Dear Dr. Michelle:
My husband and I have always been devout Catholics and we have been very engaged in all aspects of our religious practices. My husband just recently announced that he does not want to be Catholic anymore and has started to attend a local non-denominational church. At first, I thought it was just a phase, but he is serious and wants nothing to do with Catholicism. We have two children, ages 6 and 8, and he wants all of us to attend his new church. I have no intent on denouncing my Catholicism and I am just heartbroken at this divide in my marriage and in our family. I am not doing well with this. I don’t know how our marriage will make it through this.
I am sorry for this heartbreak. This is not an easy burden to bear, particularly when you have experienced religious togetherness in the past. When one person is confronted with a significant change in their partner’s personal beliefs it can certainly cause anxiety and concern. When we get married or commit to a long-term relationship, it is human nature to assume that the person we are committing to will never significantly change. But as people age and become exposed to new information, it can result in the changing of beliefs and behavior, which can have ripple effects on the other partner and ultimately on the relationship.
I would like to start by giving you some hope. It is much more common nowadays for couples to practice different religious beliefs. It is possible to do this successfully, but will require acceptance, compromise and respect for each other’s beliefs and practices rather than trying to find ways to change their position. It is essential to avoid judgement, ultimatums, undue pressure, and expectations for change.
Three Different People to Consider
As you sort through the effects of this significant change in your partner’s beliefs and lifestyle, there are actually three different “people” to consider - the first and second being you and your husband and the third being the marriage itself. When divergent beliefs are causing stress in a relationship, focus on the third element - the marriage - and place priority on what the marriage needs to stay intact.
With the marriage as the focus, each person can then more easily identify what they need to do or change so that the relationship can remain healthy and strong. This approach can help you and your husband evaluate the sacrifices you are each willing to make for the marriage versus feeling the pressure to make personal sacrifices at the expense of your own convictions.
Simply put, the marriage needs you and your husband to accept you each have different religious beliefs and practices. Religion is not an area to try to force someone into believing or feeling differently. Just as you cannot expect or force your husband to stay with Catholicism, he cannot expect or force you to denounce it. If either of you are making this ultimatum on the other, I would recommend you seek professional therapy to see if a compromise can be met without sacrificing the relationship.
How To Integrate Different Religions into Your Family
Here are a few considerations when trying to reach a compromise and help you integrate the adoption of two different religions into your family:
- Recognize the many other things you and your husband have in common and rely on those other commonalities to help you stay connected.
- Talk about religious or spiritual moments and feelings you each have without talking about actual religious practices. Don’t forget that even though you now have different ways to practice your spirituality, you still share a common belief in some type of external power or energy as a source that you consider important.
- Do not put your children in the middle and make them choose between you or your husband’s religious beliefs. Rather, at this early age, make the choice for them and compromise by alternating which church your children attend - one week they go with you, the next week they attend with your husband.
- Do not talk negatively about each other’s beliefs or practices to the children or to other family members. Talking about your personal struggles with friends and other supportive adults can be very helpful but ensure that you are processing your grief rather than criticizing each other for your personal beliefs.
- Consider attending each other’s church once a month as a show of respect and support.
- Religious practices sometimes play a role in holidays and other celebrations. Find a way to compromise in this area as well and alternate how you celebrate holidays - or find key elements from each belief system to integrate.
- If the practice of prayer is an issue, compromise, and consider alternating between which prayer to use at which time or say both prayers at times of significance.
- Remind yourself you can be as religiously and spiritually active as an individual as you can as a couple. Continue to build your own spiritual reserves and lean on your beliefs to help you through this change.
As you work to integrate and support the wishes of the other, remember to also take the time to grieve. You are both experiencing the loss of having a shared religious experience and this will take time to accept and understand.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.