I'm A Christian, But My Boyfriend Doesn't Believe In God

Photographed by Rockie Nolan
Dating someone from a different faith can be incredibly rewarding or a disaster of biblical proportions. In my experience, it was both.

Some years ago, I found the love of my life. I had recently left the mission field, where my job was to convince people that Jesus loved them. After dedicating six years to Evangelical Christianity, at 24, I decided to venture into the "real world." I landed on the densely populated isle of O’ahu, Hawaii, where I met a striking doctor-in-training with bone-dry humor, a motorcycle, and a Fu Manchu mustache (it was Movember). He was unlike anyone I had dated before — those guys were typically youth pastors or fellow missionaries. Adam was neither of those things and he definitely wasn’t a Christian.

Adam was raised a secular humanist, a "nonreligous lifestance" that deemphasizes the role a God-like entity plays in a person’s life and emphasizes making good personal decisions. His family was so far left and my family so far right, they practically came back around the circle. The only thing they could agree on was that we should care for the poor — how to do this, though, was another minefield of ideological differences and presuppositions about who was to blame for that poverty.

Our first few dates together were intoxicating. He would scoop me up on his black motorcycle and whisk me to the best restaurants on the island, where we’d discuss our mutual love for travel and the family legacies we both shouldered. All the while, fireworks literally exploded above us. But after three weeks, Adam knew things couldn’t stay that blissful. Sitting quietly by my side, the doctor-to-be stated his prognosis: He said that though things might seem great, we believed differently, and ultimately, that would tear us apart. I didn’t want to believe it at the time, but I knew he was right. So, we broke up.

And yet, there was something that couldn’t keep us apart. A week after he had shed one of his rare tears kissing me that final goodbye, he stood outside the crappy Italian restaurant I was working at and asked if we could "try." And so began the most difficult journey of my life to date.

It started with a lot of bluster and confidence, mostly on my part. I thought, Sure, this will be easy enough. He just needs to see my faith in action and he’ll be singing Hallelujah in six months, tops. Converting the "lost" was my profession, after all.

It wasn’t all ego, though. I also needed to believe this and needed to tell my worried, but open-handed, parents that although I was breaking the one rule they persistently drill into young evangelical girls (aside from no front hugs) — do not date non-Christian men — I was in control and was going to handle the situation.

I was breaking the one rule they persistently drill into young evangelical girls (aside from no front hugs) — do not date non-Christian men.

But I wasn’t in control. And while we clung tightly to each other and to the notion that love could conquer all, our relationship descended through multiple stages of hell before it finally came to another end.

First, there was the aforementioned "I’m right but you just don’t see it yet" period. This stage lasted a full two years. Our arguments about how the world worked, whether or not I’d actually witnessed "miracles," and the foundations of morality were emotionally charged. More than one dinner out ended with me crying at the table in frustration, so we started eating at dimly lit restaurants.

My faith was my whole world — literally. It was my family, the only community I had known, my education, and my profession, but it simply wasn’t for the person I loved. And that was incredibly hard for me to stomach.

Luckily, Adam’s patience was just as strong as his stubbornness, and he put up with Sunday services, my parents prophesying over him, and the celibacy that I had committed to as a 13-year-old (despite the fact that I’d lost my purity ring, oops). He tried to explain to me that maybe, just maybe, our differences had more to do with rhetoric and semantics than actual value disparities, but I couldn’t accept that.

The second stage was disappointment. As we passed milestones in our relationship and continued to circle the major issues dividing us, other problems arose — namely, our different cultural expectations. Our opposing faiths meant that Adam and I had different expectations for marriage, child-rearing, and what we wanted to celebrate in life. Each time we felt these differences, the weight of disillusionment became heavier.

Sure, we were both college-educated Americans, but the people in my community got married early — like, ring-by-senior-year-of-college early — and then proceeded to have three kids before Adam’s friends could finish their doctoral dissertations. By 27, I had been to over 50 weddings, while Adam had been to one. On our one-year anniversary, my sister called to congratulate us and casually remind us that, on her one-year anniversary, she had gotten engaged. So, while I only loved Adam more and more, I had expectations about what a relationship should be like, the proper timeline for it, and the most important objective: marriage.

It wasn’t that our values were so different that we couldn’t talk about them deeply and agree on some guiding principles; it was the constant ache I felt for the familiar.

Adam tried his best to meet my needs, but he couldn’t fulfill all of my expectations — there was no way he could understand the full scope of pressures exerted by a culture he wasn’t raised in. It wasn’t that our values were so different that we couldn’t talk about them deeply and agree on some guiding principles; it was the constant ache I felt for the familiar. While parts of me couldn’t stand the community I came from — why else would I be dating someone outside my faith? — parts of me also longed for the comforts of being inside the community and for Adam to understand the importance of that, too.

