Ask Richard: Being Honest With My Girlfriend About My Atheism
Oct. 14, 2009
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I've been dating my girlfriend for a year and, even though she is not religious now, she has said she wants to return to the Christian faith she had as a child. Her strong connection to her religious family is a large part of that. Within the last two years, I've become a non-believer and have no desire to return to my Christian roots.
I told her about being a non-believer early in our relationship. She has said that she would not date someone who didn't believe in a higher power but has made an exception with me. To compound the issue, I've had to dodge religious questions or tell half-truths (at her request) when confronted by her family. We also plan to attend a week-long outdoor camp put on by her family's church soon, something that I agreed to go to because of how important the annual event is to them.
My problem is that, frankly, I don't want that much religion in my life. I grew up with it, but have abandoned it for various reasons. I feel like she and I are at a point where we should start looking at the future. I've not told her this, but I don't see religion in our future.
I wouldn't want to convert to her religion if her church requires it for marriage. Nor would I want to take any future children to a Christian church only and put them in a Sunday school program. I worry about whether I should tell her because I believe it might end the relationship. If you remove the religious issue, we are just a typical (but, good) couple with typical (but, not huge) problems.
Am I being unreasonable? Where do I go from here?
You are struggling with the basic foundation of love relationships: honesty. The issue of honesty is why they succeed or why they fail. It is why they are filled with joy or filled with pain.
Early on, you honestly told her of your lack of belief. She was honest with you about her growing connections to her religion and her preference of only dating someone who believes in a higher power.
She made an exception to this by dating you. Such exceptions often have conditions or are reconsidered later, after some amount of time. You may have discovered that she will tolerate some ways that you express your unbelief, but not other ways of expressing it.
Looking at the possibility of a permanent relationship, things get even more conditional. For instance, your not accompanying her to church might be acceptable to her, but your wanting to limit potential children of the two of you from going to church or Sunday school might be unacceptable to her.
Over time, her conditions and boundaries will likely change, but it is difficult to predict how. She may become more relaxed and accepting, or she may become more demanding of having things her way. Your conditions and boundaries will probably change as well, but it is also difficult to predict how.
Even minor dissimilarities in religious beliefs can be extremely divisive, and yours are major. While the two of you may find ways to adjust to your differences, you will both have to continually put effort into keeping this wedge from working its way deeper between you. Some couples can keep it up, while others eventually cannot.
But the main problem is that both of you are straying away from honesty.
She has asked you to be less than honest, and less than you, around her family, through being secretive, evasive and telling half-truths. Let's clear away the euphemisms. She wants you to lie to them. You have agreed to do so.
The implication is that such lying to her family will spread to lying to her as well. You're already keeping secrets about your preferences for your future children's religious upbringing. Couples living together require a standard of honesty that is higher than we use in most other relationships, so, unspoken truths between a couple are... lies.
Lies beget more lies. Untruthfulness grows like a tumor - and it kills love.
I can empathize with your quandary. You love her, you like her, and you want to be with her. But you're afraid that being fully truthful will end the relationship.
That might end it, but being untruthful will definitely end it. I have never seen a relationship that required secrets and lying to each other that lasted. The truth will out, and if you are not two people who are well practiced with facing the truth, you will break up.
If you really care about her, then you must honor her and honor your relationship with your fully spoken truths, holding nothing back, and letting whatever must happen, happen.
Really caring about her, you would not want her to be in a relationship built on secrets, falsehoods and illusions. Really caring about her, you would want her to be in a relationship that deeply supports and nurtures her with authenticity, even if that would have to be with another man. Really caring about her, your being with her would not be as important to you as seeing her happy and completely fulfilled. How deeply do you care about her?
Just as importantly, really caring about yourself, you would want the same good things for yourself, and would expect the same authenticity from your partner. You can try to be a pretend person with a pretend partner, or you can be a real person with a real partner.
Sans, you asked, "Am I being unreasonable? Where do I go from here?" You're only being unreasonable if you think that being less than forthright will continue to work. Where you should go is straight to your girlfriend with all these religious concerns and anything else that you are tempted to hold back. Lay them all out in respectful but completely honest terms.
After full disclosure, it will not be a matter of you waiting passively for her to choose to stay or to go. You will both have your own decisions to make. Then, whether it is with her or not, you should continue walking the path of proactive, scrupulous honesty.
If turns out that it are not with her, I don't think you will be alone for long.
(Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseld more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)