A fair amount of my therapy practice is with couples who started their marriages with the same religious orientation and are disrupted when one spouse experiences a considerable shift in religious belief. This faith transition is a major event in a marital relationship, requiring many adjustments to the family system. In my observation, it is very painful for both parties involved. Here are some of the commonly expressed emotions:
- Fear. Individuals who shift their beliefs describe it as a scary experience to feel doubt about previously held theological assumptions. Both partners experience intense fear about what the shift means for the future of the marriage and family. Both often develop a deep-seated fear that he or she will never fully be understood and accepted by the spouse. Both can feel unsafe about expressing real thoughts and feelings.
- Hurt and Betrayal. Marrying someone with the expectation for a long-term religious commitment and having him or her change directions can feel like an enormous betrayal, and is often traumatic and disorienting. The partner who shifted sometimes feels betrayed and misunderstood by a religious institution or by gossip and exclusion by extended family, friends or neighbors. Since both partners are hurting, it can be hard for either of them to hold the pain of the other person.
- Rejection. Both partners can feel rejected by each other, or at least fear rejection. Sometimes spouses have a hard time separating the rejection of religious beliefs from personal rejection. The inability to accept a partner’s new belief system can also be a felt rejection.
- Loneliness. A faith transition can be isolating for both partners who previously shared social ties in a religious community. They can also feel isolated from each other.
- Shame and embarrassment. The partner who changed belief systems commonly experiences shame about causing disappointment for a spouse, and the partner whose spouse changed can feel shame and embarrassment about having a partner who has left the religion, particularly if that religion defines expectations for marriage and family life.
- Grief. Both partners will feel the loss of having unified doctrinal beliefs. The grief is dark, intense, deep, and scary. Grieving the theologically unified marriage can last for a long time.
- Ambivalence. It’s not uncommon for spouses to equivocate and feel uncertain about how they want to move forward. This state can seem interminable. Often, people feel conflicted because they doubt their own abilities to navigate a mixed faith marriage.
- Sadness. The need for rebalancing a family’s dynamics with a religious shift can just feel plain sad for both partners. They will often avoid having conversations about the elephant in the room, which is the disconnection of ecclesiastical beliefs, because it creates such heavy feelings.
Routinely, couples will come into therapy after one spouse has a faith crisis culminating in disengagement from a religious system. Normally, they are stuck in a pattern of withdrawing from discussions about the differences because it is just too painful for both parties. Most of the time, however, the topic is difficult to avoid because it affects issues about how to parent the children, participation in future family religious rituals, and the addition of elements which may have previously been absent, e.g. alcohol, individuals who actively oppose religious beliefs, etc.
Religious belief is at the core a manifestation of intensely personal experiences. It’s never a good idea to try to force or coerce someone back into a particular set of beliefs, either for the believer or the non-believer. Lecturing a partner with religious dogma will elicit defensiveness and bitterness. Most people who announce a faith transition have spent a lot of time internally struggling with the implications for their marriages and families, and can anticipate the arguments they will receive. It’s rarely a flippant decision.
This is always a uniquely challenging set of circumstances to navigate, but I know many couples who have found ways to retain marital stability despite religious differences. Once they learn to safely express emotions and reaffirm their commitment to each other despite religious differences, they can create a respectful space to negotiate the details of family life pertaining to specific religious practices. These negotiations are ongoing and different for every couple.
Here are some basic tips for navigating these types of conversations for couples who want to preserve their marriages after a faith transition:
- Spend a LOT of time validating the emotions of your partner. Take a curious stance about what the faith transition has been like for each of you. What has been the hardest part of this for each of you? What is the scariest part? Both people are hurting. It helps if the partner who shifted can first be curious about the pain and betrayal and fear experienced by the partner who didn’t shift. Then, it is helpful if that partner can understand the deep fears and yearnings of the partner who has changed. Sometimes partners who shifted will hold back in expressing their emotions because the pain of betrayed partners is so big that they don’t want to add more stress to the system. However, if these fears and ambivalence with a mix of other emotions aren’t heard and validated, they will still take up space and become a barrier to resolution and connection.
- Actively identify what you have in common besides the religion. This isn’t a trivial matter, especially in situations in which the religion was the main identifying feature for the couple previous to the faith transition. You can, however, actively create a new joint identity. Usually, people can start with their joint desires for raising well-adjusted children. Sometimes, they will develop a new hobby together. I don’t mean for this to sound trite, because this negotiation often occurs against a backdrop of grief for the couple’s lost joint religious identity. In my anecdotal opinion, however, couples who proactively look for ways to be together outside of the religion experience smoother adjustment.
- Create a pattern of reassuring one another. Couples can learn to reach out for reassurance and comfort about the marriage. For example, a partner might ask, “What do you still love about me? Why are you still with me?” and a partner can give a reassuring response. Tip: A reassuring response doesn’t sound like, “I’m only here because of the kids.” If that’s the case, the conversation might need to be about whether or not to continue the marriage.
- Seek external support. As mentioned, many couples in this situation feel embarrassed and need to have a group of safe people with which they can process the new development. Since support communities can be polarized in beliefs, try to find moderate support systems that can be affirming for both parties. Sometimes disengaging from a rigid system creates the need for a period of polarization. If you don’t have family or friends who can be supportive without arguing, a therapist can be helpful in processing difficult circumstances.
- Perpetuate family rituals. Since children are so sensitive to the emotional environment in a family, it’s important to reassure them that they are safe. One way children experience safety is in predictable rituals. This includes daily rituals, like bedtime, and annual traditions, like birthdays.
- Perpetuate couple connection rituals. It’s more important than ever to have ways to reinforce a joint identity with shared patterns, like a goodbye kiss or daily texts, etc. Even having a regular discussion about how to keep connection is intrinsically connecting.
- Find ways to reach out to others in the same situation. Once you have negotiated a safe space to move forward with different religious beliefs, look for ways to support other couples facing the same challenge. As mentioned, this can be very isolating, and both partners can benefit from guidance by people who are in the process of making it work.
Sometimes the choice after a faith transition is to end the marriage. If this is the case, the couple can still maintain a respectful tone and negotiate a low-conflict separation or divorce and find ways to mitigate the stress for children involved. Seek resources.
This is never easy, and is always painful at some level. However, I see many couples who truly love each other at the core and want to continue a life together despite religious disconnection. The couples who are successful at mixed faith marriages are generally able to feel compassion for each other and allow their partners to hold their own beliefs without ongoing aggression. Theological differences don’t need to signal the end of a marriage and family.
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