Sometimes, this ache was unbearable. Even though Facebook posts about how God had blessed so-and-so with the #mostamazingwifeever #blessed #createdforme made me vomit in my mouth a little, I also secretly wanted these small badges that meant I had arrived at the vaunted status of "coupled" in the evangelical culture. These markers had nothing to do with the Bible (and FWIW, I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t have been on Instagram), but in the culture of my faith group, they were gold. The truth of the matter was that I had been raised to want certain things and I knew that staying with Adam meant that I may never have them. The question was: Could I live with that? Relationships are already hard — was it masochistic to willingly upgrade to the extra-difficult interfaith version?

For Adam and I, it seemed like this was where our love story ended — at the third stage, the slow-and-painful breakup. After three years of dying on our own separate crosses, an unpleasant trip to ask for my parents’ permission to get married (in which Adam was grilled for four hours on his beliefs about the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ), and my obsessive search for some theological loophole that would alleviate my anxiety over Adam’s "lostness," Adam’s original prediction proved true. We were too tired from constantly attempting to bridge our gaps in belief to keep moving forward.

Adam had tried; he had tried to see God the way I saw him, to practice the traditions I had known since birth, and to see the world through the lens of American evangelicalism. But in the end, it felt phony, and even morally wrong, to him. I had tried, too; I tried to keep my religion the way it had been passed on to me and hold onto a person who was headed in a different direction.

For the first week after we broke up, I was relieved, as were my parents. I no longer had to struggle to understand someone so different from myself, or question whether or not we’d spend eternity together. I was free to retreat back into the world I knew and find solace in overly emotive worship services. But once weeks turned into months, the places I used to go to to find peace became increasingly devoid of any comfort or assurance. I started mumbling under my breath during the Sunday sermon, balking at the opinions of my hardcore conservative friends, dating Christian guys that were threatened by my "alternative" beliefs, and questioning the validity of many of the points I’d spent three years trying to hammer into Adam.

After three years of trying to convince someone to join my tribe, I’d turned around and realized that Evangelical Christianity wasn’t my tribe anymore.

It turned out, after three years of trying to convince someone to join my tribe, I’d turned around and realized that Evangelical Christianity wasn’t my tribe anymore. The distancing process — or "backsliding," as it’s called — had started years ago, while I traveled around the world as a missionary and met Christians who believed in things like evolution and the Clintons. But it was Adam who gave me the final push to make that mental shift. Being challenged to examine my beliefs and distinguish religious culture from theological creed had fundamentally altered me. I no longer felt comfortable calling myself an Evangelical. All of my life, I had been told that I couldn’t be a Christian without believing X,Y, and Z, but for the first time, I felt like maybe there was another way. Maybe I could be Christian and not doom everyone else to hell. The feeling was both liberating and terrifying.

With the world unbound by the strict theological boundaries I had trusted for so long, I was free to think again about all the things that Adam had been trying so patiently to tell me — that our values weren’t really that different, that we had more in common than I had thought. I began to see that, despite all of my preaching about compassion and understanding, I had basically discounted everything Adam had said for three years.

I’d nodded my head and made small concessions, but I had committed a cardinal relationship sin: I had failed to compromise. Sure, my former beliefs about eternal salvation had sunk a few nails into the coffin, but the true blow that killed my relationship was my inability to accept that I didn’t have all the answers.

This revelation came just when I found out that Adam had begun dating the woman he’d had a crush on all throughout high school. But just as he had put his pride and pragmatism aside after our first breakup, when he’d asked me to give our relationship a "try," I couldn’t let it go. So, I convinced him to meet me for drink. I was so nervous and I shook so violently that I nearly fell off my barstool. I knew what I had to do — and I knew I was going to fail miserably.

I told him I had been wrong, that I still loved him, that I didn’t expect anything, and that I was sure he would be happier with someone who was more like him, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t let him know that, after three-and-a-half years, I’d finally heard him. And sure enough, he looked me in eyes and told me that he had moved on, but he still loved me.

Today marks 528 days since I said those words. Adam and I have since gotten back together and we now live far away from where our relationship started, both physically and emotionally. It took a couple of months of long emails and disbelieving looks from Adam, but eventually, I was able to convince him that the new, more inclusive Christian faith I had found did not exclude him; and actually, when I had scraped away all the religious bullshit I’d been fed, the person who best exemplified the kind of partner I wanted to be with was him.

Getting back together also meant coming out to my parents about my new outlook on Christianity. Their initial response to this was to tell me that I was no longer one of them and that our relationship would fail. Their second response was to ask when we’d be getting married. Classic.

Even though Adam and I have now found common ground, that doesn’t mean our old problems are gone. I still get sideways glances over my need to do something meaningful on a Sunday morning or when I worry about how much we will let our future kids go to church with grandma and grandpa. We are still working towards taking a step forward and hope to get married soon — a fact that I have to continually relay to all of my friends and family back home.

While Adam and I are communicating more and doing our best to respect each other’s needs, the tension will never fully dissipate. Our differences still exist and will continue to shape the life we are building together. But we persevere, because what we gain from being together is greater than what we sacrifice by being apart.

In the end, the doctor-to-be was right again. For us, faith was a matter of semantics.

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