Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’ve never actually come out and told my family that I’m an atheist, but it’s something of a poorly kept secret. They certainly know that I’m no longer a Catholic as I was raised, as I’ve refused to have my daughter baptized. But now my parents have decided that it is my lack of faith that has pulled my sister away from the Church, and now that my sister and her fiancé have set a wedding date, this has become an issue that must be immediately remedied.
Both my parents have separately taken me aside and “requested” in the strongest possible terms that I try to persuade my sister to have a Catholic wedding. She doesn’t want to have a Catholic wedding, her fiancé doesn’t want a Catholic wedding, and I think that should be the end of the matter. But my parents want them to have a Catholic wedding, and his parents want a Catholic wedding, so somehow that’s my problem? I would try to talk to the parents about it, but frankly, I’ve never been able to have a rational and reasonable conversation with my parents.
I’m tempted to just stay away from my parents for a while until they cool down, but there are two things that make me hesitant to cut them off. First is my daughter, she spends a day with them every week, and they are wonderful to her, and everyone would be truly crushed if they didn’t get to spend the day together. The second is that I don’t want my little sister to feel that I have abandoned her. She and her fiancé are capable of standing up for each other, and have been more honest with their parents than I have, even though they are much younger, and I don’t want them to feel that they have to make this stand alone.
So I guess my question is, do I just walk away from the situation and hope things calm down? Or do I allow myself to get dragged into this drama and actively try to keep everyone calm in what appears to be a hopeless situation?
I commend you on your caring about everyone involved in this, including your parents. Your empathy and sensitivity are admirable.
Firstly, your atheism does not have to be an issue in this at all. If you were still a believing Catholic, you could still take the position that it is none of your business what kind of wedding ceremony your sister and her fiancé want to have. If their marriage is going to belong to them, then it should start with a wedding that belongs to them.
If you haven’t already, tell your sister and her fiancé everything that your parents are trying to get you to do. Tell them, just as you said so well in your letter, that you want to be supportive of them, and you don’t want them to feel abandoned, yet you also want to minimize your being dragged into drama and trauma around a problem that really isn’t yours. Talk with them about what they want to do, and what you can do to be supportive without you becoming their lone heroic protector. In this way, the three of you can share the tasks of defending their sovereignty in appropriate amounts: some for you, most for them. As I said, if they are going to have a marriage that is entirely theirs, free from excessive meddling and interference by parents and in-laws, then let it begin with a wedding exactly like that. Let them begin right now to clearly show the rest of the family what kinds of involvement in their lives are welcome and acceptable, and what are not.
If you don’t want to avoid your parents for the sake of your daughter, then continue to see them, but you should not have to suffer badgering and guilt trips while you’re with them. Maybe some day your relationship with them will be such that you are all able to have rational and reasonable conversations, but since that’s not yet the case, my advice is to quickly cut short their hectoring and blaming.
You can do this by having single sentences prepared and rehearsed that turn their demands away without insult or rancor. When they attempt to enlist you to persuade your sister to have a Catholic ceremony, simply say, “I support my sister and her fiancé in their love for each other, and in whatever decision they wish to make about their own wedding.” Say that or use your own words in a short, pithy statement that you repeat word-for-word as many times as necessary. Don’t elaborate on it, or that will probably just invite more arguments from them. Once they realize that you’re only going to keep repeating your polite but straight-forward refusal, they will stop.
When they try the guilt trip about how you have “pulled your sister away from the Church,” don’t fall into the trap of defending yourself. Honor your sister instead. Say, “My sister is an adult who can think for herself; she is responsible for her own thoughts and beliefs.” That, or something similar in your own words, repeated without variation again and again will blunt and eventually discourage their attempts to manipulate you.
It is essential that you not shout these statements, or let any tone betray tension, frustration, or anger. You must show steadfast equanimity. Not cold, just calm. Repeat yourself with composure, just loud enough to be heard. If they think they’re getting to your emotions, they will persist. There is enormous power in being the adult in the room, but for it to work, you must be consistent. Don’t give up that power by indulging in a rant or a tantrum. You’re not responsible for keeping anybody calm except yourself. If their pestering or goading become too much for you, it’s okay to quietly leave before you boil over. Just go without a curse or a slam. Come back later and resume your interactions with them about other matters. If they start it again, you know your routine.
One afterthought: Be very vigilant about what your parents are teaching your daughter when she is alone with them. I have received many letters describing atheists’ religious parents violating boundaries and agreements about not attempting to indoctrinate their grandchildren into their religion. This is extremely divisive and destructive. Without very specific rules set down clearly by you, it is likely that they will try to convert her behind your back. Even with such rules overtly stated, do not naively assume that they are honoring them. Check.
I wish your sister and her fiancé a very happy wedding and marriage, I wish you the serenity of the adult who can assert herself, and I wish your parents the joy of loving relationships with children and grandchildren without conflicts from unnecessary meddling.