Unspoken Faith: When Couples Don’t Share Beliefs
November 26, 2014
Today I have the real privilege of hosting a guest writer I think you guys will really enjoy.
During the month of October when I was running my 31 days series on Catholic teaching on sex and marriage, I got a ton of questions about mixed faith or faith/no faith couples, and what it might look like for marriages where one spouse doesn’t practice the Faith, or maybe any faith at all.
Here’s one answer to that question.
Sarah* has been generous and vulnerable enough to offer a reflection on what life looks like with 3 young kids and a husband who is supportive of – but not actively practicing – her Catholic faith.
I hope you enjoy.
A couple of months ago, my four-year-old son and I were having a conversation about the Mass. I was trying to explain the Eucharist to him when he cut in: “Oh, but dat’s just for girls.”
“No, Communion isn’t just for girls!” I protested. “Your daddy doesn’t take Communion, but lots of other daddies do. You’ll see – I’ll show you next time we go to church.”
I protested, I assured, I tried to tell myself that his was nothing but a silly little remark, but my heart sank. “Oh no,” I couldn’t help but think: “He’s already noticed.”
In my personal experience, believing is left to the women.
My father is not Catholic. Nor is he a religious person of any persuasion. I’ve only ever seen him go to church for the sake of someone he loves: He accompanies my mother to Mass on Christmas, Easter, and some random Sundays when it seems to matter to her; he attends family baptisms, first communions, and confirmations; he goes with my grandmother to her Methodist church on Mothers’ Day. He does it for our sake, not his own.
Of my mother’s large, Catholic family, few devoutly practice the faith. None of her (many) siblings are married to Catholics. Most have raised their children in the Church, but they’ve done so without the help of their husbands. My cousins (and many of my friends) attended Mass like I did – sitting in the pew every Sunday without our fathers.
As normal as this felt, it always bothered me.
It’s lonely to sit at Mass week in and week out with part of your family missing. It’s especially lonely on days when family blessings are given or on Father’s Day, when dads stand up for a blessing of their own. It’s hard to sit there, looking around at the men scattered throughout the congregation, biting your tongue to keep from shouting out, “I have a daddy too!”
So I resolved that when I grew up and had a family of my own, my children would have their father at Mass with them. I wanted to spare them that loneliness. And I wanted them (particularly any sons) to have the example of a father who attends church.
I did not, however, resolve to consider only devout Catholics for a husband – or indeed only Catholics at all. Because – my father. Ruling out non-Catholics felt too much like ruling out my own father. My wonderful, supportive, loving father – who is in almost every way, a beautiful example of what it means to be a husband.
Without a doubt, my parents have the best marriage I’ve ever witnessed. Growing up, I was just about the only child I knew who never, ever doubted that her parents loved each other and who never, ever feared that her parents might someday divorce.
My parents’ relationship just has that one, gaping hole: they don’t share a faith.
When I met my own husband after years of hoping and praying for “the one,” everything fell into place easily. So easily that I couldn’t help but see Providence’s hand in it. My husband is kind and gentle, hard-working, responsible, smart – all sorts of good things. Our values align. We work well together. We hold the same views on how to raise a family.
I was beyond relieved to learn that he was Catholic. But I was made a little nervous by how he said it: “I was raised Catholic.” Not I am Catholic. I was raisedCatholic. Past tense.
Still, he harbored no ill will toward the Church (as too many, sadly, do) and he seemed to think it was valuable for children to be raised in a Faith. He attended Mass with me occasionally. He understood that I was serious about my Catholic Faith.
As our relationship progressed and we discussed marriage, he agreed that we would raise our children as Catholics and that he would attend Mass with us. He was happy to be married in the Church. He was fine with the prospect of not using contraception. And he never, ever pressured me to have pre-marital sex. (As far as ‘devout-Catholic-marrying-someone-who’s-not’ goes, I realize that my husband made it pretty easy on me. Many are not so fortunate.)
But though my husband was raised Catholic and though he (now) attends Mass regularly, I wouldn’t say that he and I share a Faith. That hole in our relationship may not gape as far as my parents’ does, but it’s still there.
