”Disbelieving on a Deadline” wrote a long and detailed letter about his relationship with his girlfriend. I have edited it to distill it down to the essential issues of their relationship. To summarize their background: They are both scientists, currently finishing their PhDs at the same university. He has a few months to go, and she has two years. He is 29 and she is a little younger. Pressure for finding work in their field as soon as they graduate is beginning to build, and he feels that he must reach a decision about their relationship within six months. Where I paraphrase him, I use parentheses and italics.
My problem, briefly, is that my current girlfriend (of two years) is a theist, I’m an atheist, and we can’t quite agree on how to raise the hypothetical children we’d someday like to have. I believe my girlfriend has the additional problem that she isn’t completely comfortable with the fact that I think her religious beliefs are nonsense.
We’ve both compromised our plans for our hypothetical children some, with me saying I could allow the kids to go to church sometimes, but preferably UU, and her saying UU would be okay (although she still wants to go to an Episcopal church herself sometimes).
We appear to have reached a stumbling block on prayer, however. I’m adamantly against having small kids pray, because they have no idea what’s going on and it can get weird behaviors ingrained in them before they have much of a filter. She’s apparently not very flexible on wanting them to pray. There may be other issues; it’s an ongoing conversation.
We discussed religion a great deal at the beginning of our relationship. As we talked, however, we ran into two problems from my perspective: First, she couldn’t actually define God in any coherent way. (and I think children should not be taught a concept so complex and vague that even adults cannot understand it.) The second problem was that she admitted that when she really started to think about these things it did make her question the existence of God, which was horribly uncomfortable for her, and so even if there were no or even contrary evidence, she was going to believe in God anyway.
I respect her as a person, I respect her intelligence, I respect her reading, her hobbies, her friendliness, her morality, her research, her thoughtfulness, her charity, and more. But there’s no way I’m going to respect her papered-over cognitive dissonance. This nonsense of religion is very important to her, however, and she’s not sure if she wants to commit fully to someone who will never share it with her.
The problem is that we are very compatible apart from the religion issue. I’ve never met anyone I mesh with as well as her, and I really don’t want to lose her.
(I have some work prospects in my field out of state and overseas, but I’d be willing to take temporary work nearby to wait for her to finish her PhD if I felt more confident that we have a future together.) I love my career, but I love her more. My girlfriend and I talk about this stuff, we respect each other, we both want marriage to be a life-long thing. I’m not sure what advice you could give here, but as a former marriage and family counselor, I imagine you might have some. Thanks,
Disbelieving on a Deadline
Firstly, I apologize if my editing, summarizing and paraphrasing does not feel entirely accurate from your point of view. Let’s summarize the pluses and minuses of your current relationship:
Plus: You love her, you mesh well, and you respect her many excellent qualities.
Minus: You do not respect her religious ideas, which you consider to be nonsense and self-kidding. Her religion is very important to her, and she’s uncomfortable knowing how you feel about it.
Plus: The two of you have hypothetically arrived at a compromise about religious exposure for your future children, most likely involving UU.
Minus: The two of you have reached an impasse about teaching your future children to pray. She is adamantly for it, you are adamantly against it.
Plus: The two of you are able to talk extensively about these issues of religion.
Minus: Talking extensively about these things is beginning to make her feel doubtful, anxious and obstinate about her faith. This may shut down your dialogue.
Plus: Both of you agree on marriage being a life-long commitment.
Minus: Both of you have serious doubts that you will ever be able to be comfortable and compatible with your differences if you marry.
These pluses and minuses seem to cancel each other out, adding up to zero. Zero does not mean “no chance for you,” it means “neutral.” The two of you can continue to enjoy each other’s company as you are, unless the two of you decide that you must marry. The only reason to marry would be to have children, and these non-existent people are complicating your lives. Don’t let them. Considering all the issues about children now, before you have established careers, is very premature. By creating an irreconcilable conflict about this now, you are stealing trouble from the future, a future that for many other unknown reasons may not come to pass.
I suggest that you both agree to shelve the prospect of kids for now, which takes away the need to marry, which in turn takes away the pressure to find agreement on so many things. Continue to enjoy how well you mesh, talk gently about your differences, and let some time go by as you finish your doctorates and start your careers.
You’re 29, but believe me, you are both still very young. So many parts of your personalities are still developing and changing. As the two of you continue to change and grow, you might converge or you might diverge. Only time will tell, and you don’t have to rush things by pulling the future into the present. The future will get here of its own accord. What you will be to each other some day is not yet knowable. In the meantime, the present contains this interesting and loving couple. Just appreciate each other in the fullness and richness of the present moment.