Ask Richard: Being Frank and Honest With My Girlfriend About My Atheism

Dear Richard,

I’ve been dating my girlfriend for a year and, even though she is not religious now, she has said she wants to return to the Christian faith she had as a child. Her strong connection to her religious family is a large part of that. Within the last two years, I’ve become a non-believer and have no desire to return to my Christian roots. I told her about being a non-believer early in our relationship. She has said that she would not date someone who didn’t believe in a higher power but has made an exception with me. To compound the issue, I’ve had to dodge religious questions or tell half-truths (at her request) when confronted by her family. We also plan to attend a week-long outdoor camp put on by her family’s church soon, something that I agreed to going to because of how important the annual event is to them.

My problem is that, frankly, I don’t want that much religion in my life. I grew up with it but have abandoned it for various reasons. I feel like she and I are at a point where we should start looking at the future. I’ve not told her this, but I don’t see religion in our future. I wouldn’t want to convert to her religion if her church requires it for marriage. Nor would I want to take any future children only to a Christian church and put them in a Sunday school program. I worry about whether I should tell her, because I believe it might end the relationship. If you remove the religious issue, we are just a typical (but good) couple with typical (but not huge) problems.

Am I being unreasonable? Where do I go from here?

Sincerely,
Sans Belief

Dear Sans,

You are struggling with the basic foundation of love relationships: honesty. The issue of honesty is why they succeed or why they fail. It is why they are filled with joy or filled with pain.

Early on, you honestly told your girlfriend of your lack of belief. She was honest with you about her growing connections to her religion and her preference of only dating someone who believes in a higher power.

She made an exception to this for dating you. Such exceptions often have conditions or are reconsidered later, after some amount of time. You may have discovered that she will tolerate some ways that you express your unbelief, but not other ways of expressing it.

Looking at the possibility of a permanent relationship, things get even more conditional. For instance, your not accompanying her to church might be acceptable to her, but you wanting to limit prospective children of yours from going to church or Sunday school might be unacceptable to her.

Over time, her conditions and boundaries will likely change, but it is difficult to predict which way. She might become more relaxed and accepting, or she might become more demanding of having things her way. Your conditions and boundaries also will probably change, but it is also difficult to predict how they will change.

Even minor dissimilarities in religious beliefs can be extremely divisive, and yours are major. While the two of you may find ways to adjust to your differences, you will both have to continuously put effort into keeping the wedge from working its way deeper between you. It will be constant work. Some couples can keep it up, while others eventually cannot.

But the main problem is that both of you are straying away from being honest.

She has asked you to be less than honest, less than frank, less than genuine, less than real, less than you when around her family, being secretive, evasive and telling half-truths. Let’s clear away the euphemisms. She wants you to lie to them. You have agreed to do so.

The implication is that such lying to her family will spread to lying to her as well. You’re already keeping secrets from her about your preferences for future children’s religious upbringing. Secrets are unspoken truths. Couples living together require a standard of honesty that is higher than we use in most other relationships, so unspoken truths between a couple are… lies. Lies beget more lies. The rationalizations that we use to justify keeping one truth from our lovers can be used to justify keeping other truths from them. Untruthfulness grows like a tumor, and it kills love.

I can empathize with your quandary. You love her, you like her, and you want to be with her. But you’re afraid that being fully truthful will end the relationship.

That might end it, but being untruthful will definitely end it. I have never seen a relationship that required secrets and lying to each other that lasted. The truth will out, and if you are not two people who are well practiced with facing the truth, you will break up.

If you really care about her, then you must honor her and honor your relationship with your fully spoken truths, holding nothing back, and letting whatever must happen, happen. Really caring about her, you would not want her to be in a relationship built on secrets, falsehoods and illusions. Really caring about her, you would want her to be in a relationship that deeply supports and nurtures her with authenticity, even if that would have to be with another man. Really caring about her, your being with her would not be as important to you as seeing her happy and completely fulfilled. How deeply do you care about her?

Just as importantly, really caring about yourself, you would want the same good things for yourself, and would expect the same authenticity from your partner. You can try to be a pretend person with a pretend partner, or you can be a real person with a real partner.

Sans, you asked, “Am I being unreasonable? Where do I go from here?” You’re only being unreasonable if you think that being less than forthright will continue to work. Where you should go is straight to your girlfriend with all these religious concerns and anything else that you are tempted to hold back. Lay them all out in respectful but completely honest terms.

After all that full disclosure, it will not be a matter of you waiting passively for her to choose to stay or to go. You will both have your own decisions to make. Then, whether it is with her or not, you should continue walking the path of proactive, scrupulous honesty.

