Over the last few years my beliefs have changed drastically from fundamentalist Christian (since childhood) to staunch atheist. There came a certain point in which I finally shed my fear-based beliefs and overcame my indoctrination to religion and embraced rational and free thought. It was a painful internal struggle but I felt relieved and liberated after finally shedding old superstitions, which conflicted with reason and logic.
“Coming out” as an atheist is by far the hardest part. I was married before I became an atheist, and am married to a very strong Christian woman. I love her very much, but confessing my new belief to her has caused great distress and exposed some weak spots in our marriage, as I find it difficult to talk openly about my beliefs in fear of how she might react. In the past years, I have expressed my “doubts” to her; but at the time I was speaking as a Christian. At the time it was nothing but a minor “phase” I was going through as a conflicted Christian.
However, over time I have completely abandoned my Christian faith. I could no longer keep it bottled up inside and I felt that I had to be honest with her about my beliefs. She did not react as I had hoped. I had hoped I would be able to have a calm, rational, and logical discussion with her. Instead, she became very upset and threw things at me in anger and betrayal. In a way I do I feel like I had betrayed her; as I had mainly kept it inside as an internal struggle. Unfortunately it was a struggle in which I could not anticipate the outcome.
To complicate matters, we will be having our first child soon. On the rare occasion in which we do talk about it, she mentions things like “I can’t live like this” or “how are we going to raise our kids?” or “I can’t live in an atheist household” which makes me think she is going to divorce me because of my drastic change in beliefs. That is an outcome I am terrified of, as we will be having a child soon and I have made it clear I did not want to get divorced.
I have tried to present to her some books I have read, in hope she would see where I was coming from and understand my reasons. On the flip side I have agreed to read some Christian books at her request, although I remain unconvinced, I read them anyway.
It feels like a one-way street. I know I cannot force my beliefs on her, or expect a sudden “conversion” to atheism (after all, my gradual shift into atheism progressed over 3 years). I know I will have to be patient, but I find it difficult to even talk about it because I am afraid she will call it quits.
I have no idea what to do and no one to talk to.
Dear Bad Timing,
I’m taking from your letter that your primary goal is to preserve your marriage, so my advice will be toward that goal.
As they developed, you told your wife about your doubts. Later, you told her about your complete loss of belief. She did not receive that one well, but you did manage to tell her where you stand. So your truth is basically told, even though she may not fully understand or accept it yet.
The main challenge here is fear. Your wife is afraid of whatever she imagines the word “atheist” means, and you are afraid of what she will do as a result of her fear. But both of you giving in to your fears and avoiding talking will not solve this problem. She is throwing tantrums and you are shutting down what you need to say. Turning away from what we fear only means that it will come up from behind us. Turning away from a problem makes us unable to see it clearly, and unable to see that it has solutions.
Before you begin talking with her, you need to be crystal clear with yourself what your purpose will be in further discussions about this. If you have in the back of your mind even a tiny motive of getting her to eventually agree with your views, rid yourself of that. If she ever becomes an atheist, that must be entirely from inside her, just as your process has been entirely your own. Any attempt to sway her to your opinion of religion will likely result in a divorce.
So do not try for agreement, only work toward understanding. Your only goal should be to give her assurance that despite this difference, your marriage can still be a strong and happy one, and that you can work out mutually acceptable arrangements.
As I’ve said before, (and readers, forgive me for the repetition) begin, continue and conclude with “I love you.” Tell her that you have confidence that both of you are mature enough to talk about this, and that together you will be able to find your way forward. Promise her that you do not have any intention to try to change her beliefs about God or Christianity, you only want to help her see that you will remain the good husband you have always been. Reassure her that you are still the same man you were before you changed your views on religion. You loved her then, and you love her now. You were a good man then, and you are a good man now. Your character, your morals and ethics are measured by what you do, not by what you think. Regardless of your innermost thoughts, you have been and will continue to be a good husband. After all, she didn’t notice this change in you; you had to tell her.
