When your spouse is an atheist / agnostic

A reader emailed me the other day to ask if I had any thoughts on how to discuss faith with an agnostic spouse. I don’t want to divulge any identifying details, but a rough summary of his question is this:

I am a recent convert to Catholicism and my wife is agnostic. She is content with her life, not really intellectual, and not “searching” spiritually. So far our marriage is a happy one, but I worry about big conflicts arising from our differing views if we have children.

I feel very disheartened that she has no interest in this faith that is to crucial to my life, and that I don’t even have any friends who share my Catholic faith. It seems that whenever I try to be a good Catholic and Christian I get accused of being a “party pooper” or “holy roller”.

I feel down about all this and could use some words of encouragement.

So I sent him a lengthy reply. But the topic still nagged at me, and after re-reading the email I sent I realized that my advice probably wasn’t going to be that helpful.

It occurred to me that regular commentor Steve G. (who recently had some great thoughts on another subject here and here) had been in this very situation in his own marriage, so I emailed him to ask what he thought. As usual, he was able to distill what he learned from his own experience into some really powerful advice for any new converts whose spouses don’t share their faith. It was too good not to share, so with his permission I’m posting his advice in case others may find it helpful.

He writes:

Around the time I converted, my wife could also have been described as a mostly content, non-intellectual who just doesn’t really care about faith. That non-intellectual part is not an insult in the least. My wife is plenty smart, she just happens to be one of those people who lives more in the real world than in her head (i.e. like me too often). Sometimes, I really think being an ‘intellectual’ is a huge disadvantage. icon razz When your spouse is an atheist / agnostic

Since I am that type of person myself, I do draw so much information, knowledge, and edification from reading, listening to, and devouring the types of books and tapes I’ve often spoken about. At the beginning, lacking any semblance of humility, and even less insight into the different ways people relate, I clumsily offered book after book, apologetic after apologetic argument, tried to get her to watch EWTN, etc. All to no avail (except possibly causing a lot of resentment). After a few months of seeming dead ends, I almost despaired at how I was going to reach her with what I’d found.

All this is to say I know how tough it can be. St. Paul was right, being unequally yoked is tough, very tough. In fact, it’s downright painful. So I’ll offer what advice and encouragement I can:

First, I need to boldly and happily say that there is hope! Don’t be discouraged! I honestly could never have envisioned my wife (raised as an atheist) would become a Christian. At one point, I was just happy enough that she ‘tolerated’ my own growing devoutness. Yet just about two years after my own conversion began, there she was getting baptized at the Easter vigil. And now some 6 or 7 years after that, I am in a Catholic marriage, with three baptized children, and we are fighting the good fight of trying to faithfully live out the Church’s teachings together.

Will it happen in every case? Will it happen as quickly? Only God knows, but this is just to encourage these spouses to have hope. It does happen. It’s often times quite unexpected, almost miraculous. But then God specializes in the miracle of conversion of hearts.

Here is some advice I would offer:

1. Let your actions speak louder than words. As St. Francis says, preach the Gospel in actions and not words. This is SO important. At some point after my clumsy attempts to convert my wife, a good friend basically told me in roughly these words, “Why not just keep your mouth shut and focus 100% on being the very best Catholic husband you can be. Stop trying to convert her, that’s God’s work, and get about what you can change…growing closer to God, becoming a better Christian, becoming a better husband.”

His words actually stung me a bit as I was still just in the very beginning stages of recovering from a life of total unmitigated pridefulness, and the thought that I couldn’t bend her to my will was humbling.

In truth though, if I had any hand in converting my wife, it was after I heeded this advice. It was only after my behavior as a husband, a son, a brother, a friend, a person, had drastically changed for the better that she began to become open to the possibility that there might be something to that whole Christianity thing. To her non-intellectual personality, the proof was in the pudding. My actions spoke louder than any words I could have used.

2. Remember to have fun. There definitely is a tendency, especially for those of us who convert in very isolated circumstances such as he describes (one man show, no religious friends, etc.), to withdraw very rapidly from all things with even the slightest hint of taint of the world. It’s understandable, maybe even laudable. After a life of sin, you feel you’ve been rescued and you want to protect yourself from those things. It is exceedingly difficult at the beginning to strike the balance between being in the world, but not of it. The tendency is to go towards the extreme and indeed, it’s easy in that case to come across as a humorless holy-roller.

