Ask Richard: Jewish Parents Threaten to Disown Their Son Over His Girlfriend May 29, 2012

Ask Richard: Jewish Parents Threaten to Disown Their Son Over His Girlfriend

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:

Hi Brianna,

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.

Respectfully yours,
Richard Wade

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:

Dear Brianna,

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.


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
  • Darwin’s Dagger

    This is why Richard does this column. My advice would have been to enroll in a remedial English class.

  • Roxane

    If I had a 23-year-old son, I can’t say I’d be wild about his marrying a woman five years older with two kids, and I don’t think most 23-year-old men are anywhere near mature enough to take this on.  I suspect there is more to this than just religion.

  • Ian

    Richard was very tactful in noting that his “initial impressions” were that this writer was much younger. This doesn’t have anything to do with the very real and difficult situation that “Brianna” is in, but as an editor and writer I had a gut-wrenching reaction to the fact that a 28-year-old is completely unable to use basic punctuation.

  • I_Claudia

    I am going to assume that Brianna is foreign if only because the alternative, a 28 year old American with that kind of spelling and grammar, is too depressing to contemplate (luv, seriously?). Richard’s disclaimers about Western culture indicate that he has reason to believe she does not come from the same culture, which is heartening.

    Anyway, I agree fully with Richard’s advice.

  • dantresomi

    Again, Wade you give sound advice. However, I think its more to this than meets the eye. My oldest son is 18 and if he bought home an older women with children, I will clearly disapprove. he can make his own decisions,though but i will be open and honest about how I feel. 

    I still find this email to be suspicious and more than just about religion. 

  • Yes, wherever it’s coming from, I think ‘religion’ is at least partially a scapegoat here for “older woman with kids”.

  • Levon Mkrtchyan

    I definitely agree with you about being worried on this account, but I would like to point out that Brianna didn’t mention anything about marriage – she called him her boyfriend.  I suspect that this would make some difference in the eyes of religious parents.

  • Reuben Kellen


    I don’t want to get into my whole life’s story, but your letter is reminiscent of my own situation. I come from a rather religious Jewish family, and my long-term girlfriend is not Jewish.

    I haven’t received any threats of being disowned because of my choice of romantic partner, but there have been some periods of significant awkwardness and a lot of issues remain unresolved. That said, we’ve all been in some sort of stable holding-pattern for a couple of years now, so it may be possible to smooth things over, at least temporarily.

    Everything that Richard has said is pretty spot-on, and there’s not much to add without going into a lot of  detail. I’d be happy to share my experiences with you in private. Maybe there’s a way for Richard or Hemant or someone to pass you my email address (or vice versa) in confidence?

  • Kodie

    In my anecdotal experience, the son won’t choose the girlfriend over his parents. That doesn’t mean no son ever has, but this isn’t their first opportunity to tell him what to do or how to live his life. His mother doesn’t like Brianna, it’s not extremely clear to me that it’s only because she’s not Jewish, since she offered to convert, and some of the lack of clarity introduced in the first letter. After politely allowing to meet with Brianna, she suddenly decides this is not the girl for her son, and threatens to disown him if he continues to see her or marries her, well, some parents still feel their role is traditionally who to allow into their family and bear their grandchildren. It doesn’t matter what the son wants – they don’t want Brianna as part of their family, maybe because she’s not a Jew, maybe for other reasons, that she is older and has kids, or maybe they don’t like her personality. I’ve had a near-miss with two different guys whose mothers didn’t like me, and I don’t know what they spoke about behind my back, but the tension was there. “She would not make a good wife.” Very traditional values. All’s well in either case, as far as I’m concerned. Parents can be prejudiced and have certain deal-breakers in their case that may not apply to the son’s preferences, and if they are letting their own preferences be known very strongly at this point, it will be a familiar dance to the son.

    This doesn’t mean the son isn’t mentally free to make his own choices and decide what his values are in choosing a partner, but I suspect he’s not emotionally free to make that choice. Parents don’t just let their child have freedom and autonomy all his life, only to become dead serious at 23… and even if they did, heeding the spontaneous, unsolicited* advice of that close a relative might raise a pretty big red flag. It can be even worse for the outsider of the family to pull too hard. It’s hard to know from all the letters how the son really feels, of course he’s in “luv” but how strongly does he feel that he can walk away from his family (wrong or right as they may be) or follow Richard’s advice for him? Of course Brianna thinks he should be with her.

