Down the rabbit hole of über-Christian marriage advice: Do I really have to be spiritual to have a strong connection to my partner?

Guest post by Zoë
Etsy seller CosmicLibrary says, “This unusual book has a wonderfully skewed view on love and matrimony – it was authored by a reverend well over 100 years ago.”

Wedding porn is fun. I like it. But it’s everywhere, and you know what I crave more of? Marriage advice. I want to read inspiring things about how to have a happy relationship.

Relationships are something I’m interested in, and I like to think about mine. And it makes me feel appreciative of my partner. But, come to find out, a lot of marriage and relationship advice is religious — which is one thing I am not.

I started a Pinterest board called “Marriage” to accompany my wedding board (okay, boards, but who’s counting?). In my quest, I found The Happy Wives Club. I bought her book. I happily read stories about couples who had been married for decades and shared advice. I basked in the positive view of marriage, since so often the cultural narrative is like “Yeah, it’s the ball and chain, you’re going to be miserable!” And then she got down to distilling her principles for a happy marriage, and ends up saying “I’ve never met an atheist with a happy personal life.” Essentially, you have to be (a certain kind of) Christian to have a happy marriage. Ouch.

I also found this wedding magazine called Inspire Weddings and Marriage. It’s the only wedding magazine I’ve found that also covers the marriage after the party. I think it must be a Southern thing, and I couldn’t find their website, just an outdated Facebook page, but it’s FULL of content and gives advice on how to have a happy marriage, too, which I love. The one problem I have with it is that it’s exceedingly religious. Like it contains Bible quotes instead of ads, casual references to the “Christ-centered” marriage, and stories of couples who “courted” instead of dating. Unlike Happy Wives Club, it doesn’t explicitly say that good marriages are reserved for Christians, but it’s hard not to get the message that The Way to have a happy marriage is by “focusing on Christ.”

Even the seemingly secular content has some sort of religious background. The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts was interesting and I found it to be a helpful mental exercise. But guess what? The author is a pastor, and that reflects in at least some of his writing. A lot of similarly touted relationship books are the same.

And then there’s the SUPER-DUPER-ULTRA-CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIAN content that tells readers to abstain from sex until marriage and be a helpmate to one’s husband. I read that too. But I won’t get into it here.

My partner and I are atheists, so I feel a little confused when some of this stuff resonates with me. I’ve been reading it because I enjoy reading things that make me think about our relationship and how to keep it strong. But all of it is supposed to be “Christ-centered.” Do I really have to be a Christian or otherwise spiritual to have a strong connection to my partner? Do I have to pray to a deity in order to be a good wife and build up my husband? Should I convert in order to save my marriage!? (Okay, I’m exaggerating.)

I continue to read such things. I just tune out the bits I don’t like that are based on religion. So “submit to your husband” is reinterpreted as something like “trust your partner’s judgment.” Am I betraying my beliefs by continuing to read? Can I just ignore the central message of all this stuff?

Hopefully it’s obvious that I’m not judging those who are deeply Christian. That’s great. Obviously I find value in some of those messages, even if I don’t buy the underlying principle of God existing. Otherwise I wouldn’t get my relationship advice fix from those sources.

I understand that there is secular marriage advice, which is similar advice with the religion left out. And yes, atheism is lack of belief, so it makes sense that atheist marriage advice would just be marriage advice without religion. But I feel like there’s room for advice specific to non-religious folks. Like how to build community. Or where find married couple role models. Or how get free/cheap marriage counseling without going through a church.

Anyone know of atheist marriage books, blogs, etc? Any other thoughts about religion or the lack there-of and marriage advice?

Comments on Down the rabbit hole of über-Christian marriage advice: Do I really have to be spiritual to have a strong connection to my partner?

  1. So my husband and I are both catholic, we send our kids to a catholic school. I’m currently pg with our 5th one. From the outside, we look pretty Catholic. I read all those books too. A lot of them are filled with crap. We have awesome friends that are atheists, and have a great marriage. We have friends who are pagans. Not a big deal. I think most of marriage is just being on the same page, or at least finding someone that will deal with your shit. And I mean that in a good way. My relationship with my husband is vastly different than my sister and her husband. You should want to make the other person happy but not if it leaves you miserable. I would continue to read whatever you find, leave out the parts that are obviously crazy (like the book that said Mary was a virgin her whole life because since she had been impregnated by God, Joseph could never give her an orgasm. Yeah, people believe and print that shit). Take the good stuff.

