My fiancé and I had a tough talk this weekend about my immediate family. We have been biting our tongues for over eight years regarding topics such as race, sexual orientation, religion, and politics that invariably come up at family gatherings with stances polar opposite our own. Derogatory language is commonly alluded to or used. Some of my family members’ behavior can be explained, if not excused, by age or simply ignorance. Others more knowingly engage in the bigotry. Considering my status as a dependent until four years ago, it was probably a prudent measure back then, but now I just feel ashamed and angry with this coping mechanism of walking away.
To be clear—this is not one or a couple of family members. This is my maternal grandparents, my parents, two of my three siblings, and both their wives. The only people who stand with me on this are my fiancé and my younger sister.
Now that we have a clear point in time in which we are legally and socially viewed as our own family unit, we have agreed it is past time to officially “come out” as our liberal, atheist, feminist selves, knowing full well the severe consequences such an act could bring.
The big questions now, are: What, how, and when? Should we pick and choose which things (racism, sexism, and homophobia) we will no longer tolerate and let other topics (our atheism, which is probably the most controversial) wait until the future? I’d be more comfortable expressing thoughts in written form, as I become tongue-tied during conflict, but I feel like an email or even a letter would be seen as either too impersonal or stiff. Besides, what would I even write? (“You’re shitty people,” seems simultaneously overly dramatic and mostly untrue.) Either way, I should be the messenger, right?
We’d prefer to at least partially communicate some of these things before our wedding, since we are concerned about two particular family members saying or doing something to upset our friends or my fiancé’s family (it would not be out of character). I realize that the only true way I can prevent this is by not inviting them.
Betrothed And Defiant Finally Against Ménage
Dear BAD FAM,
Lady, I’m cheering on you and your decision to put your foot down. Can you hear it? That’s me cheering over here.
But I also want to beg you to pull back the reins on this decision to Make a Statement and Write a Letter and Set Everyone Straight. I know, I know. Frustration and resentment of these ill-conceived opinions has been bubbling under the surface for so long, now. You’re just ready to let them have it! But, gentle words win these wars, my friend. Being loud and angry has its place for sure, but personal relationships lend themselves to gentle discussions and thoughtful boundaries. Put another way: you love these guys. They love you. Why not say your piece, I don’t know, lovingly?
When you see the goal as less, “Let these people know what jerkwads they’re being!” and more, “Get these folks to see my side of things,” it just makes sense to be kinder and gentler with your words. Personally, I would be easily put on the defensive and shut down a bit if someone suddenly said, “STOP. This stuff you’ve been saying forever is wrong and I hate it and you need to stop for these bullet pointed reasons.” I think we’d all bristle. A formal proclamation is too stiff for your relationship, and probably too aggressive to come off as anything but an attack. Winning someone over is very different from beating someone down. That former one takes words that are honest, but kind.
So that’s all well and good: kind and honest words, etc., etc. But how does that play out practically? I would start by doing just as you say—write down your thoughts. If that’s the way you think best, go ahead. Write it all down. Think about it. Consider what you believe and why. Think about what your loved ones will probably say at the next Thanksgiving dinner table, and how you would ideally respond. Then, read over what you’ve written and get it solidly in your noggin. Prepare yourself, because if you’re like me, when you’re passionate about something, it’s sometimes hard to be “honest and kind.” Those two words don’t naturally exist simultaneously for me.
Then, wait for the conversation to arise, and be ready to contribute.
Some “honest and kind” things to say might include, “Have you thought about it this way?” or “I’d prefer if you didn’t use those words around me, and here’s why.” In short, just address things as they come up and don’t hide who you are. For example, there’s no need to make a public statement “coming out” as an atheist. But if religion is being discussed, it’s natural within the flow of conversation to say, “Well, I’m not sure that that’s true. Here’s how I see it,” and chime in with your atheist viewpoint.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s okay to not address every terrible thing that’s said in your presence. It takes time to grow comfortable sharing your distinct opinions (especially when they differ so vastly from those around you), and beyond that, no one needs anything shoved down their throats constantly. Once your family understands your viewpoint, they won’t need you to police their conversation with, “That’s bad, too. And that. That too.”
Meanwhile, it’s important to know what you can and can’t ask of these loved ones. It’s fair to request certain derogatory words or statements not be spoken in your presence if they make you feel uncomfortable. It’s fair to voice disagreement, most especially when someone says something in an, “Am I right, guys?” sort of joking manner that makes you complicit. But it’s not fair to flat out ask loved ones who have differing opinions to just not speak about them in front of you. If anything, you’re then doing exactly what you’re afraid your family will do to you. That’s no good.
Of course, there are worst-case scenarios here. Maybe they never talk to you again. Maybe they kick you out of the family and never again utter your name. More likely, maybe they tease and rib you about your passionate serious beliefs. But before you jump to assumptions, give your family the opportunity to be adults, to treat you respectfully (like an adult with distinct opinions) and give them the time it takes to adjust to seeing you in this new light. This is not a light switch situation we’re talking about.
As far as the wedding—come right out and ask your family not to offend your friends. But also warn your friends that you have family prone to saying some off-color stuff. This is another case of, “let adults be adults” and “you can’t change your family for your wedding,” but there is certainly a line where you can ask that your loved ones avoid being racist and derogatory to your other guests.
Communicating this stuff isn’t so much about bracing for the wedding as it is laying a foundation for the family you’re building together—an independent, thinking family that will operate on its own terms, with opinions all your own and will share them with honesty and kindness.
Team Practical, how do you handle loved ones who have very different opinions and perspectives (and maybe are closed off to yours)?
Photo by Gabriel Harber Photography.
If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!