Ask Richard: Clarity and Honesty in a Relationship With a Christian December 20, 2010

Ask Richard: Clarity and Honesty in a Relationship With a Christian

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

I’m sure you get questions all of the time about religious girlfriends/boyfriends, but my question has more to do with timing, patience, and viability.

I’ve been dating a wonderful girl I met at work for nearly a year. She’s 22, I’m 25. The relationship is fantastic and I can totally see myself marrying her. We’ve discussed it in some detail, but she refuses to concede the raising of children in anything but Christianity. This is a deal breaker for me. The problem: I’m not pressed for time, I’m not rushing around looking to get married and this girl is really and truly wonderful and I’m glad she’s being transparent now about her beliefs.

This is where the timing comes in. Everything works so well now, but I’m afraid if I continue down this path that I’ll be older and still with her when I know I don’t want to go down the marriage path (well I do, but it would require a huge change on her part and I know this isn’t a possibility). When the heck do I break this off, if ever.

(Heart says no, brain says yes).

Thank you Richard,

Dear Trevor,

You said that you’ve “discussed it some in detail,” but it’s not clear from your letter if you have been as up front and transparent about your “deal breaker” as she has been about her hers. So I have to spend some time with this ambiguity. Please understand, I’m not assuming that you’re being less than truthful with her. I’m saying that it’s not clear from your letter, and the most important issue here is mutual clarity and honesty in your relationship. If you have that, then together the two of you can answer the questions you’re asking me. With respect, I have questions for you:

She has made it clear to you that she is adamant about raising potential children as Christians. Have you made it just as clear to her that that will be unacceptable to you? You talk about breaking this off as if you are the only one who would initiate that. Why might not she break it off, unless she is operating in the dark? Yes, she’s wonderful. Are you wonderful? You appreciate the real person she is because she allows you to know her. Does she know you?

If you are not returning her honesty with your own honesty, then all this talk about “timing” is really you just wanting to enjoy her company as long as you can by allowing her to assume that there is no impasse between you. That kind of lie by omission would make you a cad, to put it nicely. I’m not saying you are, I’m saying make sure you’re not.

She may or may not be the woman whom you end up marrying. Nevertheless, if it isn’t already, then immediately make your relationship with her fully disclosed, candid, forthright, frank, out-in-the-open, cards-on-the-table, truth-told-without-being-asked, HONEST.

You’re 25. If you do not develop that ability now, you might never. Then you might spend the rest of your life in a series of relationships that can only go so far until whatever is the unspoken truth in each one brings it to a stop.

if your honesty with this wonderful girl is mutual and complete, and you have made certain that both of you are fully aware that down the road your mutually exclusive, non-negotiable positions about children will make the prospect of marriage highly unlikely, then you can both enjoy each other’s company in your entirely open and understood way until one or the other decides that it’s time to seek separate paths.

You said that the relationship is fantastic and works so well, but you did not mention the word “love.” I don’t know if that word’s absence in your letter is significant. You might certainly love her, and she you, but it is another thing about which you should get clear and unambiguous within yourself as well as with her.

One other thing to consider: Young people often have strong opinions about raising children when those children are still hypothetical. Later, when those kids are made of carbon and calcium and looking expectantly up at you from the rug, those strong opinions can evaporate. I’ve seen it go both ways. Some people who think they’ll be very unyielding in how they’ll raise their kids later find that compromise and pragmatism are not only acceptable, they’re necessary. And some people who thought they’d have no problem letting their spouse raise the brood in some manner of their own can suddenly find that it is a problem that needs some modification.

So take another look at your assumption that both of you will and must remain unbending about your potential children’s religious upbringing. What you think is a deal breaker now can become just another part of the negotiation later. Some mixed couples are able to work out agreements. Even if she gives them Christian ideas, you can have your input too. It doesn’t have to be a tug-of-war with the kids as the rope. It can be a respectful dialogue over many years. As the children grow into participating in that dialogue, they can decide for themselves.

