So my boyfriend and I have been together for about 8 months. He is not particularly religious but would identify himself as Catholic. I am not religious at all, he knows this and is 100% okay with it. My problem is, I fear that his family will not be okay with it if he and I choose to get married someday. His whole family are devoted Catholics (besides himself), and I have considered converting only to please his family, so that they will not be ashamed of me. I would only convert in order to make it seem like I am Catholic, not because I plan to form a relationship with their god.
Will I be unhappy if I do this? Should I break up with him to avoid the pain that may come from his family’s disapproval of me? I do not want them to disown me OR him. They know I am not Catholic now, but I fear that in the long-term, if I want to marry my boyfriend, this will upset them. I don’t know what to do!
Please understand that I say this with utmost respect: I have the impression that you and your boyfriend are quite young. If so, this is important because generally, the younger people are when facing this kind of challenge, the more difficult it will be for them.
Younger people are more likely to still be financially dependent on their families, and sadly, religious families often use financial pressure to try to keep their children “in the fold.” Despite putting on a brave and defiant front, younger people often have not yet fully developed their self-confidence and emotional independence. So even without financial pressure, their family’s disapproval can be a very powerful deterrent against going their own way. These vulnerabilities are not something to be ashamed of or mocked or condemned; they are simply a fact about youth in general, and we should all look upon them with understanding and compassion.
Absent any details about your age, your financial situation, and your emotional strengths, that is all I can say on that issue.
If you haven’t already, the first thing to do is to talk to your boyfriend about the fears you have expressed in your letter. After eight months together, he might or might not yet even be thinking about marriage, so you will need to introduce this topic in a way that takes into consideration where each of you are on the hypothetical prospect of marriage.
Ask him how he thinks his family would react to him marrying you as an openly nonreligious person. The way he responds to your question is as important as the particular things he says. Does he take your concern seriously and think about it carefully, or does he brush it aside with don’t-worry-about-it casualness? Although your relationship is only eight months old, you are being earnest about the long-term implications, and he should treat that respectfully and thoughtfully.
So discuss at length with him his impressions of how he thinks his family would react to the prospect of your marrying. He might have credible evidence of how accepting or how intolerant they would be, or he might only have a guess. The two of you must avoid the temptation of reassuring yourselves with best-case scenarios that are built on nothing but wishful thinking. You need reliable information.
One way to find things out is to simply ask people. If your boyfriend doesn’t really know how his family would react, perhaps he should ask them hypothetically about their feelings if he were to marry someone outside their faith. He can state that it is not an immediate possibility right now; he’s just curious about how they see this issue.
You have not mentioned anything about your own family’s reaction to this possibility. Do not brush this aside with your own wishful thinking. Even if your family members are as non-religious as you, don’t just assume that they will be fully accepting and supportive of you marrying a Catholic and into a Catholic family. Investigate it. Talk to them. Find out how they would really respond.
You might have more options besides the either/or extremes of faking conversion or breaking up with your boyfriend, but that will depend to a large part on what are his values, and how developed are his self-confidence and independence that I spoke about earlier. It could put him into a difficult choice of two extremes. If his family is adamantly opposed, it might force him to choose between being with you or having good relationships with his family. For some people, that can be very difficult and painful. For others, it is annoying but not that challenging. For many, it’s painful at first and just annoying later. Again, we should look upon each person’s reaction to these dilemmas not with shame or condemnation, but with understanding and compassion.
As a family counselor, I was amazed and frustrated by how many important issues couples do not discuss during courtship, only to collide with unexamined irreconcilable differences after marriage. So while you’re talking with your boyfriend about your possible shared future, take some time to talk about the series of challenges that couples with mixed religious orientations often face. Each step is like a hurdle higher than the one before, and each has a higher potential for heartache or heartbreak:
When two people first meet and they discover that one is religious and the other is an atheist, very often that’s the end of it. But if they really like each other, they start courtship with a vague agreement that their love for each other far outweighs their religious differences. After a while they begin considering marriage, and as you are now experiencing, the desires and aversions of their families begin to arise and to pose potential obstacles. Sometimes being torn between love and family loyalty proves to be too much, and they break up. If the couple finds a way to work that out, then there’s the wedding ceremony. Here, even if the couple and their families are at least generally and hypothetically accepting of the religiously-mixed marriage, specific things to be included or omitted in the ceremony can become a long series of contentious issues. Resentment and frustration can build up, and again can strain the couple’s relationship to the breaking point. Finally, if the couple has survived all that and has actually gotten married, things can move along happily until the last and tallest hurdle, the biggest deal-breaker, kids. If the couple has not seriously and earnestly considered this in several thorough conversations long ago, all of their live-and-let-live open-mindedness can suddenly evaporate, and “Not with my kid!” signals the very sad end of the relationship.
So please frankly and honestly discuss these things at length, and come back to them again and again as your thoughts and feelings develop and change. Pain in relationships comes not from what we know about our partner, but what we have wrongly presumed about our partner.
Now I will finally answer your two direct questions: Definitely do not convert to any religion unless you actually have a sincere and carefully-examined belief in that religion’s god and all of the attendant religious principles. The truth comes out eventually, and faking belief just to gain the family’s approval would be much worse than dealing with their disapproval from the start. They would see you as a fraud and a liar, and in that, they would be right. Better that they come to respect you for your consistent honesty and forthrightness, and if they don’t, then they’re not worth bothering with. You and our boyfriend will have to deal with their disapproval, and endure as a couple or not, as I have described above.
In general, avoid any relationship where you have to fake anything. If you have to fake being smarter, or more sophisticated, or more educated, or tougher, or richer, or anything at all that you think will impress someone or keep their approval, then don’t even start that relationship.
I cannot predict if you will be happy in a long-term relationship with your boyfriend because that depends on so many things, but I can assure you that you’re not likely to be happy if you start down the path of faking things. Be real. Be true to yourself. And be true to those you love.
I wish both of you happiness and fulfillment, together or separately, wherever your lives may go.
You may send your questions to Richard right here. Please keep your letters concise, but include pertinent information such as age, relevant financial issues, and significant people in the situation. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.
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