Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: My partner is Protestant and I am Catholic. We both practice our religions and have very strong faith. We are able to respect each other’s beliefs and love each other. However, when we touch on the topic of having children in the future, tension fills the room. He wants them raised in his faith, I want them raised in mine. We are left staring at each other in silence thinking, should we continue in this relationship? How do you handle these irresolvable differences? —D.R.
A: All couples have differences. Choosing a partner means choosing someone whose differences we can live with, but how do we do that? Especially when the difference is something as deep and all-encompassing as religion.
It’s a good sign that you are trying to address this issue now. Waiting and avoiding the problem will certainly make things worse and may very well lead to “gridlock” down the road.
In the Love Lab, John Gottman discovered that most of the issues couples argue about are actually unsolvable. He found that when couples talked about their problems, year after year, they mostly talked about the same issues over and over again.
In fact, he calculated that 69% of their conflicts were really about issues that had no solution. While that might seem like bad news, the reality is that many of these couples were perfectly happy, stable, and successful. They had found ways to deal with their differences successfully.
Some of these couples weren’t doing so well, though. The differences between them had grown into something destructive. These couples had reached the point of rejecting their partner over their differences, blaming them for their own negative feelings and shutting down when the topic was brought up. This is what we mean by gridlock.
How were the successful couples different? They maintained healthy dialogue around the differences. This should be your goal. Too often couples seek to persuade their partner to change rather than really trying to understand them and accept them for who they are.
Your religious difference is one of the hardest to deal with. So much of our sense of self and identity is wrapped up in our beliefs and faith backgrounds. You’ll need to be careful when you talk about it. You’ll need to be respectful. You’ll need to ask each other questions — good, opened-ended questions and you’ll need to listen to the answers.
Set aside some uninterrupted time to talk. You should take turns being a listener who asks the questions. It might even help to take some notes about what your partner says so you can summarize everything they feel and need when it comes to religious practice and raising children in a faith community.
Become a curious listener. Ask questions like:
What do you feel when you worship?
What’s the core meaning of your faith for you?
What’s most important to you about your faith?
How does your religion relate to your childhood and family?
Have a slow conversation and make sure you both are heard and feel that you can find ways to honor your partner and that they can honor you. Then you might be ready to work on a compromise that can honor both of you, your feelings, needs, and beliefs.
Conversations like this can be difficult, so don’t be afraid to get some help. A good, neutral pastoral counselor might be helpful. You could also get some help from a skilled marriage therapist.
Sometimes we come up against issues that really are deal breakers for us. Issues like “Should we have kids?” or “How do we want to raise our kids?” are some of the most important and as such are the most likely to create an impasse. Everyone has core needs and beliefs around what they cannot compromise on, and that’s a good thing.
After having clear, deep conversations, you might end up realizing that you just can’t find a middle ground that works for you and you have to let the relationship end. At least you would know why and hopefully could part as friends.
The good news is that, most of the time, couples can find ways to build bridges of love and understanding—even when dealing with such important differences.
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More from Asking for a Friend here.