The Truth about Spiritual Compatibility

ErichAndBaileysEngagement-31

Not a day goes by when I don’t thank God for my husband Erich.

Not just because of all the side-splitting humor, support, and sweetness he brings to my life, but mostly because it’s horrifying for me to think of what life would be like had I married a different man — had I married a “spiritually compatible” man.

I understood spiritual compatibility as “almost identical agreement about important theological things” and “almost identical spiritual lives.” You talked the same talk and walked the same walk. Anything less was compromising.

And then I fell in love with a Catholic boy who fit none of the criteria I’d labelled “spiritual compatibility.”

I couldn’t even use evangelical buzzwords to cushion his Catholicism: he wasn’t “on fire for Jesus”; he didn’t have “a heart for [overt missional goal].” His spirituality didn’t fit inside any of the popular descriptors for an acceptable Christian life.

As for agreement on important theological things? He wasn’t even aware of most of the historic theological debates. He had simple opinions and didn’t spend his free time agonizing over the correct interpretation of this one obscure verse and its implications for theology as a whole.

And when he did have a fervent theological opinion, it was clearly wrong.

I didn’t want to say it aloud then (it meant I was compromising and we’d have to break up), but we were not spiritually compatible. 

When I wasn’t agonizing over obscure Bible verses, I was agonizing over this tension: I loved him deeply; we belonged together in ways I sensed but didn’t even see at the time; but we were not at all on the same page theologically or spiritually. In the most audacious, ill-advised move of my life, I stayed with him. I doubled down on making our relationship work, totally confident we’d clear these obstacles, totally afraid we wouldn’t.

If I was an outsider looking in and giving advice, I would have told myself to give up. I would have pointed out, like some did, that our relationship went beyond the acceptable limit of spiritual compromise.

Then a funny thing happened: I acknowledged my doubts, and every spiritual thing I held dear shattered.

I didn’t know that, that someone as confident and opinionated and Biblical as I could lose it all in the blink of two years. By the end of it, there was little left of my spirituality to be compatible with. 

But there was still Erich, and his love for me. There was still Erich, and his respect for me. There was still Erich, and his commitment to me. 

By this time we were married, foolishly enough. Married just in time for everything I held dear to go up in suspension. It was enough to destroy a marriage built on spiritual compatibility. 

But blessedly, our marriage wasn’t built on that. It was built on that love, respect, and commitment that could separate “what you believe” from “who you are” in just the right way. 

Instead of an angry husband jilted to find out he was stuck with a heathen for better or for worse, I had a calm husband who expressed implicit trust, respect, and space for this new chapter of my spiritual journey. His spirituality was not tied up in mine. My doubts did not shatter his faith. His faith did not require shattering my doubts. 

He listened. We discussed. He let me say horrible things about God and Christianity; he let me ask pointed questions about his own spirituality without any defensiveness or fear. He never held me accountable to what I no longer believed. He never pressured me to express my faith and spirituality in a particular way, much less his way.

He wanted me to find my own way.

That’s why I thank God every day for him — for not being spiritually compatible in the way I wanted, but for being spiritually compatible in the way I needed, in the way I’d sensed and not understood for all the years we’d been together. I thank God I didn’t marry the boys with whom I was spiritually compatible — the fundamentalist, Calvinist, opinionated, Bible-thumping ones more in line with my rigid theology and shallow spirituality, the ones who would have feared or opposed or damned my faith shift.

I’ve seen those marriages. I cannot fathom living in one.

Ironically, if I were to use the old definition of spiritual compatibility, Erich and I would be very much spiritually compatible now. That’s the funny thing about a loving, respectful, fearless Christianity: it’s really appealing.

He’s the one rare person in my life who agrees with me on every major thing and most of the minor things. We understand spirituality similarly, even if we practice it differently. And most importantly, we give each other the space and respect to work out our questions and beliefs in God’s own timing. We support and value each other even when we disagree, and disagree strongly.

I share our story not as a blueprint for those on the path to marriage. I don’t advocate finding and marrying someone totally different from you in case you end up changing your mind on everything. I don’t think it’s wise to ignore disagreements and their potential aspect on marriage and especially parenting.

I’ll be totally honest: it’s far less stressful when we agree than when we disagree.

But if I can distill our unique situation into any sort of universal advice, it’s this: spiritual compatibility matters less about what someone believes and more about how they can support, respect, and encourage you in your faith — even when you disagree.

Spiritual compatibility is important, but I would redefine it not as agreement but as encouragement. Does this particular person with their particular set of beliefs and morals support, respect, and encourage me in my spirituality?

Within that obviously falls important areas of agreement — I couldn’t marry a misogynist, or someone with wildly different ideas of how to raise our children, or someone who wouldn’t be able or willing to attend the same church together.

