Help! My Spouse is a Believer and I am Not

unequally yoked

You have finally come out of the closet.

You have declared to your family and friends that you are an unbeliever, that you no longer are a Christian.

You feel good. You feel clean. Finally, the burden has been lifted.

Everyone knows.

Now what?

If you are married, your new-found freedom of unbelief comes with a new marital dynamic, especially if your spouse is still a  believer, still a Christian.

When I left the ministry, left the Christian Church, and finally left the faith altogether, my wife was right there by my side.  At first, I was concerned she was just following along. After all, that’s what Baptist women are taught to do, follow their husband. Don’t think, just obey. Submit.

Over time it became clear that my wife was staking out her own ground. I asked her awhile back if she wanted to go to church. Her response was a quick and sharp HELL NO. She has no interest in going to Church.

I am blessed to have a partner that embraces many of the same things I do. I am grateful she is a fellow unbeliever, and, according to some, we will roast in hell together. Our affinity for the same beliefs or lack thereof makes life much easier to navigate.

I know that some readers of this blog are not so fortunate. Their marriages are mixed marriages where one partner is a believer and the other is not.

I can’t imagine a more difficult circumstance than to have one partner committed to a belief system like Christianity and the other partner believing that the Christian God does not exist or does not exist in the form put forth by the modern Christian church.

A mixed marriage is fraught with danger. The threat of conflict and dissolution are real. Many marriages do not survive the conflict and end in separation or divorce.

Then there is the matter of children.

It is likely that the unbeliever does not want their children educated in the superstitions or doctrines of Christianity. The believer adamantly believes that the children should go to church. How are the children going to learn good moral  and ethical values if they don’t go to church, the believing spouse will ask.

Baptisms. Dedications. Confirmations. Weddings. Funerals. Mother’s Day. Christmas. Easter.

The opportunities for conflict are many . What should the unbeliever do? I wish there was a magical Unbeliever’s Bible to turn to in hopes of finding an answer, but there is not. The unbeliever is left to their own reasoning to determine how to engage and live with their believing partner.

The remainder of this post is more of a “what would Bruce do”  post rather than the rules for navigating the believer/unbeliever road. I don’t want anyone to turn my words into a how-to manual for couples trying to make their marriage work in light of one partner’s unbelief.

Communication

It is important for couples to communicate with each other, even more so when one partner does not believe. Religion, by nature, brings conflict into a mixed marriage. Religion is an attempt to answer the great questions of life: why I am here, what is the purpose of life, how should I live my life, what happens when I die?

Both the believer and the unbeliever should have the freedom to express their feelings and beliefs. Openness and honesty is very important.

In an open and honest relationship there will be times when one partner verbalizes a belief that is 180 degrees opposite from what the other partner believes. Hopefully the couple will be able to talk about their differences. The goal is understanding not acquiescence.

Discussions can, and should be, passionate, however they should never turn into abusive diatribes where one partner beats the other over the head with the Bible or mocks the mythical sky God. Respect your partner’s beliefs, even if you think their beliefs are foolish or contrary to reason. Believers and unbelievers alike must learn to respect those who hold to different beliefs than theirs.  I know this is not easy.  Sometimes we have to swallow our pride and sense of rightness.

Proselytizing is never acceptable, Sicking the pastor, church members, or deacons on the unbelieving partner is sure to cause conflict and could ultimately destroy your marriage. Think twice about requesting prayer for your unbelieving partner. How will they respond when a filled with the Holy Ghost, loose-lipped church member sees your partner at the mall and proceeds to let them know how the WHOLE church is praying  for them in the hope that they will become a Christian?

Children

Children are a lightening rod for conflict in a mixed marriage. It is likely that the believing partner will want the children to attend church. After all, where will the children learn morals and ethics?

I think it is proper for the unbeliever to lovingly confront the believing partner’s assumption about the value of church in teaching morals and ethics. Personally, I think children learn ethics and morals from those they interact with the most. Two hours a week in church pales in comparison to the time parents spend with their children.

Church “may” benefit children, but it also has the potential to harm them. Churches can be, and are, dens of intolerance. Anytime a church groups people into classes (saved ,lost, heterosexual, sodomite) there is a risk the children will be taught to be intolerant. Whole generations of racists received their racist training compliments of the Christian church.

What will the children be exposed to at church? Will they be pressured to make a “decision” for Jesus, asking Jesus into their heart? Will they be encouraged to develop critical thinking skills or will they be taught dogma and encouraged to view unbelievers as heathens, unsaved, and headed to hell?

Children should never be used to coerce the unbelieving partner into going to church. More than one spouse has used their children as a tool for evangelism. “Why don’t you go ask daddy/mommy if they want to go to church with us.” Such a tactic usually results in marital conflict. Children should never be put between the believing and unbelieving parent.

