Faith, Family, and Future Confusion

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Dear Hoopers,
I’ve been with my boyfriend for almost one year, we both have gotten serious about each other and have discussed our future together which included marriage and kids. We are both in our early 30s. However, I find myself unable and unsure of where to go from here because of his inability to make decisions on his own. We come from different faith backgrounds. He was raised in one religion, but now identifies as Atheist. I was raised in another religion, and continue to practice and keep my faith.

Engaging and sharing my religion with future children has been something he has known since the early days of our relationship. In all of our discussions about how to raise future children, we came to the agreement that they would be raised with “both sides”. After he spoke with his mother about me and the potential for us to take the next step, she said to him that if he does stay with me, any kids would have to be his religion and for his family to take control of all religious instruction. He has now come back, and given me a choice of accepting this, or for our relationship to come to an end. He knows how important sharing my religion is to me, and when I say this, he tells me that he would make it up to me in other ways, and that this is the last thing he will ask of me. He has said that it would cause too many issues with his extended family if kids are not raised in his religion. He flat out said that he is not afraid of his mom, but he can’t say no to her. I feel like he thinks “I’m not worth the hassle” to have uncomfortable conversations with both sides of our families. I’ve made many large compromises for things that are important to him (he wants his mom to live with him, for us if we get married – to pay for her to come on family vacations, etc).

Initially, I was not ok with these things, but then believed that I could adapt to this type of life because of my feelings for him. When his mom wants or needs something, he will drop everything (including skipping work, and cancelling on planned events at the last minute), and his actions now are becoming increasingly hurtful. He was married once before, and divorced his ex after 5 years, with issues again relating back to his relationship with his mother and the dynamic between the three of them. He says it was a mutual and respectful separation. I feel like this is going to happen to us. He treats his mom as his first wife, and any energy that is left will be given to the woman he marries (as long as the wife’s happiness is not in contradiction with the mom). I’ve explained this to him, and all he says to me is that he understands how I feel. We love each other, but after he speaks with his mom, he gets frustrated and says that I am selfish and demanding for not allowing his family to take the lead on religion, and that I should be happy that he is not asking me to convert. He doesn’t even believe or follow his religion, while religion means something to me and he seems to not care.
-Faith, Family, and Future Confusion

Dear Future Confusion,
Sounds like you have a pretty good handle on this one. Your partner treats his mother like his first wife and first priority. While he seems to love and respect you, you just can’t compete with his first love, mom.

While it seems a bit forward for you two to discuss the religion of your children before you are even trying, I think this was a brilliant move on your part. This was a way to test his loyalty to you versus his mother and so far he has failed terribly. The fact that he gave you an “or else” ultimatum about ending the relationship was quite rigid and foreboding about your future.

Your relationship will never work as long as he puts his mother’s needs and wishes before your relationship.

-Dr. Ryan

There is no easy way forward on this one. My guess is that your partner is pretty clueless about how enmeshed he is with his mother. I’m sure that his love for his mother comes from a well-meaning place. The problem is a matter of degree. Of course he can share issues from your relationship with his mother and attempt to respect her opinions when possible.

However, you should be his first priority and the agreements between you two should be set in stone. Your relationship will never work as long as he puts his mother’s needs and wishes before your relationship. There is no way to beat around the bush here. You need to make your concerns clear to him and express what you desire for your relationship. You are a 50% shareholder in this relationship and his mother needs to understand that.
-Dr. Ryan

Dear Future Confusion,
It seems there are many components at play in this relationship that are making you hesitant to move forward. An overly involved mother-in-law, a deep disagreement about faith and family, and his inability to make decisions on his own. Money, faith, children, and in-laws are often considered the most important areas to align before getting married. You described distress with all of these but money.

Are you doomed? No. But your chances of serious problems down the road will be more likely if you keep these areas unresolved. It’s time to lay out realistic expectations. How involved will in-laws (his mother) be in your lives? How will you deal with stumbling blocks if you do not align on the same guiding principles of a religion? What effect with this have on your approach to raising children? These are tough questions to address, but getting a divorce will be tougher.

These are tough questions to address, but getting a divorce will be tougher.


Getting aligned before marriage is the key to making it last. If you find that this becomes a continued headache and frustration after discussing these central issues and never coming to an agreement, it may be time for some tough choices.

Perhaps you enlist some guidance from a relationship therapist who can help equip you with better tools to navigate the discussion or perhaps you decide to end the relationship. It’s clear from your notes and question that you have a very good understanding of the complexities of the relationship and your boyfriend’s mama issues. I hope that you can soon apply that same level of understanding to what is best for you.