When your spouse loses religion

First published in Times of Israel.

There are various terms used to describe the newly non-religious. The popular term used in Israel is “datlash” which, in Hebrew, stands for  ‘dati le’sheavar’ or ‘formerly religious’. “Off the Derech” (OTD) meaning, off the path, or way, is the term frequently used in Anglo Orthodox communities. The decision to abandon a religious lifestyle can involve a combination of factors ranging from teenage rebellion, alienation from religious life, inability to reconcile sexual identity with religious restrictions, amongst other reasons. Many may opt for a secular lifestyle as a conscious decision, resulting from a process of reflection and rational decision-making, as opposed to an act of rebellion.   Regardless of the motivating factors, ‘losing one’s religion’ has individual, relational and communal ramifications, such that processing the experience in therapy, with friends or in a support group is often helpful. On a personal level, such a process may address better self-awareness and adjustment to one’s change in identity and sense of self.  On a family level, parents may react to a child’s choice to embrace a secular identity with great distress, experiencing their child’s process as an abandonment of their values and as a personal injury when often, becoming non- observant may in fact reflect a healthy and respectful process of parental individuation and separation.

Similar dynamics require exploration in a marriage, when one partner redefines one’s relationship with religion.  Is there a marital power struggle revolving around religion, and is the partner reacting rebelliously to feelings of oppression and lack of autonomy? Is religious ‘acting out’ a function of, or related to marital distress? Or is the searching partner’s religious transition completely unrelated to his or her marital satisfaction? How do couples organize around a marriage when one partner is no longer religious, or significantly less observant?

For many couples, navigating religion is part of the everyday dynamic of marriage. In such relationships, the process of one partner’s questioning religion is transparent and the transition from religious to secular comes as no surprise to the religious partner who has been exposed to the process all along.

For other couples, however, the revelation that one partner is no longer observant comes as a shock, and feels as much of a betrayal as the discovery of a partner’s infidelity. This dynamic may represent deeper problems in the couple’s marriage such as poor communication, lack of authenticity and honesty, and lack of trust. Processing the factors that led to this lack of transparency often reveals that the non-religious partner avoided sharing his or her doubts out of fear that the partner would react angrily.

Regardless of the narrative, couples dealing with a shift in religious beliefs and observance of one partner are faced with a challenging reality that has ramifications on their marital life, their intimate life, and their family life.  Abandoning religious observance can frequently be only one manifestation of significant life changes that an individual may be undergoing, whether as a result of a life-altering event, such as a death of a family member, a new job, or a need to pursue freedom and vitality. In some cases, particularly among couples who married in their early twenties, re-defining one’s self religiously is part of the normative process of development. In addition, religious observance exists on a spectrum, and the process of exploring beliefs and practices can be dynamic and variable.

Couples dealing with changes of one partner in religious practices and beliefs can find themselves in crisis. If the couple regularly engages in power struggles, and communicates with defensiveness and reactivity, then couples therapy is certainly in order.  They are likely not well equipped to navigate this complex situation and cannot effectively process their anger, and as a result, may resort to unkind or passive-aggressive behaviors. A power struggle around religion may be what brought them in, but chances are there are core marital issues that need to be addressed.

Couples equipped with the fundamental skills of intimacy, which include differentiation, curiosity, authenticity and honesty, will likely be better prepared to navigate what is necessary to reconcile differences in religious belief and practice with a healthy and loving marriage. The following guidelines will illustrate this:

Validation.  If you are the one who has changed, understand and acknowledge that your change represents a contractual breach. When you married, your partner believed that you would be sharing similar values and beliefs, and raising and educating your children based on these values and beliefs. Your partner may feel at times betrayed, anxious, sad, and sometimes even jealous of your freedom. Common feelings that your partner may experience are loneliness, particularly around religious ritual in which you do not share, burdened by the need to be the religious voice in the home, or even insecure- that just like you grew out of religion, you’ll grow away from your relationship.