Moments of intense conflict often come when the believing partner wants one of the children baptized or confirmed. The unbeliever most likely thinks religious rituals are a waste of time. However, the believer, if they are serious about their religion, believes the rituals have great meaning and significance. Baptism washes away original sin, is a sign of the covenant, an outward sign of an inward act, etc. (churches have varied views on what baptism signifies and whether it is a means of grace)

I attended the baptism of my granddaughter Emma. Her mother and father attend the Catholic church. To be honest I didn’t want to go to the baptism. I didn’t want to step foot in a church building, not for fear that it would fall in, but because of the anger I still have towards organized religion. I have a special place of anger for the Catholic church. I do not understand why anyone would want to be a part of a church that has such a bloody history and a history of encouraging and ignoring sexual abuse.

But Emma’s baptism is not about me and my views. Her parents wanted her baptized and I respect their beliefs. As long as I did not have to participate in the baptism and I wasn’t required to affirm any religious dogma I thought I could attend the baptism without fear of conflict. I did have a “I want to shout bullshit” moment when the priest exorcised the devil out of my granddaughter, but I held my tongue.

A mixed marriage with children is fraught with danger and there will be many places where the marriage can be shipwrecked unless both partners work very hard to avoid conflict .

In general I will attend religious rituals, ceremonies as long as I am not required to participate in the ritual or ceremony. In the case of my granddaughters baptism I attended  the ritual to support my son and daughter-in-law.

At the start of my unbelief I found it impossible to attend any religious ceremony. I was too angry and I feared making a scene. Over time I have mellowed out and now I am comfortable attending rituals and ceremonies in support of my children and grandchildren.

Holidays

Holidays are special times when the risk of believer/unbeliever conflict is especially high. Christmas and Easter are two holidays that offer any number of points of conflict. Avoiding conflict requires everyone to be willing to compromise. Remember the overall objective is to have a home free of animosity and conflict.

Christians believe that Christmas is a high holy day, the birth of their savior Jesus Christ. The unbeliever doesn’t believe the Christmas story. They likely know that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th and no doubt they have read about the similarities between the Christian religion and other pagan religions.

Easter is very similar to Christmas. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Easter is THE day in the Christian Church. As a pastor I often said that a lot of people are like a flower that blooms twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. The unbeliever likely knows the history behind the church co-opting the Easter holiday from the pagans. The unbeliever probably doesn’t believe in the supernatural and they likely consider Christ’s resurrection, along with the virgin birth and the miracles he did, as nothing more than superstitions.

When I first left the Christian faith I did not want anything religious uttered in my home. “Keep that shit to yourself” was my approach. Over time I realized I was being unfair to family members who were religious. Life is not all about me.

When the family gathers in our home I ask my father-in-law, a retired pastor, to say a prayer over the meal. I allow this for the benefit of others. I am of the opinion that prayer accomplishes nothing since there is no God that answers prayer.

Once again, as long as I am not put in a position that requires me to participate in a ritual or affirm religious dogma, I am indifferent to those who want to do differently. Several years ago, one family member wanted us to go around the dinner table and say what we were thankful for. (the implication is thankful to GOD for) I asked that it not be done because it put everyone on the spot to come up with something they are thankful to God for. Needless to say the meal was quite tense. I was thankful when the meal was over.

Conclusion

Any relationship that brings believers and unbelievers together will have conflict. The key is to manage the conflict in such a way that allows each person to maintain their dignity and self-respect. This is not easy to do when one partner thinks the other is a potential salvation prospect or thinks the beliefs the believing partner are bat-shit crazy.

This is a two-way street. Unfortunately, it seems that believers almost always want the unbeliever to back down. After all, they are one with the new unbelief belief. The family has always been Christian and the unbeliever should not expect them to change.

The unbeliever does not, or should not, expect believers to deny their belief in God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. All the unbeliever asks for is respect. My wife and I have stopped going the her family’s Christmas get-together because the level of religious and political intolerance is so high that it makes impossible for us to have a good time and raises the risk of me having a stroke. Polly’s family expects us, the only unbelievers in the family, to go along with whatever is done, yet they are offended when they come into our unbelieving home, a home where religion has no place, and we act according to our unbelief.  At times, it seems this gulf is almost impossible to bridge.

Sometimes, couples have to decide that religious discussions (and often political) are off-limits. This is not ideal because of the many areas of life religion touches, but, for the sake of the marriage, it might be better not to discuss issues relating to the believing/unbelieving divide. This requires both partners to compartmentalize their lives.

Neither partner should demand or force the other to participate in things that violate their conscience. Share the 90% of life you have in common with each other and realize that many people would love to be 90% compatible with their partner.

