Ask Sahaj: My father-in-law keeps offering to ‘save our souls’ from hell


Q: My father-in-law, “Phil,” of 25-plus years, is a gun-loving, born-again Christian conservative. My husband (his son) and I, and our teenagers, are not. I identify as atheist, my husband and kids are agnostic. We have agreed to disagree and largely avoid discussing politics or guns with him since 2016, but he cannot help himself when it comes to trying to save our souls. He genuinely believes we are going to end up in hell, and he regularly asks if he can help us get saved. I feel bad that this upsets him, but at the same time, I want him to stop bringing this topic up. We do not believe in hell and have no desire to be saved. We bow our heads and remain quiet when he wants to say a prayer before meals. We respect his beliefs and don’t try to push our beliefs onto him, but wish he would respect ours, too. How can we maintain our relationship with him when he continues to bring this up?

– A Non-Christian

A: You and your father-in-law clearly have different values, and that can be difficult to accept. Twenty-five years is a long time. Why are you asking this now? Has something new or specific happened? Has the pressure escalated? Beyond wanting to “save” you, are there other things Phil does that bother you? You mention 2016 – a significant year for many people in mixed-values families – and I wonder how your approach to avoid discussing guns and politics may be transferrable to this. It sounds like you’ve had success with setting boundaries in the past.

There are a few things that could be happening here:

You and your husband haven’t communicated your boundaries and their consequences clearly to Phil. Boundaries are parameters that you put in place for you – not to change other people. Have you or your husband truly tried to set clear and explicit boundaries with Phil? If not, it’s time for an honest conversation. This may sound like: “We know you are worried for us but we are not comfortable talking about religion because it’s clear we have different beliefs. When you continuously bring this up it makes us feel like you don’t care about what we want or how we feel. We don’t want this to come between us and so moving forward, we will no longer discuss religion with you.” To communicate the consequences, you could say: “We have asked you to stop trying to save us. If you bring this up again, we will leave and reconsider coming over in the future.”

You communicated your boundaries once and then expected the relationship to be different. If you tell Phil it bothers you when he talks about saving you, and then the next time he does it, you don’t say anything, he may feel like it doesn’t bother you all that much. Other people won’t commit to your boundaries if you aren’t committed to them yourself. It’s okay to sound like a broken record and repeat a statement like, “We won’t discuss this with you” – until the point has been respected. You may have to repeatedly enforce the same consequence – such as leaving immediately when he brings it up – to reinforce that you are not willing to accept this behavior in the relationship.

You’ve properly communicated and enforced boundaries to no avail and it’s time to limit – or completely cut off – engagement with Phil.

You and your husband should be a united front in deciding how to proceed. Discuss who should speak up with Phil; it may not feel like your place, or it may be something you do together. You may realize that you’re not on the same page, which will require a different conversation around what you need from your husband when you’re around your father-in-law.

Likewise, it’ll be imperative to get clear on what you don’t agree with but can tolerate versus what is harmful to you and your family and is a dealbreaker. It sounds like you’ve decided you can tolerate bowing your heads during Phil’s prayers. Is there anything else you’re willing to accept? Alternatively, what are dealbreakers, or things you perceive as harmful to you and your kids and need boundaries around?

As you navigate what is best for you and your family, consider how you can take care of yourself when you have to interact with Phil. This may be using grounding skills when you’re around him – such as deep breathing, excusing yourself to go to the restroom, or counting to 10 in your head. Maybe it’s having a signal with your husband so he can chime in and ask Phil to stop or preparing a list of conversation topics (sports, hobbies, your kids) so you can redirect the conversation.

Unfortunately, you can’t change your father-in-law, but you can change how you engage with him. That’s why getting clarity on what you’re willing to accept will be key to figuring out how to move forward with the relationship.

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a mental health professional and the creator of Brown Girl Therapy and Culturally Enough, communities focused on people with bicultural identities and immigrant parents. You can submit questions here:



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