When my husband and I got married, we had very similar beliefs. As the years have gone by, due to a combination of thoughtful doubt and broken relationships within the Church, as well as our own personal sorrows and losses within our family, my husband has decided he no longer believes any of it. He doesn’t want to go to church. He doesn’t know if he believes in God anymore. He seems angry and hurt to me, but it’s been months and I don’t see any end in sight. I’m scared. I’m scared for him, I’m scared for our marriage, I’m scared for our kids. I don’t know how to be married to someone who doesn’t believe the same things as me, let alone someone who doesn’t believe at all anymore. I feel like he’s changed our very foundation of our family, and this is not being fair to me or to our children. I love my husband and I have no desire to hurt him but I’m also hurt and angry and confused. What would you recommend I do to help him right now? And if he remains in this place for a long time, how do we relearn how to “be married” when the foundation has shifted?
First of all, I want to acknowledge how difficult this must be for you. It’s obviously a huge adjustment, and no doubt profoundly disappointing for you as you consider the likelihood of being married to someone who doesn’t share your spiritual beliefs. You had planned your future with your husband under the assumption that you would share the same faith. It’s the death of a dream . . . one that you both shared at the onset of your marriage, and one that you had no hand in changing. As such, it’s reasonable that you feel grieved, and that you need to take some time and space for yourself as you mourn for the marriage you thought you would have. Anger, sadness, frustration – it’s okay to feel those feelings. Give yourself permission to process your own emotions about it with your trusted friends, and maybe even a therapist. This is big. Surround yourself with people who will support you as you grieve the marriage you thought you would have.
The next step, though, will be the most crucial part of the grieving process (and one of the keys to any long-term marriage): acceptance. You will need to accept your husband for who he is, including his doubts and unbelief. As you mentioned, you don’t yet know how to be married to someone with different beliefs . . . but learning how to do that will be your next task. Fortunately this isn’t a road you have to walk alone. Chances are that you already have friends in your circle with a spouse who doesn’t share the same faith. If not, finding people who share similar struggles is one of the beautiful aspects of the internet, and no doubt you could find a safe spot online to fellowship with other women in your situation. Find a support group, especially with women who have walked this road and can share their wisdom and experience with you.
The good news in all of this is that is IS possible to have a happy marriage with someone who shares different beliefs . . . even as big as this. One of the concepts many couples counselors stress with their clients is the idea of differentiation. Murray Bowen, a pioneer in the field of family work, describes differentiation as “being able to have different opinions and values than your family members, but being able to stay emotionally connected to them.” This is an essential skill for anyone in a long-term marriage because inevitably, when two human beings come together, they are bound to find area in which they aren’t in agreement. My husband and I share very different political views, for example, but we don’t need to be in agreement in order to have a close, intimate marriage. I don’t want to minimize how big a difference of faith is – but it IS possible for you to have intimacy with your husband while being on different pages spiritually. An emotionally connected marriage requires that you are sharing yourselves: your hopes, fears, dreams, and thoughts. It DOESN”T require that they are all in agreement. In fact, emotionally connected couples who are really vulnerable with on another often don’t agree on all things, because it requires trust and vulnerability to say, “I love you, but my thoughts on this are different”. You will need to offer this kind of unconditional love to your husband going forward. Can you continue to be his wife, his best friend, his confidante and co-parent even if he is not a believer? I think that you can, and I truly believe the biggest threat to your marriage over this issue will be overcoming this hurdle in your own mind. If you have a good marriage, please don’t let this drive it into the ground.
Of course you are probably reeling from this news, but eventually I hope you can begin to have empathy for your husband in this, too. It took guts for him to be honest about this, which is good. It must be difficult for him, too. Think about all he is losing . . . his own faith. That’s huge. He may lose friends. He might be scared to death that this confession means he loses his family, too. Try to be willing to enter into this with him, and support him even in the midst of your own disappointment. I bet he is disappointed and hurting, too. You can show him God’s love in this by being steadfast and accepting, even if he doesn’t receive it as such.
Of course, the acceptance I’m talking about will need to be mutual. You will need to respect your husband’s beliefs and he will need to do the same for you. You might need help with how to navigate this, so don’t be afraid to seek counseling if you get stuck. You will need to negotiate how you will raise the kids, and hopefully you will be able to continue to share your faith with them, even if he doesn’t.
One last word: as you move forward, please be mindful that viewing your husband as a “project” could create resentment for both of you. You cannot control this situation. You cannot take on the ongoing, never-ending burden of figuring out how to convert your husband. Surrender it and pray. You will need to love him without condition or expectation.
Prayers to you for strength and comfort as you move forward in your relationship with your husband.
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