Ask Richard: Caught Between Jewish Parents and a Christian Boyfriend: Painful Choices Ahead

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hello, I have read some of your advice letters and they have been really helpful, however I still need help! I am seeking advice about my relationship. I am 18 years old and turning 19 in August, I will be going to college in August also. I am financially dependent on my parents as well as my boyfriend who will be attending the same college as me. My bf and I have been dating all through high school and we love each other very much. My parents have not approved of our relationship since day one. My parents are very religious Jews. I don’t like religion, probably because it has been forced on me, and caused many problems in my life. My bf is Christian. My mother and step father who take care of me have threatened to not pay for college if I continue my relationship. They have also told me that I will have to choose him or my family. My mother has told me that I will ruin myself by losing my virginity to him and that I will be a waste and not be pure for a Jewish man. My mother is making me feel so depressed all the time. She says she is only making me decide because she loves me. I don’t want to lose my parents, but I can’t stand to want to be with a family who puts religion over love. PLEASE help me.


Dear Judith,

“She says she is only making me decide because she loves me.”

No, she’s not doing this because she loves you. She’s doing this because she wants to control you. People sometimes confuse those two things.

If this were about Christian parents threatening to defund and disown their daughter because she was dating a Jewish boy, what your parents are doing would be just as hatefully bigoted. This is a clash of values often seen between generations: Parental control and obedience to tradition versus a young adult’s individual freedom and personal integrity. You and your parents do have love for each other, but because that is pushed to the side, this is going to be painful.

But your parents’ bigotry is not your most pressing issue. The very first thing you should do is to sit down with your Christian boyfriend and together make a careful, thorough, and honest assessment of how he feels about your views on religion, and how you feel about his. You love each other very much, but that does not necessarily mean that you both have fully and deeply thought out all the implications.

I strongly recommend that the two of you see a relationship counselor such as a Marriage and Family Therapist or a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Make certain that he or she is able to remain neutral about religious matters even though that’s going to be a major part of your discussions. One place to start looking is The Secular Therapist Project.

The last thing you would want to happen would be to endure the tension and indignity of hiding your relationship with your boyfriend during college, or to suffer the heartbreak of being disowned and shunned by your family, only to later have you or him make similar my-way-or-the-highway demands over his religion.

Mixed couples, where one is religious and one is not, often find ways to reconcile their differences as they escalate their relationship from talking, through dating, into a sexual relationship, and even to the prospect of marriage and the can-of-worms of a mixed-belief wedding ceremony. At each step, they’re more likely to reach an impasse over their religious differences, but if they survive those, the major, major deal-breaker is children.

Couples who have managed to stay comfortable enough with each other’s differences on religion often see that live-and-let-live acceptance suddenly evaporate when one or both think, “What? Raise my kid with your beliefs or views? Absolutely not!” Some couples can resolve even this, but it is far more difficult and unlikely. Your parents’ adamant intolerance of a non-Jewish partner for their daughter is a case in point. Don’t assume that you and your boyfriend will be immune to this. Find out before you get to that point.

You have not mentioned your boyfriend’s parents or family. If that’s not an issue, great. If it is possibly an issue, it could double all the complexity of this whole problem.

You said that you “don’t like religion,” but that does not necessarily mean you’re an atheist. At eighteen going on nineteen, I understand that that can be in flux, an ongoing process that could go in any direction. So in order to know as clearly as you can where you and your boyfriend stand, you need to know as clearly as you can where you stand on Judaism and Christianity. Until that is clear and stabilized for you, you should keep all of your plans with him tentative and not irreversible.

This whole experience with your parents is probably going to leave you with quite a lot of resentment, guilt, and hurt. So beyond using a counselor to help to clarify things with your boyfriend, a secular oriented counselor for yourself can help you to sort all that out so that it does not fester and grow worse in you. You’ll do better in life without a heavy burden of unhealed bitterness.

As for your parent’s ultimatum, the choices I can see are all difficult. I can only recommend the first one either by itself or maybe in some kind of combination with one of the other three:

1. You can continue to negotiate with them, appealing to reason, to tolerance, and to the importance of keeping a respectful love rather than a controlling love central in your relationship with them. From your brief letter, I have no idea if that will have any traction at all. You have more information and insight on this than anyone else, but you still might not be able to predict that accurately.

Consider finding someone who can mediate between you, your parents, and your boyfriend. Be careful about using a rabbi. One might be very much able to help reconcile things, while another might exacerbate the situation.

2. You can politely decline your parent’s demands and openly remain with your boyfriend. If they follow through with their threats, you can get yourself a job, live frugally with your boyfriend (if that still works out), save every penny, apply for a student loan, take your classes only as fast as you can afford them, and slowly claw your way through it to an eventual career, eventual financial independence, and eventuuuaaalll freedom from debt. You’ll do all of this with whatever level of sadness is caused by whatever level of disapproval, distancing, or even zero-contact shunning your parents choose to do. Please read this other post I’ve written about keeping your heart at least open to love for your parents even if they withdraw their love for you; keeping your side of the door unlocked, even if they’ve closed it for now.