Trevor, discuss it all in even more detail with her, and make it safe for her to do the same. Tell her your feelings you have for her, your present opinions about raising kids and your thoughts about her opinions, your own beliefs and your feelings about her beliefs, and very importantly, your conflicted feelings about staying together. Every question you asked me, you should ask her. The relationship will last as long as it lasts; short, medium, or life-long, but it should be one that is based on full, fearless truth telling.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Trevor: Richard is absolutely right about young people and their ideas about parenthood. it all changes when the little critter is right there in your hands. heh, there are only about a million jokes about that. because it’s so true.

    there is a mixed marriage in our family, and at the beginning of that relationship, the believer felt so strongly that the children had to be raised to believe, he broke off the relationship and for a year and a half they dated other people. but the love they shared was too real, and eventually they negotiated a sensible plan. the best part (from my perspective, anyway) is that over the years, he’s grown less and less interested in pushing his faith, to the point where he hardly ever goes to church anymore and is content with reading the children bible stories for children. his wife plans on taking the children to a wide range of houses of worship as well as some atheism meetings when he starts taking them to a church he thinks is right. which may never happen, given how fatherhood and a busy life has really cut into his spare time for excessive displays of faith.

  • As long as you don’t have to pretend that you’re a Christian – especially to the kids themselves, I think it works.

    Children don’t make decisions based on the same prejudices we do – until we impose our prejudices on them. But if Trevor and his wife-to-be present both views fairly (even if the kids are raised as official Christians), then the children will find the best of both.

  • Trevor,

    You have a number of choices (not in any particular order of recommendation).

    1. “Kick the can down the road” – continue with relationship, get married, have kids, and hope to work it out later on. That is what I did when I was basically in your situation a number of years ago. We ended up going to church as a family for a while but eventually stopped going and now all live a secular lifestyle. We had gone to an evangelical church and it became quite evident to everyone in the family that the beliefs were bat-shit crazy and it was an easy step for everyone to just stop going.

    2. Work out a compromise right now before you get married. Perhaps you could agree to raise your children in church, but a UU church. At least the UUs don’t preach all the hell-fire damnation (or the moderate sugar-coated version of “God is love but you still need to believe in Jesus to make it to heaven”).

    3. Break it off and cut your losses. Find another wonderful girl that happens to be secular. Hopefully, though, you won’t spend the rest of your life wondering “what if I just tried to make it work out with that religious girl”…

    Good luck to you. Love requires a little luck. But mainly it requires trying.

  • It would be interesting to know what flavour of Christianity your partner believes in. Unless she’s an out and out anti science/ anti reason evangelical creationist wingnut I would would lighten up about her child raising plans. What will become important as your kids grow is that they also understand your point of view. It would not be acceptable for your partner to pretend you were not an atheist and at some point children will want and deserve an explanation for your differing points of view.
    Since the faith divide isn’t affecting your relationship in general you must already have reached some accomodation between you. Just extend that attitude when kids arrive.

  • Steve

    Is “Religious education”-light an option? Teach them some things about Christianity, but don’t drag them to church every week, don’t ram it down their throats and also teach them other stuff (like science).

    Some general knowledge about religion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That way they know about it, but it won’t be everything they know. And when they are older and can make their own decisions, they can let go of it relatively easily.

  • The mother telling the kids “this is true” and the father staying silent is unfair, to say the least. Can’t they put it to the kids in terms of “mum believes this, dad believes that”? Or is anything less than brainwashing not enough for the potential mother?

  • Yes, never discount or minimize the power of merely saying “mum believes this, dad believes that”. Just being able to put it out there that not-believing something is an option is HUGE. It may be all you really need.

    If she won’t let you “put that out there” then that would be a major concern.

