How can I gracefully set boundaries with conservative/religious parents when I no longer share their beliefs?
November 16, 2011 8:51 AM   Subscribe

I want to move in with my partner and move on with my life, but I'm stuck in needing approval from parents with beliefs I can't agree with. How can I handle this in a kind but firm manner?

I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, and have since grown out of those beliefs. This was a long and painful process that I certainly did not take lightly.

My parents are very loving and supportive, and we enjoy a good relationship, despite our differences. Our family spars good-naturedly about our radically different politics (I'm teased for being a liberal, etc), although I have never said I specifically reject certain tenets of faith. This is to keep the peace and because I don't see the point in denigrating what they value, since I want the same respect for myself and others.

However, our differences are creating increasing conflict. I am planning to move in with my partner and it's a well-reasoned decision that we've discussed at length. Plus, the West Coast city we live in is expensive and it seems crazy to keep having roommates with varying levels of dysfunction! I am 24 and am completing a professional degree, and we've been together for over three years.

My parents are both opposed, and my father is particularly upset. I know he will attempt to interfere, but I don't know to what extent, since his bark is sometimes bigger than his bite. My partner is not religious, and he outright told me that I "owe" it to them to carry on a religious family, a comment that burdens me deeply. He has already cornered my partner into one very uncomfortable conversation about how he needs to be "saved" to ever marry me, etc. I think he will attempt another conversation, but this will trap me between my partner and my father because the former is still angry about the first conversation (and has made it clear to me that he will not be having another one, and I think to some extent expects me to referee so as to prevent it) and the latter thinks it is his moral right to have it. Needless to say, my stake in my own life as a young woman is ignored completely in this scenario.

My mind is made up, and I know I need to become my own person. However, I like the feeling of being close to my family and am fearing the loss of that. I feel lucky to have them. I find myself sometimes fantasizing about doing things "their way" just to maintain the harmony I enjoy in my life. It's obvious to me how deeply I crave their approval that I would even consider giving up my beliefs and the person that I love to try to be who they expect. I'm insanely jealous of friends who are getting married with the enthusiastic support of their families. I suffer from guilt and often can't identify the source, wondering if I do in fact have a conscience that is telling me it's wrong to live my life the way I want (and I would argue I'm moral and responsible by any reasonable standard), or if it's just social programming I can't escape.

I am grateful to my upbringing because I was loved and I was given a good sense of morality, but I don't feel like I need Jesus to be a good person anymore. Because they are evangelical, there is no way they will understand (or perhaps allow themselves to understand) any way in which I might try to show them that I am not rejecting them by rejecting their religious beliefs.

I need anecdotes from your own lives, words of support, books I should read (I am a prolific reader), and any thoughts on setting boundaries in a way that is respectful and loving (particularly as it relates to the delicate matter of the move-in--they live nearby and I wouldn't lie to them even if they lived half a world away).
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
"You raised me right and taught me how to think for myself. Now let me think for myself."
posted by notsnot at 9:02 AM on November 16, 2011 [10 favorites]

I'm not qualified to speak to the rest, but wanted to say that your partner is right to expect you to be referee and prevent your father from cornering him in another uncomfortable conversation about religion.

Your partner probably cannot remove himself from another such conversation without causing your father to feel more slighted than he already does, and you're the only one who can step in and say "Look Dad, you need to not do that to Partner. He respects your religious beliefs and you need to respect his." (Here, his religious beliefs being none, but that doesn't need to be spelled out.) You can say these things to your father and he'll still love you - your partner doing so may cause a rift between him and your father that can't be healed. While it sounds like your partner is still angry at your father about the first conversation, he would be well within his rights to be angry at you if another happens and you haven't done anything to prevent it.

(I hope this doesn't come off too harshly - you sound like a lovely and thoughtful person dealing with a hard situation and I wish you well.)
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:06 AM on November 16, 2011 [16 favorites]

Here's the thing - you cannot set appropriate boundaries and live your own life without conflict. This is part of growing up and becoming an adult. Your parents may be hurt by your choices, and they are unlikely to accept them right away, but unless you make them, and make them unapologetically, you will always be in thrall to their expectations.

