3:46am

Thu January 17, 2013
Losing Our Religion

Making Marriage Work When Only One Spouse Believes In God

Originally published on Thu January 17, 2013 11:11 am

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 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Anyway, all this week on MORNING EDITION we've been looking at the growing number of Americans who do not identify with any religion. The series is called Losing Our Religion and it's time now to meet a couple for whom this subject is extremely personal. One partner has faith and the other does not. Deena Prichep reports.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: 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 kids and step kids in their southern Washington home.

Mike and Maria have actually known each other since they were young, but only got married a few years ago.

MARIA PEYER: And it just hadn't been the right time until it was.

(LAUGHTER)

PEYER: God bless Facebook.

MIKE BIXBY: She Facebooked me and asked if I remembered her. And then it just went from there.

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

BIXBY: 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. It's not an open question for me any more.

PEYER: 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.

PRICHEP: They do find ways to come together. Mike even goes along to church, every now and then.

BIXBY: 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 that's a very secular humanist attitude. That shows a lot...

(LAUGHTER)

BIXBY: ...of growth, a lot of not faith or whatever.

PRICHEP: Mike and Maria may disagree about faith but they share common values. Even in their vocations - she's an oncology nurse, and he teaches fourth grade.

PEYER: Mike works with kids that come from really hard places. And I work with people that are dying of cancer and living with cancer. 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.

BIXBY: 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 we are because of her faith, because of my lack of faith. And I don't want to change that.

PRICHEP: In the past, couples like these often would make a change. Whichever person had the stronger conviction would set the terms. But these days, people are redrawing the lines.

ERIKA SEAMON: These families are doing something different and they're making their own choices.

PRICHEP: That's Erika Seamon. She teaches religion at Georgetown University and studies interfaith relationships. And she sees couples find common ground on love, ethics, even spirituality while maintaining very different religious identities.

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

PRICHEP: Seamon says that couples who do it successfully use the tools you might expect.

SEAMON: They listen, and they talk, and they try and understand one another. A number of them mentioned humor. 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.

PRICHEP: Because Mike and Maria got together just a few years ago, they didn't have to hammer out a compromise on the kids. Hers 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 its work they're grateful for.

PEYER: I mean it's not a what should we have for dinner kind of question. You know, it's a: This matters - dinner matters too.

(LAUGHTER)

PEYER: 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.

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.

PEYER: I can love you and think you're wrong. And you can love me and think I'm wrong. So I appreciate this opportunity to grapple with it. And I appreciate you for being the one I get to grapple with it.

PRICHEP: And grappling together, for Mike Bixby and Maria Peyer, looks a lot like love.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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