Steering relationship with mom away from religion

Question: My husband and I were both raised in the same religion, which for various reasons we have not chosen to continue as adults. In my household growing up, we were not exceptionally observant, but my mother has grown more devout over the years. She continually asks whether I've done this or that observance, none of which I've participated in for 20 years.

I have tried on a few occasions to discuss my religious views with my mother, and it always resulted in vitriol that took us months to begin to repair. She asks why I have chosen to reject the religion - I know she sees herself as being rejected by extension - and why I am choosing to shock and hurt her in this way. I have said explicitly that I am not rejecting her.

I try to explain that I came to a gradual understanding that this religion did not fit my worldview. After the last explosion, I have kept religious discussions out of my relationship with my mother. I did not bring it up, and whenever she did, I would guide the conversation in a different direction.

This seemed to work until we became parents. My mother now asks more pointed questions than ever. I know it greatly pains my mother that I do not follow our family's religion. I, too, would be upset if my children rejected something that I hold dear, but I hope I would be able to see that they are still good people. I don't know how to answer her other than to say it's not something I believe, and I don't want to turn what is a mostly good relationship into something horrible again.

She seems to have been pushing this more and more over the last year, so I can see that my policy of avoidance is not going to work. What do I do?

Answer: Sad facts first: If your mother wants to destroy your relationship over this, she can, and you won't be able to stop her. Being close takes two people, but estrangement takes only one.

Refusing to discuss something takes only one person, too, though; unless and until she ends your relationship, you are just as equipped as you have always been to keep religion out of your conversations.

Your mother is pushing harder, yes - grandkids are the classic accelerant, though the aging process could also be having its say - however, neither circumstance says your approach needs to change along with hers.

In fact, loving disengagement is even more critical now to your chances of getting along. Instead of, "It's not something I believe," or some other reanswering of the same question, please keep guiding the conversation away from the fire.

"Nothing has changed, Mom" might be necessary sometimes, or, "Asking again won't change the answer." But first do what you can with your tactic of introducing a new subject - warmly, with a smile, even if you aren't smooth about it.

Non sequiturs can also be your friend:

She: "Are you having [child] do [ritual]?"

You: "I love you, Mom."

I could even argue that such a response does follow logically, if the heart of every inquiry is "Why don't you love me?"

"I do love you, Mom. That's why I won't discuss this again."

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Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.