    *I say unsolicited, but the whole idea of meeting your SO’s parents – well, it is good to meet them so you can get to know important people who may be in your life a long time, but those meetings are usually, at least informally, a chance for the parents to survey and to note their approval or disapproval, something some people actively hope for (approval) and get nervous about. Whoever thought, before meeting your SO’s parents, “I hope they like me.” They never worry “will this stranger like us”; they’re already in.

    I’m also not saying I think it’s right for parents to level an ultimatum, and Richard’s advice is sound and how things would go ideally for everyone involved, you know, ideally.

  • Gus Snarp

    Either that, or it’s about ethnicity more than religion. Or all three.

  • To those who are remarking about the punctuation: Just as respectfully and just as tactfully as I responded to her, I ask you to please don’t miss the point, or even let that distract any amount of attention from what is important. 

    A real person’s suffering and how we can help reduce it is the one and only thing on which we should concentrate.  

    Most readers who comment have wonderful insights and encouragement to offer in these columns. They’re a big part of the benefit of “Ask Richard.”  To make remarks about punctuation or grammar might carry the implied message that the person is somehow less deserving of help or of being taken seriously. I wouldn’t want her or anyone to think that. 

    There’s also the possibility that these emails were sent from a cell phone, which I can attest are a pain in the neck to use, and so getting the basic message out becomes more important than the perfection of the presentation. 

    Thank you all for your continued help in your comments. 

  • Reuben Kellen

    “His mother doesn’t like Brianna, it’s not extremely clear to me that
    it’s only because she’s not Jewish, since she offered to convert…”

    One thing that won’t be obvious to most people is that Jews aren’t big into converting people. Especially for religious Jews, a prospective convert has to come to the religion for the “correct” reason. Converting out of love for a particular Jewish person is not enough. If Brianna’s boyfriend’s parents are on the more religious end of the spectrum, they may only recognize a conversion performed by an Orthodox rabbi. And an Orthodox rabbi would probably refuse to convert Brianna if she told him the truth about why she was converting.

    It’s certainly the case that there may be other things at play here, but my experience within the Jewish community tells me that there by no means have to be.

  • Hi Claudia,
    I have no particular reason to think that Brianna is not from the U.S. I just knew that what I was going to say is very heavily influenced by my culture and not at all universal, so it just seemed right to acknowledge that. Just about everything I ever say is influenced by my culture, but some things are far less “universal” than others, and sometimes it seems more necessary to address that.

  • companioncube

    For me, the clue is always “advices” – I’ve seen a lot of atrocious grammar and spelling, but this particular slip I see commonly from ESL (English as Second Language) and never yet from EFL (English as First Language) people.  I think they take the word “advice” and apply a confused understanding of our (totally arbitrary) pluralization rules to it – “hmm, I’m asking for *some*, so I need the plural form, add an s” – instead of treating it like the word water:

    I need water.
    Can you give me some water? (not “waters”)
    A cup of water. (not “a water” or “waters”)

    I need advice.
    Can you give me some advice? (not “advices”)
    A piece of advice. (not “an advice” or “advices”)

    However… the way education in the U.S. is going, I would not be surprised to start seeing that soon from EFL people.

  • Hi Reuben, thank you for your caring offer. 
    Send me an email using the Ask Richard email link at the bottom of my response. I will then ask Brianna if she wishes me to forward your email to her. If not, I will leave it alone at that point. 

  • Kodie

     I come from a totally dysfunctional family in which my mother is so threatened anymore that we’re adults and free to leave that she will never openly disapprove of even the shittiest boyfriend (with few irrational exceptions), so I don’t know how this goes, and we’re not Jewish, and I find myself out of place among any family that’s very big and close and so-called “traditional.” So, anyway, while I thought maybe she had something against a non-Jew girlfriend, full stop, I was wondering why she allowed the meeting in the first place. To go through the motions and be polite, but if not being a Jew was her only reservation, I think she would have told her son not to bring this lady here. I can only think that it had to be a few other things, but perhaps she gave Brianna one chance to overcome any one or more of those factors with a winning personality or kiss her ass thoroughly or something.

