Some days, America in 2020 feels a lot like my marriage. Or rather, a lot like my marriage was at one point.
When my husband and I first began our mixed-faith journey about four years into our marriage, it wasn’t particularly pretty. So much of my time and emotional energy was focused on the utter abyss that had suddenly appeared between me and the person I had promised to share a life — an eternity — with. What we had begun in lockstep was suddenly a chaotic and painful maneuver, with toes being stepped on at every turn. Every interaction came back to the unbridgeable chasm dividing us. And that chasm only seemed to grow wider and wider.
To continue the way we were felt impossible, and yet we had promised to cleave together. But how could I cleave to someone who believed that the things I held sacred were untrue — even damaging? How could we be one when much of what I called good, he called bad, and vice versa? These were the very foundations of our relationship — the beliefs that brought us together in the first place; primary factors in our decision to come together in marriage.
And suddenly it was all gone.
The hard truth we had to face was, if we had met a few years after we did, we would not have chosen to marry each other. We were too different.
And yet, here we were, sharing a last name, sharing money, sharing a home, sharing a bed, sharing children. Our lives were intertwined in ways that simply could not be undone.
But those differences were real. Oh, man, were they real. I could feel them in the air between us — air so thick sometimes I thought I would choke on it.
We couldn’t continue as we were. That was the other truth. And it wasn’t an easy one to accept because it meant change. Hard change, painful change, no matter which road we took. It meant taking a step back from everyone and everything outside our marriage that was validating our hurt and our differing beliefs and instead turning toward each other for understanding. Because the more we insisted on tearing down or attacking one another’s beliefs, the more both of us sought understanding and validation elsewhere — in places that did nothing to strengthen our marriage or love for each other.
The change we had to make meant no longer staring at the Grand Canyon between us or focusing on every tiny obstacle that separated us. It meant no longer feeding our disdain for one another’s beliefs. It meant more compromise and fewer ultimatums. It meant no longer attempting to change one another or pinning our hopes on that change.
It meant validating one another. It meant taking a step back to listen — to listen without defensive walls up, without counter arguments at the ready. It required trying to adopt one another’s paradigm — to see things through each other’s filters. It meant no longer reducing each other’s beliefs to something easy to attack and dismiss, but rather acknowledging complexity and nuance.
It took admitting that we both looked at things through our personal filters — that neither of us was objective, that we both had biases. That we took the same information and interpreted it differently — and that other interpretations than our chosen ones were valid. That things weren’t quite as cut and dry as we had thought.
We didn’t have to agree. And we often don’t.
We didn’t have to come to the same conclusions. And we often don’t. We certainly don’t when the topic is religion.
But we appreciate each other’s integrity. We appreciate that we are operating from different value frameworks, that we weight information differently. We recognize that we are not enemies in a fight against each other but rather two good humans seeking to increase the good in the world in different ways. We realize that we have just as much to learn from one another as we have to offer one another.
We agree on so much. It’s easy to forget that when we focus on where we differ. When times arise where the gulf starts to loom between us, as it certainly does every now and then, I have to remind myself of the foundations we share, of the good we both seek, even when we disagree on how to achieve it.
Do we still have differences? Absolutely we do. We still disagree on much of what we disagreed on when this mixed-faith journey began. Those differences have changed very little.
But we have changed. We have made a conscious choice to do the hard work of building a life together — to focus on what unites us rather than what divides us.
We are better people for choosing each other despite those differences. We are better people for choosing to listen and understand when it would be easier to just seek validation among those who already agree with us.
My husband and I have learned — and are continuing to learn — that we can have a happy, fulfilling marriage even though we disagree on things which are absolutely fundamental parts of ourselves. I never would have believed I could be happily married to someone with such different beliefs than mine.
But I am. And it didn’t just happen without work from both of us. And it will continue to require work. This is not a lazy river where we can simply coast along together. Sometimes it can feel like swimming upstream or fighting a rip current, honestly. But you know the thing about rip currents? They are strongest and fastest near the surface. The deeper we go in our strivings to understand and love one another, the less we have to fight the current pulling us apart.
As I observe the divisions in our society every day, it has frequently seemed to me that America — and the world at large — face a situation similar to my mixed-faith marriage. We share this country. It’s the only one we’ve got, with all its strengths and weaknesses, with all its diversity of opinion. We, the people, are inseparably connected to one another — more than ever before, in the age of technology. And as citizens and dwellers within the country, the parts we play — be they ever so small — matter.
The way we interact with others matters. Every single interaction matters. On Facebook, at the grocery store, in our homes, in comment sections on news articles — they all matter. It is those small interactions that make up the fabric of our society.
So, in a world where you can unfollow and unfriend or troll and tell-off those who vote differently than you, choose instead to learn from them. Choose to assume the best of people’s motives rather than the worst. Choose to lean in and understand — not with the intent to fire back with your best argument or to poke holes in theirs but simply for understanding’s sake. For humanity’s sake.
Go deeper, where the current pulling you apart from your fellow humans isn’t so strong.
Shed the labels — the inclination to divide and distance — and seek the foundations you share. I promise they exist, and they are more substantial than you might think.
It might feel good for a moment to make someone feel small and stupid for their views and to get validation from similarly minded people as you, but in reality, it engrains the belittled person further in their beliefs. It is counterproductive.
You don’t have to agree with people, but there is significant value in being able to articulate their position in the strongest way possible instead of reducing their views and arguments to something simplistic and easily assailable, reducing them to straw men.
If my husband and I can choose each other and love each other in our differences, can you not repair a bridge with a friend you disagree with on things that matter dearly to you? Can you not have a sincerely charitable dialogue with someone who sits on the opposite side of the political spectrum from you and see — really see — why they feel so strongly about the things they do?
Perhaps they won’t respond well to your attempt. They may well lash out. We’ve created a world where people are constantly on the defensive, so it’s bound to happen sometimes. You can’t control how others engage with you, but you can control how you engage with them. As you conscientiously engage with others, you welcome their conscientious response. And in this way, interaction by interaction, we can change the tone of society. We can model and revive the dying language of civil discourse.
There is nothing to lose, but there is so much to be gained on both a personal and a societal level.
Martha Keyes is an author of historical fiction who lives with her husband and two children in Utah County.