Overcoming an Unequal Yoke

Considering my Situation I asked TCC of the Help Me in My Unbelief Blog to do a guest contribution post on the topic of an Atheist-Christian marriage and the difficulties surrounding that. 

When I first deconverted about nine months ago, the final blow occurring in the middle of a church service, one of my first thoughts was, What will my wife think?

Anyone who talks to deconverts in a similar situation, as I did after my own deconversion, will see that my concern was not unfounded: you can find plenty of stories about married couples where both were religious and then one deconverted, which essentially marked the end of the marriage. In my days as a Christian, we always talked about being “unequally yoked,” which I tended even then to see in pragmatic rather than moral or spiritual terms (which is how the II Corinthians verse talks about them): if you disagree with a person on something so fundamental and important as religion or origins, then that presents a wedge that can drive a couple apart. (There was also the proffered notion of a marriage being between a man, a woman, and God, which I find more than a bit creepy.)

Being of a different religious persuasion than one’s spouse is definitely a complication to a marriage, but it need not be the end of it. With the caveat that I am not a qualified expert in counseling or marital relations and that my wife and I have been dealing with this new situation for a fairly limited amount of time, here are some ideas on how to make the best out of a peculiar predicament.

Be the Exception

Let me say first that my marriage is an exception in a lot of ways: not only are my wife and I have different religious beliefs, we got married before either of us was 20 (60% divorce rate) after having started dating only six months earlier; my wife has bipolar disorder (90% divorce rate); and we have two boys with autism (85-90% divorce rate). Despite that, my wife and I will celebrate our tenth year of marriage next year.

With all of that, it might be easy to suppose that religion doesn’t play as big a factor as having special needs children or dealing with mental illness, and there’s some truth in that. Still, it does affect our marriage in some very tangible ways.

The most obvious of these is a scheduling matter: my wife attends church on Sunday mornings, and I don’t. (After I deconverted, I initially offered to keep attending church to support my wife, but she thankfully didn’t ask that of me, and I haven’t darkened the doors of a church again since, not even for a wedding or funeral.) Conversely, I attend a local freethinkers’ group, which meets bimonthly, and she of course doesn’t join me there. When either of us is out, the other takes care of our boys. (I’ll come back to children later, which raises an entirely different complication.) These different groups, seemingly diametrically opposed in mission, occupy our time on different things when religious endeavors generally provide some cohesive force in marriages, both in the common purpose and in time spent together in activities.

The other big issue is conversational: it’s tricky to talk about anything serious without getting into matters of faith or religion. This is especially true with the political climate surrounding a US presidential election, as is happening now. My wife is fortunately fairly socially liberal, with the notable exception of abortion, so that isn’t a big issue. Still, there are things that we have a difficulty talking about, most significantly death. That’s somewhat problematic in general, but it’s especially stressing given that my wife’s father died 5 years ago, and she still struggles sometimes with the loss.

So how do we relate to each other without letting these things become a wedge?

The first thing, especially after deconverting, is to make it clear that this does not have to be an issue. My wife responded fairly badly when I first came out to her that I had lost my belief, and the thing I had to keep repeating was, “I’m still the same person you married. I just don’t believe in God now.” It is natural for your spouse to see this as a betrayal, as some revelation that changes everything, but you can insist that it doesn’t have to be. The other part, then, is to translate words into actions and try to achieve some equilibrium, a new normal, so to speak.

You must also be supportive. This isn’t always easy; it can be difficult to support someone in doing something you disagree with or dislike. Still, it requires a little bit of empathy to understand the other person’s perspective, and that can actually be a beneficial thing to step back and engage with what your spouse might be going through.

In addition, don’t try to change your spouse. This of course goes both ways, and it is always good (if you’re the deconvert with a religious spouse) to communicate when you feel like you’re being pressured to change as a person. Remember that part of a marriage is respecting the boundaries of the other person’s right to an identity that isn’t wrapped up in your relationship. Both of you are autonomous people, even while your lives are interconnected, and you need to recognize that each of you has the right to make your own decisions about what you believe. Respect that right and demand that respect for yourself.

A corollary: don’t use your spouse for target practice. If you are one of those people (like me) who likes to argue and engage in reasoned discourse, remember that your spouse may not be the person to do that with. (This is actually a generally applicable point for any disagreements in a marriage: arguments, insofar as they resolve, end in a winning and losing side, which inherently disrupts the balance of a relationship. That’s not to say that such discourse can’t happen among couples, but be warned: there be dragons.) It’s easy to pick low-hanging fruit, but you can’t do it at the expense of making your spouse uncomfortable or mocked.

