Several years ago I was at a women’s Bible study when the topic turned to family life. One by one, many of the women shared a sadness about their partner’s faith life. One women was in a mixed-belief marriage with formerly religious man. Although her husband still went to church with her, he did it reluctantly. The grief over the death of this part of their relationship was deep.
One woman was less religious than her husband and found his church commitments stifling. Five others were part of a “perfect church couple,” and yet still found it hard to find common ground on church commitments and spiritual practices at home.
Now, I’m no stranger to the mixed-belief marriage. I’d categorize myself as being “extremely religious” while my husband is a classic “none” in terms of religious affiliation. What surprised me about the conversation was that even among couples who shared the same religion, differences in expression and intensity varied greatly. And each woman experienced this differences with a twinge of grief, frustration, anger or all three.
It appears that a couple are likely to find themselves on different pages about religion, even if they are both of the same tradition.
This actually makes sense. After all, spirituality isn’t a static experience. (At least it shouldn’t be.) The life of faith is dynamic. That means we all change along the way. Add a marriage and you have two people who are changing. The likelihood of your spiritual needs being exactly the same all the time is extremely low.
This is probably the first step in coping with faith differences–to recognize that it’s unrealistic to expect that your partners will always align. Once you stop expecting the impossible, you can work with and maybe even appreciate what you do have. Here are a few other thoughts, in the form of a handy list:
- Allow yourself to feel the grief. You know, like all good advice, there’s a balance. And like all good advice lists, I can’t tell you where it is. But I can say that while it’s not healthy to wallow in jealousy or regret over what “other couples have,” it’s also not good to pretend that your partner’s faith life doesn’t affect you. It’s only when you know what aspects of your faith and theirs are important that you can come up with ways for both of you to get your spiritual and marital needs met.
- Make some church friends. If your partner isn’t religious or is going through a religious change, you’re going to need some church friends. You need people who can support you in your faith journey even when your spouse can’t. So if you’re not active in your church community, join an adult Sunday school class, a small group or just ask someone out for coffee. This is important self-care. I’ve seen more than one spouse feel guilty over the time they spend at church while their non-religious spouse is home. But healthy marriages thrive when people have time to do what’s important to them.
- Don’t pry, harangue or cajole. My favorite advice on interfaith marriages comes from the PC(USA) tradition:
A non-coercive, non-manipulative family environment is important to spiritual well-being. Striving for conversion of one spouse to the other’s faith does not encourage harmony.”
People need time and space to grow and this includes spiritual growth–constant pressure to change isn’t conducive to marital happiness or spiritual development for either of you. Your spiritual life can’t deepen if you’re obsessed with someone else’s spiritual life. And chances are, your spouse won’t be won over by yours (or anyone’s) begging. Does this mean you can’t share your faith? Or that you can’t hope that your partner will return to Christianity? (Or join it, as the case may be.) No, not at all. But the attitude should be one of sharing, not one of fixing.
4. Pray. Keep praying for yourself, your marriage and your spouse. None of us know the mysteries of grace and how Spirit will move. But we do trust that God changes hearts and minds. So by all means, pray for for you spouse to have an experience of God–not for your benefit but theirs. Pray that you’ll learn from your differences. Pray that your marriage could inspire others to love those who are different from them.
- Celebrate your marriage. This builds on my very first point. Once you’ve been realistic about the challenges, go ahead and celebrate the good parts. Just as there are unique challenges in a mixed-belief marriage, there are unique blessings. For me, it’s a tremendous gift to have someone with a drastically different worldview to talk about all the deep things with. It means I don’t become siloed in my Christian faith, something that would be all too easy to do. It also means that our daughter has a living, breathing example of how people with deeply held disagreements can work, love and live together.
Whether your spouse is of a different religious tradition, no religious tradition or the attends church with you every Sunday, chances are that at some point you’ll find yourself on different paths in your spiritual journeys. With a little intentionality and a lot of love, you can both love and support each other despite the differences.