No couple is 100% compatible. My wife and I tolerate each other rather well. We can talk about most anything. However, there is one thing we can’t talk about, suicide. When depressed and racked with pain head to toe, I will talk about taking a ride on the .357 train. My dear wife freaks out about this and it is one area where we can not seem to have open, honest discussion. I could be bitter about this, but that would hurt our marriage. So, my counselor has the privilege of parsing and dealing with “Bruce’s suicide talk.”

I could focus on the one thing Polly and I can not talk about OR I can focus on the wonderful, open, loving marriage we have 99% of the time. It is easy to become fixated on the 1% and totally miss the wonderful 99% you share with your partner.

Some mixed marriages will end in separation or divorce. The believer/unbeliever divide is too wide and one or both partners find it impossible to find ways to close the divide.  Perhaps the believer/unbeliever conflict exacerbates problems that were under the surface long before the conflict over religion began. The conflict over religion only brought light to matters that have lurked in the shadows for years.

Before dissolving your marriage I would encourage you to see a marriage counselor. Make sure the counselor is a secular counselor. A religious counselor, one who believes the Bible is truth, can not be objective.  The secular counselor is able to see the issues more clearly since their view is not clouded by dogma and presuppositions about family, marriage, etc. I know that some Christians will find my advice offensive, but if they think about it for a moment they will know I am right. A conscientious Christian counselor most likely has views about human nature, sin, marriage, and divorce that would only muddle the problems the couple is having.  When Jesus is the ultimate answer for every problem, an unbeliever will find such counseling offensive and a waste of time.

Above all, talk to each other. Be open and honest with each other. Be passionate without resorting to  temperamental outbursts and ill-advised pronouncements. For those of us who have been married a long time, consider the investment you have made in your marriage over the years. When someone suddenly professes faith in Christ or professes they no longer believe in God it can cause turmoil in the best of marriages. Move slowly and carefully. Consider the other person, the person you love, the person you have spent a lifetime with, facing everything life can throw your way. Facing this latest battle will not be easy but most likely you can face it together and find a way to live in peace with each other, leaving thoughts about eternity to that day when we all will know whether or not our beliefs were right.

repost, revised, updated

Comments (14)

  1. amimental

    I admire your restraint… devil in a baby??? good grief.
    My husband still believes there ‘might’ be a higher power, but he doesn’t think it’s GOD as we were taught as children. And he thinks it’s ‘possible’ not definite. So we do pretty well together with my atheism. Both my children are atheists, although I would support their wishes to be Christian or whatever… their choice. My son, when deciding who he would and would not date put ‘must be an atheist’ at the top of his list. He found the most amazing girl to marry, too. ::sighing with happiness::

    My mom’s friend was married to an atheist man. Barbara took her children to church and tried to make good Christians out of them, but it only worked on one of the four. She blamed her husband for it, but I think it’s just that one of her children was more open to the voodoo.

    Interesting post.

    Reply
  2. RBrownie

    My husband and I don’t see eye to eye on religion but he doesn’t like going to church so so far our daily lives haven’t been impacted much. I agree with you emphasis on communication. We know where we stand and we still love and respect each other.

    Reply
  3. Erin

    Very timely, Bruce. I went to a Secular Humanist group the other day, and someone said “I don’t know how you stay married. That has to be tough.” It is, but it helps that my husband doesn’t attend church, even though he still considers himself a Christian. He doesn’t push to take the kids to church (although, being teenagers, they have a lot more say in that than they used to). It helps that I choose not to talk about it much with Christians we know — only because don’t think the argument is worth my time. I go to a Humanist group, but I don’t talk about it with him. Communication is good, but on the other hand, when we agree to disagree, continuing to bring up the topic only leads to trouble. I don’t know what the future holds — could this issue end it? Sure it could. But, we’ve been married 22 years, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’ll check back in another 10 years. :)

    Reply
  4. Texas Born & Bred

    i have a “mixed” marriage. My belief is waning, but hers is very strong. It’s way, way easier for me to stay in the church scene. My marriage is more important than me being “true to my feelings”. And there are some things I still like about church.

    I still very much enjoy singing traditional hymns. I also enjoy being a “do-gooder” where we help out with a number of activities. We actively help with Habitat for Humanity and also help coordinate men’s activities (like doing honey-dos for members who can’t do for themselves). We also participate in a Halloween carnival for the local neighborhood, which (being in Texas) is about 40% hispanic, 30% black, and 30% white kids. I also treasure the sense of community like sitting on the back porch visiting with other folks, discussing the world’s problems.

    So I get quite a bit from going to church and keep my marriage calm and even fun. I don’t proselatize (sp?) for christ nor do I demand people listen to my faith doubts. A few guys ask my opinion, then I admit I don’t believe in Genesis or the trinity. Those same guys admit back to me that they don’t believe this stuff either.

