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.
“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,
Ask Richard: Young Atheist’s Minister Father Threatens to Withhold College Tuition
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Ask Richard: Former Orthodox Jewish Atheist Endures Bigotry and Rejection by His Parents