Note: Writers’ names are changed to increase their privacy.
I’m in a bit of a quandary. My wife, a Christian-lite, has a desire to want to raise our newborn (first child) daughter in a church environment. We have a few years yet before our daughter would know any better but the discussion has begun. She’s not a regular churchgoer herself but feels it would be important for the fellowship aspect of having a so-called “positive” group of people for influence.
Though agnostic, I’m not adamantly opposed. It’s important to my wife and she’s important to me. I understand compromises are of utmost importance in a healthy marriage. However, I have stipulated to her that I will not allow for our daughter to partake in an environment I feel will brainwash her and alienate her from me so we must be in agreement with the church. As a recovering Catholic, I want my daughter to be able to discern for herself what she wants to believe.
In trying to support my wife’s needs, I started researching various non-denominational churches and learned more about the Unitarian Universalists. For a religious sect, they have very liberal leanings and are not Christian-specific but rather encompass a wide arrange of believers in some great deity. I feel comfortable giving them a shot.
My wife said she tried this church, but her overbearing formal Pentecostal mother cried and pleaded with her not to go because she felt they were the anti-Christ and certainly not Christian. My wife ceased going due to this pressure. This all occurred before I entered her life.
My wife leans towards wanting to find a Christian-based liberal church as a result and I’ve really never come across one that sounds acceptable to me up to this point.
My request for advice is this: If I am to be supportive of my wife’s needs and desires and feel that the UU’s may potentially be the best compromise, how could I convince her to give it a shot knowing her history with her mother? I suggested we just not tell her mother as it’s our business but they have very few secrets if any between them and I could see her mother wanting to join us from time to time or at a minimum, ask all about which church it is and look it up on the internet. We could lie and have a backup, but why? Should we worry about her mother’s paranoia as she is ultimately a good person and means well? She is one stubborn lady and they fight often. As strained as their relationship is, it’s hard to want to put up a further divide between them and I do not want to be the cause for a potential demise in their relationship.
Thanks in advance.
This is a wider issue than a difference in religious preferences. It’s about your wife needing to decide if she is going to be an adult or a child. I say this with great respect for her. This is a common and difficult problem. But if this central question is not resolved, I’m sure there will be many other contentious issues besides what church to attend. If she’s not doing it already, your wife’s mother will encroach with more and more attempts to control your wife, and through her, you.
When she married, your wife was making a statement that she is an adult, and that her primary relationship is with another adult, her husband, not her parents. You and she seem to have an equal and respectful partnership, and that is good.
But based on your letter, she seems to be stuck in the kind of relationship with her mother that one would expect of an adolescent, a constant struggle of freedom versus control. You say that they fight often. Such fights are only happening because your wife is still responding as if her mother has authority over her. Neither of them seem to know how to have an adult-to-adult relationship; they’re still operating as parent and child.
Your wife is giving her mother power and authority, and her mother is not going to spontaneously relinquish it. Your wife will have to assertively stop giving her power away, and demand the respect she’s due as an adult. In her own words she’ll need to say something to the effect, “Mom, it’s sad for you that you disapprove of the church that I’m attending, but that’s my choice to make, not yours. If you keep giving me grief, then I won’t be coming over to take it. Think about it. Goodbye for now.”
She should keep her statement brief and to the point, with a steady, businesslike tone of voice. Do not get into another back-and-forth argument, which only adds credibility to the idea that her mother’s opinion is authority. Nope, it’s just an opinion, and your wife’s opinion must be the final authority in her life, not others’.
I acknowledge that this is not easy. Your wife is up against a formidable personality, and she will need encouragement and rehearsal. She can do this with your backstage support, but it has to be her taking this stand, not you. Even though the two of you have made the agreement together, she’ll need to say things like “the church I’m attending,” not “we’re attending,” “my choice,” not “our choice.” If you are mentioned in her assertive stand against her mother, then her mother can attribute it to your influence rather than her daughter’s own choice, and your wife’s emancipation will not be as clear and complete. Remember, this is about much more than the choice of a church. This is about your wife taking ownership of her life and her will. She may have to assert herself on several other issues before her mother learns her new role as fellow adult instead of parent.
I agree with you that trying to deceive her mother would be a mistake on several levels, not the least of which would be to perpetuate the child-parent relationship. People only sneak around people who have power and authority over them. Equals tell each other what they intend in a straight forward fashion.
As far as deepening their divide and causing the demise of their relationship, the relationship as it is is already doomed anyway. It cannot continue to increasingly collide with your wife’s relationship with you and eventually with your child. If she can successfully affirm her position as an adult with her mother now, it will be easier for both of them to adjust to their new roles as adults together. It will be challenging and will require a great deal of patience, but putting it off only increases the likelihood that the final showdown will be so destructive and hurtful that they might be estranged permanently.
Before she starts to assert herself about this, go to some UU meetings together, so that you both have a clear understanding of what it is like, and a firm confidence that this is indeed what will serve your needs. That way your wife can present going to UU as a fait accompli to her mother, rather than inadvertently slipping into what might sound like asking for permission.
Some time later, after the adult-to-adult relationship is beginning to grow, the two of you might invite her mother to join you at the UU meetings as a guest, gently challenging her to not pre-judge and condemn something about which she knows nothing. Being able to participate in your lives, including her grandchild, is the carrot to reward her for treating all of you civilly and respectfully.
I want to refer you to two previous letters that I have answered. In one, the parents are behaving like children, and in the other the mother is just being downright nuts. But both have more examples of how to respond calmly as an adult, stating clearly and briefly what kind of treatment that you expect, and using your company as a reward and your absence as a deterrent to establish appropriate adult-to-adult relationships.
I wish both of you a very happy life together with your child, and I hope that your wife’s mother can be a positive part as well.
Thursday in Part Two, I will respond to a letter from another person with a mother-in-law conflict, but with a different set of circumstances.
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