FAQ: Advice About “Coming Out” Atheist to My Spouse?

ShockedFrom time to time I receive emails from fellow skeptics who are going through that often gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking experience of being “unequally yoked” with a spouse who occupies a significantly different place on the belief spectrum. “Mixed faith” marriages can be stress-inducing, and there are no easy answers or formulaic steps for successfully navigating that emotional minefield.

One such friend (who only began this conversation because she knew I was going through a rough patch and was writing to cheer me up) wrote me this week and put a question to me that I get an awful lot. I got her permission to reshare a piece of that conversation here because I’m sure there are others who are in similar situations. After I’m through giving my response, I’d love to hear from any of you who have gone through the same thing, hearing any tips or advice of your own which you’d like to give anyone who reads this.

Here was the gist of her question:

I’m ready to have the difficult conversation with my husband about my beliefs (or lack thereof), but it hasn’t happened yet. I’ve been watching for an opportunity to move the conversation in that direction organically. I want to avoid the “we need to talk” intro, since those words tend to ignite the fight-or-flight instinct no matter what comes after them. That would be bad, and this is scary enough. It’s probably pointless to try to predict how my news will be received. I keep running the scenario through my head anyway. 

Since you’ve been down this road before, do you have any words of wisdom? My husband is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, but neither of us have been to church in a very, very long time. We didn’t discuss it. We just stopped going and didn’t bring it up again. I stopped before he did, and I honestly don’t know whether he stopped because he’s going through the same belief-questioning I had been going through or if he just got tired of making excuses for why his wife wasn’t in church with him. I hope it’s the former. Obviously, that would make the conversation a far better one than if the latter is true.”

I know all about that game of looking for the organic moment. I chickened out with my wife but I spent years looking for the right moment with my girls. It finally came when circumstances kind of forced my hand. I was about to head out of town for a conference and when they started asking questions about what kind of conference it was, I decided honesty required that I tell them as straightforwardly as possible that it was a conference for people who had left their religion. They each took it in characteristic ways (with the two introverts clamming up and the two extroverts brimming with questions). We seem to have finally reached a let’s-not-talk-about-this phase, which isn’t ideal, but at least the cards are all out there.

If I’ve got any advice, it’s probably to ease into the revelation if possible. Like an inoculation, I tend to see benefit in dipping a toe in those waters to give each of you time to adjust. A full-on admission of atheism can be quite a shock to a person’s system, and many become suddenly revived and ready to throw themselves back into full-time devotion to Jesus as a self-preservation mechanism. Maybe the hubs isn’t there—in fact he could be teetering on the brink of a loss of faith himself. But then people are ingenious at tailoring their beliefs to the needs they feel, so he may have constructed some kind of personal “vaguetheism” which makes very few promises or demands. I feel like The Shack was written specifically for such a person, and in time almost everyone seems to go through some kind of vaguetheist phase.

I’d definitely want to hear how that goes, regardless of whether or not it results in an increased ability to write openly about it. It could go the other direction and you may find that he panics, leaving you little choice but to table a lot of this until a later time. I’ve seen spouses walk through these transitions with their husband/wife covering every kind of reaction you can think of:

There are the lucky bastards who discover their spouse is an atheist, too, but was afraid to say it; there are the husbands and wives who lurch the opposite direction and turn fundy overnight; there are the ones who pretend things are fine but then get super passive-aggressive about guilting them over how difficult this makes life for them; there are the ones who stage an intervention; and there are those who demand a complete cut-off of all influences who could discourage continued faith. That of course is a major boundary violation in my mind, although I subjected myself to it years ago, and I wish I could take that moment back, knowing then what I know now.

Some spouses transition out alongside each other. They figure out they’d rather be on the same page than be unable to really stay connected at the heart level, and some believers are even willing to suspend their spiritual lives indefinitely in order to make that happen (to me, that’s kind of beautiful). Other times they just agree to disagree and find a equilibrium whereby they know they still love each other and are partners, but will just have this one sphere in which they aren’t doing the same things all the time, like having two different sets of hobbies and social circles. That’s not all that unusual, really, compared with other differences between two married people.

The most inspiring examples to me are the ones where one partner (sometimes it’s the atheist and sometimes it’s the Christian) exhibits superhuman patience and waits years for the other to slowly come around to accepting where they are. They put up with conversation after conversation in which they’re misunderstood, misrepresented, and maybe a little bit taken for granted but then in time the other person starts to realize that there is value in listening to their partner even when they disagree over something as scary as opposite religious beliefs.

RNS-ATHEIST-MARRIAGEHave I already recommended Dale McGowan‘s book to you? If not, I need to plug that here: It’s called In Faith and In Doubt. If you haven’t gotten a copy yet, I’d recommend ordering one because it’s got a lot of really helpful tips in it. Definitely worth whatever the cost is.

Hang in there. I’m a strong believer in the family unit, so I’m biased toward doing whatever it takes to keep that bond strong. As long as all other aspects of the relationship are healthy, I don’t see any need to rush anything or force anything, even though I also know that a person should never exactly be okay with being a stranger in their own life indefinitely. That’s not really living, and it’s not a route to a happy life or marriage.

Her response, which is encouraging:

There are some positive signs when it comes to talking all of this over with my husband. I think I may end up being one of those lucky bastards who finds out my spouse is in the same place I am (or on his way to it). It doesn’t make initiating the conversation any less scary, but I don’t see this being a relationship-ending catastrophe. This has been a long time coming for me – years, literally – and I’m just tired of having this huge part of my mental life locked away. It’s not fair to me or to him.

If things do go badly, I’ll manage. I don’t need him to agree with me, but I do need the freedom to be honest with the person who means the most to me. I know him well enough to be confident that he can do that, even if he’s praying every moment of every day that I’ll come back to Jesus. It would be enough for me to be able to write a simple email without having to escape to the garage, or read your blog while he’s in the same room, or have a piece of my own writing open while he’s standing over my shoulder, or maybe check out one of the books you recommended and feel comfortable having it out in the open on my nightstand. I’m not looking for approval, just honesty. I think if anyone can manage that, he can. It’s one of the reasons I married him. I guess I’ll be putting that to the test soon. :)

Anybody here who can relate to that? Having to sneak off to read a blog or write an email or follow a Facebook discussion, like you’re up to no good, when in reality you’re not doing anything wrong at all?  I’m sure some of you can relate.

What other advice/tips/reactions do you have? Let us hear from you!

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