I'm fighting a religious war with my mother-in-law

I'm a Unitarian Universalist and she's a fundamentalist: Can this kinship be saved?

Published November 10, 2008 10:46AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

Just for the record, lest anyone was alarmed by the phrase "basal cell carcinoma" (or just grossed out, which would be understandable!) in Thursday's column, all indications are that this gross thing on my ear is totally harmless. Plus I got to visit the offices of a plastic surgeon for the first time yesterday. Wow, was that interesting. The kinds of people you see in the office of a plastic surgeon! You should go sit in the lobby of a plastic surgeon sometime. It's strange and interesting. You look at each person and think, Hmm, what's she getting? And, uh, what's he getting?

Dear Cary,

I need mother-in-law advice. I'd like to start by saying that I love and respect my mother-in-law and want to have a positive relationship with her. She can, however, be a challenge to deal with.

I was born and raised a Unitarian Universalist, and have continued down this path as an adult. Like most UUs, my political, religious and social views are decidedly liberal, and I do not consider myself a Christian, though I wholeheartedly embrace Jesus' message of love and tolerance for all. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, is very conservative and attends a "Bible-based" (her words) church. I've attended a few services and the church is basically one of the new-style megachurches that are cropping up all over the country, with a sort of contemporary, fundamentalist vibe to it.

I've been married to my husband for nearly 10 years, and very early in our marriage some minor conflicts arose regarding religion. As a result, I guess my mother-in-law decided to avoid dealing with the topic directly, so much of what was said regarding my beliefs was directed at my husband. My husband, thankfully, is very supportive of my beliefs. Though he comes from a more Christian background than I do (obviously), he is also a liberal. On a number of occasions, usually via e-mail, the topic of religion has come up and he has again and again tried to explain my views and defended my morality.

This week, after my husband responded to a somewhat outrageous political/religious e-mail that my mother-in-law sent to the entire family, he ended up getting into it yet again with his mother. I was not included in the discussion, but it somehow got around to a variety of topics involving me, including the idea that UUs are anti-Christian and that I either don't like or flat-out hate my mother-in-law. My husband once again explained everything to his mother, telling her that UUs are not anti-Christian (we believe that all religions have value and meaning, and many UUs are in fact Christian) and that I do love and care about her. I guess one reason she thinks that I don't like to be around her is because a few times over the past year, my husband has taken our 2-year-old son for visits with her and I haven't come along. My only reasons for not always coming along have been being really busy (I work full time, plus unpaid overtime, run a household, etc.) and not feeling great (pregnant with our second child, and tired and gross-feeling at times as a result). Since I frequently take our son for visits with my family that my husband doesn't participate in, I didn't think the two or three times I opted out were a big deal, nor did my husband.

Anyhow, it sounds like my husband has calmed his mother down for the time being. However, I'm certain these issues will come up again and again -- it seems to happen at least once every two years. Additionally, I'm really bothered by the fact that I've never had the opportunity to talk with her directly about my beliefs and feelings. Shouldn't she deal directly with me, if she wants a better relationship with me? On the other hand, she isn't exactly a rational, critical thinker and I could explain my beliefs until I'm blue in the face and we probably still wouldn't find any common ground. This whole situation is so frustrating, in part because of my UU beliefs -- I want to find common ground, and while I know that her brand of Christianity will never work for me, I know that there is some level of meaning and value that I can gain by letting her talk about her views with me. Unfortunately, she has been taught that we live in a black-and-white world, and that there is only one way of approaching religion, so common ground is not an option for her. I think the only way I would ever really make her happy would be to convert to the type of Christianity that she practices, something that will never happen.

So what do I do? Just drop it and/or urge my husband to direct her to me the next time the topic inevitably comes up? Write to her or call her and tell her how I'm feeling, risking more drama in the process? Or just continue to try to stay out of it and let my husband deal with it? And do I need to make an even greater effort to spend time with her, despite the fact that this generally means driving to where she lives, an hour away? I'm having a hard time balancing my work and home life as it is and have other people whom I see even less frequently. It doesn't help that I'm always tired, thanks to being seven months pregnant, and don't get anywhere near the amount of quality family time with my son and husband that I would like. I do see her at least once a month, which is more than I see many of my other family members and friends.

