In the past few weeks, Hey Alma has started soliciting dilemmas from our readers about life as a Jew — or in this case, being married to one. Posed first to our Instagram audience, where hundreds of followers weighed in, read on for our latest dilemma and advice from deputy managing editor Vanessa Pamela Friedman, a self-described bossy Capricorn Jew.
Dear Hey Alma,
Since I started dating my husband, my father-in-law has pushed conversion on me. When we were getting married, we looked into converting, and the rabbi wanted us to make a large time commitment to learn, speak and interact with the community. My husband wants to raise our future kids Jewish which I have no problem with, but neither of us want to put in the work being asked. We celebrate many Jewish holidays and I cook many traditional Jewish foods. But my FIL has increased his displeasure vocally by constantly calling me a shiksa and wishing me “happy fake holidays” because he doesn’t consider them mine.
I’m terrified that if we do have children, he will mirror that hatred towards them. As descendants of Holocaust survivors I have so much respect for their history and see my addition as spreading Judaism to more people, but he feels I’m watering his blood down. My husband has not confronted his father and many times the comments are made to me in private or presented as a joke. I haven’t changed my last name because I don’t feel truly welcomed into the family.
Where do we go from here?
I want to start by saying I am so sorry you are being treated this way in your family. It’s cruel, unacceptable and it must end. I think you know this; that’s why you wrote to us. I applaud you for recognizing what’s happening as wrong. It may sound simple, but we often don’t allow ourselves to take up the full amount of space and respect we deserve, so actually recognizing when we’re being treated inappropriately is not small — it’s actually quite huge. But just knowing that what’s happening is wrong doesn’t give us the tools to change it. For that, we require a plan. So let’s make one.
Talk to Your Husband
Your father-in-law is the perpetrator here, as he’s the one responsible for saying such awful things to you, but your husband is actually the person in this problem I’m most disappointed in — and most hopeful about. We cannot change how other people act — if this is the way his father treats you, it’s likely he’s got some terrible habits and morals engrained in him that won’t magically disappear overnight or possibly ever — but we can usually set the terms of how we want to react to this treatment. If someone is rude to us, we can tell them we won’t share space if they don’t change their behavior. But in the case of your father-in-law, your autonomy is slightly stripped away. You are not the only person your actions will affect, and you may not feel empowered to set such firm boundaries with someone older than you in your family who isn’t a blood relative. That’s why it’s literally your husband’s job to manage this conflict for you. The only reason you have a relationship with your father-in-law is because he happens to be your husband’s father. So it’s 100% on your husband to set the boundaries around this.
If you haven’t already had a heart-to-heart with your husband about what’s happening, set aside some time for a real, honest, deep chat. Schedule it in advance. Put it on the calendar if you’re Those Kinds of People (obviously I am That Kind of Person). You should both arrive at this conversation well rested, well fed, well hydrated and ready to be open and kind. Share how you’re feeling with your husband. If you haven’t detailed all the times your father-in-law has made private comments, tell him now. Let him respond and (hopefully) empathize. Ask him how the comments make him feel — I would guess probably not very good! Solidify that the two of you are a team.
But don’t end there. It’s great for your husband to hear you and validate your feelings, but in this situation, he actually needs to do more than that. He needs to… drumroll… create boundaries with his father.
Your Husband Talks to His Father and Creates Boundaries
Listen: I don’t know if this is explicitly a Jewish thing, but anecdotally, I’d say Jewish kids are terrible at setting boundaries with their Jewish parents. Setting boundaries, especially when you do not have practice doing it, is not fun or easy or chill. But it is necessary, and in the long run, it is the only thing that might save your relationship with your entire family. So I’d say it’s worth figuring out. And I would impress this point upon your husband. This step is non-negotiable. It is literally the only way forward.
