As couples move from casual dating to getting engaged, they think about how to merge various aspects of their lives. Discussions usually center around issues like joint vs individual bank accounts, how to divide the holidays between families, and even logistical considerations like whose couch to keep when you move in together.
Often overlooked is the question of how partners will merge their spiritual lives. As millennials move away from formal religion and often identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” conversations on the subject seem unnecessary. However, even people who don’t currently plan to make faith a part of their shared life may find that religion enters their marriage in unexpected ways.
Merging family and faith expecations within your own marriage
When Sasha and Rick* got engaged, Sasha knew Rick came from a religious family. Rick grew up praying before meals and going to church, but he had never done either when the two were dating. The role religion might play in their marriage was never discussed.
Now that they are married, Rick’s parents stay with the couple when they come to town. Before each meal, either Rick or his father says a prayer. According to Sasha, “At first, it was surprising to see Rick do this when his parents were around. I think the prayers are less about religion for him and more a way of connecting with his parents and being respectful of them. Still, I didn’t think his upbringing would mean religion would be a part of our married life.”
Sasha is content to go along with the rituals of Rick’s family, but some spouses in her situation would feel blindsided or pressured into religious practices that make them feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t fair of Rick to expect Sasha to participate in his family traditions (particularly in her own home) without talking to her. On the other hand, knowing Rick’s parents were devout in their beliefs, Sasha could have broached the subject to learn more about why Rick had moved away from the religious rituals of his childhood.
To merge faiths or coexist as “spiritual but separate?”
Confronting spiritual differences may be a more obvious necessity for the growing number of interfaith couples. While one partner converting is an option, most couples prefer to coexist with their respective beliefs, even incorporating practices from different faith traditions into their wedding ceremony. In these marriages, ideally, couples move beyond simply coexisting to learning about one another’s faith. If possible, that could include respectfully participating in some of its rituals.
When to discuss religious development
Regardless of the way couples decide to address religion when it’s just the two of them, spouses often find that the arrival of their first baby is a catalyst for discussion and sometimes conflict. Before having children, it’s possible to live in a spiritual gray area; however, a child may require choices that are more black and white. Will the baby be formally initiated into a religion? If so, and spouses are of different faiths, which one will they choose? Partners who have previously seemed uninterested in spirituality can have strong feelings around these choices.
Although getting engaged and having a baby are key times to discuss faith, any significant life event such as a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, or a tragic world event may cause people to reconsider the role religion plays in their life. Spouses must be prepared for this possibility and allow room for their partner to evolve in what they believe and may or may not want to practice. With that level of open-mindedness and ongoing dialogue, couples can create a shared spiritual life that meets the needs of each spouse.