"You Believe What?!"
How to Resolve Conflicts of Faith (Part 2)

Introduction: When something is so important to a spouse that it takes precedence over the other spouse's feelings, the marriage is in trouble. I've witnessed this in case after case regarding children, friends, relatives, careers, finances and a host of other priorities that come between a husband and wife.

For example, it's common for a woman to consider her husband's feelings a top priority -- until her first child arrives. From that moment on, many women place the interests of her child above the interests of her husband, a formula for marital disaster. The same thing can happen when a friend or relative's feelings are more important than a spouse's feelings. Or when a career, or a house, or a recreational activity or anything else is more important. A marriage suffers when anything causes one spouse to neglect the feelings of the other.

Religion is no exception. If the believer ignores the feelings of his or her spouse to follow the religious teaching, the marriage will become the victim of conversion.

Last week, I focused attention on conversion experiences that were really affairs in disguise. In those cases, I didn't recommend adjusting to differences in faith. Instead, I recommended meeting unmet emotional needs and overcoming Love Busters. It's been my experience that conflicts of faith in those situations usually resolve themselves once love is restored between spouses.

But couples with both good and bad marriages can face a genuine conflict of faith. In some cases, they begin marriage with the same faith, and then one becomes converted to another faith. In other cases, they begin marriage with conflicting religious beliefs.

How can these couples resolve their conflicts of faith? That's the topic of this week's column. I am posting only one letter, instead of two, because my answer is longer than usual. The letter is from a Catholic man who intends to marry a Protestant, but sees trouble on the horizon.

Dear Dr. Harley,

My fiance and I are very much in love, and we plan to get married around Christmas this coming year. We've been together for almost 3 years, and everything has worked out perfectly between us. There's just one issue about our potential marriage that I think we haven't resolved. We are of two different religious faiths. I'm a Catholic and my fiance is a Protestant. Since we have both been very religious our entire lives, neither one of us wants to convert to the other's religion.

We've spent quite a bit of time discussing the problem and have come to some agreements. For example, we have agreed to have a joint wedding with both a Catholic priest and a minister present. We've even discussed attending two worship services together once we're married so we can be together and yet not abandon our own faiths either. But I'm concerned that this could end up being a logistical nightmare somewhere down the line. Do you have any suggestions regarding our agreements?

The more difficult question, I think, is what to do about our children's religious development. We're both concerned that our religious differences might be confusing and contradictory to them. Plus, each religion has its own requirements (particularly my own), and some of these aren't conducive to compromise. What do you think we should do? We both love each other very much and I think we'd both be more than willing to embrace any adequate compromise.

We have an intra-faith conflict. We are both Christians, but we don't agree on some of the specific details of Christianity. I'm curious to know what couples do with inter-faith conflicts, where they believe in very different religions? I don't hear too much about it, which surprises me since it seems like the odds would be against one marrying someone from exactly the same faith, unless that person met the other person at a church function or something.

Thank you for helping us with this issue.


Dear R.A.,

The reason that differences in faith can create so much of a problem in marriage is that faith usually effects our behavior. As you have already noticed, you and your fiance's religious difference have not prevented you from falling in love with each other, or feeling like soul-mates. But these differences have made it difficult for you to carry out the dictates of your respective faiths while you have been dating. For example, to satisfy the requirements of your faith, and yet share your religious experiences with each other, you must both attend both Catholic and Protestant services. As you anticipate, such compromises can become "logistical nightmares" as the expression of your faith grows.

Intra-faith differences, such as between Catholics and Protestants, do not create as many marital conflicts as inter-faith differences, such as between Islam and Buddhism. That's because there are fewer conflicting beliefs within a world religion than there is between world religions.

But sometimes the zeal with which a husband and wife believe can be more of a problem than the beliefs themselves. The stronger the religious conviction, the more troublesome the differences become. People with weak faith have little trouble respecting and accommodating their spouses' conflicting beliefs. But those with strong faith, like yourselves, usually feel that respect and accommodation is uncaring and sinful. Your commitment to faith may make even minor intra-faith conflicts difficult to resolve.

I won't encourage you to lose your religious zeal just to accommodate each other. I am quite a religious zealot myself. But I don't want your faith to come between you and your fiance, either. There are ways to resolve your conflicts where you can have your faith and a great relationship at the same time. That's what I will recommend to you in this letter.

I suggest a two part plan to resolve your religious conflicts. The first part is for you to try to come to an agreement regarding your faith. Obviously, if you can reach an agreement, there will be no need to negotiate about lifestyle conflicts because you won't have any.

