for stupidity or religion any more. Life is too short to put up with stuff like this.

    I sincerely hope Isabel is able to find happiness even if it means disassociating herself from her blood ties. Noone should have to endure this type of behavior, especially from FAMILY.

  • Thegoodman

    I apologize for being so insensitive. I hope Isabel is able to work out her issues with her family.

    Agree with most of you, some extended time off from the family would prove very valuable. It would put the value (or lack thereof) of their interaction in perspective and give both sides times to reflect on what it means to have that relationship.

  • Rick

    The primary problem you should address is your husbands depression.
    Make him get medical attention. There is a high suicide rate amoungst males but also a very high success rate for those who seek treatment.

    When he feels better then you both will be in a position to make clear rational decisions.

  • Bernard J. Ortcutt

    I have no problems with my parents, who are fairly tolerant lapsed Catholics, but I have had a lot of weird problems in relationships. I dated one woman who just didn’t get the concept of being an atheist. She was Jewish (Conservative, mildly observant), and repeatedly told me that I was Christian, despite my protestations that I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember. She didn’t seem to have any understanding of how baffling and hurtful it was for her to tell me what my religion is over my objections. I had to explain to her that Christianity isn’t an ethnicity or a heritable trait. My grandparents were Christian, but that doesn’t make me one. That relationship ended (on other grounds) and I’ve settled on the fact that I’m only really interested in dating atheists or non-religious people at this point. I might even be reluctant to date someone if I knew that my atheism were a problem for her parents.

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