Catholic and atheist consider marriage

Originally Published: November 19, 1999 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: May 31, 2013
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Dear Alice,

I know that this isn't exactly your province, but I was wondering if maybe you could direct me to another website that might be able to help us. My boyfriend and I are both college students, but not at Columbia. We have been together for quite a while and are starting to think about becoming engaged, but there is something that disturbs us. He is a religious Catholic, and I am an equally devout atheist. This is not an issue now (we're both very respecting of each other), but we're afraid that if we become more serious, it might be a problem. Are there any resources you could suggest to us for ways to handle this? Or stories of couples that have faced similar issues? Thanks!

Dear Reader,

It is both courageous and sensible for you and your boyfriend to think about how your religious and spiritual beliefs may impact your relationship, both now and in the future. Many couples find that when they are considering making a commitment to one another, new questions and feelings surface, or suddenly become more important.

You've mentioned that so far, you and your boyfriend have been successful at respecting each other's differing beliefs. Think about what has helped you to do that. As you begin talking further, keep in mind that religion and our concepts of whether there exists a higher being or force can be a complex topic to discuss. Here are some general pointers to consider:

  • Reassure each other that you care about this relationship. For example, "I care about the success of our relationship, and think that exploring our spiritual views together would help us to understand one another better."
  • Express your concerns by using "I" statements. When discussing topics about which you disagree, resist the urge to attack the other's beliefs on intellectual or emotional grounds.
  • Accept that on some points, you and your boyfriend may not be sure of how you feel. For many, religious and/or spiritual exploration is a life-long process, during which many changes may occur.
  • Give yourselves time to think, talk with your families, and remain flexible. Pressuring yourselves or each other to reach a "compromise" or conclusion right away may be unrealistic or even counterproductive.

Another important aspect of your discussion may be how your religious and spiritual beliefs connect to your senses of culture, family, morals, and community. Therefore, some other questions for you and your partner to consider might be:

  • How are your beliefs connected with your family and/or cultural history?
  • Has this connection changed over time? Have your individual beliefs changed over time? If so, what has caused the change(s)?
  • What are your families' and friends' views of interfaith relationships?
  • Are there specific holidays or rituals that have particular importance for each of you?
  • Are there beliefs or practices about which you are not flexible? Are there some about which you are?
  • How might your beliefs and the differences that exist affect how you would celebrate holidays together or raise children if you decide to do that?

Talking through these issues is sure to be difficult at times. But in the long run, knowing that you have taken the time to share in each other's beliefs and values can be a bonding experience. In addition, beginning to explore these issues now, rather than waiting until they surface during wedding planning, for example, or even later, can help to stave off heated arguments and unnecessarily hurt feelings.

If your school has a counseling service, individual or couples counseling could give you ideas for ways to start and continue discussions around faith with your partner. Students at Columbia can visit Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) or the Mental Health Service (CUMC) for individual or couples counseling (only one member of the couple needs to be a student at Columbia to take advantage of this service). Speaking with a priest, rabbi, pastor, or minister with whom you feel comfortable could also help. Some members of the clergy are more comfortable with interfaith relationships and marriages than others. You can ask around and try out different people to find someone who is helpful. You might also try speaking with other couples who have negotiated their differences successfully. Congregations and community centers sometimes run discussion and support groups for interethnic and interfaith couples as well.

Beginning the discussion now can help you and your partner chart a course that works for both of you, and may help you deepen your relationship and understanding of each other in the process.

Good luck,

Alice

March 6, 2009

21307

To the reader:

The priest who performed our ceremony (he's Catholic, I'm Protestant) was actually very helpful and had plenty of handouts and pamphlets and even a book about interfaith...

To the reader:

The priest who performed our ceremony (he's Catholic, I'm Protestant) was actually very helpful and had plenty of handouts and pamphlets and even a book about interfaith relationships and how to make them work. It would be a little more difficult to go to a priest if you're atheist but if you find the right priest they'll have some good resources for you. They're getting much more used to interfaith marriages.