If turns out that it is not with her, I don’t think you will be alone for long.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://maiacaron.com theadividual

    Good advice. To me, a religion/no religion schism between two people in relationship is a deal breaker. The issue is: one person is thinking and the other is not thinking. Obviously, emotion clouds the decision making process, but it shouldn’t. When there’s a foundational difference like this between two people, there’s bound to be a whole lot of pain ahead. Why go down that road?

  • http://pinkydead.blogspot.com pinkydead

    I wholeheartedly disagree with theadividual. I’ve been married for 15 years to a lovely but very Christian woman and we have never had a problem. In fact I can’t see how there would be a problem, unless you go looking for one.

    It’s fundamentally about respect for the individual – which is applies to all relationships.

    You also have to be aware that there will be issues and that you need to deal with those in advance. The couple in the original letter could easily come to an arrangement where both could be true to themselves – although it does sound like the girl is the more unwilling to find such a compromise.

  • Heidi

    the first thing that struck me about this letter was this:

    I told her about being a non-believer early in our relationship. She has said that she would not date someone who didn’t believe in a higher power but has made an exception with me.

    When I read that, I see someone who thinks even being in a relationship with “someone like you” is doing you a big favor. Imagine for a moment, the sentence had been this, instead:

    I would not date someone who has that skin color, but I’ve made an exception with you.

    or this:

    I would not date a fat guy, but I’ve made an exception with you.

    Doesn’t sound very pretty, does it? It sounds downright insulting. Between that, and the part where she insists that you lie about who you are, I’m thinking going forward without resolving this is a Very Bad Idea. I don’t get a sense that deep down she respects you as a person. Whether I’m getting that from her, or just from your translation of her, I don’t know. But I think it’s the same problem either way.

  • nan

    My husband of 21 yrs finds pleasure and comfort in the traditions and social circles of his church.Who am I to take that away? We are firmly in the “Live and Let Live” category. Granted, it is a “mellow” church.I would feel differently if it were Fundamentalist.Our children (11 & 14) are free to choose their own path;each knowing where their parents stand on the issue. The older one is active in the Youth Group working at homeless shelters and Meals on Wheels.She likes the activites and being with other kids. The younger wants nothing to do with it all. Richard is right that honesty is the key here. Why do you have to go on the camping trip? What’s the matter with you simply saying,”Nah,that doesn’t sound like my thing. Don’t let me stop you from going,though!” The girlfriend can say something along that line to her family. “He’s not into religion.” Or something fairly light like that.

  • valhar2000

    That whole about “making an exception for me” would have been a deal-breaker for me. I’d be inclined to answer “Well, please accept my sincerest gratitude, your Majesty!” and I would have gone on my merry way. The actual exchange probably went differently, however.

    On the other hand, the difference of opinion evidenced here would be problematic for me as well, if I were experiencing it. I do beleive he should be scrupulously honest and accept the consequences, bearing in mind that she may very well not be willing to continue the relationship.

  • Skunque

    Maybe it was the tone in which the letter was written, or maybe because it was paired with issuing “half truths” to the family, but I read the “making an exception” part not as condescension on her part, but indecisiveness. As in, she wants quality X but is far too willing to compromise if it’s contained in someone she otherwise likes. Make no mistake, that’s a big problem, esp. later on. She needs to either determine that religiosity is nonnegotiable, or it isn’t. But don’t try to pound a square peg into a round hole, or everyone will be miserable.

  • Polly

    I keep thinking back to an acquaintance. He’s VERY into church. When he spoke of his fiance (now wife) he specifically mentioned how glad he was that she, too, felt that church was a big part of life.

    If you don’t want a whole lot of religion in your life don’t marry into it because that is exactly what you’re going to get. Either that, or you two had better be happy leading separate lives, together.

    OTOH, religiosity waxes and wanes. Maybe it’s just a phase. Sometimes, people get nostalgic and try to recapture simpler times in their lives. Is she stressed or under pressure or facing big choices?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Sans Belief,

    Richard is right in that you must be completely honest with your girlfriend. You can choose to play games with other relatives and other people, but you have to be honest with your immediate family (or potential family). Otherwise, things just won’t work. Of course, it is best to be honest with everybody, but sometimes compromises have to be made. Just be honest with her. I’m married with children to a woman who initially didn’t show any interest in going to church, but then when the kids became a certain age she wanted to start going. We went for a couple of years (my concession) and then I put my foot down and said I wasn’t going anymore. She stopped going too. The kids never liked going and are happy now not going.

    The moral is that people may verbalize what they want (like they wouldn’t be with someone non-religious) as some-kind of utopian proclamation, but when the rubber meets the road, they will live in the real world and be quite happy with the situation as it is (such as being with a non-believer).

    Whether or not things work out with her is up to two people. You and her. A lot comes down to temperament as to whether either of you want things “just perfect” up front. Personally, I’m an advocate as living one’s life as you live it and not needing everything perfect before you start. Others, though, want everything “just right” up front, then live according to a set plan. There are benefits and risks to either personality type.