Again, indeed this was my own experience. I don’t really regret it because there is a sense in which it was a necessary withdrawal to more or less gather my bearings as I was setting my foot on this path of faith. But looking back, I have to be honest and admit that I was indeed a bit of a killjoy. I was so overly sensitive to all things I perceived as impious that I could actually be quite a bore.

But then I learned (thanks to writers like Lewis, Chesterton, and many other ‘joyful’ men and women), that this is not how we should be. We are Catholics! We are not Manicheans. We are not Puritans. We are Catholic! We know that grace builds on nature, and we can affirm the good wherever it is found. And we can, and should laugh loud and often! In the words of Hilaire Belloc:

“Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There’s always laughter and good red wine.”

…and so it should be. Even our current pope is on record as saying that we Catholics have so much to be joyful about that we should be exuding that to the world. Let us be careful no to confuse piety with somberness. Let us be not only joyful, but also capable of enjoying (morally, of course) God’s gifts (including our yet to be converted spouse).


3.
Be careful not to require too much in the way of motives for your spouse. This might sound confusing, so let me explain.

While my wife did begin to be open to the possibility of Christianity through the changes she saw in me, if she’d been left to her own devices, she’d probably have taken the whole thing MUCH slower. When she finally did decide to convert, it was as much for me, for our family’s unity (we were pregnant at that time), and for peace in our marriage as anything else.

This would often trouble me. I wondered if she felt forced (though I honestly don’t recall pressing her after the initial foolish period of trying to convert her). I wondered if she ‘really’ believed (how in heaven’s name can that be measured?). I wondered if she really FELT it in her heart. I was suspicious that she was doing this way too much for me, and not enough out of conviction and true belief on her part.

I realized how right I was when she told me later that during the Easter Vigil itself at one point she had actually had a dialogue with herself in which she came very close to turning to me and telling me she just couldn’t go through with it.

So what’s my point? That God meets us where we are. OK, so her motives weren’t as ‘pure’ I would have thought they should be in the beginning, but look at it another way…how humble of her to have taken such a leap for her family and marriage! Would God not honor such humility? Of course he would. And he has. This wonderful woman who took those first, humble steps towards God, has been increasingly drawn to him in her depths as she owns her faith more deeply, draws strength, wisdom and love from it daily. This woman is today a Catholic who probably has about 1/100th of the book knowledge I have about the faith, but regularly manages to put me to shame in living it out.

God of course will use whatever he can to draw us to him. Even our broken, conflicted, impure motives. And looking back, can I really hold my own motives as so pure? I wonder. The point is again that conversion is God’s work. Let us be able to set aside our expectations of what it should or will look like for others (even those most dear to us). If and when it happens, it may very well look very different than might be expected.

4. PRAY! Finally, the last bit of advice I have is to pray. Pray, pray, pray, pray! Reading is wonderful, enlightening, edifying, helpful, and plenty of it needs to be done to fill the intellectual life of the intellectual Catholic.

But always, under girding everything must be the entering into of the life of prayer. In particular, get in the habit early on of finding at least a few minutes a day to withdraw from the noise and bustle of life, and just prayerfully listen for God’s voice (“Speak Lord, your servant is listening” is how I begin).

If there is one practice, aside from frequent reception of the sacraments, that I would encourage a Catholic to partake of, and to not let go of no matter what, it would be to somehow spend at least 10 or 15 minutes each day listening in silent meditative prayer. Again, aside from the sacraments, this serves more to allow God to transform us and draw us to him than anything else I can think of. This life of prayer empowers us to do the good work of becoming that husband who images Christ to our wives, who turns the other cheek, who sacrifices for her.

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Enter the Conversation...

25 Responses to “When your spouse is an atheist / agnostic”
  1. Amber says:

    Amen! As someone who is in the same boat – although I consider my husband spiritually apathetic rather than agnostic, because agnosticism to me implies some sort of curiosity and searching – I heartily second what Steve G has to say on the matter. I tried a for awhile to argue, recommend books, draw out discussions and thoughts but all I managed to do was increase my feelings of loneliness and make him irritated with me.

    I reached a crisis point last fall and I realized that I needed to turn it all over to God. I’m not big enough or strong enough to take this all on my shoulders, but He is. So I try to live as a Christian as best I can and I pray daily (if not more often!) that someday my husband’s heart will open enough to feel and know God’s love and mercy.

