I’m a 24 year old Graduate Student who is engaged to a wonderful and beautiful woman. We love each other very much but we are having a difficult time organizing our wedding. I am an Atheist and she is a catholic. I was raised in the Catholic church (which is why I am allowed to be married in a catholic church after stating I don’t believe), but after college and life events I decided to come out as an Atheist a year ago. After getting engaged we had basic talks about where we would like to get married. She was very excited about having the wedding in the church where she grew up, while I felt that getting married in a more scenic would be more romantic, I felt it was a compromise I should make, and not fight it as I did not have a comparable space to offer.
Now we are in the planning phases of what the wedding will consist of and I stated that I did not want a mass during our wedding (and a minimum of religious language), and that I never really enjoyed mass when I went as a kid, why would I enjoy it now? Especially on one of the happiest days of my life? After making my position understood, it has been made clear to me that my family and my fiancee’s family would very much like a mass.
What would be a good way to handle this with both families? I feel that I am being fair in that I am getting married within the catholic church, by a catholic priest, with religious language. I feel that it is not outlandish to request that the eucharist not be involved.
Any and all words are appreciated.
A wedding is not a marriage, and the specific content of a wedding does not necessarily indicate what the marriage will be like. However, how the couple works together and how they work with their families to plan the wedding can sometimes but not always be an indicator of what the marriage will be like in some ways.
A wedding is a brief ceremony. A marriage is an ongoing, daily exchange of negotiations, often involving compromises, and sometimes involving sticking to firm demands. Over time, those negotiations become patterns of habit.
In most cases when you marry someone, in important ways you also marry their family. So the negotiations can get very complicated, with push and pull in many directions rather than just between two people. The families can disagree with each other, or they can unite in disagreement against the couple, or because most people feel some loyalties to both their spouse and their family, the families can drive a wedge between the couple.
A couple must determine how autonomous, how sovereign their marriage will be, how independent of the pressures and preferences of their families they as a couple will be. Marriages run the spectrum from being completely disengaged from their families of origin, to being completely enmeshed. Most are somewhere in the broad middle, shifting one way or the other over time.
Since both your and her families are Catholic, you as an atheist are a minority of one when it comes to religious views, but you need to find out if on other issues, you and your future wife can be a majority of two.
You conceded to your fiancée on the venue, her childhood church instead of a scenic place, because she wanted that. Then you asked for a compromise on the content of the ceremony to not include a mass. In your letter, you said that both of your families really want a mass, but what about her opinion on that?
So if you don’t already, you need to find out if your fiancée herself is willing to have a ceremony in the church but without the mass, and if so, if she’s willing to take a stand with you against both of your families. As a couple, this will be your marriage. It should begin with your wedding, just as the two of you want it.
This is where that question comes up about how autonomous from your families your partnership will be. To endure the stresses of those multidirectional pushes and pulls, your bond as a couple must be stronger than your bonds to your original families. Otherwise you’ll be pulled apart. Both of you should be more invested in the happiness of the two of you than invested in the happiness of your families.
A “mixed marriage” like yours faces extra challenges to find your way through the many other disagreements you’ll face, especially when children arrive. As a couple you should try to not be vulnerable to outside pressures and manipulations from your respective families on such things as baptizing children, taking them to church, early religious education, schooling, confirmation, the kids’ own developing views about religion as they begin to grow up, and even, years later, what kind of weddings they will have.
Those issues will be difficult enough for the two of you to work out by yourselves. Allowing your families to meddle in them will probably make them much more divisive. The two of you can listen to their input, but your decisions should be agreements made strictly between the two of you.
You both knew that you had this difference in your beliefs. Since you’re together at all, that shows that you are both capable of making allowances for your differences. By getting engaged, both of you knowingly decided to take a chance that the unavoidable conflicts would not be too much for you to resolve. To do that, you must talk, talk, talk together, gently and honestly, especially about your feelings.
There is no set formula that can be applied to all marriages that says a couple must always compromise 50/50 on everything, or that they must take equal turns getting all that they want, or that neither person must ever give in more than 77.32% of the time, or that it can never work if one person always gives in. Marriages are even more unique and varied than individual personalities, since they are a unique combination of two often very different personalities and sets of views.
Overarching this whole scene is the question of which battles are worth fighting. There are no formulaic answers for that either. Often people can shrug off making a concession that only affects themselves, but it might reappear later in a more critical way when for instance it involves their kids. Do you draw a line in the sand now, or later, or never? Which will be easier, which harder, and what unforeseen costs will there be to any of these options? I have no means to predict these things. Yours will be the best guess, but it will still be a guess.
But I can say this about the many marriages I’ve had the privilege to work with closely: The most successful ones in terms of happiness, health and longevity are those where there is a constant flow of good communication, where nothing is forbidden to discuss, where both people work to make it safe for the other to speak their mind, where for both people “we” is more important than “me,” but “me” is not completely discounted, and where they are a couple first, and members of their original families second.
I hope our Friendly Atheist resident Atheist-Christian couple Kate and Erik may check in to give us some pointers about both their wedding ceremony and their relationship.
Noble, I wish you both great happiness. If this has been helpful to you, consider having your wonderful and beautiful fiancée read it too.