The way you do this is by telling them what you have decided, listening to them (without apology, without temporizing), and then reaffirming, "I'm sorry you don't agree, but this decision is the right one for me and partner." From that point on, the discussion is closed, and if they attempt to re-open it, you change the subject or dis-engage. This means walking away, hanging up, or leaving if necessary. "I'm sorry, we've discussed this already. If you can't let it go, I need to go."

He has already cornered my partner into one very uncomfortable conversation about how he needs to be "saved" to ever marry me, etc. I think he will attempt another conversation, but this will trap me between my partner and my father because the former is still angry about the first conversation (and has made it clear to me that he will not be having another one, and I think to some extent expects me to referee so as to prevent it) and the latter thinks it is his moral right to have it. Needless to say, my stake in my own life as a young woman is ignored completely in this scenario.

Actually, no, it isn't. Your partner is right. These are your parents, and your stake in your own life is a responsibility to mediate between your partner and them. You should be the one running interference with your father, because you know best how to keep the situation from escalating past recovery.

If you cannot or will not protect your partner from being cornered by your father, do not be surprised if your partner responds as best he can think of to keep that sort of conversation from happening again, and it may not be the way you would have hoped he'd handle it. He needs your help. Give it to him.
posted by canine epigram at 9:06 AM on November 16, 2011 [14 favorites]

My mind is made up, and I know I need to become my own person. However, I like the feeling of being close to my family and am fearing the loss of that.

The important thing to realize is that it takes two to tango here. You may want to feel close to your family, but your family seems to have set limits on their love. They're not seeing you as a person, only as a thing to be judge or molded into what they see fit.

I feel lucky to have them.

Speaking as a parent, they sound kinda horrible as their love and support seems dependent on you being captive and obedient to their beliefs. To condemn your own flesh and blood over such trivial matters is, in my opinion, the height of parental arrogance and ignorance and should be firmly rebuked.

You're your own person and you have your own path to make. It's ok if you don't take the path your parents think you should.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:17 AM on November 16, 2011 [11 favorites]

Harriet Lerner has some great books in which she discusses how to set effective boundaries while maintaining relationships. I've found The Dance of Intimacy very helpful.

I've seen more conservative parents come around on more difficult issues. They may never be thrilled at your living situation, but they can get used to it and move on.
posted by bunderful at 9:22 AM on November 16, 2011

It's going to be tough, but it sounds like you're going to have to put your foot down. Tell them "It doesn't have to be him or you, but if you're unwilling to respect my choices and my partner, then I'm going to choose my partner. When you're ready to accept me as I am and be a family again, we'll talk." Then give them time.
posted by katillathehun at 9:25 AM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

My father also had a huge problem with the thought of living together before marriage (and was not thrilled at first that I was dating someone of a different race either).

Like you, I felt a huge conflict between wanting to preserve my generally good relationship with my parents and wanting to move forward with my relationship with my boyfriend (now husband) in a way that I felt was right for us. But ultimately, I realized that if I couldn't have it both ways, that was my parents' choice. Either I could let them control me or I could live my life the way I wanted to. So we went through a period where they didn't speak to me, and a period after that when I refused to speak to them at all about my relationship. I found I just had to keep repeating, "I don't want to discuss it." The part where they cut me off was hard, but all I could do was be willing to talk to them again when they were ready.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:27 AM on November 16, 2011

My parents are Evangelicals, not Fundamentalists, but I had a similar situation when I moved in with my now-husband. Here's what worked for me: "I love you. I understand this is not the decision you would make, but it's the decision I've made. I'm not expecting your approval, but this is not up for discussion." You have to let go of the idea of getting their approval in order to insist upon boundaries.

Also, this--I think to some extent [my SO] expects me to referee so as to prevent [a religious confrontation with dad]--is perfectly reasonable. They're your parents, it's your responsibility to call them out on inappropriate behavior toward your partner. And aggressive proselytizing is inappropriate behavior. I suggest you find a time before the next family event to call your dad and say, "Dad, I know you want Kevin to be saved, but you've already made that clear. Bringing it up again and being angry with him that he won't accept Christ is just going to push him away, and me with him. I need for you to not bring it up again until Kevin wants to discuss it. Do you understand?"
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:29 AM on November 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

I tried to gracefully detach myself from my fundamentalist parents for years. Eventually I gave up, told them to fuck off, and didn't talk to them for 2 years.

We have a perfectly healthy, adult relationship now, and they don't judge me for living my life in the manner that I see fit.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 9:29 AM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

There's gracefully setting boundaries. That can be accomplished.