    I hope someday to have a happy ending like Steve G and others have experienced, (and really, if it does happen I think it will be much like Steve G describes with his wife) but I also know that there is no guarantee that it will work out that way. And most of the time I’m generally ok with that. Most of the time. :-)

    Oh, and another thing – consider I Peter 3:1-9. The first part is aimed towards wives, the second towards husbands, and the third towards all.

  2. Amber says:

    Oh, and one more thing – I try to remember to always be thankful (and to thank God too!) for what a good husband my spouse is. I am also so incredibly thankful that he’s willing to let me raise the children as devout Catholics, and even tolerates mild family prayer such as a table blessing. I have to make sure I remind myself periodically to be grateful for the blessings I have, rather than always looking for what I want but don’t have!

  3. melanieb says:

    I always enjoy reading Steve G.’s comments. He says what I wish I could have been able to say.

    This is good advice for anyone who has a relative or close friend who isn’t Catholic.

  4. Tracy says:

    Fantastic advice. This applies also to family members, close friends etc…Thanks!

  5. Jeron says:

    Very wise words from an intellectual for practical moment-to-moment living. Thank you for this.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Thanks Jennifer. Your’s and Steve’s comments and suggestions have really given me the boost that I desperately needed. Amber, hang in there and I will do the same. As Steve said, pray,pray,pray. And Amber, my wife is spiritually apathetic as well, I use agnostic so as to somehow categorize her line of thought, but I do agree with you in the meaning of the word.

  7. Cow Bike Rider says:

    I enjoyed this post very much. My wife and I both grew up Lutheran and now that I’m becomming Catholic, I’ve had to learn a few things about how to share why. For example, like your post states, when conversion is so intellectual, you can become withdrawn and “no fun”. My wife had a hard time watching me go through this because to her, it seemed as though I was studying for a test. Then, I would share what I learned with her and she had no interest in hearing. Because where I once was fun-loving, etc., I became obsessed with finding answers.

    Today, things are better. I pray for her, for unity in faith in our house, but don’t force anything. I realized where I need to be now (Catholic Church) and no longer feel the turmoil I felt. When she saw that turmoil in me, she felt turmoil herself. And once I got to that place of peace, I could have fun again.

    This post was good to read too because it has a great ending! Thank you

    Good Blog!

  8. k says:

    Jennifer,

    I’m in such admiration of your blog, your faith, your self-reflection, and your honesty (not necessarily in that order!). DarwinCatholic recommended me to “Et tu?”, and I was just finishing this very post when I checked my gmail account and saw your comment referring me here.

    Thanks so much for visiting my blog, and also for chronicling your own experiences in such a relatable way. Just seeing your topics list your blog was like having a prayer answered and posted on the internet.

  9. Kate says:

    Thank you for referring me to this post, Jennifer. As others have pointed out, these “tips” apply not only to spouses but to anyone we witness to knowingly or not. Just think how many people – the stranger in the grocery store, a family member who has turned way from God, our own children – we might bring closer to Christ just by following this advice. I really appreciate you taking the time to share this post with me. Wish I had the time to read every single past post of your blog! God bless!

  10. Anonymous says:

    YOu have no no idea how stressed I am about this very situation. The issue I face is an atheist spouse who has too much intelligence and questions the validity of everything. He says religion is just gaps in science. It is painful to discuss and I often cry about it. With two children that I will raise Catholic and no spouse to offer guidance and support. I pray that one day the concepts of blind faith and hope will soften his spirit.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Or, the original spouse could show they were a larger person by accepting the rather non-threatening, peaceful philosophical views of their mate. It is a fallacy that both mates have to share the same faith to be happy. Once you can make that leap, the world opens for you.

    • mike a says:

      Values. Are obviously important I’m a relationship. Christian values can often be different than subjectivist values. And therein lies the problem. Happiness is attainable but unlikely, especially if the couples values are contrary to each other.
      You need to think before hitting submit.