    So my advice to a nonbeliever is to find a way to appear as a lukewarm christian, which I find much better than the alternative of putting a wedge between me and my wife. Also, I care too much for my wife to put her through such torture. After, it should be easy for a non-believer to fake being a lukewarm believer.

    Reply
  5. Zoe Bloomer

    Exorcised the devil . . . oh crap! They actually do that?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Yep. Saw it with my own eyes. I asked my son if he believed that. Rolled eyes and said no.

      Reply
  6. Lydia

    You should give marriage advice more often, Bruce. You have some really good thoughts on the topic.

    Reply
  7. tlethbridge

    Be careful Bruce, the pastor in you is coming out :-). Seriously, great post, and this is a road we are still traveling. I think everyone will be unique. Currently, this is a topic my wife does not care to discuss. The last time we were in Sunday School together, the topic involved women’s roles and she surprised me by making a statement that indicated a less than inerrant view of scripture. However, when we were in the car leaving and I asked about it, she said something to the effect of “I might agree with you on some things, but I am still angry about it.” While I desperately would like to have a conversation about it, I agree it is best to leave this in the 10% category and everything else in our marriage pretty much rocks.

    Ironically, because of my wife’s schedule, I attend church more often that she does. I should say attend Sunday School; neither of us have attended main service for over a year but we both feel close to people in our small group. My daughter is college age now and describes herself as a deist. My son is in high school and would prefer to sleep in on Sunday mornings. Since I let him if my wife is working, the atheist in our family attends service more often than anyone else.

    Holidays are not a problem for us, I still enjoy having creches set up in the house and think Christmas should be a Christian holiday and not a materialistic frenzy. We still say grace before family meals and I have come to terms with expressing gratefulness for the many blessings I enjoy from things I cannot control. Whether I should express that thanks to karma, luck, providence, God, or something else is less important than the humility of remembering the life I enjoy is not solely a result of my own decisions and hard work.

    Thanks for a great post. This is a journey I am still traveling. I know my wife looks at things very differently than I do. The evidence that convinced me would probably not have great weight with her. Hopefully we will someday be able to talk about this without causing either of us pain.

    Reply
  8. Angiep

    Thanks, Bruce, your comments were good advice even for “non-mixed” marriages such as mine. Also, I attended a funeral last week and found it e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y difficult to sit through the pastor’s talk and the prayers. Luckily my husband and I were able to tear it all apart afterwards, and I felt much better.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Funerals are the worst for me. I see them as God-sanctioned lying services. Never been to a service where the recently departed was considered anything but a Christian who is now in heaven. Even my woman-chasing, ass grabbing, abusive, leering, rapist uncle made it to heaven according to the local Baptist preacher. Why? He got saved as a teenager. Didn’t darken the doors of the church in over 50 years, but he is now singing with the angels in heaven. It took all my inner strength to not stand up and say, BULLSHIT.

      Reply
  9. John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    Thanks for this post. I am probably an agnostic who believes that there might be a God of some kind. This God is a God of my imagination who is somehow like the human Jesus: compassionate and kind and One who loves his enemies, The trouble is he probably doesn’t exist.

    My wife is an Evangelical believer who accepts full equality for women and same-sex oriented people but still believes in an infallible bible, so I do not believe that I can ‘come out’ on the agnostic question.

    Of the many Jesus’s in the bible and in the history of the church, I like the Liberation Jesus. So long as I can say that I am following Jesus (in my case the radical Jesus), my wife is happy. I don’t see any point in raising the idea of whether God exists with her as it could inflame our relationship.

    Shalom,
    John Arthur

    Reply
  10. Ahab

    Sometimes, however, a couple’s divergent religious beliefs are so incompatible that a relationship is difficult, if not impossible. While I was in grad school, the person I was seeing converted to Christianity six years into our relationship, and became increasingly fundamentalist. It eventually destroyed the relationship.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I think you are right. Religion can cause any number of conflicts. One couple I have known for years, an Evangelical and an atheist, found a way to coexist. However, when I asked the Evangelical if she had to do it over again would marry the atheist, she said NO! She told me she found that it was hard not to be able to share with her husband that which was very intimate and important to her. I was surprised by her answer but I fully understand it.

      Reply
  11. sarah

    This article was so perfect for me. I have just found out my husband of 16 years has been hiding his new found Christian beliefs from me for 3 months. He is a total convert. Our life is in a tornado of religious bullshit, pain & betrayal of everything that has made us who we have been for my entire adult life.
    I don’t know how to handle that he loves his god more than his children & wife now. I don’t know how to handle this talk of false gods. I am floored that God entered our life so quickly & has destroyed it so thoroughly.
    After reading this I will take a breath. Remember to breathe before I bolt out the door.
    Thankyou.

    Reply

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