My husband left the church over 10 years ago and identifies as an atheist. He’s respectful and we’ve become better at handling conflict, but still, it can be very challenging at times. The most recent thing is when he brings up ideas that to me seem totally out there, like he thinks life is inherently meaningless and that life might be a simulation and maybe agency and free will don’t exist …etc. He’s very scientific/logical minded. It’s hard for me to listen to and try to understand him because with my gospel perspective, it is bizarre, so I end up responding in a triggered way. He says he’s just being curious, but I feel like these kinds of questions and thinking might lead to other unsettling questions and mindsets. I’m not sure exactly how to handle situations like this- he’s sharing ideas that he finds interesting, but I find repulsive.
I’m sure this isn’t the experience you imagined you’d be having when you married years ago. Our mortal journeys are full of unexpected and often painful surprises that can turn our worlds upside down. I’m encouraged that you’ve both worked to stay respectful even though your views deeply challenge each other. Let’s talk about how to stay in connection despite these differences.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with these discussions, it’s okay to set limits on what you can handle. Just because you love your partner doesn’t require you to endure exhausting conversations. You might discover that you’re able to keep your curiosity and interest engaged for the first 15 minutes, but then you start to check out. Honor those limits so you can give your best self to these conversations. Of course, stay open with him about what’s happening to you so you can respectfully take a break.
It’s also wise to make sure these discussions stay balanced between your different perspectives. While it shouldn’t turn into a debate, a lively discussion can be a fun way to explore by sharing perspectives and ideas. However, if he’s doing all the talking because he’s challenging the status quo of what you both believed together, it’s easy for him to fill all the space and marginalize you. This will create an imbalance and, therefore, resentment.
Even though he might be able to predict what you might say because he once shared your beliefs, it’s still important for you to spend time sharing and exploring your perspective. Both of you can stay curious with each other and deepen your understanding of each other’s worlds.
You mentioned there are certain aspects of these conversations that trigger you. What feels so threatening to you when he shares his perspective? It’s important to understand why this feels so upsetting to you. Perhaps it’s the way he talks to you, the way he looks at you, your fears about your future with him, consequences for your family, and so on. Don’t stop at labeling your reaction as a trigger. Go further and see what else is underneath your reaction. This is where you can find more clarity and truth about what matters to you and what’s at stake. Sharing these softer and more vulnerable realizations, fears, and concerns with him can strengthen your bond with him.
It’s also important to realize that you don’t need to defend anything. You both have your own convictions, experiences, and reasons for your beliefs. No one is going to win by trying to prove the other is wrong. The defensiveness you might feel inside isn’t the same as trying to defend your position. You can notice the defensiveness and explore this as the trigger that leads to you a deeper understanding of what’s important to you. Spending your time and energy defending yourself (or the Church) is a common way to bypass your own vulnerabilities.
In the space between these conversations, make sure to spend time and energy on the things that unite you together. It’s easy to let these differences define your relationship and how you see each other. I don’t want to minimize how difficult it is to live in a mixed-faith marriage, so please be gentle on yourself and your husband as you work through these conversations.
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About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
The advice offered through Geoff Steurer’s column is educational and informational in nature and is provided only as general information. It is not meant to establish a therapist-patient relationship or offer therapeutic advice, opinion, diagnosis treatment or to establish a standard of care. Although Geoff Steurer is a trained psychotherapist, he is not functioning in the role of a licensed therapist by writing this column, but rather using his training to inform these responses. Thus, the content is not intended to replace independent professional judgment. The content is not intended to solicit clients and should not be relied upon as medical or psychological advice of any kind or nature whatsoever. The information provided through this content should not be used for diagnosing or treating a mental health problem or disease. The information contained in these communications is not comprehensive and does not include all the potential information regarding the subject matter, but is merely intended to serve as one resource for general and educational purposes.