Is religion a marital deal-breaker?

Some stories are just made for a follow-up conversation and one NPR provided this morning is a perfect example.

It raises this question: Can a couple that has a different view of religion be happily married?

Long-married people will see the flaw in the couple NPR used today, however: They’ve only been married a little over two years. Heck, it doesn’t take much to be married for two years.

But one believes in God and one is an atheist. Here’s the story:

The story, part of a series NPR is doing this week on people turning away from organized religion, may be a better introduction to the question of what is marriage — a takeover or a merger? Are we in love with individuals or the positions or religion they hold dear?

Some of the comments on the NPR website offer a varying response and make clear that religion isn’t a deal-breaker:

“My parents were married for 61 years. My mother was a devout Christian, my father an atheist. Two friends of mine have been married for over 35 years with the same relationship. Respect, tolerance, and love are more important than seeing the world the same way.”

“This type of arrangement worked for me and my wife for 25 years. I am an atheist and she is a Christian. Then, suddenly she felt she needed to start spending all of her waking hours doing something at the church, doing social events with church people (I wasn’t invited), or doing some kind of church-related activity. She left myself and our two sons in order to pursue this life.

“I think one thing that Bixby and Peyer had that she and I didn’t is that they talk about their beliefs. Our beliefs were always off limits for discussion–her choice. She would like to come back now, but I can’t see it working. She still thinks God communicates with her, and so at any time could “call” her away to Africa or Timbuktu, or whatever. Of course it is always a little odd to me that thus far, it seems the things God wants her to do align perfectly with the things she wants to do.”

“I’ve been married nearly 20 years; I am religious, my wife is not. It’s a stretch even to say she’s agnostic. I respect her position and she respects mine; we support each other’s decisions. We have our share of challenges and sacrifices in a religious context but are able to work through them. When it came to raising children, we made a mutual decision to raise them in my religion with the understanding that they’d always consciously know they have a choice when they grow older on which religion to follow, or to follow none at all.”

How would — or does — this situation affect your marriage?

  • Aaron

    I’m not sure if the last paragraph is yours Bob or if it was someone else’s. In any regard, I wonder how their life would be when you cannot share your faith or lack their of with your spouse. I think the relationship would less satisfying or complicated if they were polar opposites. A person of faith gets their values from their faith. Clearly it’s not impossible, but you, I would think, would have a separate life outside of your spouse. At the end of the day, as long as each individual in the relationship is happy – that’s all that matters.

  • JP

    I have listened to two of the stories about religion in America on Morning Edition. One element that is that I believe in God but I would not identify myself as religious. I am Christian and my interpretation is the “religions” are unwieldy, large, inherently flawed institutions that often do more to separate people from God rather than connect them. Most of the spiritual people that I am in contact with, Christians and those of other spiritual perspectives, hold a similar view.

    Spirituality for me is a journey, not a destination. Many Christians might define it as a journey or maybe a relationship. So for my most intimate relationship with a life partner I think that it is unreasonable to expect that each of us will be on the same point in the journey at any given moment. However, I would want find it very difficult to have a successful marriage with someone who is not headed in the same general direction.

    And I agree on the time thing, Bob. If you are headed in different directions then over the course of two years the challenge might not be that great, but after 20 or 30 years I think the distance would be too far to bridge for most people. Most Americans, anyway.

  • Jamison

    This story struck me today as well. I’ve recently gotten engaged to a woman who identifies as a non-believer (I’m a Catholic). However, we’re both rather liberal, and share mostly the same political philosophy. We’re at an age where we’re not considering raising any new kids together, I think that can make a big difference. Plus, it helps that we both respect each other’s choices in this regard. As I said we’re just engaged now, so can’t speak for the long term, but I’m eternally hopeful 🙂

  • kennedy

    I suspect it depends on the individual and how their religious beliefs guide behavior. A person with ‘devout’ or ‘conservative’ religious beliefs being more likely to have a problem with spouse who believes differently.

    That being said, having similar beliefs doesn’t guarantee marital bliss.

  • vjacobsen


    It is possible for a person without a specific faith to not only have values, but have values similar to those who do have faith.

    Also, it is possible to be a part of a religion and reject part of what they teach. Look at how many Catholics voted No on the marriage amendment.

  • Bob Collins

    Which brings up an old debate — Are one’s values a reflection of one’s religion? Or is one’s religion reflective of one’s values?

    The couple in the NPR piece seems attracted to each other by mutual values.

  • Christina

    I look at my faith (I’m Christian) as such a deeply rooted part of who I am, that I would be exceedingly sad if I couldn’t really share that part of me with my husband. I know that I have close friends who do not share my faith, and it feels strange to tell them about how I prayed for something or how I felt God spoke to me. I guess for me, my faith is almost like breathing, and so it transcends values in my life (though it certainly affects my values). I am glad that there are couples who can make this work, but I’m quite certain I wouldn’t feel satisfied in a relationship where I had to experience this by myself.

  • andy

    My wife and I are close friends with an engaged couple. She’s (very) catholic and a Republican, he’s an atheist Democrat. I honestly don’t know how they do it. I suppose we’ll see once they’re married…..

    I was lucky, I married into a lovely atheist family who share my views on religion.

  • Mark

    My wife are different enough now I doubt we would have agreed to marry over 20 years ago. She’s a fundamentalist Christian and I’m guess what you’d call a liberal Christian, a believer in a single God and that Jesus was real and focused on social justice rather than many extreme (and in my view misleading) literal interpretations of the Bible. We had two children and basically get along by having a few common interests and tolerating each other with our Minnesota Nice and genuine respect. I compromise by attending her choice of church and rarely interfering with how our children are taught religious ideology other than to affirm personal devotion, principles of respect, and an open mind. She compromises by never nagging or rarely trying to convert me. There have been really tough times, especially through influences of her even more extreme friends. To stay together we focus on similarities. Despite my not being a fundamentalist, she recognizes I have some morality and Christian attitudes even without some institutionalized dogmas. In return, I tolerate the dogma to find the decency, positive devotion, and selflessness that exists even in some of the most extreme churches that at the same time have repulsive, non-Christian attitudes towards groups they don’t like and unrealistic threats based on fear, anger, and judgment rather than on Christian love. While it’s hard to believe sometimes, my wife and I don’t plan on ever separating.

  • Craig

    The problem lies in how to handle the kids, their minds are primed for rapid learning, not critical thinking. When visiting my wife’s relatives once we had to gently derail her great aunt’s faith based assertions. She is truly god fearing, and not simply using religion to attenuate mortal angst. She worries greatly about how everyone in the family will be judged after death, and where they will be assigned.

    Kids are so naturally honest that my wife and I may have to teach the gentle arts of obscurantism and equivocation hand in hand with the notion that some people believe in the supernatural, so as to avoid situations that might unnecessarily upset the aged woman.