My parents and friends say that you cannot argue logically with someone whose beliefs are not based on logic, and I guess they're right, but the situation still bothers me. If nothing else, I feel bad that my husband keeps getting stuck in the middle. And I think I hold myself back emotionally in my relationship with his mother because of the things left unspoken between us. On the other hand, I don't know that talking to her would help her understand my beliefs, though I could at least reassure her that I care about her.

Thank you,

Trying to Be a Good and Respectful Daughter-in-law and UU

Dear Daughter-in-law and UU,

Well, it's Day 3 of the Obama era and the weather here in San Francisco has taken a turn toward the ridiculously pleasant. It is the kind of late fall weather that leads one to wander aimlessly in the yard, or leave the office and sit on a brick wall by the bay and turn one's face upward like a flower turning toward the sun.  It does not focus the mind is what I'm saying.

So let's just say this: I suggest that you attempt to enrich your relationship with your mother-in-law by doing fun things with her that don't involve religion.

What I'm thinking, basically, is that a relationship can be slowly forged by regular contact in activities of mutual enjoyment. Maybe if you could find the right activity you could stay off the subject of religion completely and try to win her over just by being a nice, pleasant person.

Think of this, too, if you will. Of all human activities that we could possibly engage in, church is one of the least interesting. Truly. Admit it. It is dull. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. But it isn't as fun as surfing. It's no round of minigolf. As opposed to, say, sex and love, or childbirth, or cooking and eating, or travel, or having a good laugh, or gardening, going to church is dull. It's necessary for human order and provides solace to troubled minds and keeps people off the streets and encourages them to dress up and read aloud. There is often singing, which is also good. But the reason for church is that we are troubled, and we are going to die. So it's not really as much fun as the mall. We are here now and we have money; that is the forward-thinking proposition on which the existence of malls is based. Think about it: On the one hand you have the proposition that we are all going to die, along with what will happen to us afterward and what will we do about all the evil in the world. On the other you have the proposition that we are all here right now and we have some money and there is a little place down the road called MiniGolf.

Doing fun things together builds good feelings. Your relationship with your mother-in-law may be out of balance. The basic elements of a good relationship are, first of all, that you can have pleasure together. I suggest you try having some pleasure with your mother-in-law and see if that doesn't help.

Does she exercise? Could you go to an exercise class together, or swim together, or do yoga? Think of all the activities that you enjoy. I mean concrete things such as games and making things; attendance at events such as concerts, lectures, movies and plays; things one does with one's hands such as gardening, weeding, painting, decorating, knitting, cleaning and crafts making; and outdoor pursuits such as hiking, visiting flea markets, looking at antiques, window shopping, watching children play sports, etc. I suggest you make a list of all the possible activities that you could enjoy, and see if you can get together with her and have a good time doing something. Maybe you and she could rent a little paddle boat at a park somewhere and paddle pleasantly around a lake, watching the ducks and the children. Maybe you could both go and get facials and massages, or mud packs, or some other spalike indulgence that livens the spirits and soothes the body. Maybe you could treat her to a special meal somewhere that she likes to eat.

Find a way to interact with your mother-in-law on a physical and feeling level, not an intellectual level. Find activities of mutual enjoyment that do not involve hot-button cultural symbols. Ducks, for instance. Ducks are apolitical and ecumenical. Everyone likes ducks. They do not invite discussions of the afterlife. See what I mean? Can mud packs be Satanic? Perhaps. I do not know. But if a spa could be found that you both agree is not Satanic ... Or hiking. Or a good exercise class. Stuff where you can just relate on a nice, human level. That might help.

Thinking about religion and family? Read this!

Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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