Ask Richard: I’m Worried My Future Mother-in-Law Won’t Accept Me


For Humanist Network News
July 21, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I've been an atheist for all my adult life. When I first came out to my Lutheran parents, they were surprisingly accepting, and now I regularly (and respectfully) discuss religion and current religious issues with them.

A few years ago, I met a wonderful man I'll call Craig. He was raised by Catholic parents, but never really considered himself a religious person. He is not as actively passionate about his religious opinions as I am; religion is more "irrelevant" to him than anything else. He has never discussed his secular preference with his parents the way I did.

I love his parents dearly and I'm thankful to consider them family. However, I'm starting to get anxious about the fact that my atheism has never been mentioned to them. Craig and I are planning to get married and have children, and I know his mother will expect church bells, baptisms and all the other religious rituals to which she adheres. For all her wonderful qualities–and there are many–I know that she has a tendency toward superficial judgment or narrow-mindedness. I don't think she knows any other atheists (or knows that she knows them), and I certainly don't think she's eager to.

I am terrified of what will happen when I inevitably have to tell her I don't believe what she believes. With her conservative, sometimes dated perceptions of various minority groups, I regularly hear her refer to people differently once she finds out they are somehow unlike her. For example, the "nice boys that just moved in" suddenly became "those gay fellows;" the friends Craig grew up with are referred to by their skin tone and not their names, occupations or relation to Craig. There is no hostility in her voice and she rarely makes comments that are openly racist or homophobic. But she always makes it glaringly evident that, in her mind, everyone is either in the in-group ("like her") or the out-group ("not like her").

I know in the pit of my stomach that she will immediately oust me into her mental out-group once she knows I am an atheist. And yes, yes, I realize that as future family members we ought to have plenty of time to discuss and debunk any prejudices she may have. But honestly, I dread being referred to or thought of as "my atheist daughter-in-law" or "the atheist girl my son married." I am so much more than that, and I agonize about her suddenly writing me off by slapping that label on me at every opportunity. She is truly a generous, warm, caring person who has shown me nothing but kindness from the moment I met her, and I hate to think our relationship might become suddenly strained because of her snap judgment. Since my coming-out with my own parents went over relatively well (they're very progressive and open-minded), I've never felt so worried or anxious about anyone finding out I'm non-religious. It's starting to feel like I'm deliberately hiding it from them.

–A Loyal Reader

Dear Loyal Reader,

Take a look at how intimidated you are by her. You use terms like anxious, terrified, pit of your stomach, worried and agonize. It sounds a little like you think her opinion of you makes you what you are. But if she decides that you're a codfish, you do not grow scales and fins. If your atheism is not a moral failing to you, then it's not a moral failing whether or not she thinks it is. You didn't have to face much adversity coming out to your own parents, so perhaps you didn't have to really grow strong and confident about your views. Be sure that you are free of any less-than-conscious shame or guilt about being an atheist that might be aggravated by having to face her "judgment."

Remember that the only power she has over you is the power that you give away to her. You are correct when you say that you are so much more than your atheism–or any of your many other qualities that she might, from her lofty, superior level, find lacking about you. Question your image of her. You were very tactful and kind in your description, but the picture you painted is clear:

Your future mother-in-law is just a basic bigot.

You say that she's generous, warm, caring and kind. Actually, all that good will is not broadly and generously offered. It is highly conditional, given only to people who fit very narrow criteria. She judges others negatively by their category rather than by their conduct. It is her disapproval that she broadly and generously offers, even if it is softly stated. A bigot with genteel manners is still a bigot.

Bigots are not usually monsters. They have been taught since childhood to belong to a group by excluding others from that group, so they are ignorant, provincial and brittle. The one mental skill they all have in common is their ability to disregard all the evidence that contradicts their biases. But their upbringing is not the only thing that can drive their bigotry. Sometimes their level of self esteem is much lower than the self-importance they pretend to have. Some of them have a hard time liking themselves unless they can continuously look down upon others. Without an out-group to sneer at, they get depressed.

Once you understand how sad and pathetic their state really is, they cease to be so formidable. They can infuriate or alarm you, but if you want to neutralize them in your mind, just feel sorry for them. Then you can challenge them with vigor, dismiss them with disdain or simply ignore them, depending on whatever is advantageous to you. You need not fight every single battle, nor must you knuckle under and make nice every time either. You can do whatever works for you.

So what makes this particular garden variety bigot so much more fearsome? Why is her good opinion of you so important?

She's the mother of your betrothed. I think you're worried that she may have more influence with him than you know. Even he may not be aware of how much pull she might have in certain circumstances. Rather than simply having to face her disapproval, I think you're concerned that she will be able to get a wedge in between the two of you.

If Craig were an opinionated atheist as are you, then I think you would feel less at risk, but he is simply disinterested and apathetic about it all and that could still allow him to harbor latent beliefs that might emerge later. Sometimes such things change over time, getting stronger or weaker.

So this is the time to have a long, detailed talk with Craig and get several things crystal clear. You've known each other for a few years, so you already have some understandings between you. But as a marriage counselor, I was often surprised by how many incorrect generalizations couples had made about each other, based on partial understanding and lots of assumptions. Far too many atheist/religious couples assume that all sorts of things will just work themselves out, but they discover to their dismay that they have left unattended the single most divisive set of ideas invented by man.

First, ask Craig's advice about how and when you should come out to his mother. He has had to live with her judgmental, conceited attitudes his whole life, so he may have some helpful suggestions and the two of you can come up with a plan with contingencies.

Then begin to clarify where both of you stand on several issues, hammer out clear agreements with compromises that neither of you will resent and write them all down. These things are complicated, and the details can get muddled in memory by the time they become pertinent. You don't want to have quarrels over who did or did not agree to some detail. Here is an incomplete list of some of the things that pertain to religion:

The wedding ceremony: Agree on the vows, the officiant, who pays for it, who is invited, where it will be. Will you keep your present name, hyphenate or take his name?

The roles you play in the marriage: Will anything fundamentally change after you're married? Are you equal partners in all things, or does one defer to the other in some areas? Don't assume things. Be explicitly clear. "Not talking about it" does not indicate love or trust; it only indicates foolishness.

Children: When and how many? What about birth control? Baptism? Confirmation? Church attendance and activities of all sorts? Education is a big topic, full of potential controversies. Formal or informal introduction to religion? How will you explain your and Craig's slightly differing views to the kids and what will you say to them about their grandparents' beliefs? Establish ground rules for grandparents or other religious family members when they're alone with your kids.

Family life: Will grace be said at the table? How about when your in-laws visit? How religious or secular will your holidays be? Details. If you'll excuse the expression, the devil is in the details.

Loyal Reader, although part of this is about you feeling more strength and confidence within yourself, the other part is about you and Craig forming a solid bond that can withstand pressures from outside. He needs to be willing and ready to stand up to his mother to defend his wife, if that becomes necessary. He may have been able to avoid a clash with his parents so far, but eventually he won't be able to step around conflicts.

If push really comes to shove with his mother about any of these or other matters, you should also have clear agreements with Craig about what the two of you will do to assert yourselves against her. If you know because you've discussed it that you can count on his support and that his loyalty is to you first and foremost, then you can feel more confident when dealing with your in-laws.



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.