Tips for Mixed-Faith Marriages: Consider your Situation an Asset
Be willing to see your "mixed-faith" status as an asset instead of a liability. How?
1. Before you read any of my next points... make a conscious, intentional decision that you are willing to reframe your relationship in this way. Say something to yourself that goes as follows: "Yes... I am willing to see my mixed-faith marriage from the perspective of a 'gift' or 'opportunity' rather than a 'wedge' or 'divider.'" Then, when you come across mixed-faith issues... you are better equipped to take the perspective of, "well... all dynamics in life have issues." Therefore, these problems don't have to define your entire relationship and they don't have to carry more meaning or power than they deserve.
2. Do you realize that when I work with both "believing" or both "non-believing" spouses... they often don't know much about the in-depth intricacies of each other's values, ethics, morals, dreams, etc.? There is a lot of assumption going on when both partners label themselves similarly (i.e. "we are Mormon"; "we are agnostic"; "what does this mean exactly?" is what I'm typically asking). Mixed-faith dynamics force a couple to step into an in-depth space of curiosity and understanding (if you're willing)... that many don't take the opportunity to do... or even realize the opportunity exists. When done well, your intimacy as a couple can't help but increase. You know more about each other than you did before, and you are signaling to your partner that you are willing to continue to learn about them as changes happen throughout life. This builds confidence over time between you, especially when you realize that your relationship can survive beyond things that are "conditional" or initially assumed. Working out differences and coming out of that space where you still feel like you have each other's backs... this is at the heart of intimacy... not "sameness." "Sameness" is easy and will fool you every time.
3. Along with intimacy increasing, curiosity and "leaning in" to a partner who no longer "believes" in a similar way that you do also forces intentionality around spirituality. People have to sit with their beliefs and values in new ways, and not just assume things are as they should be. You can no longer be on "auto-pilot." You have to make conscious choices about how to engage your partner, how to negotiate about your parenting styles, how to get creative about inclusive rituals and lifestyle decisions, etc. This offers you a unique possibility those on "auto-pilot" don't usually think about. And this leads to a reclaiming of adult authority and values that I believe are to your benefit. It's developmentally appropriate and useful to adult about these things... even if initially painful.
4. If you're willing to take John Gottman's advice, and allow your partner to influence you... you now have a person who loves you and wants to partner with you who can also offer you perspectives you don't access on your own. Yes... it can be scary, annoying, and/or confusing to face information you're not comfortable with (on either side of the spectrum of belief). Yet the opportunity to grow and stretch through these points of discomfort are ongoing and often enlightening.
5. If you have children, as I implied in the earlier parenting post... you have a unique position that most parents don't. This is a tremendous opportunity to role model examples of inclusion and respect within the construct of both personal and relational agency. Very few kids get the opportunity to be raised in a home where this is done well. And the kids I've seen come out of these types of environments are generally compassionate, smart, humorous, open, and critical thinkers that don't take themselves too seriously. They will be better equipped than many of their peers to face similar dynamics with friends, future partners, work associates, etc.
6. When you think about it... the story of Adam and Eve is one of a mixed-faith marriage. Eve chooses knowledge and experience. Adam chooses his partner over the comfort, structure and godliness of the garden. They face the world together... in a different relationship with deity and spirituality than they had before been accustomed to. Whether that story is literal, symbolic, or nuanced for you... I think there are beautiful concepts to apply. Embrace your status as a mixed-faith couple. It can be one of your greatest strengths. Even if your status ends in divorce or separation... this process is unique and personal to you. Whatever you learn from it... however your relationships pan out... it is a part of your journey now... and therefore, part of your development into whomever you will be a year from now... 5 years from now... 20 years. May you experience peace, comfort, growth and intimacies you could have never imagined before this "trial."
These tips and many others are included in the book called One Family, Two Views: How to Fortify your Mixed-Faith Mormon Marriage.
Although this book is geared towards Mormon families, any couple going through a faith transition would find the general principles helpful.
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST has been in practice as a mental health professional for over 20 years, primarily working with issues of relational health, faith transitions and journeys, and sexuality. She writes a blog called "The Mormon Therapist," and hosts the podcasts "Mormon Mental Health," and "Mormon Sex Info." She also produces "Sex Talk with Natasha."