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Making Marriage Work When Only One Spouse Believes In God

Posted: January 17, 2013

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Every couple has differences and disagreements to navigate. But what happens when the couple disagrees on the fundamental question of faith? Maria Peyer is a church-attending Lutheran; her husband, Mike Bixby, is an atheist. But they've found ways to accept and support each other's beliefs.

Peyer says that even though she and her husband believe different things when it comes to God, they have found ways to accept and support each other's beliefs.

Peyer says that even though she and her husband believe different things when it comes to God, they have found ways to accept and support each other's beliefs.

Mike Bixby and Maria Peyer at their home in Longview, Wash. They have been married for two and half years but have known each other since 1981. Peyer is a church-attending Lutheran, and Bixby is an atheist.

Mike Bixby and Maria Peyer at their home in Longview, Wash. They have been married for two and half years but have known each other since 1981. Peyer is a church-attending Lutheran, and Bixby is an atheist.

Bixby and Peyer (center) with their four children (from previous marriages). From left: Hope and Sierra Bixby, Bixby, Peyer, and Grace and Luke Peyerwold.

Bixby and Peyer (center) with their four children (from previous marriages). From left: Hope and Sierra Bixby, Bixby, Peyer, and Grace and Luke Peyerwold.

Maria Peyer and Mike Bixby are one of those couples who just seem made for each other. They hold hands when they sit and talk. They're happy to spend the morning cooking brunch with their children in their home in southern Washington.

Bixby and Peyer have known each other since they were young, but got married only a few years ago.

"It just hadn't been the right time, until it was. God bless Facebook," says Peyer.

"She Facebooked me, and asked if I remembered her, and then it just went from there," Bixby says.

But there's one big issue where they do not see eye-to-eye. Peyer is Lutheran. Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all pastors. She's an assisting minister. Bixby is an atheist.

"I do not believe that there is any sort of a higher power. I've made several attempts to go back and have faith, and it just doesn't work," he says. "It's not an open question for me anymore."

"I would really like it if he could feel God's love the way I do. And it's one of those very few places where I feel like I can say, 'I hear you, I understand what you're saying, I love you and I think that there may be more to it,' " Peyer says.

They do find ways to come together. Bixby even goes along to church every now and then.

"I hear it a lot from Maria, 'You're very spiritual in this way,' and 'You're very spiritual in that way.' And a couple days ago, I kind of joked with her, 'That is a very secular humanist attitude, and that shows a lot of growth, a lot of not faith,' " Bixby says.

Bixby and Peyer may disagree about faith but they share common values. Even in their vocations — she's an oncology nurse, and he teaches fourth grade.

"Mike works with kids that come from really hard places. And I work with people that are dying of cancer and living with cancer," Peyer says. "And for me to do that as a Christian person, for Mike to do that as an atheist, wouldn't look a whole lot different if either one of us were the other."

"Maria's faith plays a role in making her the person that I love, and I'm good with that. I think we're both the people who we are because of her faith, because of my lack of faith, and I don't want to change that," Bixby says.

In the past, people in relationships like this often would make a change — whichever person had the stronger conviction would set the terms. But these days, people are redrawing the lines.

"These families are doing something different, and they're making their own choices," says Erika Seamon, who teaches religion at Georgetown University and studies interfaith relationships. She sees couples find common ground on love, ethics and even spirituality while maintaining very different religious identities.

"What it's doing is it's mixing up, confusing and blurring these ideas of religion, and community and affiliation and ritual and faith," Seamon says.

She says that couples who do it successfully use the tools you might expect.

"They listen and they talk and they try and understand one another. A number of them mentioned humor," she says. "You could probably take that list of advice that they would give and use it for any situation, whether it's religion or just raising children or getting along in the world."

Because Bixby and Peyer got together just a few years ago, they didn't have to hammer out a compromise on the kids. Hers from a previous marriage are being raised Lutheran, his don't go to church. But these tools — communication, humor and compassion — help them work through their differences on other aspects of faith. And it's work they're grateful for.

"It's not a 'what should we have for dinner' kind of question. It's a 'this matters,' " says Peyer. "Dinner matters, too — often a lot — but we don't fight about dinner. And we don't fight about this. It has very much helped me clarify what's true for me."

Adds Bixby: "If I was a different type of nonbeliever, and Maria was a different type of believer, then that would be a very different question."

"I can love you and think you're wrong, and you can love me and think I'm wrong," Peyer says. "So I appreciate this opportunity to grapple with it, and I appreciate you for being the one I get to grapple with it with."

And grappling together, for Bixby and Peyer, looks a lot like love.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Losing Our Religion

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