  12. Jonathan says:

    Anonymous,

    Thank you for re-awakening this thread. Your comment brings to mind one of those thngs which makes sense in print but nt in practice. For when one truly believes, I mean truly…it pains them that the other cannot partake in the joy they know. The unity cannot be counterfeited, it cannot be hidden, it cannot be forgotten and replaced with a separate fleeting emotion. Unity is a real thing that can only be realized when two share one flesh in all things and faith is what binds these two into one. I pray that one day my wife knows the joy that awaits. That she may be healed of the pain she harbors inside because of past indiscretions.

  13. Anonymous says:

    enlightening post. i am thinking so much about this. problem is my husband would say that there is no need for God or Jesus because they will not cur his mother. I just feel really bad…

  14. Anonymous says:

    This was what I've been needing to read/find lately. While my husband agreed to have our son baptised (done with the ship's bell. we're in the navy, and he saw this happened once), he has recently become an atheist and is definately not ecstatic about me wanting to raise our child and future children RC. He's almost always posting something that would be bashing/negative about the RCC. And while I never once got mad at him for it (I'm not happy about priests who sexually abuse either) I wish and pray he'll see/realize that the RCC is not "evil" and "brain-washing" and out against the world. I'm have just been doing actions instead of words, but with him being gone for underways and deployments, I sometimes worry if I will ever have him understand that. It may seem silly, but right now, all I asking of God is for him to help my husband believe in him again. I think once he does, he'll be a lot more happy and more positive about things. Maybe after this happens, I can ask for the same faith. But I can't help but think baby steps is the best way to handle this.

    -Military Wife

  15. Anonymous says:

    I just found this post (I don’t know how) and it really gives me a lot to think about. I’ve just started exploring Christianity (man, that sounds lame) after the recent birth of my daughter. Something about the experience really shifted something inside me and I’ve been looking for answers.

    While I’ve tried to include my husband in this search, he openely thinks all religion is stupid and isn’t even sure he believes in God, and has said that he might divorce me if I converted to some form of organized religion.

    I find myself being really conflicted these days between wanting to explore faith but also not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ too much in my marriage.

    Anyway, thank you for your blog and posts like these. It’s really helping me work through some issues, feelings, questions etc.
    Anonymous recently posted..I said a prayer the other day…

  16. starrball says:

    Wow, I just stumbled upon this post and am I ever glad I did. I am one of the minority who also struggles with this issue. Some wonderful words of wisdom, thank you for sharing!

  17. tara says:

    wonerful. i really needed this advice,
    god bless

  18. Miggs says:

    I am severely late on finding this, but I’m grateful that I did. Thank you!

  19. Jennifer and Steve,

    Thank you for posting this. DH and I just spent the better part of tonight in a heated discussion due to our clashing over my faith and his spiritual apathy. I know my argumentative nature did NOT help things tonight, and I think I will need to bookmark this post to remind myself that God is soverign and it’s in His hands and to pray with earnest.

  20. Brooke S. says:

    I am only 17 years old, so this might sound foolish. I am dating an agnostic. My family and I are strict Baptists and they don’t agree with us dating. I also don’t like dating someone with different beliefs. I have no idea if this is a potential marriage, but I want him to go to heaven with me. I have faith that God will save him but it seems like no one else does. I just wanted to ask others to help pray for me and my situation. I know it will take time but please remember me and my boyfriend.

  21. Gillian says:

    I would like to share a wonderful resource I’ve discovered in this area:
    spirituallyunequalmarriage.com :) It’s Christian rather than Catholic, but I haven’t noticed too much that’s different since it’s about marriage.

    Brooke, I went through the same thing, except I was not baptised yet etc, and was just starting on my faith journey. I remember asking for advice and being steered away from marrying an unbeleiver, but I loved him and I wasn’t prepared to live without him. So I married him, and it is a hard road to walk, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

    There is an online community for women married to unbelievers that has been extremely helpful. The main website is the blog but there is also a yahoo group and the women also have a book: Winning Him without Words. If you’re serious about this, and unlike many I wouldn’t deliberately try to steer you away because you might be the only one to reach him, then I would definitely recommend you come on board at spirituallyunequalmarriage.com :)

  22. Brooke S. says:

    thank youuu! I just don’t want to give up on him.

  23. Brent says:

    I enjoyed the fact the author of the letter claimed his wife was not intellectual … yet he himself believes in a fictional being that created the universe … wake up to science people!

    • mike a says:

      Intellectual meaning he is willing to and interested in learning and practicing deep thought. This is something you yourself should consider.