Ask Dr. V, Couples and Religion

Venus Nicolino holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Her column addresses Love, Life and Relationships.

Dear Dr V,

My husband and I are expecting our first child. Along with all the stress and excitement, a new issue has come up for us: religion. He’s Jewish and my family’s Presbyterian, I’m more into spirituality than organized religion. It’s never been an issue or even something we discussed before, but now that there’s a baby coming into the picture, we’re disagreeing over what we will teach our child to believe.

My husband firmly wants him to have a “Jewish upbringing,” while I would like a more holistic approach. I don’t want this to become a permanent wedge between us; he’s a wonderful, caring, intelligent man but we keep locking horns over this issue. What do you think?

Dear Reader,

Though this is certainly a serious issue that you and your husband need to resolve before too long, I do want to first offer my sincere congratulations on your pregnancy and the upcoming birth of your first child. Though there will be physical, emotional and mental stress, and possibly other issues that arise in your relationship as a result of your shared metamorphoses into parents, try always to remember that you have been blessed with a sacred state of being, and regardless of what you, your husband or anyone believes, you are a walking, breathing miracle. Your body is literally building another human being inside you, using ancient knowledge carried in a very deep part of you to do so. I defy anyone not to see the wonder in such a thing.

This being said, let’s look at the issue at hand. If you think about it, the disagreement between you and your husband is a microcosmic version of what many of the worst wars in human history have been fought over: religion. I mentioned in an answer to another question a few months back that the reason people get so defensive, and even violent, when they feel their religious or political beliefs come under attack could be because what in essence is being said is, “Your understanding of the world is invalid, and you, by extension, are invalid.” Add to this all the social and emotional baggage we often attach to religion (many people use it as their primary identifier) and you have a perfect storm of volatile sensitivity. I’m sure it must be upsetting for both you and your husband to suddenly perceive these most inner, central parts of yourselves as being under attack from the one person in the world you should feel unconditionally safe and at peace with.

I think the best way forward is to open an ongoing dialogue with your husband on the topic. And I’d say if you’re really going to get to any kind of resolution, not only would you, of course, need to be patient and empathetic with each other, but also I think the conversation will need to stray into tangents here and there. What I mean by this is since you are ultimately discussing what the spiritual beliefs of your household will be, you will have to discuss your spiritual beliefs. I know this sounds redundant, but if in your discussions you are simply trying to find ways of placating each other or soothing troubled feelings, rather than addressing the underlying cause of the conflict between you two, you are simply dealing with the indicators of, and not the actual issue.

To borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams, you and your husband need to discuss Life, the Universe and Everything. You need to really share with each other what it is you think exists in the spaces between the material world and the world of our mind. What is it that’s truly happening to us when we dream? What does it mean to be alive? And, of course, everybody’s two top favorites, what is consciousness, and what happens after we die?

Needless to say, you’re not supposed to get the ultimate answers to these questions themselves in your conversations (if you do let me know because there’s a few billion of us who are waiting with baited breath), but you should hopefully be able to figure out what your answers are. And I have a feeling they may overlap more than you think.

You may also want to mention to your husband that it is possible for your child to be aware of his or her Jewish heritage, without the exclusion of you teaching your own beliefs to your child. I think what I’m ultimately getting at here is that there is no need to subject yourselves to a false duality, which is to say, “God is either this, or it’s that. But there’s no way it can be this and that.” Who are human beings to say what God is and isn’t capable of? Isn’t the expression “all things to all people?”

Despite history and the headlines, I don’t think, at their core, most religions are that different from each other in what they teach: Love God, Love each other. (Fundamentalism notwithstanding). If perhaps you can both learn to view any religion as simply a system of place-holding names and symbols for something far beyond the grasp of our finite, primate brains, you will not only find the accord and unity you seek in determining the spiritual education of your child, you will hopefully be able to raise an open-minded, spiritually aware human being, and as far as I’m concerned, the world is in constant need of as many people like that as we can get.

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