  2. This is a really silly answer to this question, but have you ever read Plutarch’s Advice on Marriage? It’s extremely… ahem… patriarchal, but you know, it’s from 100 AD. A very small percentage of it is rather sweet. Mostly it’s come up at work (I work at a university where people read this nonsense) because it’s totally hilarious in places.

    (I in no way endorse any of this advice, it was just the first thing that popped into my head… Please listen to other sensible commentors)

  3. THIS! “Like how to build community. Or where find married couple role models. Or how get free/cheap marriage counseling without going through a church.”

    Even though I know I do not believe in God as defined by Christianity, I find myself missing the community built around it, to the point where I’ve considered going to church just for that.

    I will say, I found that marriage counseling without going through a church = couples therapy (in a traditional counseling / therapy setting). I’d suggest that if you are fortunate enough to work for a company with EAP (employee assistance programs), often times they will include at least one session of phone or in person counseling, which can be used for couples therapy (ie pre-marital counseling)

    • Last year I accessed EAP and had 3 sessions for couples therapy which was IMMENSELY helpful for us understanding each other and communication better. I highly endorse it!

  4. My husband and I are Christian, and I agree that it has a lot to do with the success of our relationship, because we both believe in something bigger than us that gives us a direction and calling in life.

    Maybe what you can take away from all of those Christian authors is that couples succeed when they have a common goal or calling that they build their relationships
    around, and a strong support base of like minded people surrounding them. It’s a great foundation for a marriage, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Christian God, another deity, a magic purple space elephant or just a simple life mission or passion like alleviating poverty or doing crochet together… having a common thread that’s bigger than each other to share with each other is important to many couples.

    • I second this. I think the key to most Christian marriage advice is ‘do not be self-centered’, if you want all spiritual reference taken out. Personally, I do believe that the spiritual stuff is helpful and meaningful, but I think that if I were an atheist, this would be my main take-away message:

      ~ Do not be self-centered, instead, focus on the other person. ~ Focus on giving instead of taking. ~

      There’s this whole analogy that Christ gave himself for mankind, and that you are to do the same in marriage (you must have come across it), but really, it makes sense that giving instead of taking is a way to be happy, especially if both partners do this.
      I also agree with Carmen that there is a plus for church-going people in that it provides a community of like-minded people that can lend support.

  5. When my husband and I went to couple’s counseling, our therapist suggested ‘Wired for Love: How Understanding your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help Defuse Conflict and Build A Secure Relationship” by Stan Tatkin. It is based on the science of attachment theory, and if I recall correctly, includes no religious information whatsoever. I found it to be very useful and practical. The best parts were the couple examples throughout the book which illustrated in real-life terms the very science-y information the author was trying to impart.

    Also, our couples therapist, Patti Henry, wrote a book herself called “The Emotionally Unavailable Man.” Despite the very accusatory-sounding title, it is an excellent book which talks mostly about men and how they process emotions but also discusses how men and women relate. It is not a marriage book per se but it is very enlightening. I devoured it in a couple of days and found that I was able to have more compassion and understanding for not just my partner, but men in general. No religious overtones in this one either, if I remember correctly.
    Lastly, I second Brene Brown’s work!
    Good luck! 🙂

  6. I’m probably just going to talk myself in a circle here, but here it goes.

    When I met my husband, he was Christian and I was Atheist, but searching for something. I since have been saved, baptized, yada yada, all that good stuff. Comparing my previous relationships to this Christ based one, yes, I have a much deeper connection, I trust him more, I’m not at all afraid to be my true self around him. But, who is to say if it’s because it’s a relationship with Christ at the center or because I finally met the person I’m meant to be with?

    To say that they’ve never met an Atheist who has a happy personal life, I think is going rather far. No one is happy 100% of the time, to expect that from anyone is absurd. I think as a Christian it’s a little easier to say “okay, things are sucky now, but they’ll get better eventually,” but Atheists can do that too. Otherwise 100% of suicides would be Atheists and 0% would be Christians and that’s just not the case.

