Mismatched Marriage: When One Spouse Is an Unbeliever

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While there's no one-size-fits-all formula that will instantly revolutionize a mismatched marriage, a few principles can contribute to the health of a relationship.

My wife, Leslie, and I lived a fairy-tale life. A home in an exciting, upscale neighborhood. Two beautiful children. The exhilaration and challenge of climbing the corporate ladder. Sure, we had issues to work through in our marriage, but our relationship remained strong and secure. Our deep love for each other smoothed over a lot of rough edges.

Then unexpectedly, someone came between us. It wasn’t an affair. It wasn’t the resurfacing of an old flame. That someone was none other than God himself.

Leslie announced one day that, after a long period of searching, she had decided to become a follower of Jesus Christ. To me, this was awful news! “Look, if you need that kind of crutch,” I sneered at her, “if you can’t face life without believing in a make-believe god, then go ahead. But don’t give the church any of our money and don’t try to get me to go anywhere on Sunday mornings.”

Nice guy, huh?

That was the opening salvo in what turned out to be a turbulent, emotion-churning phase of our marriage. Our values began to clash, our attitudes started to conflict, and our priorities and desires were suddenly at odds. More than once I let my frustration with Leslie’s relationship with Christ spill over into a tirade of shouting and door slamming.

How to live out your faith in a mismatched marriage

Needless to say, I wasn’t making it easy for my wife to grow in her new faith. To Leslie, Christianity wasn’t a crutch, it was a source of wisdom, comfort and joy unlike anything she’d ever experienced. And she couldn’t share these experiences with the man she loved the most! Every time she tried to help me understand, I would ridicule her or ignore her pleas. Leslie later said this experience was like visiting some beautiful and romantic city, drinking in its wonderful sights and sounds, but knowing I was neither interested in going with her nor hearing about it when she got back. It was the first time since we met as teenagers that we couldn’t experience something together.

As for me, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue experiencing anything with my wife. I felt like a victim of a bait and switch. I had married one Leslie — the fun-loving, risk-taking Leslie — and she was being transformed into someone different. I wanted the old Leslie back!

Everything culminated one hot, humid day while I was mowing the lawn after another of our arguments. “That’s it,” I muttered as I plowed through her flower bed. “This isn’t what I signed up for! Maybe it’s time to think about getting out of this marriage.”

But before it was too late, Leslie learned how to live her faith in a way that began to attract me rather than repel me. She learned how to grow and even flourish in her relationship with Christ, despite discouragement from me. Though Leslie would admit that she made mistakes, she was the one who restored equilibrium to our relationship.

How to honor God … and your unbelieving spouse

While there’s no one-size-fits-all formula that will instantly revolutionize a mismatched marriage, a few principles contributed immeasurably to the health of our relationship. If you’re married to an unbeliever, the following may help you thrive in your own spiritual mismatch:

Shift your focus from your struggles to your Savior. When you’re being pulled simultaneously in two directions — toward God by the Holy Spirit and away from Him by your spouse — it’s important to remember where your priorities should lie. Staying riveted on the plight of a mismatched marriage bogs us down in our troubles rather than lifting our eyes toward the One who deserves our primary allegiance, the One who meets needs that our spouse never could. God recalibrates our life, and He empowers us to love our spouse when that person is not very lovable. He loves our partner even more than we do! So pursue the joy of God — resting in His presence — rather than the happiness of better external circumstances.

It’s true that the best ways to cultivate an ongoing intimate relationship with God — praying, studying Scripture, attending church and engaging in fellowship with other believers — are the very activities that unbelieving spouses frequently discourage. “I learned that if I wanted to pursue various spiritual disciplines to keep close to God,” Leslie says, “I had to do them under Lee’s radar screen.”

Leslie never tried to hide from me that she loved Jesus and wanted to grow in her relationship with Him. I was quite aware of her devotion to Christ and the fact that she was praying and studying the Bible. However, Leslie was wise to pursue her spiritual growth out of my presence. That practical concession enabled her to take the next step in keeping her relational priorities straight.

Make your spouse the No. 1 human being in your life. One reason for my angry outbursts during our mismatched time was the feeling that I was losing the woman I loved. To put it bluntly, I was jealous of Jesus! For the first time in our marriage, Leslie’s emotional needs were being met by someone other than me. It felt like Leslie had broken our marriage agreement by seeking comfort and encouragement from someone else.

Over time, I saw that Leslie’s devotion to Christ actually reinforced her love for me and made her want to strengthen our bond. Instead of ignoring me in favor of Christ, church and her Christian friends, Leslie redoubled her efforts to be a caring, thoughtful spouse. I could see that I was still the most important person in her life — just as she was in mine.

