Dealing with difficult relationships, Part I

Dealing with difficult relationships, Part I March 26, 2012

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.

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