Find opportunities to compromise. While I understand that beliefs, especially newly-held ones, tend toward principled stances, not everything has to be this way. Pick your battles. I still maintain that you need to keep a personal line, but it has to be a reasonable one, and you have to defend those boundaries reasonably. For instance: “I know you’d like to go to an Easter morning service with you, but I know that it will make me uncomfortable, so I’d prefer not to.” Of course, you can’t give in to ultimatums about belief in general: a relationship where one person demands conformity to a set of beliefs isn’t a functional relationship, anyway. But some things won’t make any difference to you but may make your spouse feel better about matters. I still talk to my wife about the Bible sometimes (she has not studied it very intensively at all, to the point of not knowing some Bible stories you typically learn in Sunday school, which she didn’t attend as a child), making a point not to be too confrontational or opinionated about how I feel about various parts of it. (Actually, my training as an English teacher has helped here, since I treat the Bible like what it is: a collection of stories.) Find those things and use them to strengthen your relationship where you can.

Above all, show empathy. I maintain that such mixed marriages are workable, but it isn’t easy for either party. A Christian with a non-believing spouse may feel responsible for helping them return to the fold or for their spouse’s future damnation (if they don’t return), which is a big burden to bear and one that — listen up, because this is important — they are a victim of as much as you are. Give your spouse time and space to come to terms to things, if they will, and resist the temptation to become bitter or angry. And if your spouse is unwilling to follow the same advice and meet you halfway, then that is also something you should respect, even if you are unhappy with the response. You can’t force someone to try and work through something that they are unable to cope with, as unfortunate as it might be.

If you can, though, I would always recommend seeking out a marriage counselor — a thoroughly secular counselor, if possible, and absolutely not a religious leader — to help you work through your problems.

The Kids Are Alright

One additional note regarding an even stickier complication: If you have children, matters will tend to get more involved. Your spouse may want to provide religious instruction for your child(ren), possibly even private religious schooling. That may be okay with you, but it would also be understandable if it wasn’t. That’s a line you’ll have to find: if your significant other’s religion is overly dogmatic, you may not want your child in that environment. Still, your child will also not be out of your reach if they receive some religious instruction; it may even provide a useful way to teach your child how to think and reason critically. But know that this is a fight that may very well happen, and you have to negotiate what might be unacceptable and what might be worth conceding. Don’t forget that there are secular options for kids like Camp Quest that can be something to bargain with.

Most of all, communicate with each other about what principles will guide your raising of your children. One possible advantage to having parents of different belief is that the child can be exposed to more than one viewpoint and see how people of different beliefs can interact meaningfully, which can help model civil behavior. If you and your spouse agree to present views and allow the child to consider them without feeling pressured, then you can use that as a framework for your decisions. But you will need to come to a consensus one way or another, since even custody issues in the case of a divorce can be tricky, and you should know that courts tend to favor religious parents over non-religious ones.

The Bottom Line

Being in such a “mixed marriage” doesn’t have to be a recipe for failure, just like marrying young, having special needs children, or dealing with illness do not inevitably cause the collapse of marriages. Be warned, however, that it will not come easily, and it will not likely come without some grief and tears. In the end, however, a strong commitment and a great deal of work can often be the way to making your marriage the exception to the rule.

Best wishes.

TCC is a fairly recently deconverted English teacher living in the US Midwest. He blogs semi-regularly at Help Me In My Unbelief and tweets occasionally at @InMyUnbelief.

About M. Rodriguez

When I first received Christ salvation, I made it a priority to read the whole bible and I did. But it was the Bible that made me question my faith. For I found it flawed and lacking. Due to this I launched a personal inquiry/investigation into my faith, and ultimately realized that the Christian God of the Bible was indeed man-made. Now I Blog about those findings and life after Christ.
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14 Responses to Overcoming an Unequal Yoke

  1. Neil Rickert says:

    I’d say that TCC has given some pretty good advice. Of course, every situation is different and often difficult, so has to be worked out by the people involved. I will just offer my best wishes as you try to work out a path for you and your family.

    • M. Rodriguez says:

      Thanks Neil for the best wishes

    • TCC says:

      That is definitely a worthwhile point to mention: I’m making generalizations that may not apply universally to these situations. I am fortunate that my wife is not incredibly evangelical or fundamentalist; I think that would be a more difficult situation to cope with, although still not impossible. Everyone has to determine their threshold for what can be reasonably tolerated, and there does need to be a point at which you understand that you can’t force your spouse to be something they’re not. But if you can respect your spouse’s right to draw his/her own conclusions about reality, then I think that will go a long way.

