Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I am sure you have probably heard this question before, but I’m new to your advice column and hope you could help me. For over six years I have been dating a wonderful man who I love with all my heart. He is everything I’ve wanted in a potential husband, and I know he loves me deeply. We’ve both been through previous marriages and both understand the importance of making sure that a relationship is solid before committing to marriage. We’re at the point now where I would love to marry this man. I cannot even begin to express how compatible we are. We agree on our overall views of marriage, relationships, child rearing, and employment and most importantly, we love each others’ company. There’s only one problem: I am an atheist, and he is a devout Christian. I take no issue with his Christianity except that I am not willing to compromise my beliefs and become a Christian myself. That apparently is a show-stopper.
He is more than willing to continue our relationship and has never had an issue dating me, but he says he doesn’t think we could be married because the bible says he should not be “unequally yoked” and because, as an atheist, I am “closed-hearted,” “selfish,” “have no moral foundation,” and of course am “eventually going to hell.” Strangely, this has never stopped him from seeing me, dating me, or…well…otherwise enjoying my company. He talks about having kids together, about building a house together, and other such things that lead me to believe the he is contemplating marriage, but every time the issue actually comes up, the question of religion quickly follows and the entire conversation devolves into tears and frustration (on both sides). I am reaching the age where the time for me to have children is rapidly diminishing. I am at my wits end and am starting to think the situation is hopeless. Can theists and non-theists ever have a successful marriage? Raise kids? (I have previously offered to allow them to be raised in the church, so long as any time they ask why I don’t attend I can simply say “mom and dad believe different things, and that is why I don’t go to your dad’s church” or something to that effect). Is he just stringing me along and using religion as an excuse not to get married (I can’t help but think of the free milk and cow story)? I’d like for us to talk to someone together, but I’m afraid if we go see his spiritual adviser I’ll simply get ganged-up on and I don’t know if a traditional counselor can adequately address spiritual issues (or that he would even go).
Please tell me your thoughts. Is it time to move on?
Yes, it’s time to move on, one way or the other.
The most compassionate thing I can do for you is to encourage you to somehow get unstuck. Helping someone to see things clearly is a deeper compassion than offering a pleasant but fuzzy vision.
I’m sure that he’s a wonderful man. I’m sure that you love him very much. And I’m also sure that you’re in a lot of pain.
Many people have told me that they are in a “decision-making process,” a long period of time during which they wrestle with a tough decision. After talking with them for a while, I often find that they actually made their decision a long time ago, but they just don’t want to execute their decision because it will be painful. So they tell themselves that they’re still trying to make up their minds, but in reality they’re just putting off making the change that they know they must make.
Eventually, the pain that comes from inaction gradually builds until it’s worse than the pain that comes from taking the action, but over that long time they have gotten into the habits of avoiding thinking about it, procrastinating discussing it, and rationalizing the way things are. So they’re stuck in limbo, in worse pain than they would be if they just got it done.
In the over six years that you have been together, the two of you have neither arrived at a workable solution to this impediment, nor have you acknowledged that you have reached an impasse. Despite all the ways that you are compatible, this one difference keeps preventing a deeper level of commitment. You are very compatible as long as both of you want to keep things just the way they are. That was fine for the last few years, but people’s needs change, and your needs and his needs are diverging. Your biological clock is ticking louder, and it expresses a legitimate need.
“Can theists and non-theists ever have a successful marriage? Raise kids?” Yes, and it’s rare because it’s extra challenging. They have to be able to make important concessions on both sides, and keep their communications honest, frank, and focused on what is best for both people. All relationships are always complex and at times are difficult. Adding more potential for conflict is just riskier. With a religious conflict, the most divisive thing ever known, that potential does not go away.
You have made theoretical concessions to him such as allowing potential children to be raised in the church, while what you would get is to be open to them about how you don’t believe it. That seems like a lopsided deal. Also, keep in mind that agreements about hypothetical kids can suddenly evaporate once they’re smiling up at you from the rug. People have all sorts of idealistic philosophies about child rearing before the children are born. Either of you might very well realize that you’re not as willing to give in as you had previously thought.
I’m puzzled that your boyfriend doesn’t seem to know you very well. If after all this time he actually thinks that you are “closed-hearted,” “selfish,” and “have no moral foundation,” just because you’re an atheist, then he’s not paying any attention to the real person in front of him. From your letter, you certainly don’t sound like your conduct defines you that way. Does he see you, or does he see a category? If he doesn’t judge your character from your actual behavior by now, will he ever?
He paints a very attractive picture of family life together, but then he postures that it’s the religion that objects, not him, implying that it’s not his fault that he is never willing to actually commit. You have asked the question yourself: Is he stringing you along? I cannot know his mind; he may or may not have that conscious intention, but the effect is the same. Things stay stuck.
A couple of kids playing in front of a picket-fenced house is a tempting vision dangled in front of you, and it could all be yours if only you’d toss your principles and convictions into the trash and adopt his beliefs, or at least pretend to. He may be hoping that you’ll convert, but if not, he seems content with things remaining as they presently are. In the meantime, your hesitance still benefits him. He has little to lose by the delay while he continues to, as you say, “…well…otherwise enjoy my company.”
You have the sense that time is fleeting, and your natural desire for children is becoming more imperative. So I think it’s time that you get out of limbo one way or the other. So far, your talks with him have ended in tears and frustration, but with no resolution. I think you need a referee. I think it’s a good idea of yours to talk to someone together.
A traditional family counselor should be able to guide the two of you through clarifying and negotiating your needs, and help you come to a decision. I don’t think that the “spiritual issues” involved would be beyond a secular counselor’s ability to understand. If your boyfriend insists that the two of you see his spiritual advisor, then you should insist that the two of you also see the counselor of your choice. If he refuses to reciprocate, that gives you some insight about what this marriage would be like.
Remember that any decision that arises from counseling sessions are not the counselor’s decision. The counselor’s proper role is to help clarify what each of you need in order to make your decisions. If your decisions match, you move forward together. If they don’t match, you move forward your separate ways. In either event, the pain of seeing your possibilities steadily diminishing will finally come to an end, and you will have a life filled with possibilities once again.
I wish you both the very best.
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