But if your effort to come to an agreement fails, I suggest the second part of my plan which will show you how to resolve lifestyle conflicts that your differences in faith help create.

Part 1: How to Respectfully Convert Your Spouse

Should you try to convert you wife to your religious beliefs? Should she try to convert you? If so, how should you both go about doing it? It sure would make your decisions a lot simpler if you were both Catholic or both Protestant.

My Catholic grandmother married my Methodist grandfather, but neither had much religious zeal. Since their religious beliefs had little to do with their practices, they rarely created a conflict.

Then one day, my grandmother was converted to the Mennonite faith -- those same Mennonites that believed in living a separated life, free of alcohol and tobacco, among other things. My grandfather who drank and smoked heavily, was converted in one week's time by my grandmother to the same Mennonite faith. The next week he gave up smoking and drinking for life. A most miraculous transformation.

Just as my grandmother tried to convert my grandfather, I would recommend that you consider persuading each other to your respective religious beliefs. But it should be safe, enjoyable and with profound respect.

The following steps will help you try to respectfully persuade each other. It may lead you to a shared religious faith.

Step #1: Clearly state your conflicting beliefs to each other.

There are a myriad of details in any religious faith, so this part of the assignment may take a while. I suggest that in your effort to understand each other's convictions, you attend classes with each other that are designed to describe the faith that you have. While you study together, try to describe what beliefs you hold in common and beliefs that conflict. You have probably already done this to some extent, since you attend each other's church services, but I would try to formalize your areas of religious agreement and disagreement.

To be honest, this is a good exercise for any couple whether or not they think they have religious differences. To know what your spouse believes and why is a critical step toward understanding your spouse.

After you have identified differences in your beliefs, you should describe each other's beliefs to each other, just to be sure you have them straight. Make sure you describe each other's position to each other's satisfaction so there are no misunderstandings of the issue.

Incidentally, many of your conflicts may not be rooted in beliefs, but rather, in habits or emotional reactions. Your beliefs turn out to be remarkably similar, but because you've been in the habit of worshipping a certain way, you may feel some anxiety about the prospect of changing. I counseled one couple who just about divorced over where to attend church, even though the doctrines of the conflicting churches were essentially identical.

A Catholic service may meet some of your emotional needs while a Protestant service does not. For your fiance, it could be the other way around. Try to separate out religious practices that are driven by habits and emotions as opposed to those that are belief driven. It's pointless to discuss beliefs when habits or emotions are at the root of a conflict. But whether they derive from beliefs or habits, respect them. Never be condescending to each other's religious practice regardless of how they're derived.

Remember, people usually don't like to be told what to do, and any effort on your part to force her to become a Catholic will backfire. For you to achieve a genuine agreement, she must know that your belief is not only in your best interest, but in her best interest as well. The second step is designed to help you achieve that objective.

Step 2: Explain how your beliefs are in your fiance's best interest.

At this point, respectful persuasion often disintegrates into disrespectful judgments. What would happen if you were to shout, "Can't you see how stupid you are by not participating in the Sacraments? You have everything to gain and nothing to lose!" But you'd be losing love units for sure, and you would be ineffective in persuading her.

Why do husbands and wives have so much trouble discussing their differences? Because the process can be so unpleasant. Rather than discovering each other's wisdom, they tend to ridicule each other. A much more enjoyable and persuasive approach would be to say, "Even though I don't agree with you, I know you have good reasons for your beliefs. But I would like to suggest some other reasons that may change your mind."

Some people have great difficulty making the above statement, because they don't believe their spouses have any good reasons for their beliefs. This attitude reveals their underlying disrespect. If your fiance tries to explain the reasons for her faith, and you make them a subject of ridicule, she will eventually keep her opinions to herself.

After you have tried to show that your beliefs are in your fiance's best interest, your arguments may not convince her. She may tell you that she still doesn't agree with you. But that doesn't mean you are at the end of your rope. There is one more thing you can do. You can ask her to test your belief for a brief period of time to see if she likes it. This is the third step of respectful persuasion.

Step 3: Suggest a test of your belief.

A final argument in defense of your belief is "Try it, you'll like it!"

People often make a big mistake in marital discussions when they try to force each other to make a long-term change rather than a temporary one. If your fiance is not convinced that your beliefs are correct for her, she cannot be expected to make a commitment to your position. But her curiosity and respect for you may encourage her to risk a test of your belief.

You might suggest to her that she participate in some of the Sacraments to see how she feels about them. In advance of the test, explain that habits take time to develop, so if she were comfortable with the first week's test, she might need to extend the test for about three months so that she would develop a habit of participating in one of the Sacraments.