Then there's having everyone peacefully accept and support your boundaries. That's a totally different thing and it's outside of your control.

Tell your parents that the decision is made and non-negotiable. Tell them that you'd love to spend time with them before you go, but your decision and salvation are not topics you'll be willing to discuss. If they bring it, then leave immediately. No tantrums. You just say that "It's time for us to go." You and your partner need to agree on this.
posted by 26.2 at 9:34 AM on November 16, 2011

My wife and I are not religious. My parents are -- my father especially is extremely dogmatic. Because of his dogmatism, I have refrained from telling him the full extent of my disbelief.

I posted an anonymous AskMe about the inner conflict I experienced when she was about to move in, and how best to tell my parents. We had already arranged to do it and she was on her way across the country to join me in Seattle, and I was 40+ years old and still afraid of my father's approval. (In his own way, he had a reality distortion field rivaling that of Steve Jobs.) It took Metafilter to knock some sense into me.

My father had previously said he'd disown me if I ever moved in with a woman without being married to her. It turns out, however, that I don't actually need or want anything from him except things he's never given me to begin with, and if he were to disown me, not having to deal with him could make my life a lot simpler and happier. At the same time, he'd be cutting himself off from ever having any further influence on me -- a strong disincentive to actually carrying through on his threat.

So it turned out that his bluster was all bluff, and he didn't disown me. He was mad for about a month and then he "forgave" me. I rolled my eyes and carried on doing what I thought was best for my life.

The key points I took away from this experience, and the advice I would give to you:

1. As an adult, you actually need your parents less than you may think you do, and certainly far, far less than they think you do.
2. Your parents are adults too. Don't hurt them just to hurt them, obviously, but if you incidentally hurt them, they will probably get over it. If they don't, that is their problem, not yours. They have had decades to get used to the idea.
3. If they do cut off contact with you, that well may be a good thing for you, depending on the extent to which they are prone to interfering in your life.
4. When they're being petty, being the grown-up in the relationship can be richly rewarding.

Don't budge on what you really want, but don't make threats, and make it clear that if anyone cuts off communication, it will be them. Certainly they need to understand that you can't have a healthy relationship with someone who is constantly critical of you, and that by doing so they are actually pushing you away and lessening their influence on your life.
posted by kindall at 9:41 AM on November 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

So. I see two things going on in this question. First is the broader and more direct issue of getting your parents to behave like considerate adults instead of like slighted children.

The second is embarking on a healthy adult relationship yourself. And it's the second that concerns me more than the first. For a few reasons. Notably, your reluctance to go to bat for your partner in awkward situations that involve the power play your father is trying to make.

But more important even than that is the impetus for your moving in together. Or rather, the apparent impetus for it. I'm this old. I'm accomplishing this other grown up thing. Our roommates suck.

This does not have the same ring to it as, "We have discussed our long term future, engagement is on the (near or far) horizon and we both agree on that. I love him. We are excited to be with each other as we move forward in our lives together."

I'm not a parent yet, but if I were yours, I would be deeply troubled by this difference, and I am also an atheist who has cohabited. Our differing expectations of that relationship (and some other stuff) did not bode well for the experience. Additionally, there is some sociology about why cohabiting before marriage/engagement appears to have a negative impact on relationship outcomes. To dip your toe in that academic water, check out Scott Stanley giving a Ted Talk about teens and young adults and how decision making gets harder once you feel "stuck" in a given circumstance.
posted by bilabial at 9:41 AM on November 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oh, and to get to the actual answer part of that rambling I just did.

If you're just moving in because it's convenient and comfortable and easy, and not because you have made a mutual commitment to this relationship, your conversations about the matter will be much harder to navigate with your parents.

If you can both sit down in front of your parents and say, "We are seriously serious about this. We mean it," they are more likely (not guaranteed, but more likely) to take you seriously.

If your conversation with them sounds even remotely like, "But this is so much more convenient for us," they are going to remain on High Alert about your decision making skills, even if they can't pinpoint why exactly.