    We did premarital counseling with our pastor, and yes, we did The 5 Love Languages, and it was an Aha moment for me, but at the same time, it’s not the only thing that has influenced our marriage. I think we all pick up bits and pieces from marriages that we admire, regardless of religion, and use those to format what works for us as a couple.

    • Not intending this comment to cause any upset feelings.
      My sister gave me a copy of the 5 Love Languages when it was obvious I was becoming serious about my relationship with my now husband. She told me that if she had read it while she was engaged to a loser, she would have left sooner, or gotten some sort of counseling. She didn’t realize until it was too late that she just wasn’t fulfilled in that relationship, and she didn’t want her young kid sister to fall to the same fate.
      I read it, but I thought it was complete bunk. The writing felt really patronizing, and put something ephemeral in very concrete terms, especially when it came to the love quizzes included in the book. My husband read it too, and he also didn’t care for it.
      I guess my point is, that the book is very popular, but it just wasn’t for us.

      • And it’s totally your right to feel that way! It just struck a chord with me because I had never thought that people loved differently than others, I had always just assumed love is love is love and that’s it. Like I said, philosophy for marriage comes from different places for everyone and I think we all pick and chose what works or doesn’t work for us.

  7. I find some of the comments on this really offensive. I’m not a practising Christian but my partner is and he is the sweetest, kindest most generous man you would ever meet! I have been welcomed into his parish with open arms. When things have gone terribly wrong, they have shown far more love, support and compassion than most of our atheist friends. Christians are as entitled to as much of an opinion as an atheist and I really don’t dig the idea that all Christians are closed off and judgemental – because it’s categorically NOT the case! It’s totally not okay to be dismissive of someone’s thoughts purely on the basis of whether or not they have faith. It seems sometimes like atheists feel they have a free pass to say what they like against religion and I really don’t get why! I know of atheists who spend their time ‘trolling’ religious groups online and by doing so, they are doing exactly what they accuse the religious parties of doing! Everyone should just be a little more accepting and a lot more tolerant!

    BUT to the point at hand:
    I kind of feel that one of the issues here, is that until recently, marriage has been intricately connected to religion for most. For a long time churches were the dominant place to have a ceremony and so all the accumulated advice comes from sources connected to those. Most of the religion-based advice I’ve seen has been pretty simple, and not really that much about God: Treat others well. Don’t be selfish. Do great things in a small way.

    I’ve read ‘I love you but I’m not in love with you‘ by Andrew G Marshall multiple times. It’s more for if your relationship is really struggling than general marriage advice, but it’s worth a read if you feel communication is an issue. Or just watch PS I Love You. Every time I’m mad at my partner and I watch that film I end up blubbing in his arms that I never want to be apart from him! A fantastic reality check!!

  8. This is a bit tangential to the main question, but I find it fairly easy to separate Jesus as a person from Christ the religious figure.

    I generally really like Jesus’ philosophy. (But not everything in the old testament.) He was a pacifist, valued the poor and oppressed, preached love above all else. Love and kindness are definitely ideas I value, in marriage and everywhere. Was he God incarnate? I don’t know, and don’t find the question very useful to explore. (Hi, I’m agnostic and humanist!)

    So while I don’t have much reference (I don’t think I’ve ever read a self-help book) if it’s mentioned in passing like “Be like Christ, and easily forgive,” I can read that and agree with the message, even if I’m thinking “Yeah, Jesus of Nazareth, the middle eastern philosopher” not actually God himself. I think I can like that advice without the religion, as long I’m not distracted by the religion or saturated by it

  9. I actually am Christian (ish) and still don’t really like reading a lot of overtly religious marriage advice. I certainly don’t subscribe to values like “you must abstain from sex until marriage” (although personally, I’m uncomfortable having sex unless I’m in a fairly committed/long-term-potential relationship, but I don’t judge others who have different sexual needs and desires), or the traditional gender roles stuff. So I definitely agree that there’s room for some secular/non-religious marriage advice, because certainly non-religious folks (or non-Christian religious folks, for that matter) are also perfectly capable of having happy, healthy partnerships, and they need advice and encouragement and support just like everyone else.

