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My in-laws treat me terribly because I’m not religious

Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom.

A reader writes: My partner and I have been married for just over a year. A few members of his family have a big problem with the fact that we didn't have a religious wedding and have decided not to raise our future children in his family's religion (I'm not religious. He is, but not practising). His family have subsequently behaved poorly toward me and my partner (throwing things, calling me awful names, lying, manipulating, trying to physically intimidate me). We now live in a different city, and things are better, but I feel it's the distance that is providing a buffer. There are constant invitations for visits – holidays, long weekends, etc. While I don't mind the occasional trip I don't feel comfortable staying with them or, frankly, seeing them on a regular basis. But I don't want to prevent my partner from seeing his family. If he visits without me, it seems to cause more tension with them. What do I do?

Stay away for now

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It is completely unacceptable for his family to treat you the way they have. Your husband needs to step forward to act as an intermediary. I would encourage him to visit them on his own and lay the groundwork for reconciliation. If this is not possible, then you need to communicate to your husband that while you do not wish to prevent him from seeing his family, you are going to refrain from visiting with them, because it is not healthy for you to be in that environment.

You may also want to talk to your husband about how you will deal with the issue of your in-laws and your eventual children. Depending on how the relationship between you and them develops, this could cause a lot more grief.

– Clair Berland, Vancouver

Demand respect

Visiting without you is not good – it sets a tone that ostracizes you and them, and leaves your partner to defend you from the inevitable comments while you hide at home.

You have to convince your partner's family that you have a relationship, and are raising a family, based on tenets that are deeply meaningful to you – love, integrity, compassion – and while you respect that others have similar beliefs that are tied to traditional religious institutions, you prefer a slightly different path.

– Robert Clarke, Saint John

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Get things down on paper

I am assuming that the question of religion was not considered before the wedding. This is a huge problem. Differences with the in-laws can lead to a fractious, toxic environment.

It is imperative that these things be figured out and put down on paper before the children come. You say your husband is religious and not practising now, but there is a chance he may take a turn toward religiosity again later in life.

So prepare now. Sit down with your husband and write up a "nuptial agreement" to sort out the kind of things that you both would want, including the frequency of visits for holidays and the like. Sign it, then give a copy to your in-laws.

– Farhat Rehman, Ottawa

The final word

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I know this subject well. When my family came to Canada, they assumed their kids would not just marry within their faith, but also within their ethnic group. That was 40 years ago. Today, my extended family includes people from different nationalities and religions – something that was unthinkable to my parents when they first arrived here. I've learned that for many first-generation parents, interfaith marriage is difficult because it represents a permanent break from centuries-old tradition. But it's also not an untenable situation.

I think the answer to this dilemma is time and patience. I applaud you and your husband's decision to tell your in-laws about not wanting to raise children in the faith. Most people would have converted to appease them. And it's a good sign that they're extending invitations with such gusto. I believe they're trying to find a way to include you in their lives.

Parents can and do come around but it will take contrition on their part, and amnesia on yours. And, as Clair mentions, they're probably also thinking about how they may have jeopardized their roles as future grandparents.

Visiting without you, as Robert says, is not great for a marriage. But be fore you take a conciliatory tuna casserole over, your husband needs to let his parents know, as Clair advises, that plate-throwing and temper tantrums are an unacceptable way for adults to behave. And as a result of their abusive behaviour, they've made you uncomfortable with them. If they want more face time with you, they have to accept you on your terms.

Once you feel safe and comfortable, go and visit for longer periods. And, as Farhat suggests, before kids arrive, discuss everyone's expectations ahead of time. Hopefully, in the future, you and your in-laws will stop disagreeing about religion and can argue about the important things in life, like where to take a vacation together.

Regina-based Zarqa Nawaz is the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Next week's question

A reader writes: My fortysomething son split with his second wife 18 months ago because of gender-identity issues. He feels that he wants to become a woman and has changed his physical appearance and dresses accordingly in public. I think my son is courageous in confronting his gender issues, and do not have a problem with his gender transition. However, I would like advice on how our family – and especially his teenaged son and preschool-aged daughter – can deal with the change in their father. His son is active in sports and is at a critical phase in his life where peer pressure could be overwhelming as his father's transition becomes common knowledge among his friends and teammates. My wish, however belated, is that my son could have chosen a better time and place to deal with his gender issues, so as not to undermine his family.

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