The difference is not only significant in how you perceive your choice, but also in how other people react to your choice.
posted by bilabial at 9:44 AM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was raised in a very conservative and strict religion. I still practice that religion, however, two of my three siblings do not. I know for a fact that my parents agonize over those two children, scared to death that they will be burned at the last day and cut off from the family or whatever. So, their insistence over those two coming back to the "fold" is based on a very real (to them) fear. Their disapproval is not a judging thing, but a fear thing. Can you imagine something so terrible happening to someone you love so much? As a parent of three young children, I live in fear that something terrible will happen to them - physically, mentally, emotionally and I strive to limit those terrible things. In a sense, your parents are trying to prevent something terrible from happening to you (although it's a spiritual hurt, that although you do not believe in, they do and therefore it is very real to them). I just wanted to throw out that perspective to think on. That's maybe where they are coming from - from a whole lotta fear that maybe comes off as disapproval and judginess (new word!).

Ok, so I mentioned two of my siblings no longer believing the beliefs we were raised on. My sister, at age 19, moved in with her boyfriend. And it bothered my super strict, conservative, religious parents. Of course it did! But, it wasn't a surprise. It wasn't like she was living the belief and then all of a sudden moved in with a guy. There was a progression and so that final act, although it hurt my parents (always hoping for the best!), they weren't blind-sided by it.

My brother, it was a little different. He was preparing on going on a mission for our church and then out of the blue bailed on it. No one had any idea that's the way that was going to go. THAT blindsided my parents and they were in a daze for weeks. But, they came out of it. And although they always hope for these stray sheep to return, they are living realistically that it may not happen and they've adjusted.

I just want to say that it might sting for your parents for a bit, but I'm sure they've considered the possibility that you may be moving in with your partner. It'll sting for a bit, like any plans that get changed.

Now - as for the lectures/talks with your partner . . . Sit your parents down. Talk to them. Make sure that they feel they are heard. Make clear to them that you have considered your decision, as well as taken into consideration their concerns, and have chosen what you have chosen. Then tell them quite clearly, that any talk of religion/morality, whatever is off the table. You have heard them. They have heard you. You have made your decision. And then stick with it. Don't engage in any debates.

Meg_Murry's advice up there is great, especially this: "Dad, I know you want Kevin to be saved, but you've already made that clear. Bringing it up again and being angry with him that he won't accept Christ is just going to push him away, and me with him. I need for you to not bring it up again until Kevin wants to discuss it. Do you understand?"
posted by Sassyfras at 9:45 AM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am, um, kind of...sneaky? about this stuff. Would you be comfortable saying something like, "Dad, you know God works in such strange ways. I think he is putting me on this path for a reason." It's a bit, ah, underhanded? But it might work if you sort of set up a narrative about how God is still moving in your liberal agnostic atheist life. Of course, God's plan for you is to move in with your atheist boyfriend and continue being a good person, but Dad doesn't need to think of it that way. You just need to give him a frame he can gracefully grab onto.

Ditto with converting your boyfriend. "Dad, Boyfriend is kind of a deep thinker who takes his time with things. I think the Lord is really working on his heart right now, and I just want to let that process happen for him without pushing and pulling him in any one direction. He just needs to come to this in his own time."

I don't think your parents really want to cut you off or tell your landlord you are terrible tenants or really disrupt your life. You're a responsible adult getting a freakin' graduate degree. They know that, in their hearts. It's sort of like the way some parents make their adult children sleep in separate bedrooms at Thanksgiving. They know you have sex; they just want a way to be able to pretend you don't. Give them that here. They know you aren't religious anymore; just give them a way to pretend you are.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:46 AM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Needless to say, my stake in my own life as a young woman is ignored completely in this scenario."

Your use of the word "woman" implies that you have some stake that a man in your position would not - why is that? There's nothing in your story that couldn't translate genders (or sexual orientations, for that matter). And what in particular about your "stake" is being ignored by your partner, an apparent innocent who is being attacked by someone because of your choice to be in the relationship with him? He chooses to be there, as well, but he didn't bring aggressive attacks into the equation (at least, as you have described it).

Time to put on your big girl panties full-grown woman pant adult clothes. You owe it to your relationship to stand up for the one you love, and you owe it to yourself to stand up for the self you (should) love. It's not fun, but it's necessary.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:53 AM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think that you have to have it really clear in your head that when your parents bring it up, it is not an argument or a discussion. This is a decision you've made, and their input is not relevant or wanted.