    At the same time, I think this is a side effect of the degree to which marriage as a word and concept has taken on a religious sheen. I don’t know the history, and I know many, many cultures had marriage-equivalent partnerships, many of which weren’t explicitly religious, but I think in modern times, marriage *is* something that has a bit of religious baggage to it. We can definitely argue about whether this is *right* (my personal belief is that religion should pretty much stay out of anything that isn’t a purely personal matter of spirituality), but I think it *is*.

    Of course, one problem with being progressive is that we tend to be fairly welcoming and accepting of a lot of different types of relationship models, sexualities, and overall method of living. So unlike religious people who tout marriage as the be-all-end-all of relationships, progressives, which includes many non-religious folks, tend to be spreading their advice thinner by focusing on all the different ways one can be, whether it’s marriage, singlehood, long-term non-marriage partners, polyamory, short-term partners, etc.

    Which is to say, I think a lot of this type of advice can be found in those books and articles, even if they don’t seem to be related. A lot of literature focusing on, for example, cohabitation and long-term dating, tend to also be very relatable and valuable for married couples. Poly literature is also often helpful even for mono couples – the concepts of trust, communication, and respect are not exclusive to poly people. So maybe it’s out there, just going by a different label.

  10. My husband and I jumped into marriage counseling within months of being married. We were having some fights that left both of us extremely uncomfortable and we wanted to be pro-active and get a handle on our conflict style.
    It was a-fucking-mazing. We are 123234094350293% better for it. We went SEVEN times (that’s it!) and were able to conquer some seriously tough stuff (severe mental illness of a parent, parent living with us, kicking parent out) with our new fangled conflict management.

    One of the things we were encouraged to read was

    The author is a PhD clinical psychologist who followed a ton of couples over many decades. He mentions religion, but only in as far as it might be soothing to a person or a source of conflict. It’s non-religous and probably the least sexist of the marriage books that I have read.
    There’s still a lot of men are mostly this way/women are mostly this way. They try to be super clear about making generalizations and how they might not apply and to look closer at your style then at the gender being discussed. I can forgive it since it seems like they really needed to use that language to give the wider audience context/brevity.

    It addresses communication styles, common breakdowns and other very interesting thing. It helped me a lot. My husband didn’t read it (he has a tough time with the attention span needed for books), but he read all of my highlighted passages and would discuss things with me as I read them.

  11. Have you checked out the Gottman Institute’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work? While Gottman is Jewish, it is not remotely religious and is, instead, based on scientific findings. I found the book to be a fascinating read that helped open my eyes to my interactions with my partner.

    As to the main question, of course anyone of pretty much any religious persuasion will insist that only people who do things their way will be happy/fulfilled/successful. But no, I don’t think you need to be Christian or religious or what have you to be a happy person or to have a successful marriage.

  12. My ex was religious, and I’m a card-carrying atheist, and one of the reasons things went so bad is because he couldn’t reconcile his religious beliefs with common sense. He saw himself as moral, no matter what he did because he was religious, and saw that moral superiority everywhere. He did some pretty terrible things when we were together, but always thought he was a good person because of religion. Consequently, he saw his morality as superior to mine, because it had a divine basis.

    Now I’m with a fellow atheist, and we both get our morality from… well, morality. We both treat each other well and respect each other profoundly because we think it’s right, and be cause we love each other and… because it’s just the way to have a relationship! I’m way more connected to him than I ever was with my ex, because we both see morality as morality, and something separate from faith or spirituality. We do what’s right because it’s right, and not because we believe there’s someone looking over our shoulder. We also know that if we screw up, we don’t get immediate eternal forgiveness, and that if you hurt someone, you have a real person to answer to, to whom you did wrong.

  13. So I’m Unitarian Universalist, which is a faith that welcomes athesists, humanists, pagans, Buddists, Jews, Christians, Muslims etc. The one thing that I felt that I can add to this conversation is that one thing we talk about in my church (local church) is about your tolerance for the G word (God) in reading about spiritual topics. I asked my Reverand for books that would help me reflect when going through a job transition and his first question was “What’s your tolerance for reading language about God? If you can read it and take what you want from it, I can recommend these authors. If you really have no tolerance for it, you can check out these other authors.”

