Q: One of the biggest hurdles in my relationship is the fact that I am Christian and my partner is atheist. We’ve had endless conversations about this disconnect: how to compromise without feeling like we are each sacrificing what we believe (my general belief in God and his belief in NOT believing), how to potentially raise children, how to navigate family traditions on both sides, etc. These talks are always terribly charged and stressful for both of us—I’m the one to constantly bring it up, because it’s important to me, and he doesn’t understand why I keep asking him to be someone he’s not.
I’ve tried to explain that I don’t expect him to start believing in God. I just want him to support me in more tangible ways, because faith is a point of connection for me, and I at least need my spouse to care about why it matters to me and show some interest in that part of my life. His opinion is that he supports my faith, so why does he have to “do” anything further?
I finally said that I needed him to at least agree to coming to church with me on Christmas and Easter, and after much debate, he agreed—and then proposed. I said yes, because I love him and we have a great life together, and I very much valued the fact that he was willing to compromise.
Except it doesn’t quite feel like compromise. A few months after our engagement, I asked if he would be willing to come with me a few times to some new churches, so I can pick one to regularly attend (by myself). He said no, got very upset, and mentioned that maybe we shouldn’t have gotten engaged yet, because he already was at his limit of what he was willing to do. I was hurt and immediately pushed back with, “Compromise is an ongoing thing, you don’t just do it once and then you’re set for life.” We had a very emotional argument about it, and then I shut down because I felt guilty—I had given him a tangible ultimatum, and I know it was hard for him to agree to it, but he did out of love for me. But even though I technically got what I wanted, it doesn’t feel like enough.
I’ve suggested therapy, since this is such a hot button issue in our relationship. He brushed it off, saying he would think about it… and two months later, it hasn’t come up again, mostly because I can tell he prefers to avoid these talks, and I’m sick of being the only one to bring up the fact that this is a problem for us.
Additionally, we both want a family, but I want faith to be a part of my children’s lives. He says he will support that, yet I don’t quite believe him, because when I ask how he feels he can support future kids (a.k.a., are you going to drive them to Sunday School? If we pray at the dinner table, will you participate? When a four-year-old asks about God, how are you going to respond?), I don’t get an answer. I am nervous that this will be a constant battle, and the arguments we have about it now make me feel uncertain about marrying him.
How will we survive in the long term if we’re at such odds about religion, and I’m the only one who wants to talk about it? Is it silly to fight so much about how our different views of faith affect kids and situations that don’t even exist yet? Am I asking for too much? Should I settle for the compromises he’s able to give, rather than the ones I ideally want?
A: Dear Anonymous,
“Even though I technically got what I wanted, it doesn’t feel like enough.” You’re right. It doesn’t feel like enough, because it doesn’t sound like it’s enough for you. And you are right, and brave as heck, to say out loud that it makes you feel uncertain about marrying him.
I’m writing this to you from the other perspective, as a less-religious person who married a deeply spiritual one. My partner K has an incredibly strong attachment to her church. She attends services almost every Sunday that we’re in town. She’s an active member of the vestry, has toyed with the idea of seminary, and works in the faith-based world. I’ve gotten used to seeing my Laura Ingalls Wilder books tangled up with titles like Why Christianity Must Change or Die. It was clear from early on that if we wanted our relationship to be a serious one, we’d have to consider issues of faith. Because I’m not as spiritual or religious as she is, and I won’t ever be. I don’t always “get” religion, and I’m not always interested in finding out more. This is a major difference between us.
But I find her commitment to her faith admirable. In her little corner of Christianity, she’s found incredible support, a place where she can simultaneously return home and move forward. Her faith has made her a curious, questioning, and brave person. I find all of those things appealing about her, and respect them. I suspect that your faith, too, played a big role in making you into the articulate, confident, lovely person you clearly are.
Quite simply, K and her religion are inseparable: there is no K without her faith. And I happen to really like K. So while I may not be committed to living a fully spiritual life with her, perhaps the way she hoped her ideal life partner would, I can commit to being part of an evolving conversation about faith and respecting her in figuring out what that looks like in our relationship, and that compromise is enough for her. Right now that means we got married in her church, and every six weeks or so I bike ride to church with her, catch up with other folks over Entenmann’s soft cookies at coffee hour, and partake in our newly established tradition of Post-Church Tacos. And I graciously take on the role of Head Pancake Project Manager on Shrove Tuesdays (since I love a party, and love being important).
But I know that this is going to change and shift in the years to come. I talked to APW’s EIC Meg, who’s part of a interfaith family (she converted to Judaism before she got hitched, and recognizes a lot of these conversations as familiar), and she said, “Sometimes you think you’ve figured it out, and then someone’s relationship with faith changes and you’re back to figuring it out together. It’s going to be a series of renegotiations, big and small, forever. The one thing you have to commit to is talking about it, forever and ever.” Put another way, it means all of us are perpetually in the grey zone, where compromise can be real messy and painful, but if you’re both willing to exist in that discomfort with each other, you might come up with some solutions that aren’t even on the table right now—but feel satisfactory to both of you. It sounds like you’re trying your hardest to articulate to him why this is important to you and what your hopes are, as honestly and lovingly as you can. But the trick is, you’ve both got to get to the point where you can figure out if you can figure out how to talk about religion.
That’s why I’m glad you’ve brought up couples therapy, and I hope you’ll keep considering it, because learning how to communicate is critical to getting both of your needs (spiritual or otherwise) met. You, me, Meg, and a ton of other couples out there are all looking down the road of many repeated conversations about religion (it’s nice to know you’re not alone, right?), and it takes work to keep these conversations from getting defensive and tense. (Um, and mine still are sometimes, even with all those “I” statements.) Which is why this post about finding a couples therapist resonated with me: “Couples therapy is about learning how to communicate with each other in a safe, healthy way. A couples therapist can help you to understand: What is the pattern you keep falling into that gets you stuck? How can you fight together effectively? You’re going to fight. You’ve probably read elsewhere that it’s not that happy, healthy couples don’t fight—it’s how they fight.” You both deserve to have a partner who, if not toeing the atheism or God line right there with you, respects that these beliefs are key tenets, and is committed to exploring how you both can pursue those values, alone and together.
As you pursue couples counseling—or just a lot more talking—you may realize that there is only so much each of you can compromise. Not only is that okay, it’s important to be able to admit that to yourself and your partner. There’s a vegetarian I know who couldn’t date an ardent paleo-eater, but could date someone who agrees to clean all the meaty pans promptly after the occasional chicken dinner. I was okay marrying someone who loathes camping, because I can still take to the woods with any number of other camping zealots while she stays at home in bug-free comfort. But I still remember the time I went on a date with someone who wasn’t a feminist because she hated labels, and I politely ended the date before my drink was even finished. We all have limits. That’s fine. But you, and your partner too, are going to have a lot of conversations to begin figuring out where your limits are and whether compromise is actually possible. Getting help with those hard conversations is a pretty good idea.
Plenty of couples negotiate interfaith partnerships beautifully, and make space for new, meaningful rituals in in their families. And the two of you may well be able to find your way out of this. First you’ve got to figure out if you’re starting from a place of mutual respect and honest communication, so you can negotiate something so important to both of you.
Team Practical, How have you found compromise between differing views of faith?