Next, you’ll need to address specific fearful thoughts and assumptions that she may have. To do this, you will need some communication skills. Most of good communicating is not about speaking skillfully, but about listening skillfully. This is sometimes called “active listening.”
Listen to her for the meaning and the feeling, without planning your rebuttal in the back of your mind. Just listen attentively, and reflect back to her a few of her own phrases that help her to know that you are understanding her meaning and her feeling. This will help to draw out of her what is difficult for her to articulate or to simply say aloud. Do not agree or disagree until she is fully finished. When she is done, briefly state in your own words what she has told you, and amend it as she corrects any details. So far, you’ve said nothing about your own thoughts, and she feels satisfied that she has been fully and accurately heard.
In your responses, take one fearful idea at a time. For instance, your wife may tell you about some preconceived ideas she has of what atheists are about. After listening and reflecting very carefully, tell her what your atheism means for you. Avoid using terms like “superstition” or other words about her religion that may carry an insult to her. Just focus on your own thought process, saying that you came to need more to be convinced than you have so far found. I expect that her scary assumption will be soothed by your simple explanation.
Gently find out what exactly she means by “I can’t live like this.” Live like what? Listen to the scary scenario, and then let her know that the two of you will be essentially living just as you always have been, with the possible exception of you not going with her to church. Many strong marriages have that arrangement, and it does not have to be a source of constant tension or resentment.
Another statement you have quoted from her is, “I can’t live in an atheist household.” Lovingly find out what does she imagine an “atheist household” is like. Then tell her you don’t want an atheist household, you want a loving and open household, where both of you can be free to believe as you need to believe, and where, while you may not agree on everything, you still understand and respect each other.
Finally, her question, “How are we going to raise our kids?” is a legitimate and important question. The life of your child will keep the two of you linked for the rest of your lives, whether you remain married or not. Think it out carefully ahead of time and have a suggestion that you think will work for both of you. Be willing to negotiate. I do not think that there is one single best formula for this issue. There are many possible arrangements and agreements that people in similar marriages have made, and with patience and maturity they can work. Here is another post about a Christian/atheist couple, Erik and Kate. They frequently post comments here, and if they read this, they may have some insights to offer. There are several comments on that post dealing with the issue of raising children, and you might find some helpful ideas there as well.
This may take more than one sit-down. Such active listening and earnest sharing can be exhausting. Whenever you need to rest, mutually agree to resume at a specific time. Don’t just say that you’ll talk again soon. You both may be tempted to keep putting it off. Punctuate your sessions with your love for her and your gratitude for the effort she is putting into them.
If there is still too much tension to do this, then I recommend conjoint marriage counseling. It should be neutral on questions of religion, having nothing to do with changing one person’s beliefs to match the other’s. The counselor should play the role of communication coach and referee, helping the two of you to take turns actively listening, honestly sharing and working out solutions.
If that is also not possible, there is one other approach that can at least get your thoughts and feelings expressed without being interrupted or turned into a fight by emotional outbursts and fits of temper. Write her a long, caring letter. Gryph, a reader of Friendly Atheist made a very good suggestion of this method for similarly mixed couples, and it is posted here. This might work to serve as an ice breaker, with face-to-face discussions later.
Bad Timing, although there is tension and anxiety in your relationship right now, this could be the beginning of much better times for both of you. You will both be more relaxed because you are able to just be who you are, and both of you will have practiced good communication skills which will be very valuable when the complexities of raising a child, dealing with an adolescent and negotiating with a young adult each come in their stages.
I feel confident that with large quantities of patience and effort in equal measure, your marriage and your family will thrive. I have not encountered a single marriage or family, including my own, that did not require copious amounts of those two qualities. Marriages and families are the most difficult, most complex and most amazing things that people ever do. They are hard work. The highest joys and the deepest sorrows come from them. We have to accept the whole package. Some of those joys and sorrows are inevitable, and some we can influence for the better with our willingness, humility and courage. I wish you, your wife and your child a wonderful journey together.