      • M. Rodriguez says:

        and it does. Thanks TCC for taking the time to write this for me.

      • arkenaten says:

        Yeah, this crossed my mind, too. What if the believing spouse is a true blue evangelical fundamentalist?
        The children issue I cannt seem to find a way to resolve in such a marriage.
        Having deconverted, TCC, and for well documented reasons, how do you feel inside about the continuing religious of your boys?
        And doest it not gall you to witness other chioldren amongst your circle of friends/aquantances/former church goers being subject to the inculcation that you have broken from?

      • TCC says:

        If the spouse is extremely devout (I think that may be a bigger factor than being evangelical or fundamentalist), then the tension will certainly be greater, possibly beyond what most people would find tolerable. As for children, I am also fortunate that my wife hasn’t pushed the religious stuff on them, although they have gone to church with her one week (somewhat ironically, while I was at Skepticon 5). I do think that would be an issue, although I don’t know if it would be irreconcilable, anyway. Remember that even though kids can have their heads filled with all kinds of nonsense in church, they also have an innate curiosity that can be harnessed into the kind of questions that can undermine the dogmas of religion. Phil Ferguson actually has a good talk about this, and he had a similar circumstance where he was an atheist attending a church with his believing wife and their kids and decided to use science and open inquiry to counteract the superstition they were getting in their Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

        As for how I feel about seeing other children going through that – yes, it definitely gets to me, in the same way that seeing kids be taught to be homophobic or racist or to deny genuine knowledge of science or history gets to me. On the other hand, I know that I can’t fix all the ignorance in the world. I just do my part as a teacher and hope that I get through to some.

      • arkenaten says:

        In case it wasn’t clear, btw, I have not deconverted as I don’t recall ever being a Christian in any real sense and am now firmly an atheist.
        May I ask, have you and your missus dissused what sort of approach you will take when the children ask questions such as,
        “Why doesn”t Dad come to church any more?”
        And, what is likely to follow, (as kids will be kids) “Well if Dad doesn’t go, I’m not going either.”

      • TCC says:

        Truthfully, one of the other exceptional things about our situation is that both of our kids have language delays; our oldest, who’s almost seven, has only been talking in sentences and more comprehensible language for about a year and a half now, so I don’t expect that the question of Daddy not going to church anymore will come up. If I had to answer, I think I would say that I don’t agree with what they talk about in church, but Mommy still does, which is why she goes. I personally think that I would give my kids the choice to go to church or stay home if they so chose, and I have to suspect (since my wife doesn’t take them to church currently) that my wife would be at least somewhat okay with that as well. Admittedly, it just hasn’t come up because we don’t expect our boys to be able to make that kind of verbal request.

        Ultimately – and this would be another thing to discuss explicitly with one’s spouse, I think – I think allowing kids to experience different perspectives is important. If a spouse wants to take kids to church and the kids are okay with that, fine; it just means that the non-believing spouse has to expose them to good critical thinking at home, which can be a way of inoculating kids against at least the worst elements of religiosity. I think it’s also worth noting that it need not be the goal of a non-believing parent to have their kids become non-believers as well; teaching them how to question and think critically is more important, in my mind. If it gets them to non-belief, great, but hopefully it can have a larger impact even if they end up being religious.

  2. Peter says:

    I was reading some of TCC’s blog earlier today. There was a real sense of empathy. My wife and I are now on significantly different journeys. It’s more than three years since I stopped attending church. The big difference between us is that I stopped attending because I had had enough of RELIGION but I’m still a committed believer. It was several years ago that I came to the conclusion that I am not an Evangelical. We have been married more than 50 years and my wife just cannot understand why I feel the way I do. As someone who sees the early chapters of Genesis as myth and symbolism; questions the reality of both heaven and hell; and has far more empathy with agnostics and some atheists than with ‘Christians’ who think they have all the answers, I can appreciate TCC’s position and feel that he has offered a lot of sound advice. Well done!

  3. Howie says:

    That sounds like excellent advice. I would also like to offer some additional encouragement. My wife knows a couple that has been married for about 15 years that have a happy marriage in a similar situation as yours. We also have neighbors on our street who have been happily married for 10 years in the same situation as well. The wives of both of these couples are conservative evangelical Christians and the husbands are atheist/agnostic. If you haven’t already you should also read about Ken Daniels’ story at http://www.kwdaniels.com/ (he has a contact section on his page). He is still married as well. There are definitely people out there who make this work, so stay encouraged! 🙂 I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of thing is on the rise given the growth in the number of non-religious in our country in the past decade or so.

  4. Pingback: Unequally Yoked or Being the Yoke? | daileytalks

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