I don’t know that he believes.
I don’t know that he doesn’t, either. We don’t talk about it.
Because to be honest, I’m afraid to hear his answer. Actually afraid: I’m afraid of the sadness it might bring me.
So, we go to Mass. We say Grace before meals. We give to the Church. We do a family prayer whenever I can make it seem as seasonally-required as possible (say, over an Advent wreath). We carry on with the motions of the Faith, me hoping that in the doing, my husband will one day come to believe.
I also pray for him. I’m afraid to say, however, that I don’t do an awfully good job of it. I don’t have an awfully good prayer life, period. I pray in fits and spurts through the day, tossing prayers heavenward as I drive or do dishes or lie in bed. It’s one of the many parts of my life that I continuously try, and fail, to improve upon.
It’s easy to blame any number of things for my failure to pray as I should, but the hardest to swallow is the thought that if I had a devout, prayerful husband, he might encourage me in that effort. I hear (or read) from Catholic friends and bloggers this idea that a husband and wife’s primary goal in life should be to help each other get to heaven. And I’m … left short.
What an idea.
I’m sad to admit how foreign it is to me. In my mind, I visualize this space – say, a square – which represents all that a marriage is supposed to contain: things like love, patience, kindness, hard work, compromise, consideration, generosity, appreciation, etc. And I think, “We’re doing pretty well. We check those boxes. We must have a pretty decent marriage.”
But then I read one of my favorite Catholic blogs, where I learn of spouses praying together as they work to come to an important decision, or a husband engaged in a ministry at church, or a father praying over his children – and I start to see a space beyond that square. I see that there can – and should – be so much more to a marriage, to a family.
I see freedom.
I see the freedom to own one of the most elemental parts of who I am – a believer. I see the freedom to be open about my beliefs, my questions, my doubts – and to know that my husband will reciprocate. I see the freedom to accept our weaknesses, to say them out loud and to – together – ask for God’s help in overcoming them. I see the freedom to lean on my husband, to trust him in this part of my life, just as I do in others.
I also see grace.
What grace must come to a husband and wife who pray together. What grace must come to their marriage, their family, even their friends and the community to which they belong.
I wish I had that.
But I don’t. At least for now, I don’t. So I’m left to work on this (very important) part of life by myself. And I wonder: How can I be more open about my faith, so as to expose my family to it and help them to see it as normal and important? How can I provide them with examples of men who believe? How can I encourage my boys to consider a priestly vocation? How can I attract my husband to the Faith without hitting him over the head with my evangelism?
How can I help to open my husband’s heart and mind to God?
A couple of weeks ago at Mass, I found myself standing in the vestibule, looking through the glass at my husband. He was sitting in a pew a few rows from the back, mostly by himself. The baby sat quietly on his lap; there were no squirming, climbing boys to distract him from the Liturgy of the Word. (Our older boys were attending the Children’s Liturgy of the Word – big mistake – and I was standing at the ready in case they caused a ruckus.)
As I watched my husband, I prayed for him. I prayed that those quiet moments, those sacred words, might have some effect on him. I prayed that he would – bit by bit, Sunday by Sunday – someday come to believe. And that he would someday express that belief to our boys.
While I stood there, our three-year-old ran up to me. “I haffa tell you somedin’!” he said with some urgency. “I find Jesus up dayer!” He was pointing at the large crucifix above the altar. My boy was breathless; his eyes were wide. He saw Jesus.
I knelt down next to him, followed his pointing finger to the crucifix, and expressed some of the excitement he was giving off. I smiled and hugged him and said a few words about Jesus.
But the short, sweet moment was soon tempered by worries I’m only now starting to recognize:
“How long will this last? How long do I have before he grows tired of church, of thinking on Jesus?
How can I help this all sink into his little mind before he chooses others’ influence over my own?” And the most worrisome question of all: “When they’re grown, will my boys believe?”
I have to admit, when I think on the situation much, I’m left feeling quite anxious. But one thought soothes me no matter how grim things seem:
“Every time I go to Mass, I love my husband more.”
