Several weeks ago, I started a series on life in the mixed belief marriage. Then I dropped the ball because of other (paid) writing commitments and a wonderful vacation. Back now, picking up the pieces of the conversation…
“I think we should write a family mission statement,” I announced over dinner one night. This earned me a raised eyebrow from my husband. My daughter continued with her eating. I took this lack of enthusiasm as a lack of knowledge on her part. “Do you know what a mission statement is?” I asked her. “Nope,” she replied, still not sounding as excited as I hoped. Abe still looking at me, in sort of a non-plussed way. Since it was Labor Day and we’d just hauled ourselves to the local Mexican place for dinner because we were too exhausted to cook, I gave him leeway for being tired.
“Look, we don’t have to do it right now,” I said. “I just want us to be thinking about it so we can do it this weekend.” Simultaneous relief and dread crossed both of their faces, not unlike when a teacher announces that the big test has been postponed a day. “Yay, we don’t have to do it right now!” is coupled with, “UGH, we still have that to worry about!” It’s a deep conflict of emotions.
Desperate to convince them of the excitement of this idea, I went on to explain what a mission statement is. “A mission statement is just a list of things you think are important. It’s to help guide you, so you can make sure you’re living the way you want to be living.” My husband, no doubt from years spent in the corporate world, muttered something like, “don’t worry, sweetie, no one pays attention to them.”
Unlike corporate mission statements, I wanted a statement that people would actually pay attention to. I wanted it to be a relevant, concise summary of our values. I wanted it to challenge us to move forward more clearly, as well as to reflect what we already did well. I wanted a miracle.
Sometimes in the faith/non-faith life, there’s a tendency to blame every little disagreement on the difference in religious traditions. I can fall into this trap myself, and the “family mission statement” conversation is one example. “If we were both religious, he’d be on board with this,” I think.
Sometimes this is true. However, even people of the same faith often find themselves in different places spiritually. In a recent conversation with some girlfriends, all of whom are married to practicing Christians, someone voiced the longing for her husband to take the spiritual lead. “I just feel like I’m often the spiritual head of our family. I’m dragging everyone else along.” Heads began to nod in agreement. “Me too!” People chimed in and the conversation went on that way for a few minutes. Then words of wisdom were spoken.
“Marriage is good. It’s important to have someone to journey with. But just because we’re living this life together doesn’t mean that our spiritual paths will always be parallel.” Again, heads nodded in agreement as people realized the profound and simple truth of this statement. Marriage can’t be built on the assumption that we’re going to see everything the same way all the time.
While this is an important realization for the same-religion couple, it’s equally important for the mixed-belief couple. We may have grown used to the various compromises that we make in day-to-day life as we blend our faith with our partner’s non-faith. Still, sometimes we may find ourselves idealizing the same-religion marriages of our friends. “Things must be perfect,” we think. And while I do think that a same-religion marries brings with it a common foundation on which to build, I also recognize that even within the same religious tradition, people will vary in intensity, depth and degree of belief. I can think of plenty of religious friends who would find the whole idea of writing a family mission statement ridiculous. (Cheesy comes to mind.) Likewise, I can think of plenty of non-religious friends who would be all over that—and a couple who already have one.
I firmly believe that the biggest danger to a mixed-belief marriage isn’t the question of faith, it’s how we view the difference. If we view it as a blessing, or at least as an understandable difference, we can succeed in creating a happy, healthy marriage. On the flip side, if we see every disagreement as a problem, those small cracks will become canyons in our relationship. We will magnify them over and over, seeing every missed church service and every unwritten mission statement as a sign of failure.
If God works in community, as Christians claim God does, then our families are the foundation of God’s work in us. This means that every interaction brings with it the possibility for grace. This is no less true for interfaith couples than it is for same-religion couples. Our challenge isn’t so much to hope that God will work in our families as to figure out how God is working. In my case, that means letting go of my need to codify everything and embrace the fact that we’re all on this journey together, trying our hardest to live our best lives.