Faith Differences Do NOT Determine the Success of Your Marriage

By Breana Shelton

This post is part four of the 4-part series Supporting Your Marriage When Your Spouse Changes or Loses Their Faith

Breana’s situation is a little different from the rest of the posts in this series because she and her husband Jonathan began their marriage with different religious beliefs. When I first asked her to write a post on how they successfully deal with their faith differences- she said she wasn’t so sure they WERE dealing with them successfully.  That made me want her to write a post EVEN MORE because really, dealing with any major difference in a marriage isn’t a check box you can check off and call it good- it’s on-going.  I’m glad I kept pestering her because what Breana has to say is authentic, powerful and beautiful- just like she is 🙂

I want to start by saying that for us, it isn’t quite a change in faith or loss of faith on the part of one spouse.  We went into the marriage having beliefs that were pretty much on opposite ends of the spectrum.  My husband was, and still is, an active Mormon.  I considered myself to be agnostic, though at the time I was already leaning more toward atheism.

Often people don’t want to admit to anyone that they’re having problems in their marriages.  And I don’t just mean problems related to faith differences, but problems based around whatever reason.  This was exactly why I wasn’t sure, at first, if I wanted to remain anonymous or not.  My thought was kind of like this: “Oh-my-goodness-if-this-blog-is-posted-and-my-name-is-on-it…then EVERYONE WILL KNOW!!”

I think we often don’t admit there’s a problem for one or more reasons.  Maybe we’re embarrassed.  Maybe we haven’t even actually admitted to each other that there’s a problem yet.  That it isn’t just a little argument here and there.  It’s really an issue.  Maybe we’re afraid if we come out and say it, the problem will somehow become more “real.”  But after answering Celeste’s questions (and after, coincidentally, just recently talking to two friends as well as to Jonathan about it), I realized that admitting it didn’t make it more “real.”  It was already real.  It didn’t somehow gain more substance and make the situation worse by admitting we’re struggling right now.  It gave us a chance to actually try and DO SOMETHING about it, instead of letting it slowly, silently tear us apart and destroy our marriage.

And as for embarrassment?  I realized that there really is nothing to be embarrassed about.  Every couple has their struggles.  Those struggles can be anywhere from small and easily overcome to colossal and overwhelming.  But every couple has them.  For me, letting go of the embarrassment and talking to someone helped me to have hope again.  When you’re the one in the midst of a struggle, it can be hard to see any way out of it.  Sometimes, those on the outside of the situation can see things that you can’t.  It was my friend, Jennifer, who told me, “I think, for now, just work on what you CAN change, and go from there.”  They were only a few simple words, but they helped me see things differently.  If I had remained too embarrassed to speak up, I would never have heard them.

What is the hardest thing about having a spouse who has different religious beliefs than you do?

The hardest thing about having different religious beliefs oddly isn’t even really about having different religious beliefs.  It’s when there are other issues at hand that make our religious beliefs seem like an even bigger issue.  Having religious beliefs that greatly differ from that of your spouse can be, and often is, a major issue for couples in that situation.  But normally for us, it’s not that big of a deal.  We’ve been married for almost ten years now, and yes, the religion issue has come up many times in those ten years.  I have come to realize, however, that when it seems to come up the most intensely is when there are other issues at hand.

Take right now, for instance.  We’ve had very little time alone together since our first child was born a little over seven years ago, and next to absolutely NO time alone since our last child was born two years ago.  Because of that (and I’m sure there are other mitigating factors at play), a distance has grown between us.  In addition to that, I’m having my own personal struggles with depression.  Having other issues makes the “religion issue” seem bigger than ever.  It’s really hard to be accepting of a major difference in important beliefs when you’ve already got other problems to deal with.  Faith differences are already huge, but if there are other issues to deal with, it just makes the “religion issue” seem like a mountain you will never be able to climb.  And, it’s just like anything else, when you’re upset about one thing, it’s so much easier to get upset about something else.  Or maybe switch the focus from what’s really going on and making it about the faith differences.

When you have two different beliefs, and you feel like you can’t reconcile the difference, it really comes down to a simple question: Can I live with this?  BUT do NOT even attempt to answer that question until you’ve answered this one: Is there anything else going on here?  Are there other issues we need to work on?  First work on what you CAN change.  If there are several things, start with the smallest first and work your way up.  Then, when all (okay, maybe not absolutely ALL…no marriage is perfect!) that is left is your faith difference, then you ask yourself, “Can I live with this?”  I think in most cases, the answer will be, “Yes.”

If you could give yourself some advice as you started your marriage, what would it be?

Very few people know this, but my husband and I almost didn’t get married because of our faith differences.  It was really the only thing we argued about, and I remember very clearly the evening we almost broke off the engagement.  I don’t remember the argument.  Not at all really.  But I do remember the concern about what we would do once we had children, and I remember tears coming down my face, and saying something like, “This isn’t going to work.  This is just never going to work.”  I can still envision with clarity the tears that came down his face (and I’ve only ever seen him cry a handful of times since), as he left his place beside me on the couch and went to collect the few things that he left at my house.  When I saw him with his things, I sobbed, “I don’t want you to go.”  He returned to his spot beside me, embraced me, and also sobbing, said, “I don’t want to go either.”  Our love seemed strong enough to get through anything, and so we thought, when it came to having kids, we’d just “cross that bridge when we came to it.”  

That said, if I could go back and give myself some advice it would be this: Be prepared to keep coming back to this issue.  It’s not going to just “work itself out” (and really, how often does that saying really hold true, anyway?).  There is a good chance your spouse will never see things the way you do.  Are you planning to change your mind?  No?  Then you can’t expect your spouse to either.  If you and your spouse love one another, then you have to stop hoping they will change.  If you keep trying to change the other person’s mind, it will only lead to fruitless conflict.  And even if you’re not actively trying to change your spouse’s mind, if you just keeping hoping for it to change, you’re still setting yourself up for a future blow-up when what you’re hoping for doesn’t happen.

What are things  couples should consider if they have different religious beliefs or priorities?

I think couples going through the issue of faith differences need to ask themselves this question: Is my love for my spouse dependent on sharing the same faith?  Surely, you didn’t just marry your spouse because you shared the same faith.  And if, like us, you never shared that commonality to begin with, that answer should be pretty obvious.  I have little doubt that this issue may be much harder for couples who started out with the same (or at least similar) beliefs, and then one or both either change or abandon that faith.  I say this because I realize that when people share religious beliefs, it often facilitates a specific kind of spiritual bond.  If one persons faith changes, that particular bond can feel lost.  But like I said, you probably didn’t marry your spouse because of your shared faith alone.  Couples going through a crisis involving faith differences need to consider their love for each other.  What other bonds do you share?  What other important values remain the same?   What do you love about your spouse?  There are more bonds in love than religious bonds.  Believe me.  I know because my husband and I have never shared that particular bond.  A faith difference in a marriage does NOT have to be the deciding factor in the success of your marriage.

2 thoughts on “Faith Differences Do NOT Determine the Success of Your Marriage

  1. Wow- that feels surprisingly liberating to hear that you don’t have to be embarrassed about marriage problems. I feel like I’ve been bottling mine up (not faith related), but I think I’m ready to talk to someone about it- THANKS!!

  2. Yes, this: If you and your spouse love one another, then you have to stop hoping they will change.”
    Thank you for putting that into words. How damaging it is for someone to never feel as if they measure up to a spouse’s expectations.

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