I realized this when we were first married and it’s held true ever since. Whether we go together or I’m alone, whether we’re happy or in the middle of a disagreement, I leave every single Mass loving my husband more than I did when I walked in. I can only attribute this to God and the graces he bestows on us through the sacraments.
Though my husband may not believe (or if he believes, may not care much), he and I both received the sacrament of Marriage. Though he hasn’t received the Eucharist since our wedding day, I have received it countless times.
These sacraments matter. They matter, and I believe we continue to receive blessings because of them.
So I hope.
I hope that after witnessing the Consecration for the 942ndtime, my husband will feel moved to receive the Eucharist himself. I hope that my boys will notice the good, believing men of our parish as they line up every Sunday to receive Communion. I hope that I will receive the graces I need to nurture my own belief and to be a convincing witness to my family.
I hope that someday, we will all feel the freedom and experience the graces that come from sharing a Faith.
*Not her real name.
My story is a similar, but opposite. I was not practicing when I met and married my husband and we were Protestants together for years. Then I “re-verted” and he does not want to convert himself. I’ve done what I know Christ called me to, and our kids were baptized and our marriage convalidated, but now I go to church without him, and he doesn’t go. And it’s so lonely. We still pray together and I know we love the same God, but my soul just hurts sometimes.
Oh boy, that’s a tough and painful road. What a thoughtful reflection. I pray her husband one day returns to the faith, and that she is granted strength and grace.
My mom converted to Catholicism a year after I did. My father remains a Lutheran. Although I know their marriage is strong enough to endure it, it is hard. So we pray. St Monica and St Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray that we all be granted the grace of conversion to serve God and follow his will.
Hang in there! My story is similar. We’ve been married for 27 years and I long to share my faith with him, to pray with him as I’ve read other couples do. Maybe it will happen and maybe it won’t. I do see my husband slowly growing in his faith. I continue to try to grow in my faith without focusing on persuading him….I mean if I were really a saint, how could he keep from falling in love with Catholicism?
I grew up with one Catholic and one Protestant parent and, though I’m single, have never wanted to rule out a non-Catholic for the reasons you described. This is a really beautiful story- thank you for sharing.
Thank you for sharing your story. I would offer that your husband has more belief than he may let on. The fact that he DOESN’T receive the Eucharist speaks volumes to me. He may be struggling with his belief, but in his heart he knows the importance of receiving Christ, and he’s respectful of that until he figures it out for himself. He is not treating it lightly, or going up and receiving just because everyone else it. And he’s getting grace just by going to Mass with you. Continue to pray for his total return to the Church – it’s in his heart.
I agree about the Eucharist. That’s a strong statement.
My mom is Catholic & my dad non practicing Protestant, so I get the feelings of there being a gap in my parent’s marriage.
As for your own marriage, don’t lose hope! God will never stop trying to call your husband back to the faith. Please don’t compare yourself to bloggers too. My husband and I are practicing Catholics and we do the things you mention: he prays over our children, sprinkles them with holy water every night, leads us in the rosary (though mostly only on car trips – we need to be better about that)… But oh my gosh we have so much work to do. We are flawed, our marriage is not perfect (whose is?)… For example, just yesterday we walked out of church arguing about our kids’ behavior and how to deal with it and blah blah blah I don’t remember what else. All I know is that it’s terrible we were arguing as we stepped out of church, it tore me up emotionally & spiritually and – hello – horrible example for our kids. So on the outside we may appear to have checked all the boxes in how we practice our faith together as a family, but we still have a TON of work to do.
Someone told me once – I think a priest – your husband was hand selected for you by God. So on days when you don’t see eye to eye, just remember He knows what He’s doing & His wisdom surpasses our understanding. I have prayed about that a lot & it helps me get through times where my husband & I feel at odds. Hang in there, I think you’re doing great 🙂
This is beautifully written. Your hope is what will carry you through any trial. Pray for him everyday and trust in God’s plans! God bless.
Lauren @ Here We Geaux
“As our relationship progressed and we discussed marriage, he agreed that we would raise our children as Catholics and that he would attend Mass with us. He was happy to be married in the Church. He was fine with the prospect of not using contraception. And he never, ever pressured me to have pre-marital sex. (As far as ‘devout-Catholic-marrying-someone-who’s-not’ goes, I realize that my husband made it pretty easy on me. Many are not so fortunate.)”