For the religious partner, understand that your spouse may be feeling judged, guilty and misunderstood. Discuss these feelings with one another, validate them, and show empathy and support. In one therapy session, Bentzy (names have been changed) stated, ‘When I walked in on Chanie and she was using her phone on Shabbat, I felt like she had kicked me in the stomach.’ He needed for Chanie to acknowledge his feelings without being defensive. Similarly when Chanie cried, “How could I tell Bentzy I didn’t want to be religious anymore, when he would get angry at me when I expressed a religious opinion different than his?” she needed to hear Bentzy take responsibility for his inflexibility.

Differentiation: You and your partner are two separate individuals, and you do not have to share the same beliefs, nor agree on everything. Your partner does not represent you, such that you needn’t be embarrassed by his uncovered head or her short skirt. Having said that, don’t be afraid to make yourself vulnerable by asking for what you want, knowing that it is a risk and your partner may refuse.  But, rather than saying ‘can you not show up for dinner with my parents looking like a slut?’ which is aggressive and angry, try, ‘ I know that it is important to you to define your identity by how you dress, and that you don’t want to be a hypocrite, but I would really appreciate it if for me, you would dress appropriately for dinner with my parents.”

Respect: Do not disparage each other’s practices and beliefs. Becoming secular doesn’t allow you the right to denigrate your partner’s adherence to Halacha (Jewish law) or devotion to rabbinic authority.  Similarly, respect that your formerly religious partner still may be experiencing variable religious feelings. One morning, Ariella saw her husband Michael in the living room, wearing his Tefillin (phylacteries) and praying.  She passively-aggressively remarked ‘Oh, suddenly you became a big tzadik? (righteous person) Michael, who needed that morning to reflect and reconnect, was left feeling hurt and vulnerable. If you do want to understand your partner’s process, engage with respect and inquisitiveness.

Curiosity:  Tomer and Dalia’s power struggle over religion was a conflictual one, and they argued constantly over the minutiae of Shabbat observance.  When Tomer “caught” Dalia mopping the floor on Shabbat, he exploded, telling Dalia that she deeply hurt him. Dalia responded angrily, commenting on Tomer’s “stupid rules”. In one powerful therapy session, each was asked to describe their personal relationship with religion, while the other partner was to listen, validate and remain curious. Dalia described that she grew up in a home where religion was rigidly forced on her, without explanation or discussion.  As a result, Tomer’s absolute adherence to religious ritual triggered the anxiety of her childhood. Tomer, who grew up in a traditional but non-observant home, spoke about how he had to struggle as a teen, despite ridicule from his father and siblings, to become more religiously observant. Dalia’s dismissive comments triggered the pain from that period in his life. With this new understanding of one another’s emotional triggers, they were able to discuss with mutual compassion, how to best navigate Sabbath observance in the home.

Communication and Compromise: After processing the reality of religious disparity, couples need to discuss the impact on them as a couple, on their values, and how they want to raise their children. Virtually every aspect of life in a religious family is guided by principles of values and laws, which may no longer be a given. Many questions arise, some in the area of sexual intimacy. How does a ‘mixed’ couple navigate family purity laws, which are admittedly difficult even for couples who are fully committed?  Does the non-observant partner respect the same values surrounding boundaries with the opposite sex?  What will Shabbat look like? How much transparency will there be regarding friends, family and children’s knowledge of the situation?  These are only a few of the many questions that will arise and will require discussion and respectful negotiation.

The ‘solutions’ will be unique to each couple. Important principles to keep in mind are that people need to be authentic about who they are. Hiding one’s identity is rarely useful. Children are resilient and are able to differentiate and understand that mother is one way and father is another. If one or more of your children stray from the religious path, avoid blaming the non-religious partner — this can happen when both parents are religious as well, and it is difficult to isolate the variables in that process.  Your marriage and your children need not suffer from your diverse views and practices.  In fact, children can grow up well-adjusted and with a strong sense of self when they are raised in an environment that values diversity and dialogue and when they bear witness to behaviors by their parents that model differentiation, compromise and, mutual respect.

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