    I love analyzing a good soap opera, though. We could speculate that the son went out of his way to find someone his mother would not like, or who was the opposite in every way of his mother, there is something to an attraction like that, the whirlwind of pissing off your parents and bringing her to meet. I’ve never been used like that as far as I know, but the whole relationship thing escapes me anyway. All I can tell from the situation is that the son should be able to do what he likes and his parents have to live with that, but I’m not used to anything working out that clean. He’s the only one whose emotional buttons are unknown here, and also the only one who can carry out the advice, if he is up to it.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Yeah, same. No respect for anyone too lazy to type out 3 letter words. 

  • Pedro Lemos

    Remember that not all readers of FA are americans or live in an english speaking country. I myself live in a country where only about 2% of the population can understand english properly.
    I´m aware that some of the messages and replies I post here have some errors that might be “gut-wrenching” to you, but I´d rather write them anyway than being a silent guest. As long as I can make me understand I guess that´s fine.
    You should try writing in another language to see how right that would come off. Try it in my mother language, portuguese. I bet the results would also be hilarious…

  • Apocalypticbacchanal

    Richard gives amazing advice. The problem I see here and in all advice forums, is the limited information available to respond to. If she has a complete grasp of their situation and is being honest then this advice is sound. But without input from the other parties we cannot know what the situation truly entails. White lies and subterfuge are a daily activity for many. But for what he has to work with, Richard does a fine job. I hope for a positive resolution.

  • I_Claudia

     Fair enough. You’re right that cultural differences can make “obvious” advice less than obvious.

  • SDaltro_Brazil

    Pedro, I’m also Brazilian. Even though I partly agree with you, I think this one wasn’t foreigner. Sometimes, when we learn another language we talk better (more gramatically accurate) than english born-speakers.

  •  Not necessarily. I grew up in a not-uber-religious family, and it was always stated that having a boy- or girlfriend was a prelude to marriage. It would be specially true if one of the parties is 28 and had children.

  • Annie

    Richard- your advice is always so thoughtful, and sending a follow-up email for more information before responding to Brianna is a fine example of that.

    But I am still a little confused and feel that even more information might be necessary.  It sounds like, from Brianna’s second email, that she and her boyfriend are no longer together.  If they are both living independently, and Brianna didn’t meet his parents until two years after they were dating, I have to assume that either a) they do not live near the parents, or b) the boyfriend avoided introducing them (perhaps because he knew how his mother would respond).   As others have mentioned, I too feel the mother’s dislike for Brianna may run deeper than religion.  Even so, the advice remains the same.  It is really up to the son to decide if he wants to remain obedient to his parents as an adult, or have a calm and honest conversation with them about his need to take charge of his own life. 

  • quietdevious1

    When I get messages like this, I assume my friend is drunk and crying while typing on a phone. I’ve done it.

  • Well, normally I would suggest a kick in to crotch for the parents, but I think this case is needs other approach. For what I can comprehend this is not totally related to religion, I meanm older women, two choldren, that only speaks trouble for me. But if they really love each I would say that send the parents to screw themselves and that they sho the inheritance werever they like, though that requires some backbone that some people doesn’t have.

  • ErickaMJohnson

     Especially if they’re hoping to have grand kids someday.

  • LutherW

     A 23 year old is an adult. An adult parent might say “I don’t think this is a good idea, yet it is your life not mine, I will love you no matter what. I have been wrong before, maybe I am wrong this time.”  Besides being the adult answer it is the one most likely to let the daughter be responsible and free to examine and make the right choice or go one way for a while and then make another choice later rather than be locked in to each one proving they are/were right. This could be a great relationship, leading to a great live. Or just another exploration along the way for both.

    The challenge for the 23 year old adult is to continue the relationship and be open to explore it objectively despite the parents position.

  • edwin

    i have a good idea what these two are going through. i and my wife have been together for 25 years now
    ( my wife is 7 years older than i am.)  and her parents just accepted me a couple years ago. they were dead set against us getting together in the beginning partly because of religion, she and her parents are united church of canada and my parents were roman catholic but we stood our ground and refused to let them tell us what to do .  although it was hard not having a relationship with our parents for a long time they finally started to accept us together.So hang in there guys , be happy together and your folks may put aside their current feelings and accept you. 

  • Onamission5

    I loved the advice you gave, Richard.

