Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
The devil, if you’ll excuse the expression, is in the details. Not long ago, I received this email:
Hi I am in a relationship with my boyfriend for two years we are completely in luv with one another he is Jewish his parents are religious religious but the do keep the holidays I never met his mother until a. Week ago when I went over her house and she pretty much told us that either ends his relationship with me or loses his family we don’t want to lose each other but he also doesn’t want to lose them we don’t know what to do she even told me even if I convert I wouldn’t be accepted can u give me some advices I don’t want to lose him I feel that he’s my soulmate and he feels the same is it right what his parents are doing
I wrote back asking Brianna for some more details:
Can you tell me a little more about you and your boyfriend? How old are you and he? Are you and he financially independent, or do you or he need the help of your parents or his parents for food and housing, or to continue your education? What are your own thoughts and beliefs about religion? These will at least start to help me know what your situation is, and what I might suggest.
I know that this is a difficult time for both of you. Love is very beautiful, and it is tragic when prejudice interferes with it.
Brianna promptly wrote again:
I am 28 he is 23 I have two kids I never done any of my Sacraments we are total independent we pay everything on our own we are totally in luv and it is killing us that we can’t be with each other bc of religion I don’t think that is fair I don’t think that his parents should make him choose his happiness or his family I’m I wrong
The details that Brianna provided frame the situation very differently from my initial impression. If they were under age or financially dependent on the parents, my response would have been more about surviving and enduring until they have more autonomy, than about asserting their rights and making tough choices:
Everything I’m going to say is coming from the bias of my culture. Within many cultures is a strong bias to be completely obedient to the will of your parents, no matter how old you are. But in Western cultures, we tend more to favor star-crossed lovers when they conflict with disapproving parents. We cheer them on. We value individualism a little more, and deference to family authority a little less. So here is my culturally-biased opinion:
Your boyfriend’s parents are in the wrong, and they are not being fair at all to try to force him to choose between his love for you and his love for them. They’re being selfish and bigoted. They’re also being unwise by doing exactly the thing that will drive him away and reduce rather than increase their influence over him. They’re blowing it.
This is a terrible choice to have to make but it is a choice imposed upon him by them. They didn’t have to require this choice, but now he has to choose. If he chooses to acquiesce to them, they will never stop. They will continue to impose more and more choices on him, and more and more of his individual identity will gradually be worn away.
The tough choices we make are what define us as adults, or rather how we as adults define ourselves. Does he want to live his own life with the woman he loves, or does he want to live a life directed and dictated by his parents? Assertive adult, or passive puppet? He is standing where the pathway divides, right here, right now. Either way, it’s going to be painful, and he’s going to remember that they imposed this pain.
Assuming that he chooses the path of independence, families like these can have a wide range of reactions, from unpleasant to brutal.
His parents might or might not have a change of heart later, but to be a self-defining adult, your boyfriend will have to take ownership of his life while assuming that the worst might happen and it might be permanent. “I am my own person” is a non-negotiable stand.
He can make it clear to his parents that he still loves them and he will continue to be open to their love and respectful treatment, if and when they are willing to give it. As I’ve said to other letter writers, he can keep his side of the door unlocked, he can keep his heart open to them. He can also make it clear that because you are his chosen partner, he expects them to treat you respectfully. If they refuse to provide that simple courtesy and they act like spoiled, resentful children, then they won’t be having his company until they can behave like adults.
I’ve seen families in this very same conflict where religion wasn’t a factor at all. It is a factor here, but it isn’t a necessary ingredient. It can just make things more rigid and more complicated.
This conflict is mainly about people struggling to change the roles they have been playing for a long time. Adults struggle to fit into their role as new parents, faced with heavy responsibilities and scary challenges for their little ones. They eventually get used to playing the parent role with their children, controlling, protecting, approving, and disapproving. Their children struggle to grow into adults, and to become independent of all that parental control and approval, and the last actions of breaking away can sometimes be difficult and painful.
But the hardest role transition of all, I’ve seen time and again, is when parents must stop relating to their grown children as parents, and start relating to them as adults to adults. It can be extremely difficult for parents to stop playing the parental role.
Knowing this might help you both to be more patient with them, and to keep your own behavior well inside the boundaries of your roles as adults. Regardless of how they behave, you must behave as adults with them, and not slip back into playing the role of children, whether you’re being compliant or resistant children. Staying focused on being adults will help your boyfriend’s parents to gradually respond in the same way.
In a few years when your two children come of age, remember back to this time. You will face the same challenge to stop parenting them. Hopefully this experience will help you to make that transition more easily.
I hope that things eventually turn out well for everyone you have mentioned. After some time feel free if you wish to write to me again to let us know what has worked well and what has not. We all can learn from each other’s experiences. In that way, one person’s difficulties can prevent or reduce another person’s difficulties.