Question: I’ve been reading The God Squad column since I was a teenager and enjoy your perspective on life and spirituality.
I’m a 25-year-old woman and have been in a committed relationship for 18 months. Things are going very well between us, and we’ve begun spending more time with each others’ families. We have a very comfortable relationship; he makes me smile and laugh, and he is a gentleman. I truly love him and have started to think about marriage and kids.
There’s just one problem that’s causing a deep hurt and confusion in my heart: I was raised Catholic, but my fiancé is an atheist. My heart tells me that as long as two people love each other, they can overcome anything. However, my head tells me that our differing views may lead to significant issues down the road if we do marry and have children.
While I no longer practice Catholicism as devoutly as I once did, I have fond memories of my Catholic schooling and upbringing, and I would want my children to be raised with some kind of Christian faith. We’ve never discussed having kids or how we’d deal with religion, but I have a nagging suspicion that my fiancé wouldn’t support my decision to raise our children with a religion.
My fiancé was not raised in any kind of faith, and he had negative experiences with previous girlfriends trying to force him to convert. He knows I’m a Christian but still makes comments and jokes about God and Christians being “silly” and the Bible being a “fairy tale.” I don’t think he’s trying to be hurtful; in his mind, I think he’s trying to “enlighten” me.
Do you think it’s possible to make this relationship work long-term? I’m really conflicted because of our opposing religious views. I have a sinking feeling whenever I think about this. I need to hear someone else’s opinion, and I trust yours. — A., via email@example.com.
Answer: Thank you for your articulate and heart-rending question. Let me explain my ruler test to you, in the hopes that it might help you approach your difficult spiritual choice.
When I counsel couples who are considering marriage but find themselves on two different sides of the religion question — whether it be Jews/Christians, Christian/Hindus, Christian or Jewish/Muslims, different denominations of Christianity, or your situation of Catholic/atheist — I take a ruler out of my desk.
I ask them to think of the ruler as a way to visualize all the differences in their relationship. I tell them these differences can be given an intensity ranking on the ruler, with one inch representing a belief that’s not very important to them and 12 inches representing a belief at the core of their being.
For most couples, neatness, or even favorite sports teams are at the low end of the ruler, while sexual morality and honesty regularly get put at or near the 12-inch side. My point is that we can easily marry a person whose differences and beliefs fall at the low end of the ruler, but if the differences are closer to 12 inches, marriage is a risky proposition.
It’s simply wrong and usually impossible to make a person care less about things they care about passionately. So your problem is not that you’re in love with an atheist. Your problem is that you don’t know, nor does he, how intensely each of you feel about your spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof. The solution is for you to face this difference directly and discuss it honestly. If your fiancé is a “one-inch” atheist and you’re a “12-inch” Catholic, you should not marry the guy.
It’s not fair for him to prevent you from raising Catholic children, and it’s not fair of you to surrender your deeply-held beliefs to someone who’s only a casual atheist. The same would be true if you discovered that your fiancé was (to mix a metaphor) a deeply-believing atheist and you were only a casual Catholic.
It’s hard for many couples to face the hard truth that one difference can ruin a relationship that’s otherwise harmonious. You said you have a “nagging suspicion” your fiancé would not support raising your children with faith. You need to have more than a “nagging suspicion” before you commit your life to a man who views your faith with disdain.
Take out a ruler and measure your life. You’re just 25 and have only known your fiancé for a short time. It’s not that he doesn’t measure up; it’s that you may not measure up together.
Send questions only to firstname.lastname@example.org.