    What I wanted to say is that it is possible to read books with religious content without really caring about religion. There are books written from different perspectives. Also it’s normal to feel some spiritual or philosophical tugs when going through a life transition. I started going to UU church because my husband and I are trying to start a family. I would encourage you to read broadly across different traditions. You might also look at That Nicht Hanh’s (probably spelling his name wrong) book on love and compassion. I enjoyed reading it before my own wedding. Good luck!

  14. Zoe, I have just the website for you. Check out A Practical Wedding’s blog ( I got married a year ago, but stay subscribed to it because I am consistently blown away by the insightful advice it has about marriage, not just weddings. I’m a conservative Christian who gets tired of hearing the same religious relationship advice over and over again. A Practical Wedding is secular and can sometimes be *too* open-minded for my taste, but it still rings true.

  15. My husband and I have been married for 17 years. I consider myself a spiritual person, a person of faith that tends to lean more towards Christianity than any other faith. However, I like to supplement my faith with teachings from other faiths. This is something my marriage taught me.

    I think what happens is that people aren’t talking to each other. It’s hard and scary sometimes to communicate because it means you both have to take a look at some hard truths. But if you talk, and do it in a loving and respectful manner, you both grow and your marriage gets stronger.

    I encourage everybody to go to marriage counseling. We did it, and not because our marriage was failing, but because we were young when we got married and just needed to air some greivances. Our therapist taught us how to talk to each other about the hard stuff. But man, am I glad we went to counseling! I love my husband. We drive each other nuts. We make each other laugh. We take care of each other.

    I wish I could explain it more. I do think our recognition that neither of us wants kids helps too. Having kids adds another level of stress and anxiety to a relationship. And if both partners aren’t sure they it’s what they want it’s going to hurt. But then I’d say that about buying a home, dealing with finances and debt. It just all comes down to communication.

  16. I am Pinning this article so I can go through the comments ad-nauseum later. I just wanted to throw out there that I am *so glad* I am not the only non-Christian who is into those Christian marriage/housewife blogs. I don’t know what it is about them that draws people in!

  17. As a committed evangelical Christian, I must say to have a successful and happy marriage (there is a difference), you need to share the same faith, and commitment to that faith. When you hit those difficult life events – and you will – the” for better or for worse” tests your faith in your relationship and your god (whether your god is Buddha, Mo, or as my neighbor claims, Bill Gates).
    I guess you need to search within yourself and find out what is the most important, driving force in your life. If it is Christ, then it would be less than optimal to be married to a non-Christian. Do I know be who are? Yes. And they usually will tell you it is a struggle, especially for the one committed to their religious belief.

  18. While these books aren’t overtly “marriage advice” I really recommend both fantasy series by Laurell K. Hamilton. The author herself has done a lot of relationship soul searching, including divorce and remarriage and embracing polyamory. Her characters in her books struggle with everything normal relationships struggle with (plus vampires, faerie kings, the US military, tabloid media…) Her Anita Blake series and Merry Gentry series are getting quite long now, but if you like to settle in for fantasy, mystery, horror, sex/romance, then the series are both entertaining and informative.
    If you don’t have the patience for the series, or aren’t so much in to fantasy, she does write some short personal essays on her blog.

  19. The concepts and articles at I’m finding very helpful. A bit love-languages like, focussing more on actually what people are in relationships FOR rather than just feeling loved – so I think it’s a deeper perspective. Some good conflict resolution strategies, but he is more focussed on helping people stay in love.

    He does write in a secular manner although I find some of his values quite conservative (whaddayamean, I can’t feel platonic love for an opposite-sex friend without risking an affair?). So as with anything YMMV in places.
    Well and truly worth reading. And free.

  20. When my husband and I were married we specifically sought out a secular ceremony as well as officiant . I grew up believing that being un-equally yoked was a death sentence for a marriage. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that term it means that one partner is Christian while the other isn’t. The Bible speaks about this as having two bulls pulling a wagon. One is mal-nourished and the other is strong and well fed- they cannot pull the cart equally because the yokes will not be at the same height/length; hence un-equally yoked.

    But when I met my husband I was beginning a different path. One of open-mindedness that I previously not traveled. My family was skeptical and tried of a few occasions to find out what I plan to do when my children want to know why Daddy doesn’t go to church, etc. My responses to that became the following.