  • Deepak Shetty

    well my wife to be(Catholic) and I(non believer with Hindu parents) had the same issue around the baptism of children and what would be taught to them. The compromise we arrived at was – She can baptise them (I dont think pouring water on babies head has any significance) – She can teach them about her religion minus the parts we both think is rubbish and I wont directly contradict her (but I can still state some of my views on the matter). We both want our children to be well read and scientifically literate so that satisfies what I want. i believe the kid chooses anyway when he/she is old enough – parents wishes be damned.
    The bigger issue really for us Indians is the relatives and grand parents who will insist on their version of religion – for which we have decided we will stick together.
    Also a word of advice – You’ll have to make some compromises that you might not want to but if she isn’t willing to make any , then you should think about the relationship too. Its not just about religion – it might be where you stay , where you work etc etc and unless both parties are willing to compromise some it might not work.
    Note we dont have children yet, i suspect theory may be a lot easier than practice

  • lauren

    Wow – as a “devout” atheist I couldn’t imagine raising “Christian” children let alone being in a relationship with someone who I would think, but I don’t know for sure from your letter, has a fundamentally different outlook on life and the world.

    Life is about compromises, though, so I wish you all the best without compromising *your* peace of mind.

  • Claudia

    A lot of questions come up in my mind. What kind of Christianity are we talking about? If it’s a fuzzy “god loves everybody sort” its one thing. If it’s “homosexuality is a sin” sort, it’s quite another. Remember there is a probability your children are born gay, so you need to be damned sure the mother of those children isn’t going to be teaching them self-hatred.

    Most importantly however is to know if this:

    she refuses to concede the raising of children in anything but Christianity

    means you aren’t allowed to share your views? Does “raising them Christian” mean you have to become closeted and pretend to believe the bullshit? Because quite frankly that’s unacceptable. I can see it working out if she can take the kids to church but you are allowed to be open about your views. However any “deal” that requires you lie to your children and pretend to be something you’re not should be a non-starter.

  • beckster

    I was warned over and over by my parents and friends that once we had children my husband would want to return to the LDS church. They were all so sure of it. Three kids later and he still is firm in his convictions to raise our children free from the influence of religion. Not everyone changes their mind. If someone is telling you firmly that he/she will be raising their children a certain way, I would listen and take them seriously and not expect their views to change.

  • jose

    “she refuses to concede the raising of children in anything but Christianity. This is a deal breaker for me.”

    wow, like she’ll raise them to be serial killers, witch burners or something. I was raised christian and I’m normal people. It’s not that important.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    You need a compromise. Maybe you could both agree to raise the kids Hindu, or Scientologist.

  • Stephen P

    My wife wanted to send my son to a Christian primary school. I was a bit doubtful about it, but the school did (and does) have a good reputation. As it happened they did a fine job of turning him into an atheist by the time he was ten – with only a tiny bit of assistance from me.

    Jeff P is quite right when he says ‘never discount or minimize the power of merely saying “mum believes this, dad believes that”’.

  • Deepak Shetty


    I was raised christian and I’m normal people. It’s not that important.

    but important enough for the Christian to insist that the child be raised her way?

    I would think the deal breaker refers to the fact that there is absolutely no compromise being considered – e.g. let the child choose , and expose the child to religion after age N and let him/her choose after age M

  • runawayuniverse

    You’ve been seeing her for not quite a year and you’re already talking about bringing kids into your relationship?

    Try making it to at least the 5 year mark before going down that road please.

  • Heidi

    I agree with Lauren. I can’t even imagine being in a relationship with someone who believes in gods. How could I respect that person’s intelligence? And then they want to tell the kids the same evil fairy tales? Not happening.

  • Jeff

    If she’s any kind of Christian but the most liberal – RUN! Do NOT look back. Any other course of action is foolish, irresponsible, and will only bring you both great pain and suffering.

  • Kate

    but she refuses to concede the raising of children in anything but Christianity

    This, the “refuses to concede” part is what struck me about this, not the kid-raising part. In my experience (I’m Kate from the Kate&Erik story that Hemant has posted about a few times), this type of relationship only works if there’s compromise on what you do. Not necessarily compromise on how you think, but on things like raising children, etc. Discussions about maybe letting them attend a UU congregation, about attending church with her but also getting to hear your views on religion, etc. If she’s not willing to compromise a bit on that, I see the big problem as the fact that she’s not willing to discuss alternatives. In an interfaith relationship like this, open and honest communication is everything. A sense of humor helps with the rest.

    Best of luck to you both, in whatever you decide.

  • Later, when those kids are made of carbon and calcium and looking expectantly up at you from the rug, those strong opinions can evaporate.

