Most times when Christian podcasters take up a topic like this we tend to get preachy about not entering into an unequal yoke, where you have a Christian marrying a non-Christian. While we fully agree with the truth of Scripture on that subject, in this episode we want to look at this issue more from the perspective of how to best face this issue as a couple when you find yourselves in a marriage where you don’t share your faith, or even don’t share convictions about your faith to nearly the same degree.
Religious Values Are Good For Marriage
Just as a quick disclaimer around terminology — we are born again Christians who believe that salvation is faith in Jesus Christ. We believe that Biblical Christianity is a faith, not a religion. In other words, the blessing that God has for Christians comes through faith in Christ, not through a set of religious practices, law-keeping or following a set of rules. Which translates into the fact that we don’t think of our faith as a religion, nor do we normally call our faith-based practices “religious practices”.
However, in the research literature, nearly all studies lump anything to do with God or faith under this term “religion” or “religious views” or “religious practices”. So for the sake of keeping things simple, we are just going to roll with the most commonly used terminology in the research journals.
To start off then, there is strong evidence that religious views and spirituality have positive effects on marriage. There are a number of reasons for this[i]:
- Christianity promotes positive values like love, faithfulness, patience, forgiveness
andkindness, all of which are good for marriage
- Christianity also encourages positive behaviors, such as putting your spouse’s needs before your own, resolving conflict positively, and regularly connecting through joint prayer and church attendance
- Christianity teaches that marriage is sacred, meaning that those with religious beliefs are more likely to remain faithful and committed to the marriage over their whole life
- Christians often have stronger support networks than non-Christians (from their church communities), giving them more people to turn to for support and guidance
All of this means that when both spouses are of the same faith, and both place high importance on their religious values, marital satisfaction is normally high[ii].
When Your Religious Beliefs Don’t Align
Misaligned values can occur when one spouse is very committed to their faith and the other isn’t, when one spouse is religious and the other isn’t, or when spouses are committed to different religions. All of these situations can impact the marriage, but probably not for the reasons you would expect.
Reduced Positive Behaviors
Now just note as we go through this that we are dealing with studies of the general population. So I’ll say something like, non-religious people will probably display less actions that are good for the marriage. Note the tentative language: “will probably”. Please don’t be offended if you are non-religious — we are reporting on statistical issues here and you may well be an exception. We acknowledge that there are highly religious people who are terrible marriage partners. And we acknowledge that there are non-religious people who are devoted, loving and magnificent spouses.
We aren’t making global statements. We are just pointing out general trends in a population. If you are an exception, great. If you are not, I hope you’ll make some room to consider what the research is saying and think about how you might apply this thing to your marriage, as we do to ours.
Generally, spirituality leads to attitudes and actions that are good for marriage. If one spouse is non-religious or less committed to their faith, they will probably display less of these attitudes and actions.
This was tested by a research study in 2015[iii], who interviewed couples where one spouse placed high importance on their faith and the other spouse did not. The study found that the non-religious (or the less religious) spouse was often happier and had higher marital satisfaction, because their religious spouse would act based on their spiritual values of love, kindness and forgiveness towards them.
On the other hand, the religious spouse often had lower marital satisfaction, because their non-religious spouse would be less likely to act based on the same positive Christian values. So the religious spouse still acts in ways that are good for the marriage, but this is not reciprocated and that has an impact on the marriage.
Less Shared Experiences
Another point that is not obvious in a situation like this is that couples with mismatched faith levels may not attend church together. Or they may not have the same degree of overlap in terms of social network and activities, and often do not pray as much together. The loss of the shared experiences can also lead to lower marital happiness[iv].
Staying Strong in Faith
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much-appreciated supporters. This week’s guide is for those of you who are actively engaged in your Christian faith but married to someone who is not practicing or does not share those values. Our bonus guide offers additional teaching on how to stay strong in the faith — even how to carefully examine how your own walk with Lord appears to your spouse. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Impact Over Time
In marriages where spouses are mismatched on their religious values, the strength of these values tends to decline over time. If your spouse is not strongly religious, it becomes harder to keep attending church and practicing your faith, and so your own beliefs tend to slip[v]. This decline in beliefs leads to a decline in the positive attitudes and actions associated with faith, leading to a decline in marital satisfaction.
