I often get contacted by deconverts who are married to still-believers and are trying to navigate the minefields of conflicting beliefs which their marriages have become. This week, however, I received a communication from the still-believing wife asking for help in understanding and loving her apostate husband. Here was her letter to me (personal details omitted):
Do you have a blog that is not going to try and tell me I am wrong, but will let me understand how to support a spouse who has left the faith after 20 years of marriage and several pastoral positions? It is not just his way of life which is at stake here….it’s our way of life. It’s a lot of stuff. He’s a “when you’re dead, you’re dead” guy now.
You explained how you traveled through your exodus and the feelings you felt. They sound fairly familiar to what my husband is going through. I met and married my husband in part, because he was entering full time ministry. Apparently he had doubts back then….(thanks for the heads up). But now we are where we are. It’s not like I am going to persuade him. God is fully capable of defending his name. And there is no amount of cajoling that will matter one bit….you know that.
So I guess my question is, how can a believing spouse support AND not condone what is going on? I am never going to be persuaded that there is not a Lord as He is mine every day….and truthfully, I can debate with the best of them….so please don’t send me stuff about how I am wrong. But I am not going to leave him. I love him dearly. And I am wondering if he can feel loved and respected if I do not agree with him?
Her honesty and her willingness to seek advice from a non-believer really hit me in the feels. If every spouse in her position were willing to ask for help from the other side, we would lose a lot fewer marriages to deconversion. I wrote back to her (see my correspondence below) and also floated her request to a number of my friends online. I’ll include their advice at the end. After that I’d like to hear from you as well.
My Response to Her
Here is what I wrote her back:
First, I suppose I should confess that my ex-wife and I did not make this transition successfully. I’m sure there were things I could have done much better, but I suspect there were joint decisions we made that could have been handled better as well. They say hindsight is 20/20, but when it comes to broken relationships I doubt anybody’s perception is that impartial.
This is a long conversation, but I’d like to start it with this email. I hope you’ll stick with it for a bit because it’s not really something I’ve ever put into a single blog post. I’ve got bits and pieces all over the history of the blog (this one about being unequally yoked comes to mind, as does the one about not holding us at arms’ length). There are some that are directed at people who I think are mistreating the nonbeliever in the relationship (for example this one), but I take from the fact that you are initiating contact with me that you are in a better place than that. All of that being said…
I would begin by simply saying you start with respect. The greatest flaw that I see in these mixed faith relationships is a failure to appreciate personal boundaries (that post is here). If you believe that people who die with the wrong beliefs (or at least lacking in an active relationship with God) are doomed to be punished in some way, you’ll likely do some unwittingly manipulative things to encourage your loved one to come back “to the right side.”
I suppose if there’s one other major thing I’d ask for, it’s that you consider the possibility that you don’t have to have him be on the same page where your spiritual lives are concerned. I think for many couples there is a distinct possibility that they can find a way to agree to disagree but still decide on enough common goals and values that they can still be, as one of the Christian counseling books calls it, “Intimate Allies.” I like that phrase as a description of what can be.
Most of all I urge you to consider purchasing a book called In Faith and In Doubt by Dale McGowan. He’s a friend of mine and my editor, in fact, who married a Southern Baptist even though he’s a humanist. They made it work and their family is quite lovely. I know dozens of other couples who have made this difference work, so you have hope. If you two are both willing to work through the differences, it is quite possible you can have a happy marriage.
In order to give any more advice I’d need to know a lot more. What kind of background do you come from? What denomination? How settled into that specific tradition would you say you are? How supportive of your marriage is your family? Are they close? What region of the country do you live in? Are you already overwhelmed by all these questions? :)
I hope you’ll write back and tell me more. I’m very encouraged that you contacted me to ask that. I can’t tell you how much it would help if more would do that at some point—reach out to someone who could really understand where their spouses are. So many religious advisers will only see us as broken and needing to be fixed. But a guy can tell when that’s what you think of him.
Other Tips From My Friends
1) Don’t try to reconvert your spouse. Just don’t do it. All your instruction up until this point has taught you that you need to bring him back into the fold, but please listen to us when we say that, more often than not, this will backfire. Most people can sense when they’re being targeted as prospects, and that’s especially true of former Christian leaders. We’ve likely led workshops teaching others how to do this, so don’t expect you can do it to us without us sensing a target on our foreheads.
For what it’s worth, I’ve got atheist friends who seem just as hellbent on advising the apostate spouse to try to convert the believing spouse to atheism. People from both camps can be inflexible and unwilling to compromise. But I’m convinced that’s not the healthiest way to work through these differences. And it’s quite hypocritical for one camp to call on the other to show respect for personal boundaries while not following their own advice.
2) Seek to avoid misunderstanding by asking as many questions as possible in order to understand the other person. Honesty and open lines of communication will go a long way toward helping smooth over potential sources of conflict. Listen with the goal of understanding, not in order to simply argue your own points or to convert the other to your way of thinking. Well-meaning people harbor a number of misconceptions about why we have gotten to this point, and it would help a great deal to simply listen and allow the other person to explain his or her own thoughts and reactions.
3) Focus on what you have in common, not on those things over which you differ. If the goal is to build a lasting relationship amidst a changing foundation, you must find those things that aren’t changing—those things are bedrock. You will likely find that most of your values are still the same even if the beliefs have changed. There is a difference (more on that in this post here). If you step back and look at your spouse in this way, you will likely discover that he or she is still the same person. Surely that means something, right?
4) Consider compromising on things that aren’t essential. One of the biggest pitfalls in moments like this is that even the little things can feel like big things. But not everything is a big thing. Not everything is non-negotiable. Spend some time looking at your priorities and decide which things are matters about which you cannot bend. You may find that small compromises can go a long way toward demonstrating charity toward the other person.
5) Expect some angst and disorientation on the part of the other person. Rethinking one’s faith from the bottom up can be disconcerting and emotionally exhausting (incidentally, the same can be said for having one’s spouse leave the faith). Some will pass through a downright angry phase. Do your best to show patience toward your spouse while s/he unravels this tangled web of thoughts and emotions. For those of us raised in our faiths from our earliest years, it can be an upsetting and lonely process. If you will hang on for a little while, the tumultuous phase will likely pass and many of the most extreme emotions will eventually subside.
6) If you decide that you need to seek marital counseling, please seek a therapist who can be impartial in matters related to your differences of belief. If you seek help from an adviser who is clearly “on one side” or another, you will risk losing the “buy in” from the disenfranchised partner. Marriage therapy doesn’t work well when it’s two against one. Relational work requires compromise (see #4) but if all you do is push one partner to do all the accommodating, he or she will feel the lack of personal agency and may eventually find a messier way to assert his or her self-ownership.
7) If possible, have lots and lots of sex. (That was for you, Nate) For real though, that’s actually really good advice, in my opinion. Giving touch and maintaining physical connection can go a long way toward maintaining a strong emotional bond. For all his awkwardness around the subject of marriage, even the apostle Paul recognized the need to keep the marriage bed active (see for yourself here). He used religious language about not making room for the devil to step in and cause trouble, but I think even a nonbeliever can recognize the logic of this principle.
Alright. That’s a pretty full toolbox of suggestions there. Many thanks to the friends who chimed in on this question. I’m sure there are more tips people could give from both sides of this struggle. So what do you think?
Do you have any advice you would add to this?
[Featured image: Psychotherapynetworker]