Catholic and atheist consider marriage

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. 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,

You're certainly not alone in worrying about how your and your partner’s religious and spiritual beliefs might impact a future marriage. In fact, it’s not uncommon for couples deepening their commitment to each other — whether through marriage, cohabitation, childrearing, or otherwise — to find that historically minor issues and disagreements suddenly become much more salient as you contemplate a future together. Many relationships are well-served by discussing these points of potential tension early-on before the relationship escalates further, so kudos to you for thinking about this now.

First, it may be helpful to know that compatible religious views are just one of many things that may contribute to a healthy and fulfilling relationship. While one recent poll in the United States found that close to half of married adults said that having shared religious beliefs was "very important" to marital success, the numbers are highly variable between different subgroups. Among couples where one partner has religious affiliations and one doesn't (like you and your partner), only 17 percent ranked shared religious beliefs as very important, making it the second to lowest ranked factor below having shared household chores, shared interests, a satisfying sexual relationship, adequate income, and children together. So, it may make you feel better to know that there are couples there there that make it work, even with differing religious values since it's just one of many factors in a relationship.

So where does that leave you and your partner? Essentially, it’s up to the two of you to decide how you value religion in your relationship. Just as there are pros and cons to any aspect of a relationship, there are negative and positive aspects to holding different religious beliefs. Upon discussion, you may find that you and your partner hold differing views on whether to live together before marriage, whether and what kinds of sex to have, contraception and abortion use, participation in religious practices or events, and whether future children would be raised religiously. These differing views aren't necessarily grounds for break-up, nor are they specific to interfaith relationships. However, they're topics that would most likely benefit from further discussion prior to marriage.

For many couples, having the ability to communicate effectively is a crucial skill for navigating differences and reaching compromises that make both partners feel heard and respected. While many people find that religious discussions are tense or stressful, they don’t have to be. With the right approach and communication style, these conversations may even serve as positive demonstrations of mutual respect. You've mentioned that you and your partner have so far been successful at respecting each other's beliefs, so you’re off to a great start. As your relationship becomes more committed, you might consider how your religious and spiritual beliefs connect to your senses of culture, family, morals, and community. Some questions for you and your partner to consider might be:

  • How are your beliefs connected with your family 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 holidays or rituals that have particular meaning for each of you?
  • Are there beliefs or practices that hold great value to you that would cause hardship to stop? Are there ones that are open to compromise?
  • To what extent, if any, would you be open to participating in holidays, rituals, beliefs, or practices associated with your partner’s religious identity?
  • How might your beliefs affect how you would celebrate holidays or raise children, if you decide to do that?

Talking through these questions may be difficult, but in the long run, knowing that you have taken the time to understand each other's beliefs and values may help strengthen your relationship. In addition, beginning to explore these issues now may prevent them from becoming a source of tension and dissatisfaction in the future (perhaps during wedding planning, for example). Here are some other pointers to keep in mind:

  • Reassure each other that you care about this relationship.
  • If there is something you disagree about, express your concerns by using “I” statements. Resist the urge to attack the other's beliefs on intellectual or emotional grounds.
  • For many people, religious or spiritual exploration is a life-long process, during which many changes may occur. Accept that on some points, you may not be sure of how you feel.
  • Give yourselves time to think, talk with other people who share your religious beliefs, and remain flexible.
  • Avoid making rash decisions. Pressuring yourselves or each other to reach a "compromise" or conclusion right away may be unrealistic or even counterproductive. This is likely the start of a very long — perhaps lifelong — conversation: it’s understandable if it takes some time to get it right.

If your school has a counseling service, you might also consider individual or couples counseling to provide support as you and your partner begin and continue discussions around faith with each other. Another option is to speak with a spiritual leader who you feel comfortable with. However, be aware that some religious leaders are more accepting of interfaith relationships than others, so you may wish to gather some information on the person’s interfaith views before approaching them for guidance. You might also try speaking with other couples who have successfully navigated interfaith relationships, and some congregations and community centers run discussions and support groups for interethnic and interfaith couples as well. Ultimately, building a support system that includes family, friends, and counseling services may help to strengthen your relationship and provide support as you and your partner communicate through your differences.

Last updated Aug 12, 2022
Originally published Nov 19, 1999