Dealing with difficult relationships, Part I

I received a lot of grateful comments after the posts I wrote on coming out as an atheist, or, if the situation warrants it, on dealing with life in the closet. One theme that came out again and again was the difficulties of dealing with relationships with religious relatives. And this isn’t a problem only atheists face: I’ve actually met Christians who are either progressive or simply describe themselves as “spiritual” but were raised in evangelical or fundamentalist families and deal with these same problems.

Given that it seems I’m not alone in struggling with difficult relationships with highly religious relatives – in my case my parents – I thought I’d share some tips I’ve been given along the way. I’m going to share two tips here and plan to make this an ongoing series as I find more to add.

If you’d like to add additional tips that you’ve learned along the way, either in a comment or by emailing me (see my “about” tab for my email address), I may incorporate additional ideas (giving credit where credit is due, of course) in future posts on this topic. Maybe crowd sourcing and sharing ideas can help make all of our lives better as we work through difficult relationships.

1. The Three Sentence Rule

Someone actually gave me this tip on the No Longer Quivering forum, though I don’t remember who it was. The basic idea is that if you have something you feel you need to share and know it probably won’t go over well and don’t want to deal with all the crap, you use a three sentence format like this. Here are some examples:

“Mom, I have something to tell you that we’re not going to agree on. I’m not going to church anymore. That’s my decision, and it’s not up for discussion, but I wanted you to know.”

“Mom, I have some bad news and I’m asking you not to freak out. I’m an atheist, which means I don’t believe in God. I feel better now that you know, let’s not talk about it any further.”

The key is to quickly share whatever it is, and then explain that it’s not up for discussion. This technique can be used to deal with overbearing or controlling relatives when dealing with issues way beyond religion. This, for example:

“Mom, I have some bad news, but please just listen. I’m moving to California in three months. I have made this decision with much thought, and it’s not up for discussion or debate.”

Now obviously, this tip only works for specific circumstances – like telling your Catholic mother that you’re not going to baptize your new baby or coming out as an atheist altogether – but it can nevertheless be an effective way of sharing a piece of information without having to deal with immediate emotional repercussions. But what, you ask, if the other person won’t just leave the conversation at that and insists on discussing it with you? That brings me to my next tip.

2. Setting Boundaries

I suppose I already knew this one, but when a therapist pointed it out directly a few months ago it clicked in a way it hadn’t before: When you find yourself in a relationship that is difficult or causes emotional pain, you can set boundaries about what you will or will not talk about. For example:

Mom, when we talk about church, it always ends up painful for both of us. I don’t think we should talk about church anymore. If you bring it up again in the future, I’ll remind you that I said this.

Mom, I know you disagree with my decision not to raise my children in the church, but I don’t think talking about it at this point is productive. So let’s just avoid this topic in the future, okay?

It takes two people to have a conversation. If one person refuses to participate, it won’t take place. If needed, you can just keep repeating “I’m not going to talk about this” or even simply walk out of the room.


These two tips have helped ease my relationship with my parents, and have made visits a lot less stressful. Knowing that I can put certain topics off limits, or that I can tell them something I don’t like without letting it immediately becoming a situation, makes me a lot more comfortable and makes me feel a lot more in control of what goes on around me.

Stop Stressing Out and Give Your Kid a Snuggle
The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
Convention on the Rights of the Child: Articles 1-5
Monogamy Isn't Biblical, It's Roman
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Conuly

    In some communities I’m in, a variation of this is known as the “Bean Dip” approach. As in

    Them: Why haven’t you started your 2 week old on rice cereal yet? Your baby must be starving!*
    You: My pediatrician recommended we continue exclusive breastfeeding. Wow, this bean dip is yummy, can I have some more?
    Them: Well, I didn’t raise MY kids like that.
    You: Mmm-hmm. I’m not kidding about this bean dip. What’d you put in it, anyway?

    If you discuss the matter with them at all, that’s sending the message that the topic is, in fact, up for discussion. If you defend your views, that’s saying that there’s some room for debate there. And mostly, there’s really not. So you change the subject, immediately and firmly.

    Of course, with the truly persistent you’ll have to say clearly something like “I’m not willing to discuss this at this time” or, ultimately, leave the room entirely. It can’t be helped. But I know from experience that if you simply continue to leave every time so-and-so persists in this, they eventually get the hint. It’s how I got my mother to stop randomly touching me.

    (See, I have an exaggerated startle reflex, and it was a lot worse as a teen than it is now. It’s bad enough that one time I actually broke my mother’s nose by jumping up suddenly when she tickled me. Got her in the face with the back of my head. She blamed me for this for years, probably because she refused to learn that what she was doing was, aside from rude, actually hazardous to her health. But she thought it was funny to run her fingers up my back suddenly and see me jump, things like that. Finally I started leaving every single time she did that, and eventually she stopped and now denies ever having done so in the first place. It only took a few months. I love my mother, and in many ways she’s a great person, but in some ways she’s just not. That’s one of them, for sure.)

    * I picked this example because I think very few of us start babies on solids quite that early, so it’s less likely to be controversial than other common parenting topics.

    • blotzphoto

      Is it necessary to provide your own bean dip if none is present? Would hummus work just as well? ;) I kid, that’s exactly the tactic I use when discussing stay at home dad issues with the clueless.

  • valleycat1

    I call this the ‘broken record’ tactic. Once you’ve made it clear you’ve made a decision & the topic isn’t up for further discussion, you pick a short response that fits, then just keep repeating that to every comment or question the other person raises. This works as well with toddlers as it does with adults.

