In a perfect world, we would all marry someone who is the perfect complement to ourselves—and our family—in every way. In reality, we are two different souls harboring varied ideas, opinions, and beliefs. What happens when you create a family that holds very different beliefs?
Back story: My ex-husband was agnostic when we met. I was a disillusioned Christian reconstructing the fragmented pieces of my faith. He was spiritually curious. And at that time in our lives, we seemed to join each other on the same plane of thinking. After years of church attendance and spiritual conversations, it appeared that my faith deepened—and his belief in a higher power dwindled. It came to a head one March evening after dinner when he sat me down for a pivotal conversation.
“I’ve decided that I am an atheist. I know you have your faith and that it is important to you, but I just can’t share that with you.”
The breath in my chest caught, and I shook my head in disbelief. I had brought him to church with me for nearly ten years, showed him the loving side of God, and prayed fervently for him to find spiritual peace on his journey. This was not the way I had envisioned this working out.
My hopes of having my husband worship next to me and our children? Dashed. I had always wanted to be that family – you know the one. They always have their arms wrapped around each other sweetly, eyes closed as they sing. You can practically feel the prayer radiating from their presence.
That would never happen for us. And I needed to accept it. I wasn’t going to leave the man I loved and created a life with over one thing—albeit a pretty big thing. I started going to church alone with the kids and tried to be respectful about his beliefs.
As it turns out, this wasn’t the only crack in our marriage. Six months later, we filed for divorce. That being said, we still co-parent two wonderful children together. And the disparity in our beliefs couldn’t be more obvious now that we have adopted our own single-parenting styles.
So, what do you do when one parent believes one thing, and the other holds an entirely different set of values? Here’s what I have learned:
Respect the other person’s beliefs, no matter what – especially in front of the kids.
Our kids don’t need us feeding them more confusion by bad-mouthing the other person. Don’t tell them that their parent is going to hell, or that another parent believes in something akin to the Tooth Fairy.
Share your own beliefs with your child freely.
Be honest when they ask or make statements about the other parent. My son talked to me about his confusion regarding heaven a while back; he said that his dad did not believe in heaven but that he knew I did. I explained to him that while his dad and I hold very different concepts of heaven, none of us really know what death or the afterlife will be like. We’re all just doing the best with the knowledge we have.
Encourage your kids to develop their own unique beliefs.
I hope that by taking my kids to church, praying with them, and having meaningful discussions that I will expose them to what I believe are good tenets for living. I used to worry and fret about them having such an exposure to atheism (as I obviously would like for them to believe in a higher power), but at the end of the day, here’s what I came up with: my ex-husband and I, should we desire to, could work overtime to “win them over” to our belief system, but we can’t control what our kids think. That’s a journey they must take themselves. All we can do is provide the guideposts and support along the way.
Seek marriage counseling.
This is always good advice, but particularly so if you see the difference in your beliefs becoming a chasm for your family. It’s easy to become entrenched in our own echo chambers and miss seeing things from our partner’s perspective. You don’t have to agree with them, but in a marriage, respect is about as important as they come. Without that, you have nothing.
Stop trying to convert them to your belief system.
It’s not going to work. Pray for them, by all means, and live out your beliefs as well as you can. But you are not their higher power, and you don’t have the ability to wave a wand, guilt, or shame anyone into faith or change. In fact, it will have the exact opposite effect. If you do love your spouse, accept them for who they are and start your relationship’s soul work there. Make a list of the values you do share that may not be related to organized religion, and hit reset.
A marriage doesn’t have to be doomed when both partners’ values are very different, but know that it is a much more difficult journey – but it isn’t impossible. With love, mutual respect, and healthy communication, you have the opportunity to give your kids the gift of solidifying their own beliefs.