For all that, you’ll have only one compensation, something that is rare in the world, because it often has to be bought with this level of hardship and pain. You’ll have your integrity. Whether or not that will be compensation enough for you, I cannot know.

3. You can try deceiving them, hiding or minimizing what they know about your relationship with your boyfriend, so that they will continue to fund your college, and they will continue a civil, although less than genuine relationship with you. Getting a college education will probably speed up your eventually becoming financially independent from them, and free you from all the controlling that that entails.

But deceiving them will also be an enormous emotional strain.

You will evade, pretend, equivocate, and even lie. They will suspect, pry, snoop, and even spy. Deception tends to need more deception to avoid detection. Weaving the tangled web and all that. Some or even much of the joy of your relationship with your boyfriend could be spoiled.

4. You can give in to their demands, break up with your boyfriend, get your schooling fully paid for, and then get the career and the independence and all that. Then you can decide if you want to start walking your own path, or perhaps by then you’ll just want to settle down with a nice Jewish boy whom your parents like and raise a family just like the one you survived.

That of course is not the only variation of this option. Giving in to their pressure does not necessarily mean you will always have to be their slavish puppet, and your relationship with your boyfriend could end because of reasons of your own, even if your parents assume you’re acquiescing.

Judith, I’m sorry if all this blunt explication sounds cold or uncaring. I certainly feel deep caring and compassion for you, and sadness that you’ll probably have to face at least some of the difficulty that I have described. Realism is the most accurate, but not the most comfortable way to navigate through the real world. I wish I could come up with a simple, clear, obviously preferable solution that will surely work. Maybe you, our your boyfriend, or a reader here can find a better answer than any I have imagined.

Keep one thing in mind, you’re not alone. There are millions of young people who are in exactly the same predicament. Find them, band together, and share their hard-won bits of wisdom and their surprisingly effective encouragement. If things become difficult, be disappointed, but never be discouraged. Always believe in your own intrinsic goodness, and your ability to make a situation better. Endure, then rebound, then thrive.

I get so, so many letters with the same basic dilemma you have presented, and they all have a triple question hanging over them:

Who will own your life, what are you willing to pay, and if you don’t take ownership of it now, how long can you wait? There are no universally “right” answers to these. There are only answers that are right for you.

With great affection and respect,

Related Posts:
Ask Richard: Young Atheist’s Minister Father Threatens to Withhold College Tuition

Ask Richard: Clarity and Honesty in a Relationship With a Christian

Ask Richard: Orthodox Jewish Parents Block Young Agnostic from Attending University of Edinburgh

Ask Richard: Former Orthodox Jewish Atheist Endures Bigotry and Rejection by His Parents

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.</em

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • jesuswithoutbaggage

    This sounds like incredibly good advice!

  • pRinzler

    Once again, Richard, you’ve laid it all out just as it should be. Your last paragraph, (“Who will own your life . . . .”) sums it up. The answers for your young correspondent must be hers, but, she live with the consequences of her choice. Camus and Sartre would be nodding their heads.

  • atheisticallyyours

    Excellent response! I wonder how many more “cases” there are like this!

  • rovinrockhound

    As usual, Richard’s advice is spot on. I would like to add something to think about. Making these incredible sacrifices to stay with your boyfriend might lead both of you to try to keep the relationship going well past the point where it should have ended, out of a sense of duty (for example, neither one of you can bring yourselves to to break things up because you gave up so much for the relationship) or to avoid having your parents think they’ve won. Relationships end for all kinds of reasons, and once you are out of your parents’ control you’ll find lots of new things you did not know about each other (that you might love or that might be deal-breakers). I hope that you manage to stay together and go on to live a wonderful life as a couple, but statistics suggest that it is unlikely even without the added strain of this situation.
    I don’t think you should “give in” to your parents without some major, major discussion (for one, you might find a different partner later on that doesn’t fit their expectations and your mother is not necessarily going to be more accepting of a different non- nice Jewish boy that she is of this one) but there are huge risks in giving up their financial support for college (things are tough for recent grads right now even on the traditional path) and in being stuck in a relationship that you can’t get out of without incredible guilt and emotional turmoil.
    I would suggest very seriously talking to your boyfriend about your future, being overly realistic about the situation. Crunch the numbers – is financial independence even possible? what is the financial aid like at your college if you have no parental support? Then find a mediator, as Richard suggests, and talk to your parents. While in college, get a job that gives you relevant work experience, and live as frugally as you can. You are likely not going to have your parents to cushion a fall, so plan ahead.

  • chicago dyke

    Judith, i skimmed down to say this to you b/c i don’t even have to read Richard’s answer, which i am sure will be good. but gosh! been there, done that. please take my advice.

    get out. forget about them. move on. you choose your friends; unfortunately you don’t choose your family.

    my mother burned me, hard. i could write a whole blog post about it. but trust me; religion, race, whatever… there is no important or real reason to take your “mother” more seriously than people who actually love you.

    you know what is right. you love your partner. if he is true and good, he will be with you, all his life. your mother putting a fairy tale in front of what makes you happy is bullshit. never mind her. be an adult, make a life for yourself, and move on.

    dang, i so want to hug you right now. i have totally been here. it sucks. but you can move on.