Our different beliefs didn’t mean we had to stop relating in other areas. We were married because we enjoyed each other’s company and shared a lot of mutual interests. Leslie made sure that we were able to continue pursuing those things together. And though she desperately wanted me to recognize my need for Christ, she continued to love me as her partner — not as her project.

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Resist focusing on your spouse’s unbelief. There’s a natural tendency in a mismatched marriage to become obsessed about the one big shortcoming in your partner — that he or she is not a Christian. For a while in our marriage, I couldn’t shake the sense that I was letting Leslie down, that I was in some sense a failure as a husband.

Fortunately, Leslie recognized that when she tried to “fix” me by stressing my shortcoming, she found that this actually reinforced my bitterness. She saw that it would be healthier for our marriage if she would emphasize all the things she loved about me. The more she accentuated my positive attributes, the more motivated I was to live up to her praises.

I considered myself an atheist, but Leslie refused to let that term define me. Instead, she tried to see me as God saw me: as a treasured part of His creation, a human being whose soul was etched with the likeness of Him, a wayward son whom He longed to connect with.

Pursue a “Christian” marriage by living out godly principles in your life. At one point, Leslie had had enough. I had belittled her beliefs once too often. Everything within her was itching to fight sarcasm with sarcasm, to give me a dose of my own medicine. What could be more emotionally satisfying than verbally cutting me down to size?

With God’s help, she resisted that impulse, realizing that retaliation would only fuel a downward spiral in our relationship. She fought the temptation to sink to my level and give me the tongue-lashing that I admittedly deserved.

The Christian principles that you bring to your marriage will change the flavor of your relationship. Be a truth teller, a servant, a forgiver, a person of humility, integrity and kindness. The extent to which your relationship can be “Christian” is the extent to which you commit yourself to following Jesus and letting His influence permeate your life.

Teach kids Christian values, but don’t turn them against your spouse. When Leslie wanted our kids, Alison and Kyle, to attend Sunday school, she presented the idea to me in a way that was appealing to a religious skeptic. She pointed out that this was an opportunity for our children to develop strong moral values, something I did indeed want for them. As a believer, you have the privilege and responsibility to show your children how wonderful it is to know Jesus, but if Mommy or Daddy doesn’t go to church or seek a relationship with God, your kids may wonder if there is something not-so-wonderful about their mother or father. Leslie was careful to avoid undermining my authority or show anything less than respect for me. She didn’t want the children thinking she looked down on me because I wasn’t a follower of Jesus.

“When Alison asked why Daddy didn’t go to church, I told her it was because we had different opinions about God,” Leslie says. “I told her everyone had to come to their own conclusions about Jesus, and that I still loved and respected Daddy. At the time, my daughter was too young to ask a lot of sophisticated follow-up questions, but it seemed important to her that I continually reaffirmed my love for her and for her dad.”

When Leslie and the kids left for church, she never suggested that I was a bad person for staying at home. She’d kiss me and cheerfully tell the kids, “Say goodbye to Daddy! We’ll see him in a little while.”

In a spiritually mismatched marriage, all eyes are on you to see how a Christian behaves. Your example will be the clearest evidence that following Jesus is the best way to approach life.

Keep expectations realistic. When I was still a spiritual skeptic, Leslie imagined what I would be like as a Christian. She pictured me transformed into the perfect husband — one who’d diaper the kids, wash the dishes and pamper her with romantic dinners. My outbursts would disappear. I would be patient and wise beyond my years.

Well, I did become a Christian and . . . let’s just say I’ve never quite lived up to Leslie’s expectations. God has rounded some of my rough edges, changing my values, priorities and worldview over the years, but I’m still me!

“I’d caution any Christian in a mismatched marriage to be realistic about her spouse,” Leslie says. “Not every annoying thing he does is a direct result of him not being a Christian. If you think he’s going to be perfect when he becomes a believer, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Besides, if you blame his lack of faith for all of his shortcomings, you’re giving him a convenient excuse for not continuing to grow as a husband and father.”

Ask yourself the most convicting question of all. When I get a new calendar at the start of every year, the first thing I do is find the first day of every month. Then I write down the sobering question I want to make sure I ponder at least once every 30 days: “How would I like to be married to me?” I’ve been doing this since 1995, when I first read that provocative question in a book written by Les and Leslie Parrot.

The reason that question is so convicting is that it’s rooted in how Jesus taught us to behave: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

How would you like to be married to you? Let that be the grid through which you evaluate how you’ll react to the often-disorienting dynamics of a relationship with an unbelieving spouse. Ask yourself that question so often, and wrestle with its implications so honestly, that it begins to reshape your attitude, decisions and reactions. This will help you will make the most of your spiritual mismatch.

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