As for playing referee between your boyfriend and your father, that is your job. He should referee any craziness coming from his side as well.
posted by crankylex at 10:08 AM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

It's going to be tough, but it sounds like you're going to have to put your foot down. Tell them "It doesn't have to be him or you, but if you're unwilling to respect my choices and my partner, then I'm going to choose my partner. When you're ready to accept me as I am and be a family again, we'll talk." Then give them time.

I wouldn't say this unless you are pretty confident you are going to be with your Partner permanently (marriage, long-term partnership beyond just living together). Relationships come and go (especially when you're in your early 20s!), but you clearly love your parents and they will be there for you even in the hard times based on what you've said here.

That being said, you do need to do something that indicates to them that you are an adult and it's time for you to forge your own path. The early 20s are a weird time. In the college years, you are still tied to them (in many cases)- calling them for money, in some cases they are helping with tuition or rent, and both sides are getting used to you being out of the house, making crap decisions and calling them about them, etc. Once you get past 21 or 22 though, parents are often still holding on to that transition stage, while their children are feeling like adults. So, think of this as your first adult stand against your parents. Decide what you want and speak to them as clearly, but respectfully as you can. You are clearly articulate, so I'm sure you'll do fine. Also, it will do no good to add statements about not needing Jesus anymore because that will be very hurtful to them. Your aim isn't too be hurtful, it is just to set boundaries. Just keep it about the relationship and your desire to live with your boyfriend, and the fact that you're an adult. They will probably be upset for awhile, but based on what you said, I doubt they will disown you. I'm sure you have cousins or family friends doing the same thing.
posted by superfille at 10:23 AM on November 16, 2011

If your conversation with them sounds even remotely like, "But this is so much more convenient for us," they are going to remain on High Alert about your decision making skills, even if they can't pinpoint why exactly.

Seconding bilabial - tangential to your question, but do make sure your reasons for moving in aren't "because it's so much more convenient / roomies suck." Because that often does not bode well at all (been there, done that), and your parents would be right to be concerned, independent of their theological concerns.
posted by canine epigram at 10:24 AM on November 16, 2011

Mod note: From the OP:
I am quickly responding to thank everyone for the many kind and great responses, which I will be reading more closely later today.

Just to quickly clarify two things: my statement about why we are planning to move in was purposefully pragmatic because it's not the part I feel conflicted about. We love each other, we want this very much, we plan a future together (marriage, children) assuming this next step is a success. The stuff about convenience and money and other things I mentioned are what makes continuing to make a charade of living separately when we are always together anyway so silly and drive things to a conclusion. However, I still will look into that TED talk and appreciate the attention to "good reasons" for moving forward, I totally agree with you.

Secondly, the statement I made about my stake in this was meant to suggest that I feel controlled by my dad thinking our future is some kind of man to man chat I can't be a part of, and that pisses me off because it's sexist. Sorry that wasn't clear!

Finally, I appreciate the feedback that encouraged me to be more bold and protect my partner from these confrontations. I've been so wrapped up in my own feelings that I lost sight of his for a moment, so thank you for pointing that out to me. He has said it, but I guess the objective view solidified it for me.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:57 AM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is up to you to set boundaries that make you comfortable, and to enforce them.

Teasing you about your beliefs may seem "good-natured", but this presents you with a constant low-grade assault on your beliefs, in the same way a parent who constantly teases you "good-naturedly" about your weight will be hammering away at your self-esteem over time, insidiously.

Confronting your boyfriend on what he "must" do, to qualify for something that is your decision rather than theirs, is completely inappropriate, in the same way that it would be inappropriate for him to confront your boss about that they "must" do, in order to keep you as an employee.

It is time they began to show respect for your beliefs and choices. Respect does not mean they agree, just as you respect their beliefs even though you do not agree with them. Respect means acknowledging that a person's beliefs and choices are their own, and that they are not the ones who get to decide if they are right or wrong.

For setting those boundaries, you need to tell them this, and if they decide to throw tantrums, so be it; just as they let you throw tantrums as a child until you learned to cope with disappointment and confusion, they must learn, and they will outgrow it. For enforcing them, I recommend (from personal experience) simply stating that when you are around, they cannot talk about religion (or lack of it), not even as a joke, and when your boyfriend is around, they cannot talk to him about his relationship with you.

