Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I met my boyfriend little more than a year ago. He is Catholic and I’m an atheist. I wasn’t raised in a religious household and I don’t believe in God. A couple of months ago my boyfriend and l had an argument about religion. He never goes to church and I frankly didn’t think he was very religious. However he told me that if I wasn’t ready to convert we might as well break up because there would be no future for us, as he wants his wife to be with him in heaven when that day comes. I was very surprised and a little hurt too. I love him and he loves me and I could see us spending the rest of our lives together. Trying to keep an open mind I told him that I would go to a Catholic church and speak to the priest and attend a mass to see what it was like. I went to church a couple of weeks ago and it was a nice experience. The priest spoke about tolerance and love. The woman who deals with people who want to convert was very helpful and sat with me for a couple of hours to answer my questions about converting and Catholicism in general. However this did not make me believe in God and I don’t think I ever will believe. I could never convert just for the sake of calling myself a Catholic so my boyfriend will be happy, but at the same time I don’t want our relationship to end either. I’m not sure how to handle this, and I feel he is being unfair and basically demanding that I convert. We both love each other and I have no problem with him being a Catholic so I don’t see why we can’t continue our relationship like this. I don’t want to end our relationship over this, but I don’t know if he will accept the fact that I don’t want to convert.
My heart goes out to you. Love can be both wonderfully sweet and terribly bitter. It’s interesting that the priest spoke in his sermon about love and tolerance, because these two issues are colliding here.
I try to help people to see things clearly when their vision might be clouded by desire, fear, anger, pain, and disappointment. Very often people who write to me describe how they are faced with an either/or choice, but they want both things. Sometimes there is a third option or a way to have both. More often there isn’t.
Often, underneath the choice between the two things they have described there is a much more important choice between two paths their lives will take, two different kinds of people they might become. They’re faced with a choice between being true to their principles or betraying themselves to please others; between having integrity and solidity or being insubstantial, like a ghost; between becoming an adult or remaining a child.
Making this choice usually involves pain. Choosing one way, the pain is immediate, but it fades as the person grows and matures. Choosing the other way, pain is avoided at first, but it returns to stay for a very long time because the person does not grow and mature. Their decision has prevented that.
Although you and I don’t agree with his beliefs, your boyfriend isn’t being “unfair.” He sees that your relationship has the potential to become long-term, and he’s being honest and up-front about what he wants in a marriage, given his present beliefs and values. The fact that you have no problem with him being a Catholic does not carry a requirement that he must show the same willingness to accept you as a non-Catholic, and he’s making sure that is understood well ahead of time.
You are being honest and up-front with yourself by realizing that even if you were to go through all the motions of converting, they would only be empty gestures, a charade that would be disrespectful and untrue to your boyfriend and his beliefs, and more to the point, would be disrespectful and untrue to your own convictions.
But that is only half the task. Now you must complete it by being honest and up-front with your boyfriend, as he has been with you. Tell him where you stand, and that although you love him, you don’t want to be false either to him or to yourself just to enjoy his company. If you both want to be together, you both have to be yourselves without any pretending.
Even if marriage is not one of its long-term goals, your relationship with him might be able to continue, or it might have to end now, but however it goes, it should be based on mutual frankness and honesty. Build all of your relationships on a foundation of frankness and honesty. Without that, relationships of any kind are not worth having.
I wish I could suggest a painless way around this. I don’t minimize your sadness. Believe in your own worth, and nurture your strongly principled character. People with similar strongly principled character will be attracted to you. You will love and be loved by someone who wants you to be all that you are, and accepts you just as you are.
I wish both you and your boyfriend well. Please feel free to write again, to let us know how this has turned out.