    Jeff

  • Amyable Atheist

    Richard – excellent, excellent advise, as always. Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy the thoughtful, sensitive and balanced guidance you provide to your subjects and to the non-theist community in general. Thank you!

  • science101

    Unless you’re willing to bend over and backwards, compromise and accommodate her, the relationship will not work. Been in the same situation but married and we’re not together anymore.
    Reason, thinking vs blind belief are bad mixes and as far as I’m concerned will never ever work.

    Good luck!

  • cicely

    I see “she has said that she would not date someone who didn’t believe in a higher power but has made an exception with me” as meaning “she thinks that this ‘flaw’ in you is something she can ‘fix’”. If so, sooner or later conversion or failure to convert is going to be the make-or-break condition for the relationship.

  • Jason

    Leave her if her belief/wishes contradict yours and neither of you want to change. It doesn’t need a complex answer people.

  • http://terrierchica.blogspot.com erica

    When a female says to a guy she’s dating, “Oh, I hate that about you, but I’ll make an exception!” it means she thinks she can change that thing about you. As much as none of us will probably own up to it, all women do this at some point or another. This woman is going to try to convert this guy to Christianity again, he’s going to resent it, and they’ll have a nasty breakup. That’s just what happens in these situations when there’s a fundamentally different ideology at play.

    As Dan Savage would say, DTMFA! (dump her!)

  • Jim H

    Excellent advice as usual, Richard.

    I do have one minor quibble, though. Sans is, to be blunt, lying to his girlfiend’s family at her request. This is also part of a relationship. I would gladly lie for my wife. (Not to her!)

    You are correct, such a relationship does require a higher standard of honesty–between partners. Granted that ethics usually require honesty with others, there are exceptions. Sparing another’s feelings can be one. And keeping quiet about atheism when among one’s girlfriend’s very religious family is like not throwing gasoline on a fire.

    As I said, a minor quibble…

  • AxeGrrl

    erica wrote:

    As much as none of us will probably own up to it, all women do this at some point or another.

    What an insulting (and ignorant) generalization.

    ‘all’ women? utter horse pucky.

    I’ve never done it and never would. And that’s not me ‘not owning up to it’, it’s simply a fact.

    You either didn’t think about the precise wording you chose or you need to find some new females in your life.

  • bob

    pinkydead Says – “I wholeheartedly disagree with theadividual. I’ve been married for 15 years to a lovely but very Christian woman and we have never had a problem. In fact I can’t see how there would be a problem, unless you go looking for one.”

    pinkydead, I sure would like to know how you two manage. I have been seeing a Christian woman (we are both about 50) for going on 5 years now. I love her dearly, but I wrestle daily with doubts as to how much longer I can continue. She spends almost every Sunday morning at her church, greatly limiting our ability to spend time together (I work many Saturdays and we both work weekdays). She will take an occasional Sunday off from church and spend it with me, but that is once every few months. She also gives a good 10% of her hard earned money to her church (about $260 a month), which I view as a complete waste. She should be putting that money into an IRA.
    We have discussed these sensitive subjects a few times, but I gave up trying to reason with her.
    So, I have to ask you pinkydead, how do you deal with your wife spending all of her Sundays at church, and giving a large portion of her income to her church?

  • http://pinkydead.blogspot.com pinkydead

    @bob

    Bob, what if she was into Golf (for example) and you weren’t. You would still complain about the cost in time and money, but people have to do what they do – think of it as a hobby.

    Also, and you won’t like this, go to church with her. If she played golf and you weren’t into it – you’d still go to the odd tournament to support her.

    I do that occasionally – at worst I have to listen to a load of nonsense for an hour, sometimes though it gives me an opportunity chill out. The rector’s not a bad bloke and you don’t owe anyone anything – they’re just people in the end.

    And even if it was the most tedious thing you could think of, you’re still spending time with her, doing what’s important to her – don’t worry they won’t convert you (but it’d be fun to watch them try).

    Four weeks ago, my wife sat through 3 hours of David Attenborough with me. Fair’s fair.

    That’s kind of what I meant by compromise…

  • Anonymouse

    We have a friend that *somehow* makes their very atheist and very Christian household work. I personally could not do it, and don’t see how it works when one is really religious and one is an atheist…. However, for some people it can work.

    Keeping secrets, however, can not work forever. She deserves to be told the truth. If she is not with the truest version of you, then she and you should be with someone else who makes you happy. At first I read the “making an exception” as a negative thing, but we can’t know w/o tone. Perhaps it really is something that bothers her but she loves you and wants to make it work. Perhaps she loves you enough to say that with anyone else, it’s not something she’d be willing to accept.

    Honesty is the best policy, especially in important matters like this.

