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

Dear Richard,

I have currently been in a relationship with my girlfriend for a little over a year. We both are still in high school so we both live with our parents. When we started dating I was an atheist and I still am. My girlfriend was a Christian but now she is an atheist also. Her parents are very Christian and only support her dating white Christian males. Well I fit that except the Christian part.

I quickly figured out that if I wanted to be in this relationship I would have to cover up my beliefs to her whole family. So I did and I have up into this very day. Lately I have been feeling that I am tired of hiding my beliefs to her family and I would just come out and let them know I am not Christian. This would have a huge back lash as her whole family likes me because they think I share their beliefs. I have thought maybe they would accept me just for being a good kid who respects their daughter. I fear that them knowing the truth would bring us back to never seeing each other like when they thought I was atheist when we first dated. Hiding my beliefs just doesn’t feel right but sharing them would end my relationship with my girlfriend.

If they knew she was atheist she would not be allowed to do anything with friends. She would lose all freedoms like her phone, Facebook, etc. She could only be with kids at their church and only be with them at church.

I would like your advice on what to do with her parents.

Thank you for your time,
Derek

Dear Derek,

I can understand getting tired of pretending and faking in front of your girlfriend’s family. It’s a pain in the neck. But you need to be careful how you ease your discomfort, and I’m sure that wanting to be careful is why you wrote for advice.

As young people mature, their growing independent sense of self begins to chafe at having to play the roles their elders expect, but they are still physically, financially and emotionally very dependent on their elders, and so they have to endure the conflict between what they are becoming and what they must pretend they still are. It can be very uncomfortable, and sometimes they impulsively take action to break away from their constraints.

But we do not live as independent islands. We live in a complex web of interconnected relationships. So when we take an action, we are hardly ever the only one who is affected by our action. Many other people may be affected, especially those with whom we have strong and close relationships. Even though we hope our action might benefit us, there is no guarantee that it will benefit others. Sometimes it can cause them harm that we did not intend.

We may be willing to bear the harsh consequences of the actions that we take, but we do not necessarily have the right to blithely expose others to collateral damage because of their proximity to us. So we should be mindful of their needs and rights.

Going by your description of your girlfriend’s family, I can’t think of a way that you could present your atheism to them that would not result in the poop hitting the propeller. It seems highly likely that regardless of how good and respectful a kid you’ve been, they’ll instantly and permanently shut down your relationship with her.

But as you have also described, that’s not where it will end.

After you have been shown the door, one of the first things her parents will do is to ask her if she is still a believing Christian. Unless she is ready and willing to face all the consequences that you have listed or worse, she’ll have to lie directly to them about that, and she’ll also have to lie about how she didn’t know that you are an atheist. She’ll have to pretend that she’s shocked and dismayed to learn this.

At first they might believe that she’s still a Christian, but they probably won’t buy her story that she didn’t know about your atheism. You said they briefly thought you were an atheist when you first started dating her and they almost stopped you, but you quickly got that covered up. So now her denial of knowledge probably won’t work. They’ll be angry that she deceived them about you and went against their wishes for her to only associate with Christians. They’ll clamp down tightly on her, and as you predict she’ll suffer severe social and communication restrictions long after you’re gone. If she gets to date at all, she won’t be dating anyone not closely pre-screened by them.

They’ll probably question her further, and they might wear her down until she acknowledges that she also is an atheist. If so, they’ll learn that she changed her beliefs after she started dating you. Although that might not have been the cause, they will probably assume it is. They’ll blame you for corrupting their daughter.

She has the right to make her own decisions about if, when and how she might reveal her atheism to her family, and about facing all that may happen as a result. She has the right to make those decisions on her own time and without pressure from other people’s desires, and I’m sure that because you care about her, you wouldn’t want to unintentionally force her hand.

I really wish I could suggest some presentation to them that would soothe their fears and allow the two of you to be openly yourselves and be together too, but I don’t think anything would presently work with this bunch. As I see it, you have the choice between two difficult options. Difficult, but not horrible.

1. Both of you learn to live with it, bide your time, play the family’s game and enjoy each other’s company. Don’t talk about it with others on Facebook, Twitter, or any other privacy-obliterating media. Decide that at the present time, “being real” about this one issue isn’t really worth the pain. Eventually the situation will change. Perhaps their prejudice against non-Christians might relax, but don’t count on that. In time both of you will become financially and emotionally independent of your parents, and if you’re still together by then, you can mutually agree on how you will handle it.

2. If you really, really have reached the limit of your willingness to hide your beliefs, then explain it gently and honestly to your girlfriend and break up with her without revealing anything about your beliefs to her family. I know it seems cold of me to suggest this option, but if you absolutely can no longer stand the hiding, it’s the more selfless way for you to end your discomfort. You won’t have to pretend to them, but you will not be with her. That outcome is exactly the same as if you were to tell them that you’re an atheist, but it does not include harming her, and it respects her right to make her own decisions about coming out.

Derek, starting right now, the most important thing to do is to talk about all of your thoughts and feelings thoroughly with her, and make it easy for her to talk about all of her thoughts and feelings thoroughly with you. Because your decisions affect each other, keep your decisions mutually agreed. Take your time with this and other considerations. You have so much more time ahead of you than behind you.

Always be a friend of truth.
There is no worse enemy.
In careworn age or carefree youth,
Let it keep you company.

But also walk with kindness too
And listen to its soft appeal.
Find the balance of the two;
Know what’s loving and what’s real.

So be truthful, yet be kind.
Let these two friends on each side
Counsel both your heart and mind.
Wisdom then will be your guide.

Richard

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