I often have the opportunity to work with clients who consider themselves to be in a mixed-faith marriage. The following blog discusses one of the thought exercises I have found helpful in supporting clients in exploring and honoring their and their partner's unique spiritual needs.
The word "spiritual" can be triggering for some individuals who have experienced a faith crisis and/or faith transition. I intend to use the word spiritual utilizing the following definition of spirituality as described by Brenè Brown, but allow yourself to use your own definition and meaning of spirituality as appropriate:
“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.”
To begin, set yourself up for success. Set aside a protected time to talk, ideally when you’re not too tired, too hungry, or going to be interrupted. That often means not late a night. If you have young kids, this is a conversation and exercise that is worthy of hiring a babysitter for.
Practice active listening, without needing to correct, challenge, or insert your own perspective while asking your spouse some of the following questions:
- What actions, behaviors, practices, or beliefs allow you to spiritually thrive?
- You might have follow up questions like, "why?" or "what does that do for you?" to better understand the reasons why certain things allow your partner to spiritually thrive.
The practice is to hear what and why your partner finds meaning in their spiritual choices. Take turns expressing what allows you to spiritually thrive and why.
If you're someone who has had a recent shift in spiritual and or religious practices and are having a hard time considering what it means for you to spiritually thrive now, return to Brenè's quote above and consider what brings a sense of "perspective, meaning and purpose" to your life. That might be spending time in nature, serving others, having the time to meditate, or spending quality time with those you love, etc. This exercise is a great opportunity for YOU to get more specific on what's allowing you to be spiritually well so you can help your partner know how to be more supportive of those needs.
Consider the following questions as a follow-up if appropriate:
- When you do the following __________ it helps me feel supported in spiritually thriving. Be specific. This is an invitation to really let your partner know exactly what they are doing well that is supporting your spiritual wellness.
(Example responses: When you allow me to pray using terminology that feels more honest and authentic to me, it makes me feel safe in being spiritually vulnerable with you OR When you support me in my church attendance I feel like you honor how important it is to me despite it not being the right choice for you.)
- What are 1-2 actions or behaviors we could do together that would allow us to practice spiritually thriving as a couple while honoring our differences.
(Example responses: It would be a great choice if we could find a neutral service project for both of us to contribute to, as service is a way that both of us feel connected to our best self and/or higher power OR When we take the kids on a small nature hike or spend some fun family time it helps us feel like we are united in building our family together and honor our spiritual needs of feeling connected as a family.)
At its core, this exercise help couples sit in their differences while practicing respect and curiosity and helping them better recognize in what ways we can support each other in being spiritually well. As partners, it is often part of our roles to honor and support each other’s spiritual well-being even if it is different than our own. This exercise also cultivates an opportunity to better understand why our partners do what they do. For example, have you ever asked what prayer does for your partner instead of making the assumptions that naturally come with why someone might? This is part of getting curious about our partners and better understanding their spiritual experience without needing to challenge or course correct.
If you can already tell this exercise might be hard for you to hear your partner talk about what allows them to spiritually thrive when you no longer share similar practices or beliefs, take a big breath and acknowledge how challenging it is to sit with our loved ones in their differences and our own.
I would consider looking at this conversation from an “anthropological” perspective, pretend your partner is from another religious culture or religious tradition - if you were doing an assignment on interviewing someone of another faith about what allows them to spiritually thrive, would you be threatened by their responses? Would you be curious versus defensive?
If an in-depth conversation isn’t realistic, consider providing a list of 5 things to each other and spend a week considering them before talking about it. Get creative. Alter this exercise to meet the needs of your situation.
Take a few deep breaths and when you are ready, try practicing and exploring what allows you to spiritually thrive and what allows your partner to spiritually thrive and how you can spiritually thrive together!
If this is a conversation that feels too tender, consider reaching out for support from one of our therapists and/or wellness coaches to support you and your relationship thrive while honoring your unique and beautiful differences.
Please share your thoughts or questions in the comments section.
Sara Hughes-Zabawa, LMSW has extensive experience working with trauma survivors, depression & anxiety, LGBT+ individuals and their families, and faith transitions. She is also a yoga instructor and uses mindfulness training to support clients in cultivating self-care practices.