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God Squad: Religious incompatibility may be relationship roadblock

QUESTION: My boyfriend won't come to church with my daughters and me. Is it OK to be in a relationship with someone who doesn't value church as much as you?

-- L

ANSWER: The answer to your question is what I call the Religious Ruler Test. Imagine that you could give a number ranking to everything you believe. The ranking would be from zero to 12 and would fit on a standard one-foot ruler. The things you don't care about are near zero and the things that are at the very core of your being are near 12. I used to take out a ruler for this test during my counseling sessions with couples trying to work out interfaith differences. I asked them to point out where on the ruler they would place several of their beliefs. I included the importance of their favorite sports teams, the importance of neatness and politics, sexual morality, etc. When a Christian and a Jew both pointed to 12 when I asked them how important their religion was in their life I knew that couple was in for a tough time reconciling their different and deeply held beliefs.

The other common problem I encountered was like your problem. When I asked them to rank their religious beliefs on the ruler, sometimes one of the two people would point to 12 and the other to zero. On one level this was a good thing because it clearly avoided the clash of ultimate beliefs and it made the decision of which religion to raise the kids quite easy. The religion of the 12-religious person trumped the indifference of the zero-religious person. However, your problem shows the dark side of marrying someone who holds wildly disparate convictions even about the same religion. Your boyfriend does not present you with an alternative to Christian identity. He is presenting you with an utterly indifferent Christian identity.

One way to look at this is to simply write off church attendance as one of the things he is just not into -- so you and your daughters should go to church without any expectation that he will be there with you. The problem with this approach is that being there with you in church is the whole point of being a Christian family. By going to church together you strengthen both your connection to God and your connection to each other as a family. That is not just a good thing, it is an essential thing for you as a believing Christian and his nonattendance seems to be a serious defect in your relationship. It shows that he cannot even motivate himself to do something that matters a great deal to you and your daughters just for that reason. His indifference to your needs reveals a strain of selfishness and narcissism that is troubling.

Even if his nonattendance at church did not matter to you, it would still be a problem because it would still send the message that what is important to you does not matter to him. It is fine, and it is in the nature of all relationships that not all things matter on the same level to both the partners. But it is not fine when something that is very important to one partner does not matter at all to the other.

Before your boyfriend becomes your husband, I would seriously recommend that you find a good counselor to help the two of you work through this and other incompatibilities with the aim of discovering whether the ways you are different are more or less important than the ways you are the same.

Love and marriage are spiritually subtle dances and a way must be found to embrace your connections and accept your differences.


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