The holidays can be particularly stressful for couples who don’t share the same spiritual or religious views. Should an atheist attend midnight mass with the in-laws? Are Christmas trees or menorahs OK? Without clear expectations, getting through December with your nerves intact can be challenging. “Everybody has to negotiate — neither partner can declare everything non-negotiable. That’s not OK,” says Dale McGowan, a longtime atheist and the author of the book “In Faith and in Doubt.” “What they have to do is pick and choose. Asking their partner to give up everything is not fair.”
McGowan shares his thoughts on how couples can respect both of their belief systems and strengthen their relationship in the process.
Should everyone attend services? That depends. McGowan says every couple should talk about their negotiables and non-negotiables. “My wife’s extended family is quite religious and I go to church every year with my mother-in-law,” explains McGowan, who says his wife was a Southern Baptist when they married 23 years ago. “For me, going to church with her was a perfectly fine compromise and a way to honor a part of our family. That meant a lot to her.”
Some things can’t be compromised: “If you have an atheist who had a painful separation from religion, it can be really difficult for someone to attend church,” explains McGowan. “People have to respect that.” If you or your partner feel like you absolutely cannot participate in religious activities, it’s vital that you talk about it. “Maybe the family will go and they’ll just explain that dad is going to stay home,” McGowan says.
Mutual respectis key: Expressing your true feelings is essential to the success of any relationship, says McGowan. “It’s a question of respect. Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Sometimes I struggle with this because I can’t respect what my partner believes.’ But you don’t have to agree on beliefs, what you do have to say is, ‘I respect my partner.’”
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