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.
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.
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.