As for enforcing those boundaries, let them know that you love them, but that if they fail to respect those boundaries you (and your boyfriend, if present) will do something. Perhaps you will lecture them. Perhaps you will refuse to talk about it, period, not even to say "we're not talking about it" -- just clam up until they apologize or change the subject. Or even walk out for the rest of the day. Then do what you say you will do if they cross the line, even once. Firm boundaries, consistently enforced, as you would with a child.

*in personal experience, this approach was extremely effective for one parent who was republican-now-turned-tea-party, and for another parent who often commented on weight and attempted to rope the in-law partner into helping them influence the other partner's eating habits. YMMV, of course.
posted by davejay at 11:10 AM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think you should be confrontational- giving ultimatums (you'd better do this or I'll never talk to you again!) ramp up the heat of a conversation and back people into corners.

BUT explaining cause and effect is a different matter entirely. You will no longer listen to any pressure tactics anymore- Tell him it hurts you when he tries to force you and Partner, and it's insulting. It hurts you that he doesn't respect you the way you respect him. If he begins his pushy manipulative nonsense- that's when the conversation will end. Trying to force Partner into conversation about religion makes Partner too uncomfortable for you to stay at the house.

"Daughter- Christ has laid out the way we should live with Partners and--"
"Dad, we talked about this. Would you like to talk about anything else?"
"My duty as a christian--"
"I'll call you next week. tell mom I love her"

and hang. the fuck. up.

It's really hard to deal with hard-liners. It's probably a conflict that will bubble behind your boundaries for a long time- but parents love their kids. And sooner or later, most accept that keeping their traps shut and keeping the peace is a fair price to pay to be allowed to see those children.
posted by Blisterlips at 11:20 AM on November 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

I had a really hard time with my parents when I was in my 20s -- I was a lesbian, they were born-again Christians, and we're all pretty hard-headed. There were times I cut off contact with them, and there were times they cut off contact with me. It was extremely painful, but fortunately we were able to reconcile before my mom passed away a few years ago. [I'm 50 now.]

I agree with all that has been said above -- it is hard to set boundaries with your parents but I think it is really important. Some books I've found helpful over the years are Toxic Parents, Emotional Blackmail, and Cutting Loose.

My heart goes out to you.
posted by elmay at 12:03 PM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Try to see this as a step forward in your relationship with your parents. The relationship has to undergo a major shift, from parent-child to something more like peer-peer. This shift may be difficult for some controlling parents (and unfortunately impossible for a small percentage) but it is healthy and normal. It's also healthy and normal for there to be some sadness and probably anger on both sides during the transition.

It happens when you stop trying to get their approval and start presenting yourself as you are. Since they are now peers rather than parents in the sense that they were when you were young, their approval is not necessary, although it may feel like it is. Just inform them of your decision, and discuss it or don't as you prefer, just as you would with a close friend or sibling who disapproved.

I had a similar experience. My parents are Orthodox Jews, as was I until my early 20s. The turning point in our relationship was when I stopped being coy and just came out and told them that I was no longer a believer. They were hurt and disappointed and tried to talk me out of it, but eventually they saw there was no use trying to change me, and I would say we have a better relationship now.

When I moved in with a girlfriend a couple years later, my parents expressed their disapproval and my dad suggested that we get married first instead, but again, they knew that it wasn't up to them because they could just tell that I wasn't going to cave. (That girlfriend and I ultimately broke up, but I don't regret moving in with her fwiw.)

I agree with the others that it's your responsibility to take reasonable steps to protect your partner from your father's pushiness. That goes back to the changing nature of your relationship with your parents -- your father should no longer play that role in even your life, let alone your partner's. Set a boundary and stick to it.
posted by callmejay at 12:21 PM on November 16, 2011

Here's what worked for me: "I love you. I understand this is not the decision you would make, but it's the decision I've made. I'm not expecting your approval, but this is not up for discussion."

This is exactly what I said to my parents when I had this discussion with them a little over three years ago. That was one of the hardest conversations I have ever had, but I survived it.

You have to let go of the idea of getting their approval in order to insist upon boundaries.

This is EXACTLY right. I know someone who got married because she was so afraid of the disapproval of her family, and she subsequently had to get divorced when the guy turned out to be a layabout and a jerk. You have GOT to live your own life, for you, and for no one else, and that means disappointing your family. They will get over it.