    As a grandmother, I’ve got to say, Richard’s right about that. I have one daughter and one grandchild and live with him and my daughter so I’m very involved in his day to day life and am seeing what parents of more than one child probably learns in the raising of them. The kid themself is a factor. In everything. They are not dolls, they are individuals. Different kids will react to the exact same thing in differing ways just based on their own personality quirks and their individual way of seeing things.

    Can’t they put it to the kids in terms of “mum believes this, dad believes that”?

    Very apt and insightful that. Even if both parents are Atheist, we live amongst theists. We can’t ignore that society at large talks about god quite a bit and we should teach different views. Here’s a prime example of differing individual children in my offspring.

    I told my daughter I don’t think there’s a god but when she had questions, I’d honestly told her to the best of my knowledge what those who believed in god believed. I was raised Christian and almost converted to Judaism before giving up god altogether and knew a lot about those two religions and just some general knowledge about many others but I’d always answer her well this is how people who believe in god see it without calling it foolish or whatever. She’d invariably wrinkle her little brow and protest but that makes no sense to which I could only laugh and shrug and say this is your brain on god. I couldn’t exactly say yes, it does though I usually said they take it on faith. Faith explained her reaction was that makes no sense. She’d always think it out and reach that same conclusion. Today, she’s Agnostic and we still will look at each other when some religious absurdity is in our face and say this is your brain on religion.

    My grandson is 7. He asked a few months ago, shortly before his birthday and religion and if god was real. Last year he learned in school that fiction is imaginary and nonfiction is real so now he asks on a score of things if something is real or not. We answered him that some people think yes, some think it’s not and others say they can’t be sure whether or not god’s real. He asked what we thought and we explained. When he hears something about god, he looks for something real and asks is that god? Usually pointing at some adult male in the TV show or ad or whatever and is just utterly confused when I explain that you can’t see god, no one sees god, even when I’ve said that’s one reason grammy doesn’t think god’s real. He keeps thinking god must be a person and keeps looking for one that exists (not did like Jesus) in the here and now. His questions just lead to more. I take the same approach and answer as honestly as I did for my daughter but he never gets to that makes no sense just that he can’t tell if it’s real or not. He’s only 7. Can’t predict how he’ll go with that but I think it’s good that he asks questions and I encourage it.

    I do have to mention that extended family isn’t an issue. My daughter hasn’t any beyond me and my his father’s side is pretty irreligious also.

    Also a word of advice – You’ll have to make some compromises that you might not want to but if she isn’t willing to make any , then you should think about the relationship too. Its not just about religion – it might be where you stay , where you work etc etc and unless both parties are willing to compromise some it might not work

    That’s sage advice right there. If she’s not willing to compromise at all, follow Richard’s advice and say you can’t see a future with her as you want children some day and don’t want to be in the closet (presuming both those things are true), particularly with your own children but you’d still like to be friends then run, run like the wind, from any further romantic involvement because if it’s her way or the highway on this, it probably will be her way or the highway on damned near everything else also.

  • My wife and I have been married 16 years this spring. She’s a Christian (daughter of a Southern Baptist minister with two Southern Baptist deacon brothers) and I’m an atheist. We agreed when we got married that the kids would be raised Christian. Why would I do such a thing? Because the straightest path to freethought goes right through religion. If we raise the kids as Christians, and I teach them critical thinking and reason, then the only logical outcome is an informed young person, knowledgeable about both religion and freethought, able to choose for themselves whether to live a life of faith or reason.

  • Amcharming

    True, my Christian girlfriend left me because, even though I went to church with her , she figured later that because she also wanted in-laws who are Christian , my parents who are of a different faith, would not work for her. She said they were going hell since they believed in a different god. And she wasted 3 years of life , even though I agreed to raising Children as Christian , have a Christian wedding. There was no compromise from her…now that I am over her, I feel like I dodged a bullet.

  • Amcharming

    And that of course rapidly converted me from agnosticism to atheism …..

  • angharad

    I don’t think this is fair.  Of course it behooves the couple to figure out if they’re incompatible before investing years and years into a relationship.  It’s only prudent to discuss it at least in the hypothetical.

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