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