    • Elin

      The broken record approach is good! I often use it myself when people cannot seem to either listen to my reasons for making a certain choice or when they simply fail to understand what I say despite having tried to make it clear several times. Then I just close down and deliver the same answer. A classic one in my case is the fact that my relatives cannot get why I do not have a driver’s license and why I do not want to have a driver’s license. I now only say: No, I have not started to practice driving. I have no intention of getting a driver’s license right now. The day I choose to get a driver’s license I will inform you and you will be free to offer me any tips or encouragement then.

    • Froborr


      My fiancee and I have been engaged for over two years, and are both IMMENSELY sick of people asking when we are going to get married. I typically answer “Precisely one year after the last time someone asks us that question.”

  • Jimbo

    Funny, I’m on the opposite end of this with my dear wife. I have to admit it drives me a bit crazy. What happens is she will make some outrageous claim like, “vaccines are unsafe and ineffective” or “iridology is scientifically proven,” “individual colors have their own vibrations that even the blind can detect” but when I ask her for some proof or justification for those statements she replies that she doesn’t feel that she has to. If I try to point out the evidence to her she simply refuses to listen. In essence she has said that this is the way it is and won’t discuss it. Harmony is maintained by never bringing up those topics. Still drives me a bit crazy.

  • Adele

    The second tip makes a lot of sense to me, but the first one does not, and in fact, I feel it contradicts the second. In the second tip you say, “If you bring it up again I’ll remind you that I said this.” But in the first tip, you are the one bringing up the topic. I think it is unfair, unreasonable, and if you are talking to me at least, unrealistic, to drop a bombshell on someone and then tell the person she is not allowed to respond at all. If you don’t want to talk to me about something, then don’t tell me about it. I think a better tip would be the second tip first and then for the second tip, if you feel you *must* inform someone of something and you *cannot* tolerate any conversation on the topic *at all* then send a letter or email. Everything does not have to be said face to face.


    • Rosa

      The reason for the first tip is that for some big topics – sexuality, religion, having/not having children – the question is never going to come up on its own, and if you don’t make a declaration, you’ll be stuck with thousands of small conversations, which is a lot harder all around.

      Like: we’re not Christian. So we don’t go to church, we don’t celebrate Christmas (obviously Libby has made a different choice here), we don’t celebrate Easter, we don’t go to Mass, we didn’t get our son christened, we don’t send him to Sunday school, we would/will not get married in a church…with my family, when any of these topics come up, since I dropped the bomb on them, I can just say “because we’re not Christian, mom” and that’s usually the end of it. My partner, who won’t come out to his parents as an atheist, we have to deal with this stuff over and over and over and over.

      And it’s not like, when you have a topic you are so unable to talk about that you have to “come out” to your parents about it, you don’t already know what they have to say about it. They’ve had decades to say their side.

  • MadGastronomer

    And this isn’t a problem only atheists face: I’ve actually met Christians who are either progressive or simply describe themselves as “spiritual” but were raised in evangelical or fundamentalist families and deal with these same problems.

    As do those who convert to another religion entirely. Buddhism, Islam, Paganism, whatever. My Christian (mostly Catholic) relatives mostly ignore my paganism as hard as they can. One of my grandmothers, though, referred to it as “that cult [MG] belongs to” right up until she died.

  • Karen

    Then there is The Look. I can, under certain circumstances, produce The Look. I can’t reproduce it in front of a mirror, so I have no idea what kind of contortion my face gets into, but extreme perturbation brings it on. It’s been known to make people who work for me quail and even people I work for back off. I joke that it freezes water. But I only know I’ve done it by people’s reaction to it.

    Husband and I are childfree. I am an only child, my mother lived vicariously through me, and had planned for years to have at least three, and maybe more, grandchildren. The pressure started as soon as I married. She begged, pleaded, threatened, guilted, and did everything in her power to make us produce grandchildren for her. But I suffered from moderate to severe depression in my childbearing years, and even during periods of (fragile) normality I was NOT going to perturb my brain further by bringing children into the equation. It would not be fair to any of us.

    On one visit to my parents, my mother decided to try a new tactic. She mentioned a neighborhood party she’d attended, and the partiers being mostly older people, the talk had turned to grandchildren; she had to admit she didn’t have any. “And So-and-so said,” she continued, “what are they waiting for?”

    The first thought that went through my head was, who is this jerk who thinks my family planning should be any business of his? I was really annoyed by the notion that a perfect stranger should feel qualified to have such an opinion. Apparently my face contorted into The Look.

    My mother never raised the subject of grandchildren again.

  • James Sweet

    Excellent, excellent advice. The only thing that I would add is that you’ll need to adjust for the particular family dynamic in question. With my Mormon parents, for example, our family culture tends to be very conflict-averse — so merely getting pissed off when they tried to talk about me coming back to church was very effective at establishing boundaries. In other families, that could have backfired badly…

  • Jodi

    My sister pointed me here because she and I are dealing with some difficult relationships since leaving the religion of our upbringing. Thank you for discussing this–it helps a lot to hear from other people who are finding ways to navigate some tricky waters.

    One of the things that’s been helpful for me is to tell some people (especially closer friends and family) that I’d be happy to discuss my beliefs with them if they’re willing to demonstrate their respect for me by reading a few books that I recommend. With some relationships, I didn’t feel comfortable shutting down conversation completely. At the same time, it seemed pointless to get into any kind of discussion with someone who only intended to prove to me that I was wrong. This is a gentle way of discouraging conversation with people who aren’t willing to put that effort into understanding me, while at the same time keeping an opening for those who are. So far, only one friend has taken me up on that offer. After reading the books I gave her, she decided it was no longer important to her to talk in-depth with me about my beliefs.

    Thanks again for passing along this good advice.