"You Believe What?!"
How to Resolve Conflicts of Faith (Part 1)
Introduction: In marriage, one spouse's conversion to a new faith can be very much like an affair. The attraction can be so strong, that the believer is willing to abandon everything, including his or her spouse, to follow the religious teaching.
A conversion experience can not only be like an affair, it can also be an affair. The messenger of the faith is often the lover of the new believer, which can confuse the issues dramatically.
This is the first of two columns on this subject. The letters that are posted this week reflect religious conversions that are actually an escape from a bad marriage, and also an affair in disguise. In these cases, I don't recommend challenging differences in faith. Instead, I recommend focusing attention on unmet emotional needs and Love Busters. It's been my experience that conflicts of faith in these situations usually melt away once love is restored between spouses.
But couples with both good and bad marriages can face a conflict of faith that doesn't always melt away. In these cases, faith is not an escape from a bad marriage, nor is it associated with an affair. Next week, in part 2 of this series, I will describe negotiating skills that can make the difference between gaining valuable insight on life, and marital disaster.
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Dear Dr. Harley,
My wife is spending an increasing amount of time meeting with people who have developed a passion for "Celestine Prophecy" (Redfield's best-selling book) and similar "new-age" musings. She has embraced "consciousness raising" therapies where she reads, experiences and hears about spirituality ideas that she does not, nor cannot, properly analyze. When I question the nature of her beliefs, deceptive information, and psuedoscience, she says that one can't analyze feelings, and what she's doing feels "right".
Bit by bit, my wife moved into her present state over a period of several years. But it's really become intensive this past year. After 9 years of what I though was a happy marriage, she now says she feels "disconnected" from me and is not able to commit to our marriage in the way she did when she felt connected. She has also withdrawn from me physically.
She decided to move into an apartment last year for a three-month period. Although she's now back home, she says that she has a "knowing" that her destiny in life is to do new-age type "healing" work with others, which she envisions as requiring travel to other countries. Now, she goes off to "do her work" and local "meetings" with like-minded souls for several hours, several times a week, plus one or two week-end sessions of 3 to 6 hours each. Additionally, she frequently spends an inordinate amount of time on the phone speaking in fascination about "harmonizations", "energies", "vibration levels", "sychronicities", etc. It seems like she is addicted; she is obsessed with this activity.
She does much of her "energy work" in the company of a like-minded man. I've told her that I'm uncomfortable with her being in his presence so often; she assures me that nothing is going on between them. I resent that she is spending so much time with him, which is certainly promoting emotional intimacy, but very little time working with me to resolve our marriage problems.
We have children 18, 16, and 8 and she says she doesn't want to end our marriage. But, she cannot commit to our marriage as a priority to "finding herself." She is a loving mother, and I cannot understand how our once-romantic relationship has fallen into such disrepair.
For the sake of our kids and our marriage, what constructive action do you suggest that I take?
Over the past 10 years, you and your wife have drifted into incompatibility. Her conversion to new age philosophy may be a symptom of how far you've drifted apart, but it's not necessarily the cause. If I were to talk to your wife about her transformation, she would probably explain how she tried to stay emotionally connected to you, and that her efforts were rebuffed. She would probably complain about Love Busters such as angry outbursts, disrespectful judgments and selfish demands. She would also tell me how much she needs someone to talk to, but talking to you had become an exercise in futility and frustration.
So she did what she had to do, she withdrew from you, and found others that would meet her emotional needs. These people who met her needs happened to believe in new age philosophy, but it could have been almost anything. One of them, the man you refer to in your letter, probably did more than the rest to meet her emotional needs, so it's likely that she has fallen in love with him. As a result of her relationship with those who met her needs, she has adopted their system of beliefs.
As long as her emotional needs are being met by these friends, it will be impossible for you to dissuade her of her beliefs. Notice how she tells you that it "feels right." What feels right is that her emotional needs that had not been met by you are now being met by her friends -- by her male friend in particular. Who can argue with that?
I don't think your wife's beliefs are at the core of the problem. What is at the core is that she has been making decisions that ignores your feelings. Her decision to stop making love to you is one of many designed to cut you out of her life. I imagine that in her three months away from you, she missed her children and perhaps the economic comforts that your home provides. It's also possible that her romantic relationship with her religious advisor didn't go as well as she had hoped. So she moved back in with you, remaining in the emotional state of withdrawal, trying to live in the same house with you without having an emotional connection with you.
If I am right about your wife's religious transformation, challenging her beliefs will prove futile. It wasn't the new age philosophy that she found so compelling -- it was the care shown by friends meeting her emotional needs that won her over. If you are to win her back to you, you will need to learn what they did for her that she found so irresistible. You must learn to meet those emotional needs, particularly her need for safe and enjoyable conversation.
You won't be able to meet her needs at first, while she is in withdrawal. First, you must prove to her that you are a safe and pleasant person to be around. Then she will slowly come out of her defensive shell and give you opportunities to re-connect with her.
I know you have tried to be tolerant of her beliefs, but as her decisions have become increasing hard on you, you may be showing her disrespect when you don't intend to. Be very careful that you focus attention on how her decisions affect you, rather than on the truth of the belief behind the decision.
Remember, she is in the state of withdrawal because something you've done has convinced her that you are too dangerous to get close to. Withdrawal is a defensive strategy to guard against Love Busters angry outbursts, disrespectful judgments and selfish demands. So what are the Love Busters that she is guarding against? Identify them and try to protect her from them.
You should also identify and learn to meet her most important emotional needs. Ask your wife if she would be willing to read my book, His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-proof Marriage, with you. By reading that book together, she may tell you which of her emotional needs have been unmet in her relationship with you.
If you learn to meet her emotional needs and overcome Love Busters, it will be much easier for her to agree to take your feelings into account whenever she makes a decision. Your wife is probably very intelligent. If you use that intelligence for each other's welfare, your wife will become reconnected to you once again. You and she will be soul-mates.
Dear Dr. Harley,
Thank you for your considerate reply to my e-mail. The language she uses is like a fingernail-scrape on a blackboard to me: "biospiritual energy", "detailed analysis of the chakra system", blah, blah, blah.... It is a challenge for me to bite my tongue on hearing this sort of stuff, or at least refrain from making "disrespectful judgments".
But, I agree with your assessment of the dynamics of our relationship. Beliefs are not the real issue here. I believe that trying to discuss our differences at that level only gets in the way of addressing the real cause of our turmoil -- our mutual emotional needs not being met.
What you are suggesting is a major paradigm shift for both of us, as our marriage counseling to date has been along the lines of improving communication -- each of us learning the different "languages" we speak, and our ability to argue more effectively. But this has not proven to be a productive approach in the emotionally bankrupt climate in which we are living.
I met with my wife over lunch today and we discussed taking the approach outlined in your book, His Needs, Her Needs. The next step will be for us to fill out the questionnaires (Emotional Needs Questionnaire, Love Busters Questionnaire). I am hopeful that we are -- at last -- on a productive track to resolving this painful situation.
My wife's primary concern, as you might imagine, is making decisions that take my feelings into account (the Policy of Joint Agreement). I will read your newest book, Give & Take, so I can learn to make decisions with her feelings in mind, and hope she does the same for me.
I'm certainly looking forward to the prospect of us once again becoming "soul-mates"!