But that also allows for some important areas of disagreement. I see articles all the time asking if a Calvinist and an Arminian can marry, or a Catholic and a Protestant, or a Pentecostal and a cessationist, or even an agnostic and a Christian. As someone who has asked these questions, I think it’s important to acknowledge that people different from us can still benefit our spiritual lives, can still support us and encourage us and help us both because of and in spite of our disagreements. And it’s up to every individual couple to decide how much agreement is necessary before the support, respect, and encouragement are beneficial. 

It’s also important to acknowledge that not all differences are equal: marrying a “cafeteria” Catholic like I did is a completely different experience than marrying a strict Catholic, because there’s less room in strict Catholicism for butting out of people’s spiritual lives.

But even a specific faith tradition is no guaranteed success or failure: each person expresses their faith differently according to their personality and their spiritual priorities — which is why we all know couples with fundamentally the same beliefs who are still falling apart over “minor” differences.

The question shouldn’t be, can a Calvinist and an Arminian marry, can a Catholic and a Protestant marry, but can fully practice my faith with the wholehearted support and respect of my potential spouse, and can he fully practice his faith with my wholehearted support and respect?

That’s what spiritual compatibility really is.

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13 thoughts on “The Truth about Spiritual Compatibility

  1. heather

    I think a lot of the pressure to find a spouse with the exact same spirituality as you comes from people who would use your story as a cautionary tale. “See, she met someone different and then she started having THOUGHTS and even DOUBTS and now she has moved away from the strict path she was on.” I think these people are afraid that their faith won’t stand up to rigorous inspection even if they would never admit that even to themselves.

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    • Bailey Steger

      That’s a good point, especially if we’re talking about the fears surrounding Catholic/Protestant marriages or Christian/non-Christian marriages or [insert some sort of horrendous heretical faith tradition]/[“Biblical faith”].

      But I know many people are worried about more minor differences like Calvinist/Arminian or Pentecostal/cessationist — the “differences” wouldn’t necessarily be deemed heretical or dangerous, just not the correct interpretation of Scripture. Depending on who you talk to, of course.

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  2. Karen Wright

    This is so good. Thank you. Marrying someone spiritually compatible is often pointed to as a way to ensure marital bliss….but that doesn’t take into account the possibility that one partner might go through something like you did….to change is to be human. Dogma doesn’t leave room for this, unfortunately.

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  3. Rebekah

    Erich’s love and support for you is beautiful and exactly what marriage should be about. (And I’m sure it goes both ways, too!)

    This part particularly stood out to me. – “His spirituality was not tied up in mine. My doubts did not shatter his faith.” It’s so important that our relationship with Jesus is entirely our own and not based on others. We can and do learn a lot from others, but it’s no substitute.

    But it all seems to boil down to respect. Respect is such a vital facet of love.

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  4. Rae Poynter

    This pretty much sums up my husband’s and my dating/marriage, from people’s “concerns” about us in the early days to our faiths evolving together to being so happy we’re not in one of “those” marriages now. This message needs to heard. Thank you.

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  5. Corrie Elizabeth

    This is really encouraging! My boyfriend and I come from really different places spiritually, and sometimes I get frightened that our differences will be too large to overcome. I grew up homeschooled, constantly reading books on Christian living and apologetics; he grew up in a loosely religious home and developed his relationship with God on his own in high school. He experiences a simplicity and trust in his walk with God that I sometimes envy when I get consumed with Christian worldviews and doctrine! Other times, though, I wonder if we will ever really understand one another entirely.
    Anyway, it’s encouraging to hear how believing the exact same things or having the exact same spiritual experiences is not the most important thing in a relationship. I certainly find that so far we have been able to learn from and pray for and support one another, and I suppose that is the most important part.

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  6. Leigh McKay

    I’ve often thought about the power of instinct/intuition in choosing a partner. Of course, it shouldn’t always override reason and logic. I know plenty of girls who’ve stayed in unhealthy, destructive relationships far too long because it “just feels right.” But there’s something to be said for listening to your gut, even when it goes against what you always thought you’d want in a guy.

    My fiancee is the opposite of everything I thought I’d want: he’s loud, extraverted, emotional, spontaneous. When he first asked me out, I couldn’t imagine it working. But something in me made me think, you know– maybe this could be great.

    As time goes on, I keep noticing more ways in which we work together well. He gets me out of my angst spirals with his contagious joy, and I steady him when he’s overwhelmed with emotional stress. He encourages me to be generous, and I remind him to be cautious. His love for Jesus is exuberant and shining, and mine is quiet and reflective.

    I’m a better woman because of this man. Unquestionably. Maybe that would be true with another guy, one more similar to the scholarly mini-me I thought I’d date and marry. It’s hard to imagine, though.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Your last paragraph is literally my brain whenever I consider “what if” just for fun. :)

      Your relationship sounds like the real deal in every way, and you sound genuinely happy. I’m glad you went with your gut on this one. ;) I haven’t yet figured out a philosophy on when your intuition is correct (as it was in our relationships) or stupid (as it was in other relationships we’ve seen others justify). I just know that sometimes intuition is wiser than bare logic.

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