I prayed for years that I would find a husband who “saved himself” for marriage, and indeed I did…but I didn’t pray for a Catholic husband, and I didn’t receive one. In the ‘devout-Catholic-marrying-someone-who’s-not’ category, I’d agree that we’re blessed. My husband comes to Mass (even reciting some of the prayers and performing the sign of the cross in private), is totally on board with NFP, and is supportive of Catholic “agendas,” as you might say. Your story is touching, and I would really love to converse more about this with you, Sarah. Are you a blogger? Are you willing to connect with others who have similar stories?
Beautiful. I married a Luke-warm cradle Catholic and converter 8 years into our marriage. He never asked or even brought up my faith- God called me to the church- my husband did not. But my conversion helped him come back to the church. He was my sponsor and really came to embrace the teaching as I did. I mention this to give you hope. Keep praying and God will call him.
Thanks for sharing your story. Here are my rambling thoughts: often times it is NOT the spouse that can speak to a lukewarm/non-believing spouse. It’s best to not evangelize, but to pray and just live your life of faith as best you can. Don’t replace your husband with “god” or “godly activities,” but live your vocation as the first priority. Pray for someone else to come along that he might listen to or feel comfortable sharing with. I’m not in your situation, but I wonder if it would help to ask the scary questions, or to share some of your own doubts with him, just to acknowledge the elephant that may be in the room and to let him know that you’re a safe person to talk to about that, even if you don’t see eye to eye. (I can see how that might be a bad idea too, depends on the person, but I sometimes wonder if the honesty would help break down the walls of “I can’t share this with her/him,” when so many just want to be real and have honest conversations and can feel lonely in their doubt. If you don’t feel like a safe person to hear the scary answers, then maybe don’t bring it up.) I also think it speaks volumes that he doesn’t receive the Eucharist. Although you guys are “going through the motions” in many ways, at least he is still respecting the Catholic belief of the Real Presence, which is more than some people who receive communion can say. It is teaching your children the importance of receiving while in a state of grace, and the importance of living what you believe. You are very blessed that he had a Catholic marriage and is agreeing to raise your kids Catholic. I understand there is still heartache. Could you invite the local priest or some seminarians over to hang out with your sons or come eat dinner sometime to show them the men of the faith? Lastly, check into a book called “When Only One Converts” by Lynn Nordhagen. It’s not exactly your situation, but I think it could still speak to you about the heartache of spouses in two different places spiritually.
Thank you for your beautifully honest post–it couldn’t have been easy to write, but I hope this and the other comments will encourage you. My husband grew up Catholic, and I was raised Protestant. He spent some time in the “Protestant world” during college, and a couple years later started regularly attending Presbyterian church with me, where we were married. Long story short, he came back to his Catholic faith and I ended up converting. My family is still all Protestant though, which can be tough at times… Still nothing compared to the struggle that you are going through though. Anyway, I wanted to recommend this Catholic Answers Radio show that I found and listened to a while back. It had some really practical tips that you might find helpful: http://www.catholic.com/radio/shows/six-rules-for-evangelizing-family-and-friends-8591
You, your husband, and your family will be in my prayers.
Oh how I needed this. Thank you for letting her share this perspective. It is a weird loneliness to have a relationship with God that brings me so much pure joy but that isn’t shared by the person I am closest to on Earth.
This was balm to my weary soul. This is my story and my name is actually Sarah which made it a little too real. 😉 I kust ended up im a big fight with my husband over faith and it was foolish of me to even push , but I did and the conversation went south. Thank you for posting this, it helps me feel not so alone.
Thank you for sharing this. It was recently shared in a Facebook group for women married to non-Catholic or non-practicing Catholic men. It’s a testimony to those of us carrying this cross. While we pray for our husbands we are learning and growing in our faith. We are being examples to our children and they are seeing what is important in our lives. Yes it’s difficult not being able to share that part of our lives with our husbands, but if we trust in the Lord then there is hope. Prayers for all of you.