    “We have both decided that we want our children to have an open mind about these things. We want them to choose their own paths in life and by having a diverse belief system we feel they can best decide that. I will probably bring my children to church and if they want to stay home we will have a conversation about why and see what sort of reasoning they have behind it.”

    My husband isn’t atheist; but Agnostic. So he believes there is a God he just is unsure of what that means exactly. So some day our children will ask him what that means and have the opportunity to make their own decision on what that means. I find that very exciting!!!!

    Some other things I’ve noticed is how we handle problems. Of course we don’t pray together, but my husband doesn’t mind that I do, we prayed before our wedding and asked my father to pray before our meal for the reception. He respects that my faith is strong and what that means for my personality and values. I also respect his search for the truth and knowledge. His mind is very logical and scientific, something I struggle with. I think this makes us stronger in our relationship.

  21. “Am I betraying my beliefs by continuing to read? Can I just ignore the central message of all this stuff?”
    i struggle with that too, a lot. so i decided, though i am a (very liberal) christian, that i have to stay way clear of evangelical content because i get very angry very soon about…no, not going there. it´s just bad for my mojo.

    for non-christian reads:
    i liked elizabeth gilberts novel on marriage, “committed“. also SARK has some lovely insights about relationships, and i second gretchen rubin – both “the happiness project” and “happier at home“. and offbeat home / families of course… 🙂

    i try to go through the world with open eyes and soak up as much advice as i can from people that inspire me – for example the couple i babysat for when i was in my early twenties is to this day my go to reference when it comes to “marriage hygiene”, so to speak. they did not care about how their home looked, what their schedules demanded (three kids, both parents work), or about the finances, twice a week they had a babysitter over and went out together. they are two very different people, fighting a lot, who love each other deeply and it shows…

  22. Not just for marriage, but for understanding love and relationship patterns, read: A General Theory of Love; The Dance of Anger.

    Also, I second Committed for thinking about marriage itself.

    Community support that is not spiritual could be found at a contemporary Zen center. Ours even has Inquiry and a “clearness committee”–two ways to get support with something you are struggling with. Neither gives you advice or answers but actually helps you process and deepen your questioning. It’s pretty amazing.

  23. I am a Christian, and I get upset when people are not honest about marriage. When I got married, all I heard was how wonderful marriage was. No one was willing to admit that marriage is hard, and while you will have great days, there will also be days when you want to question your sanity and be very upset with your spouse. Also, as a Christian, the answer I seem to get the most when problems do arise is “Pray.” But marriage takes action and commitment, and most importantly, communication! I think no matter what your beliefs are, if you aren’t willing to communicate and be honest with not only your spouse but also yourself then your marriage will not survive. I know you are asking for advice/ blogs/ books that aren’t Christian, but I have just started writing a blog about marriage…the ups and downs as well as advice. I do quote the Bible , but I am not saying a reader has to be Christian to have a successful marriage and also quote several other religions. Feel free to check it out: (Again, this is a very new blog, but I plan on tackling hard issues: counseling, family, etc)

  24. Ok, so I’m late commenting. But I want to add a resource for couples: Dan Savage. He writes a column and does a podcast. 25 years ago, it was a sex advice column, but honestly, now, it’s relationship advice, from how to come out to your parents, to balancing a relationship when you have young children, to what to do when your sex life is dwindling.

    His advice is definitely secular. You will notice many unconventional (offbeat?) pieces of advice. He is kink- and poly friendly. He coined the term “monogamish” for couples who are mainly monogamous–monogamous on a day-to-day level, but occasionally leave room to stray under certain circumstances. He invented the concept of being “good, giving, and game”–sexually open with your partner.

    He is also sort of conservative in some ways! Dan thinks it’s ok to stay in a loveless marriage so you can remain in the same house as your young children–to prioritize your relationship with your kids for awhile over your love life. Dan advocates sucking it up and putting up with things that annoy you about your partner. He has a great little Youtube video about his concept for the Price of Admission:

    Overall, I think that growing up on Dan Savage has helped my marriage with my husband. We are more understanding of one another and cut each other slack. We are less afraid to bring up tough subjects.

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