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.