For what it's worth, two of my three siblings have since gone on to tell our parents that they're living with their significant other, and the third is hopefully not too far behind. No doubt it's all my fault, but each announcement has been received with less and less drama. Parents get used to disappointment.

Also, your partner is exactly right that it's your job to referee between him and your family. That IS your job. You can start by setting boundaries that punish your parents if they cross them - for example, "Dad, you are not allowed to lecture Partner about our living situation. If you do, we will be leaving/hang up/not be coming home for Christmas/whatever. This is our decision and you must respect it, even if you don't approve." Then hold fast. Your dad has nothing to lose if your partner doesn't like him, but he has a lot to lose if he understands that it'll cost him you as well.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 5:39 PM on November 16, 2011

To paraphrase the words of the fabulous gangsta mom from The Wire, you could tell them: "You brought me into the world. Now I have to live in it."
posted by Eshkol at 5:56 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

After writing my answer below, I came to this thought: Who cares if your father's bark is worse than his bite? You have the trump card. He can bark and bite, and you can leave. You can insist that he choose between being civil and respectful, or losing your presence in his life.

You can train him, but first you have to stop rewarding him for bad behaviour.

Book recommendations:
  • Don't Shoot the Dog - positive ways to manage that increasing conflict
  • Leaving the Fold - very useful for recovery from fundamentalist upbringing and the fall-out from loss of faith, and perhaps helpful with that mysterious lingering guilt

I'm not clear on whether or not your parents know that you've left the faith.

Until you tell them that, the pressure is all on your partner. Until they know, they think they are protecting their Christian daughter from an unequally yoked relationship.

You have to let go of the idea of getting their approval in order to insist upon boundaries.

Yes, I'll second this as well. The game has changed.

Your parents can learn to live with your loss of faith, but they can't do it until they know about it and have time to process it. My parents were less strict evangelicals than your parents seem to be, but I was surprised how deeply it hit them — my father even went to his pastor for individual sessions because he was concerned that he had failed as head of the household due to my loss of faith.

You need to give them a chance to process the Big Change before they can come around to support the Other Changes.

Go see them (not on Thanksgiving or Christmas). Tell them you need to tell them something important, and that you are nervous to tell them because you really value the closeness in your family and you never want to lose that. Tell them you are no longer Christian, and refuse to discuss the reasons why. Tell them that you have the utmost respect for them and their beliefs, but you no longer share them. That you want to find a way to keep a close relationship with them despite that difference.

This is tricky ground. As evangelicals, they want — no, NEED — to convince you. As no longer evangelical, you have no stake in whether or not their faith ever changes. Surprisingly, your position is the one that requires more stubbornness. Resist the fight. Your goal is to keep the peace.

Use the language you have in common. On your reasons for sharing your lack of faith: integrity, honesty. On your relationship with your partner: love and cherish, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness. Long-term commitment, children.
posted by sadmadglad at 8:16 PM on November 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was in a similar situation with Mr. ThaBombShelterSmith, minus the evangelical part. My father was very much against us moving in together before we were married (which we had been planning on doing anyway, just not right then). My mom was okay with it but she didn't want to stand up to my father because he kept ranting about "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free", as if he didn't actually believe that my now husband would ever propose to me (even though he admitted that he liked the guy) and would just use me for sex. I told him that his thinking was so backwards that it insulted my intelligence. I told him that you raised me to think for myself, that I'd never move in with someone that would treat me like shit, and that his fear was totally baseless BECAUSE he raised me not to get with someone who would do that to me. I assume that you think the same way about your boyfriend, so you should vocalize this or something like it to your family.

Eventually, my mom basically played an Inception move on him; turning him onto the idea of us moving in together to save money for our future together and so on and so forth. In the end, my now-husband approached my father and asked him if we could move in together, and he said yes (although I could tell that he was seething the whole time). We were staying at each other's apartments for the last year and a half anyway while I was finishing up school as it was, I just didn't really talk about it in great detail. They knew we spent a lot of time together, so it shouldn't have been a shock when we asked. My mom also thought that my dad would pull the financial rug out from me (paying for my cheap shitty apartment while I was in school), so I got a job while I went to school so I would not be tied to them any longer. I was the same age as you are now when this was happening, so if you are an adult, not financially tied to them, and feel like this is the right thing to do, then tell them so and do it. Sure, they'll be unhappy with you for a while, but it will pass.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 6:20 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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