Healing a house divided

In all marriages, we inevitably fail to see eye-to-eye with our spouses.

Each couple has its sticking points. You might argue over where to spend holidays, what constitutes a clean bathroom or whose turn it is to chaperone a field trip. But what if you’re one of the countless couples who disagree over matters of religion?

Many Catholics create homes with a non-Catholic partner — a Protestant, a non-Christian or even a non-believer. But even when both spouses are Catholic, you can run into religious disagreements.

You may take a more conservative view of Christianity than your spouse, or you may have wildly dissimilar approaches to Christian traditions and prayer. Whatever your marital situation, you’re likely to stumble upon some differences in your approaches to faith.

Given your occasional or frequent religious disagreements, how can you and your spouse create a more harmonious marriage? How can you raise children of faith? How do you begin to create unity of faith within your home?

Cultivate respect

First, learn to accept that while your spouse may come to understand your faith more, he or she may never wish to adopt all the particulars of your faith. Many people fantasize that their partners will convert to Catholicism or become “more Catholic” as time goes on. However, it’s important that you strive to create unity now instead of hoping that you will stumble into perfect religious agreement in the future.

Begin this journey by learning everything that you can about your spouse’s beliefs and faith traditions. Look to your spouse for information, read books, and if he or she belongs to a different religion, observe those religious services. Show reverence for the rules of your spouse’s faith, even if you don’t understand them. For instance, if you attend the services of a non-Catholic faith, respect that church’s regulations on attire and remain respectfully quiet during times of prayer.

Ask questions and then more questions, but take a break if you begin to find yourself frustrated by your spouse’s refusal to see things “your way.” Most importantly, remember that the person you love is the way he or she is at least in part because of that faith.

Find common ground

It’s easy to point at major differences in the beliefs and rituals to which you and your spouse subscribe. However, unearthing commonalities, holding onto those and building your family on that solid foundation is a rewarding challenge.

Start looking for and vocalizing the things you have in common. It’s more than you think.

You know your spouse to be an amazing person, so identify his or her driving forces — morality, devotion to social justice, belief in helping others and more. These elements of good character and a strong value system speak to some of the highlights of their religious background.

Identify common beliefs together. This process can require a significant amount of digging, and you both may need to work at identifying and resolving misconceptions about your faith. For instance, your Protestant spouse may have been told Catholics worship the Blessed Mother. He or she might be pleasantly surprised to learn that both of you believe that worship should be given to God alone — and they may be happy to agree with you that the Blessed Mother is an excellent model of Christian behavior.

Be prepared to explore the “lingo” of your two faiths. Every religion has its glossaries of terms and catchphrases. Don’t be certain that you and your spouse completely disagree on a point of faith before parsing the language you’re using. You may be saying the same thing — or surprisingly similar things — using different words.

Know your negotiables

Parenting requires the blending of two different people’s approaches to raising their children. As with any aspect of your parenting, it’s important to know what you are (and aren’t) willing to negotiate when it comes to your children’s faith experience.

For instance, it may be critical to you that your children attend Sunday Mass, but you may be flexible on whether your spouse attends with you every week or whether he or she wants your children to attend his or her own church’s services as well. Likewise, you may want to see your children given a Catholic education and the sacraments of initiation, but you’re satisfied with your spouse’s desire to send them to Catholic religious education in lieu of a full-time Catholic school.

Present a united front

Maybe in private, you and your spouse are locked in a debate of transubstantiation or a disagreement over whether your daughter should join the church choir. Even though you may feel annoyance at your spouse’s position or isolation in your own, keep your religious discussions close to the vest.

As much as you and your spouse disagree about issues of faith and religious practices, you can both agree that you don’t want your children feeling stuck in the middle. Make a rule, no matter how much you’re muttering on the inside, “I can’t believe he really subscribes to that belief,” that you will never undercut your spouse in front of your children or tell them that their beloved parent is “wrong” in his or her belief. If your child has a question about your partner’s faith or your faith differences, explain your beliefs while allowing your partner to explain his or hers.

Amoris Laetitia on 'Mixed Marriage'
In some cases, one of the spouses is not baptized or does not want to practice the faith. This can make the other’s desire to live and grow in the Christian life difficult and at times painful. Still, some common values can be found and these can be shared and relished. In any event, showing love for a spouse who is not a believer, bestowing happiness, soothing hurts and sharing life together represents a true path of sanctification. Love is always a gift of God. Wherever it is poured out, it makes its transforming presence felt, often in mysterious ways, even to the point that ‘the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband’ (1 Cor 7:14)” (No. 228).

Expand the rule of a united front to everyone. Instead of calling your mother or your best friend to belittle your spouse’s deeply held religious convictions, turn to God in prayer for guidance and strength.

Discuss your frustration with your spouse as a way of sharing your feelings without being accusatory.

Zealously protect your family against “well-meaning” family and friends who mock your spouse’s faith, corner your spouse at parties with religious indignation or secretly try to have inappropriate conversations about faith with your children.

Don’t frequent churches that openly criticize one parent’s religion, mock its beliefs or scorn its followers.

Pray together

When in doubt, pray. Pray for God’s guidance for your family. Pray for the deepening of your marriage through open and earnest discussion of your faith lives. Pray for your children’s spiritual development and your ability to parent them. Pray as a couple in whatever way resonates with both of your beliefs.

Pray as a family for shared intentions and in gratitude for blessings. Each person’s approach to prayer is beautifully unique, so allow each member of your family the opportunity to lead you in prayer. You can encourage your children to craft their prayers as reflection on a Scripture passage, recitation of a traditional prayer or creation of a personal and heartfelt prayer.

Recognize your impact

The journey toward your family’s religious unity can be a long, exhausting one, so rejoice in the amazing rewards of the process.

As you and your spouse share your most fundamental beliefs and endeavor to listen with open hearts, you deepen your relationship through sincere and deeply personal communication. You model love and understanding for your children. Moreover, you raise your children to respect others’ religious beliefs.

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You give your family the gift of a deeper knowledge of faith. As your spouse and children ask questions about your beliefs and practices, you may find that you spend time really discovering your motivation. You might even do some research to learn why the Church maintains certain truths.

Your new knowledge and self-understanding can help fortify your faith, bring you closer to God and allow you to be a better witness of his love to your spouse and your children.

Jesus himself prayed that we “may all be one” (Jn 17:21). Now and always, he walks with you and your spouse. He works with you to build a beautiful foundation of faithful unity in your home.

Megan Nye writes from New Jersey.