A boundary does not mean you need to change a person’s mind. It is simply a tool that you can use to make it clear what you will and won’t tolerate in your life. I would be realistic in what you’re trying to accomplish here. You and your husband don’t need to change your father-in-law’s world view; you need to make it clear that if he does not change his behavior toward you, there will be consequences.
What Is a Boundary and How Do We Make Them?
A boundary is a clear line. It can tell you where to stop, it can tell you where something ends and it is how we all keep ourselves safe. A boundary doesn’t necessarily tell someone else how to act — but it does tell them how you will act depending on their behavior. Make sure you and your husband understand what it means to create a boundary before he enters this conversation with his dad. Individual therapy and couples therapy can be really useful for this work. I personally am a big fan of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for building these skills because it comes with a workbook and is usually practiced in group therapy, so you can actually test out the methods you’re learning and receive feedback from other people.
We make boundaries by deciding where our personal lines are, and then thinking about how we can stay true to those lines. An example of a boundary your husband might make with his dad is this: “It is unacceptable to me when you call my wife a shiksa. If you do this when we spend time together, my wife and I will leave. If she tells me you’ve done this behind my back, we will leave.”
Boundaries can also be enacted in levels. For example, if your husband attempts to create that boundary and your father-in-law continues his name-calling, your husband could escalate and say: “It is unacceptable to me that you have continued to call my wife a shiksa despite my explicit request that you stop. Because of this, we won’t be making plans with you for the next couple of months.”
The important thing about a boundary is to express what will happen if the lines are not followed. Saying, “It is unacceptable to me when you call my wife a shiksa,” but then continuing to spend time with his dad when this happens would not be a boundary — that’s a preference. This man needs boundaries. You deserve to feel safe around your father-in-law and accepted and loved by your family — and your future children do, too.
Find Support — For You and Your Husband as Individuals and as a Couple
I’ll be honest: This is not going to be easy. It’s possible your husband has never made a boundary with his father in his life, and this is a big and intense issue to start practicing with. I’m dismayed that he didn’t take care of this before the two of you got married, but you’ve given no indication that you want to leave your marriage so I’m not going to suggest you file for divorce today. What I will say is that both you and your husband need support around this. It’s not something that is going to change quickly and it’s quite possibly something that will cause pain for both of you for the rest of your lives.
I’m a huge fan of couples therapy, and I’d strongly suggest finding a therapist who specializes in interfaith partnerships to help you move through this. I also think individual therapy is a great tool, and will give you space to feel supported through this awful experience and will give your husband space to work through some parent/child dynamic stuff that he should unpack sooner than later for everyone’s sake!
But I also suggest you find support outside of therapy. 18 Doors is an organization multiple Hey Alma readers have suggested when talking about seeking advice for struggles in interfaith Jewish relationships. If you have friends who are also in interfaith relationships, lean on them. If there are members of your husband’s family who are also unimpressed with your father-in-law, see if they’d be willing to back your husband up when he sets his boundaries. Find ways to take care of yourself — and find ways to keep connecting through love and kindness as a couple, even when things are hard.
Make Sure You See Change… Otherwise Consider Ending It
The part of your question that gave me biggest pause is when you mentioned your future kids. It’s really scary to think about our children being treated badly by anyone — let alone their relatives — and I don’t blame you for wanting to solve this problem before there are more people in the mix. Because of that, although you seem to love your husband and want to make this work, I do want to conclude this advice by letting you know that there is one ultimate consequence to your father-in-law’s behavior — and that would be losing you from his family. While he may not actually care about that, presumably your husband would be devastated if that’s how this problem ended.
So be up front right away about the stakes of this issue — they are huge! Literally the biggest stakes one could have in a marriage! And make sure your husband is ready to tackle this with you as a team giving it the gravity it deserves. Finally, make sure you see some real change on your husband’s part before you decide to move forward with kids. Otherwise, you might have to make your own boundaries for your future life — one that won’t include him and his family.
Do you have a Jewish or Jewish-adjacent dilemma and want our advice? Submit a question anonymously and we’ll do our best to answer it!