  • rovinrockhound

    This letter, either originally or after Richard’s rewrite, is too vague to make any educated guesses as to what the details of the situation are. We are reading it in the light of our own stories and replying accordingly. Richard’s advice is applicable regardless – only she can know what she’s willing to pay (and when) to own her own life.

    She could be one half of a couple who are truly, deeply in love with each other and who would remain together forever if it were not for her family’s interference. Those people are rare but they exist – two of my college friends got married last year, in their mid 20s, after dating for 14 years. It sounds like you might be in the same camp (if so, congrats!). If that’s her case and her family is so callous that they would actually throw her out if she stays with her partner, then a more drastic move like you suggest could be appropriate.

    The way I’m reading the letter (and by assuming this background story I don’t mean to imply that her situation is any less real or that she’s any less distraught), she could be a high school senior somewhere in the US who is very much in love with her boyfriend of four years. Her parents are conservative and overprotective, and her mother is terrified that her little girl is leaving home and that this boy is going to have sex with her and then break her heart (sounds like my mom). Maybe her parents don’t know him too well and they definitely don’t know his family well enough – they want their daughter to marry into a family like them, maybe even one they already know (hence nice Jewish boy). Except for religion – almost everyone is Catholic – this is how it is in the pocket of Latin American society I’m from. I suspect that her parents wouldn’t be threatening to cut off college support if he were going to a school far away. If they’ve grown up somewhat isolated and are typical overscheduled kids from the suburbs, their perspective on life (and potentially their relationship) could change quite dramatically once they get to college. If this is the case, I doubt that her family would actually go through with their threats if she chooses him over college (I’m not saying she’s lying. They are probably very real threats right now but these imaginary parents are highly unlikely to let her forgo college for any reason). If this is closer to her situation, then choosing boyfriend over family support (if it ends up being such a strict dichotomy once her parents have to go through with their threats) is less wise.

    Either way, what her parents are doing is awful and she should, at some point, move away (not just physically) from them. When and how, though, depends on the details.

  • FlightedChemist

    I’m living through a similar situation, but made the unfortunate choice to try to hide things for a very long time. Two years in, I’ve only just had the courage to come out to my brother about my atheism and about just how serious my relationship was. Living a double-life is rough. It’s a constant battle to not let cats out of various bags. What Richard said about prying, snooping, spying? Frighteningly true. I live 250 miles away from my parents, and every time they visit it’s a frustrating, elaborate show. Hide the naughty drawer, hang the cross on the wall, traipse to Mass with them on Sunday, obedient atheist boyfriend in tow. Except to them, he’s not actually an atheist- just an “undecided non-religious” which somehow isn’t as bad. That still doesn’t prevent lectures like “What of the kids? How will you raise good Catholic kids?” To those, we respond with smiles and nods and say “We know it’ll be tough but we’ll do our best!” when we know damn well that our kids aren’t setting foot in the church that led my mom to proclaim that she’d rather her children be dead than turn out atheist or gay, or that had me nearly suicidal at 21 because I thought God had killed my grandma to punish me because I masturbated.

    Don’t hide it. Don’t let them push you around. If I’d have stood on my own when I was 18, I wouldn’t be having a problem standing up to my family at 24. Move away- go to college in a different state even if it scares you. Establish healthy distance, establish boundaries. I never realized that one can have a healthy adult relationship with one’s parents without daily phone calls and texts and constant check-ins. When I was in college, I talked to my mother on the phone more hours a day than I talked to any roommates or friends and she’s really struggling with the distance now- we talk once or twice a month, and that’s it. Cut the cord as soon as you can manage.

    It’s okay to be different from your parents. You don’t owe them fealty for them raising you- though they’ll try to make you feel differently. It’s taken me over a year of counseling to realize that. You can stand as different, knowing that you still love them even if they’re not accepting of your life or partner or job or religion. They love you too- just in a weird, twisted, tradition-clouded way. I’ve seen my dad and brother (even with eyes wide open about who we are as an atheist couple) slowly come to accept the man I have chosen as my partner, even if my mom hasn’t yet. Time and patience and yes, even twisted, religion and tradition laced “love” will heal most wounds. Things might never be the same with your parents, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    Hang in there. With honesty and patience, the tide can turn for the better sooner rather than later.

  • Anna

    I am financially dependent on my parents as well as my boyfriend

    This strikes me as an area of concern. Why is she dependent on her boyfriend for money? That seems odd, especially given the fact that she is a high school senior and the two of them are not living together. This young woman needs to take a long, hard look at her situation and take steps towards financial independence. She could very well find herself in a position where she has no monetary support from either her parents or her boyfriend. Even if he is willing to support her now, that may not be the case in the future.

  • Ewan

    Or option 5, threaten them right back – “Well folks, you could cut me off when I’m eighteen and vulnerable, but you’ll lose a daughter, die alone, and never once meet your grandchildren. Your call.”