    If it helps..I haven’t “come out” to my parents yet..but I do not ask my partner to censor himself around them, and I am not considering raising kids with my parents(!). She shouldn’t ask you to pretend. I know that’s hard, but that’s not fair for either one of you.

  • bob

    Dammit pinkydead (I hate it when people are reasonable).

    I actually did go to church, for the entire second year of our relationship, just so I could be with her. The entire next year, I did not go at all, and she did not take one single Sunday off to spend it with me. I have not been back since.

    I guess I just wish I didn’t love her. Would make this a lot easier.

  • http://pinkydead.blogspot.com pinkydead

    @bob

    You don’t believe in doing things by half, do you?

    I feel for you, Bob. Love sucks.

    I think I know what you’re going through – it sounds like my life before we got married.

  • cee

    Having spent one year with someone is nothing like spending 50+ years withthat person and lying about your true self the entire time just to keep up with her family. No fun.

  • AnonyMouse

    I can sum up my response to this in just one word: DTMFA. Interreligious relationships can work just fine – as can a relationship where you have to endure a few uncomfortable scenes for her sake – but a relationship in which you have to lie on a regular basis is not going to be a healthy one. And it sounds like that’s what you’re going to have to endure – in addition to regular doses of the religious experiences you’d prefer to avoid – if you continue this relationship.

    I am currently living with a fundamentalist Christian family, and I have to fudge my way through every day so that they don’t kick me out of the house. I’m coping, but it’s causing regular emotional strain. So I’ll offer a potential regular liar some advice: DON’T DO IT. It’s a complete pain in the ass and it will haunt you every day of your life.

  • Aden

    This conversation reminds me very much of a recent relationship of my own. I totally agree that you both must be able to be completely honest in your relationship; deception will ruin it. My girlfriend at the time was really very reasonable and understanding, but we both had to constantly lie to her entire family. Even almost a year later, I seriously doubt that any of them knew I was an atheist. It’s so hard to make things work under those conditions.

  • Stephen P

    @Bob: sounds a bit like the start of my relationship with my wife (to whom I have now been married for 20 years). We had it perhaps easier because we worked near each other and saw each other often in the evenings during the week. (The last few years she hasn’t however been to church very often at all.)

    I suggest the reasonable thing would be to agree that you will go to church with her once a month, and she will spend Sunday with you once a month. If she won’t agree to that then I’m afraid the relationship probably isn’t going to be a success.

  • http://terrierchica.blogspot.com erica

    Axegrrl…seriously, you’ve done this, and your friends have. Think about it this way: you have certain qualifiers before you date a guy seriously, right? Like, for example, you may want him to be college educated. But say there’s this really cool guy who’s smart but never really self-actualized his intelligence via formal schooling. You know he could do great things if he finished college — so when you tell him, “I normally only date guys with degrees, but for you I’ll make an exception” it also means, “And I’m going to get you to change and go to school!”

    I think most of these changes people try to inflict on each other are just people caring — you want your guy or woman to be the best they can be. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either: training a guy to put down the toilet seat is a necessary change in my mind. It’s just what people to do one another. I think it’s awfully presumptious of you to say you’ve never dated a guy and hoped he’d change, just a little. If you’ve never experienced that, congrats on finding the absolutely perfect significant other.

  • Stephen P

    erica – I was prepared to take you seriously until this bit:

    training a guy to put down the toilet seat is a necessary change in my mind

    What is the cause of the obsession that some women have with this? I can’t recall having met any such women in person, fortunately, but I’ve heard this so often that it must be quite common. Are they the same people who make an enormous fuss about which way round the toilet roll hangs in the holder?

  • AxeGrrl

    erica wrote:

    Axegrrl…seriously, you’ve done this, and your friends have. Think about it this way: you have certain qualifiers before you date a guy seriously, right? Like, for example, you may want him to be college educated. But say there’s this really cool guy who’s smart but never really self-actualized his intelligence via formal schooling. You know he could do great things if he finished college — so when you tell him, “I normally only date guys with degrees, but for you I’ll make an exception” it also means, “And I’m going to get you to change and go to school!”

    I think it’s awfully presumptious of you to say you’ve never dated a guy and hoped he’d change, just a little. If you’ve never experienced that, congrats on finding the absolutely perfect significant other.

    Uhm, you’re TELLING me what I’ve done and I’m the presumptuous one?

    Could you be any more presumptuous, seriously?

    I have never ever done what you’ve described above erica. Never. And it’s not because I’ve ever found the ‘perfect’ significant other…..it’s because I know no such thing exists and therefore know it would be fruitless to try to change anyone to suit my ‘wants’.

    Hey, ‘admit’ to yourself whatever you’ve been guilty of doing, but don’t have the nerve to paint all of us with your broad brush to make yourself feel better about it.

  • Likewise

    can we just exchange some contact info, and I’ll buy Sans Belief a coffee?.. dating a Mormon is getting sketchy.


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