The main message here is that mismatched religious values do not in themselves harm your marriage: they do not necessarily cause conflict or cause you to disagree on important life issues. Instead the mismatch simply causes you to miss out on all the positives that religious values bring to your marriage. And over time it is challenging to maintain your own faith values and practices when you don’t have that shared appreciation for those values.
How To Keep Your Marriage Strong
The good news is that there are things you can do to offset these challenges. This particular issue is just another facet of the classic marriage dilemma: you cannot change your spouse, but you can change yourself. And also we will see that engaging in open dialogue becomes helpful here too.
Stay Strong in Faith
Marriages decline in quality when spouses lose their religious beliefs and practices. So for the strongly religious spouse, keeping strong in your faith will stop your marriage quality declining. We give you some great ideas of how to do this in the bonus guide.
Maintain Positive Behaviors
Positive attitudes and behaviors may come more easily to religious spouses but there is no reason that less-religious (or non-religious) spouses can’t use them too. So for the less-religious spouse in a couple, working on showing the same attitudes of love, faithfulness, forgiveness etc will help keep the marriage strong.
Communicate When Disagreeing
In couples who have different faiths, or different commitment to faith, conflict can arise when one spouse wants to make decisions based on religious teaching/morals and the other does not. Use of positive, helpful conflict resolution strategies in these situations is a strong predictor of marital satisfaction[vi]. You’re bound to have differing opinions on one issue or another. So talk about them. Don’t assume your way is the best and understand that your spouse might be coming at it from a very different worldview.
You Both Need A Strong Sense of Identity
Religious belief forms a big part of people’s identity, giving them a sense of who they are and a strong social support network. People who are less religious may not have this sense of identity and purpose, or the same level of support, leading them to feel isolated and having to try and fit in with beliefs and people they don’t agree with[vii].
If your spouse is much more religious than you, it’s important to find your own sense of meaning and purpose, your own support network, and your own identity rather than trying to merge wit to your spouse’s beliefs. Research from 2007[viii] describe this as finding a balance between togetherness and individuality.
Ideally, I would encourage you to consider your spouse’s Christian faith — but not engaging in that faith through his or her relationship to Christ, but pursuing your own relationship with Jesus Christ. We all need to have our own journey, our own new birth into the family of God. So, rather than just obliging your spouse or even being indifferent, pursue your own relationship with God and read the Bible for yourself as a way to figure out what your needs are as well.
[i] Samuel L. Perry, “A Match Made in Heaven? Religion-Based Marriage Decisions, Marital Quality, and the Moderating Effects of Spouse’s Religious Commitment,” Social Indicators Research 123, no. 1 (August 1, 2015): 203–25, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-014-0730-7.
[ii] Constance L. Shehan, E. Wilbur Bock, and Gary R. Lee, “Religious Heterogamy, Religiosity, and Marital Happiness: The Case of Catholics,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 52, no. 1 (February 1990): 73, https://doi.org/10.2307/352839.
[iii] Perry, “A Match Made in Heaven?”
[iv] Shehan, Bock, and Lee, “Religious Heterogamy, Religiosity, and Marital Happiness.”
[v] Shehan, Bock, and Lee.
[vi] Jerold S. Heiss, “Interfaith Marriage and Marital Outcome,” Marriage and Family Living 23, no. 3 (1961): 228–33, https://doi.org/10.2307/346966.
[vii] Ryan N. Parsons et al., “Identity Development, Differentiation, Personal Authority, and Degree of Religiosity as Predictors of Interfaith Marital Satisfaction,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 35, no. 4 (July 5, 2007): 343–61, https://doi.org/10.1080/01926180600814601.
[viii] Parsons et al.