When I try to convince others to accept my faith, I encourage them to read the book of John from the Bible and pray at least once a day. My faith assumes that God will reach out to them through that simple experience, and that by meeting God personally, they will be convinced of his presence and plan for their lives. From there, I encourage them to attend a church that will help them grow in the relationship they have formed with God. That simple test has helped me convert many people to my religious beliefs.

Step 4: Give your spouse an opportunity to persuade you.

Respectful persuasion is a two-way street. Your fiance has the right to try to influence your judgement just as much as you have the right to influence hers. If you want to persuade your fiance, you must be willing to let her persuade you. After all, she could be right and you could be wrong about any issue you discuss.

Your fiance could propose her own test to convince you that her Protestant beliefs are correct. The test that I suggested (reading the book of John and prayer for a month), is a typical test for my Protestant beliefs, and she could suggest that you try that test.

But regardless how the tests turn out, think about how much you will learn about each other, and how much wisdom you will gain from each other if you follow this procedure. I firmly believe that what I am recommending to you will not only help you avoid many conflicts you will have over your different beliefs, but you will form an even closer relationship with each other.

Step 5: If your tests fails to persuade, drop the subject.

Clearly understand the bargain: If your fiance is not comfortable with your belief after your test, and you are not comfortable with your spouse's belief after her test, you may each ask for yet another test. But if either of you feel that you've had enough tests, drop the subject.

At this point many couples forget the rules for respectful persuasion. The focus of attention is respectful, not persuasion. If your test is ineffective in persuading your spouse, accept the fact that you've failed. You may have another opportunity someday. But at this point you should back off.

Remember, respectful persuasion does nothing that would draw love units from your spouse's love bank. As soon as you do anything that your spouse finds unpleasant, it's no longer respectful persuasion. The entire process must be pleasant and non-threatening. If you feel you must persuade your spouse at all costs, the cost will be love units, and you will also fail to persuade. I may be able to force my wife to say she agrees with me, and I may be able to force her to do what I want, but I cannot force her to change her beliefs and I can't force her to love me. Only the process of respectful persuasion can achieve those objectives.

Let's assume that you are unsuccessful in persuading each other to adopt your religious beliefs. What should you do to resolve the conflicts that you described in your letter. How can you avoid the "logistical nightmare" that you anticipate. That's the second part of my plan.

Part 2: How to Come to Agreements Regarding Lifestyle
When You and Your Spouse Maintain Differences in Religious Faith

Whether you marry someone with a conflicting religious beliefs, or your spouse is converted to a conflicting belief, the decisions you make must accommodate your spouse's feelings and sensitivities or your marriage will suffer.

My mother is a Democrat and my Father a Republican. Their political preferences have not greatly interfered with their marriage because their opinions have not had much to do with the decisions they make. The only time their differences are noticeable is when they vote: They cancel each other out. But since their political opinions do not effect their lifestyle choices, they don't effect their marriage either.

However, your religious convictions will have a great deal to do with the decisions you make. They have already made a difference in the way you live. For that reason, it will be difficult for you to come to an enthusiastic compromise. But it can be done if you follow this plan whenever you face a conflict.

1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe.

Before you start to negotiate, agree with each other that you will both follow these rules: (a) be pleasant and cheerful throughout your discussion of the issue, (b) put safety first--do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, and (c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.

Under no conditions should you be disrespectful or judgmental of your spouse's religious convictions. Your negotiations should accept and respect your differences of opinion. Otherwise, you will fail to make them pleasant and safe.

2. Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your wife.

Be able to state your wife's position, and be sure she can state your position before you go on to find a solution to the conflict.

3. Brainstorm solutions with abandon.

Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don't correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like. You'll have a chance to do that later.

4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you.

It is this step that will help you avoid the "logistical nightmare" that you anticipate. Don't agree to a solution that does not work out well for both of you. If your brainstorming has not given you an answer that you can enthusiastically agree upon, go back to brainstorming.

Remember, I advocate following the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse) in literally every decision you make, but particularly the important ones. You must put that policy before everything, including your religious beliefs.

You are already following that policy in the decisions you have been making, which is a credit to both of you. So far, you have discussed each conflict with care and consideration for each other's feelings. That's why you are still in love with each other. As long as you continue to follow the policy under all the conditions that will change your life, your religious differences will not drive a wedge between you, and you will have a life filled with love.

I am a Christian with very strong convictions. But I also believe, from the experience of the thousands of couples I've counseled, that marriage (and children) will thrive only if spouses put each other's feelings before the dictates of their religious convictions. It doesn't mean that religious convictions must be abandoned. It simply means that you must live your faith in a way that accommodates the feelings of your spouse.

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