    The older members of my own rather religious family had huge issues when my 20 year old cousin began dating his significantly older, single mother, girfriend. The things which were said about her were atrocious, even without having met her in person. My cousin told our elder family members to either get bent or deal with their issues in silence. Eight (or is it nine?) years later, he and his girlfriend are married, with another child, and by all accounts she apparently wasn’t half as awful as had been first assumed. Nor was he too immature to be a dad and spouse. It may not have been the life or partner his family would have selected for him, but it is the life and partner he chose for himself, and he’s quite happy.

    Parents and grandparents often have a hard time accepting that their young adult kids might actually know what they’re doing, even when we don’t understand or like their decisions.  We maybe get more rigid and shallow as we get older? I know there is significant social stigma associated with being a single mother, that’s for sure, and I know because I have experienced it first hand. Add on possible lack of formal education or a learning disability (both of which are factors with my cousin’s wife), neither of which preclude intelligence, fwiw, and many people will unfairly and rather harshly judge not only intentions, but capability.  That knee jerk judgement can however be overcome in many cases.  

    I wish the couple a good support system in friends, and in sympathetic family, if they can find some. Remember that the elder, louder members of a family don’t always speak for everyone. They just sometimes act like they should/do.

  • randall.morrison90

    Lot of anti semitic shit floating around here.

    Typical of of the New Atheists.

  • Georgina

    rubbish sir!

    atheists are not anti-Semitic. We are anti people-who-insult-us, but then, isn’t everybody?

  • David McNerney

    It’s not inconceivable that atheists could be anti-Semitic, though we have no particular reason to be (nobody killed our god).

    But having looked through the comments below I can’t find your “shit”.  Maybe you could point it out.

    Though I suspect you saw the word “Jewish” in the title, read no further and decided to drop a troll bomb.

  • thebigJ_A

    Don’t feed the troll.

    You can tell it’s a troll in this instance because their statements is so at odds with anything in these comments as to be a non-sequitor.  S/He might as well have said, “There’s too much chocolate-hating going on here, typical atheists” for all the sense it made.

  • I’m a total grammar nazi and even I won’t touch that bit. Somebody is hurting, in emotional pain. It’s not the time to point out missed commas and typos. I agree, leave that bit alone and concentrate on the content.

  • My advice would have been for her to retake second grade English and spelling. For a 28 year old woman she doesn’t appear to have the proper education. I’m going to sound really mean by saying this, but if it was my son I wouldn’t let him marry her on those grounds alone.

    It may sound cruel but there’s no excuse for stupidity in a country that has free schooling.

  • Onamission5

    Well, there is the excuse of ESL or ETL, there is the excuse of learning or processing disorders, there is the excuse of being a member of an underserved population, of attending a school with shitty teachers, of having to drop out of school in order to care for sick, drug addicted or alcoholic family members, and so forth.

    I am not saying any of those situations apply to this person in particular. I am saying that difficulty with written language does not mean stupidity.

  • I have a lot more tolerance for online comments than for things that really should be proofread

  • Onamission5

    There’s a poodle (labradoodle?) named Amercia, and Mitt wants it to be better. ‘Cause Amercia is a bad, bad dog.

  • Richard Wade

    Yes, it does sound mean and cruel, because it is mean and cruel. 

    My advice to you and all the other grammar/spelling/punctuation nazis commenting here is to take a remedial course in Humanity, with extra study in basic compassion and caring. You’re all clearly deficient in that area.

    This is a real human being who is just as deserving of respectful treatment as anyone else, and she is in anguish, but the only thing you and these other Olympic Champions at Missing the Point show her is your conceit about your education. You have done nothing but to add to her sadness.

    What good are your language skills if you have nothing positive or helpful to say to a person who is being mistreated? There’s no excuse for the stupidity of puffing yourselves up about your own schooling, and squandering a chance to show some needed kindness. If you have nothing to offer in that regard, then be quiet.

  • SDaltro_Brazil

    Well, even if it is not all religion, I think it was right for Richard to assume it was, and give his advice based on that. After all, if this is the problem then the advice was sound and great. Apart form that, other problems may arise which are not related to religion and is not Richard’s expertise. So I think it was his rightful place to assume and to respond to her as a religion problem.

    Also, I specially like his final touch leaving it open for her to write back in the future for a feedback. It was really classy.

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