I get a messages from people all the time who are struggling in their marriages and relationships because they are deconstructing their beliefs. One thinks it’s still okay to believe in God and the other thinks it’s stupid to. One still loves the faith and the other hates Christians. So their relationship falls under strain, and they may end up separating and divorcing. This not only happens in marriage but in all our relationships.
But let’s talk about our romantic relationships and you can relate the same principles to any relationship.
When Lisa and I started deconstructing, our transition into a different kind of theology and spirituality was not only ground-shaking for us personally, but it put our relationship to an extreme test. There were times when we wondered if we would ever again be able to have a decent conversation without massive misunderstandings or that terrible tension we feel when we face an irreconcilable conflict.
But we did make it. Our relationship is healthier and happier than it’s ever been before. Now, when people ask me if it’s possible for relationships to survive this, and if so how, here’s the advice I give:
1. Don’t be rash: When you were on the same page there was no need for patience. You had what you wanted: one hundred percent agreement. But as adults begin to grow, mature, and change, disagreement is bound to and ought to occur. When one partner in a relationship changes, it forces the other to change. Marriage is like a crucible of transformation. We influence and change each other. This is what love does, actually. We make compromises (translate: improvements) in order to make our partner happy and our relationship more pleasant. So, when our partner starts to change, don’t prematurely and immaturely dash out the door and abandon your partner or the relationship. Give it time: they will change again and so may you!
2. Don’t compromise too much: That is, if your partner can no longer tolerate you, gets impatient and angry with you and decides to leave, that’s their problem, not yours. Their attempts to pressure you into a certain way of thinking is controlling and unfair. You didn’t require that of them, and they shouldn’t require it of you. The best and healthiest growth is natural and unforced. Everyone knows that. So don’t compromise yourself too much by becoming what they demand you to be just so they’ll be happy and stay with you. It’s not worth it, because you are more important than the marriage. What I mean is, the healthiest relationship is between two consenting adults who don’t manipulate or coerce one another. When you promised to take one another in sickness and in health, this meant spiritually too. So if they can’t love you as you are right now, and as you are in your own spiritual process, then that’s their problem, not yours. Don’t sacrifice your essential self on the altar of their selfish insecurities and fears.
3. Understand true love: As adults mature, they begin to understand what true love is. When Lisa and I first met, she was the girl of my dreams. Literally, she “fit” into my fantasy of what the perfect woman was: she was beautiful and agreed with everything I believed. And I was the same for her. This is only natural. This is how young attraction works. Plus, unlike some relationships, Lisa and I were allowed to remain in that protective bubble for many, many years. It wasn’t until we were in our forties where we started to deconstruct our beliefs and therefore gradually shift off the same page. We’ve aged, and we no longer believe identically. Sometimes we wonder if we’re even in the same book or even library, never mind the same page! But we’ve learned an important lesson over the years. We actually have been changing all along, each of us in our own way, incrementally but surely. What enabled this to happen was our love for each other. We discovered that it wasn’t sameness, agreement, or compatibility that held us together, but our love for one another. It might have brought us together, but it surely didn’t keep us together. This is a very important lesson for lovers to learn as they mature.
4. Love is humility and respect: I was going to say love means tolerance, but tolerance has the ring of superiority to it… like, “I, because I am right and you are wrong, will tolerate you in your error until you finally see the light like I did and come around to my way of thinking!” I don’t mean that. I mean love is humble and doesn’t think of itself too highly. One should get to the point of realizing that life is full of mystery, and that all knowledge and conclusions are transitory and provisional based on incoming research. Even scientists know this. But good lovers know this too. So they’re humble about their beliefs and hold on to them loosely. One of the most delicious fruit of this is respect for others where they are. (Unless their beliefs lead them to violent acts against others.) So in loving relationships, there is mutual respect that goes deeper than held beliefs. That is, we trust our loved one to take care of themselves intellectually and spiritually. The beliefs are just thoughts rippling on the surface of a deeper reality called the self, and we trust their self to their own search and discoveries. I do not agree with everything Lisa believes, but I do agree that she has the right to her own journey her own way, and I trust her with that. We can observe each other with delight as we discover how best to find our truth and live it in our own personal lives.
5. Final advice: Live happy now! For me, it means getting fresh flowers and treats for Lisa even in the midst of apparent disagreement. It means going for walks together and going out on dates. It means sitting down and intentionally having a difficult conversation. It means enjoying sex… where theology isn’t invited. We hear weird stories, but seriously, the quality of sex should not depend on your beliefs, so I take this is a metaphor for relationships generally. I remember once when we were driving and Lisa asked what I did about prayer now. My first gut reaction was defensiveness and feeling perturbed. But I took a deep breath and began trying to articulate what I thought about it. What helped was even though she cared what I thought about prayer, I also knew my ideas weren’t going to kill our marriage. She wasn’t going to judge me on a pass/fail model and kick me out of the car if I was wrong. So I took advantage of this opportunity and it actually helped me understand myself and my thoughts about prayer a little better. Plus, she’s just a good listener. It’s true, for me, that speaking and writing helps me not only articulate my own position but understand it better. What I’m saying in all this is that even though we go through times of strain in our marriage because of deconstruction, we behave as though it is transitory, a passing storm, and that we will weather it and come out of the other side better and stronger.
Look, I know of many couples who just couldn’t make it through their deconstruction together. Many people realize, in this season, that they really don’t love their partner anymore and are very unhappy, and decide to separate and eventually divorce. That’s okay. It happens a lot because for the first time in their spiritual lives they may feel like they finally have permission to be honest about the actual state of their union.
But, if you do still love the one you’re with, if you do still love the person you married, then you can work it out. I’ve done it and I’ve seen others do it. It doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily and eventually come to a place of perfect agreement again, but it can mean you will come to a deeper place of love for one another as each of you are. Your love will stretch and therefore grow to include everything about your partner… even the parts you didn’t expect or sign up for. That’s what love does. Even romantic love.
It’s not always a pleasant process, but who said love was easy? But it is always worth it.
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