Fasten Your Bible Belt

My boyfriend and I are spending Christmas with his family. I like them and get along well with them. However, they’re very religious, and he wants me to join them in going to holiday church services. I grew up secular in a conservative town, and because of all I went through, I developed a deep distaste for religion. His family knows I’m an atheist but doesn’t know the extent of my aversion to religion. I explained to my boyfriend that the idea of sitting through church and going through the motions, given how I feel about religion, is downright upsetting to me. Though he’s no longer religious, he doesn’t share my aversion, and he insists I go out of respect for him and his family. Should I just go and grin and bear it as a favor to him?

—I’m (Not) A Believer

It’s Jesus’ birthday, but seeing as you guys aren’t that close, you figured he wouldn’t mind if you skipped it.

Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time religion has caused tension in the world. And sure, there’s something to be said for doing things you aren’t exactly into to please your partner. However, going to somebody’s religious service as an atheist who’s seriously upset by religion isn’t quite the same as “grinning and bearing it” at the opera. You probably aren’t opposed to Verdi on principle, and it’s unlikely to call up childhood memories like “My mommy says your mommy is in bed with the devil” and fun neighborhood games like “Burn The Little Heathen At The Stake.”

The problem started when your boyfriend decided that you just had to go and used the “respect!” argument to try to guilt you into giving in. This is low-blow, crush-the-competition arguing. (What can you even counter with — “Nah, I don’t want to show respect for your parents!”?) Of course, when two people partner up, there will always be disagreements. But in a relationship, winning really isn’t everything. Having a difference of opinion without trying to do to your partner what Hitler did to Poland, that’s everything.

We can understand this intellectually. The problem is, we’re all essentially large, bratty children. We want what we want when we want it, and we want Miss Perkins to turn around so we can hit little Jason over the head with a toy truck until he gives it to us. Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman explains in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that our instinctive emotional system is our brain’s first responder — taking over long before our rational system (the janitor that cleans up after our impulses) even decides to get out of bed. So opting for a more adult approach to disagreements requires preplanning — sitting down with your partner before you’re in conflict mode and making a pact to fight not to win but to understand where the other person’s coming from.

When you find yourselves at odds, instead of hammering each other with what you want, explain why you want it; lay out the emotions behind it. Focusing on each other’s feelings — truly focusing, not just pretending to listen until you can get back to selling your points — should lead you to be moved by each other’s fears or distress. This, in turn, should inspire a more compassionate and constructive response. For example, if instead of telling you “You have to go with us to church!” your boyfriend says something like “I just want my family to like you,” his push to get you into a pew sounds more like something he’s trying to do for you than to you. This allows you to respond lovingly to him, reassuring him that his family already likes you (despite not quite understanding your blase attitude toward burning in hell for all eternity).

For this mode of conflict management to work, you have to accept that some differences just can’t be bridged. Still, discussing them in a way that makes you both feel respected and understood should at least leave you feeling good about each other and the relationship. In this situation, the reality is, your being a nonbeliever could ultimately be a big problem for his parents. But you show your respect by acting respectful to them — maybe welcoming them back from Mass with a punchbowl of your famous eggnog — not by disrespecting your own beliefs and going to church “just this once,” which sets a bad precedent. If all goes well, they’ll just accept your choices. Otherwise, you may have to resign yourself to spending Christmas week in bed — tied to it, while Granny and the dog assist the priest who’s performing the exorcism on you.

Categories: Advice, Advice Goddess