When Julie Woodward married her husband, Drew they were both more or less agnostic. But when a close friend's health was debilitated by multiple sclerosis, Woodward found herself drawn to the spiritual life. "I began to realize that there's a lot more going on than what's on the surface," says the 46-year-old business owner in Williamston, Michigan. She began practicing yoga, meditating, changing her diet, and using visualization and natural remedies for healing and wellness. "I came to believe that we're all one, and that God exists around us at all times," she says. When her friend died 15 years ago, Woodward found herself yearning for someone with whom she could share her spiritual journey: "I remember thinking I couldn't be alone with all the thoughts and questions I was having," she says.
But Woodward's husband wasn't open to hearing about her experiences. "He blew me off," she says. "Eventually, I learned to be quiet about it." And as she became more tuned in to her beliefs, Woodward became aware of long-standing tensions. "He'd come home at night and turn the TV on and life off," she says. "More and more the gap widened, until it got to the point where I didn't ever want the TV on, and that's all he wanted."
When she began hosting occasional spiritual retreats in her home, her husband started avoiding her. When, two years ago, Woodward decided to open a business dedicated to healing arts and spirituality, she thought the separation between her "stuff" and her home would please her husband, but instead he grew more upset and seemed to feel threatened by the changes. About six months later, the couple separated, and though they have no immediate plans to divorce, Woodward says she's not sure they'll be able to work through their differences: "Every day I experience something that validates everything I believe, and I don't want to be with somebody I can't share that joy with," she says.
Variations on this theme are common in the yoga community, where people often find themselves changing in ways that they may never have signed up for—and that their partner isn't interested in or feels threatened by. While we're all well schooled in accepting differences of opinion to make a relationship work, it seems a lot easier to work through a disagreement about what color to paint a bedroom than to come to terms with divergent spiritual beliefs. You might wonder: Can a relationship weather differences that seem so, well, fundamental?
Accept Yourself First
Spiritual teachers say the answer is yes—if you fully embrace the practice of acceptance. "The fundamental issue is acceptance of oneself," says Richard Miller, a yoga teacher, licensed clinical psychologist, and marriage and family therapist who's been in practice since 1971. He suggests asking: Do I really accept my partner? Do I really accept myself as I am? "The degree that you have not fully welcomed all that you are is the same degree to which you won't be able to welcome your partner," he says.
When you're annoyed that your partner isn't interested in your latest yoga revelation, or upset that he's heading down a spiritual path that doesn't appeal to you, focus on accepting him as he is, Miller says, instead of judging him or needing his behavior to change. To do that, it helps to practice acceptance of yourself and the issues you bring to the situation.
"A lot of couples confuse real love and intimacy with agreement," Miller says. "What I help them understand is that you can love somebody and really accept them without always agreeing with them. If there's some place I'm holding on—saying 'I love you, but I'll love you more if you meditate with me'—that's a qualified love. If I set my partner free to be who he or she is, I'm setting myself free."
While you might admit to yourself that it is unrealistic and unfair to expect your partner to walk the same path you do, you may still think basic understanding and support should be a given. Of course that would be ideal. But your partner may be experiencing a wave of negativity and reacting to your spiritual development with resistance, anger, or even ridicule.
Negative reactions often stem from fear and insecurity, says George Taylor, a marriage and family therapist and Buddhist meditator who leads workshops for couples with his wife, Debra Chamberlain-Taylor. "What happens a lot is that people say, 'You're not like me; therefore I don't feel safe.'"
If you probe that unsafe feeling, you may find that the underlying cause stems from a fear of being abandoned or not being loved. Your choice of a new spiritual path may look to your partner like a decision to move away from the common ground you've been sharing. If you're wildly excited about a new spiritual journey, your partner might even worry that your new interest will replace the relationship—or that the newly spiritual you will want a partner who's more knowledgeable or interested.
Cyndi Lee, the founder of OM Yoga in New York City and a practitioner of yoga for more than 30 years, suggests that sometimes, when embarking on a new spiritual path, we may come on a bit too strong. In fact, she adds, when we become passionate about anything, we may run the risk of intimidating—or just plain annoying—our partner.
"My current passion is knitting, and my husband has limited interest in talking about it," she says. "I think if all I did was talk about knitting, or expected him to go to yarn stores with me, we'd have a problem!" (And yes, says Taylor, when you're talking about relationship issues, a hobby like knitting is comparable to something as personal and soulful as a spiritual belief. An issue is an issue; the difference is in how we react to it.)
With a little perspective, it's easy to see that a new spiritual practice might feel threatening to an "old" partner. But if you take the time to nurture the relationship and do things you both enjoy, you can help your partner feel more secure. Cement what you do have in common, and your partner probably won't worry when you head off in an unfamiliar direction. Your partner may even change his mind and decide to join you.
Being honest and upfront with your partner can also allay fears. "It's critical to keep communication open, clean, and clear, so you're continually sharing with your partner where you are and what's going on, to help him or her feel some sense of security and safety," Miller says.
And remember: It's not fair to dictate how your partner supports you or to get angry if you don't feel supported in that specific way, Taylor says. "If you think about it, the nonbeliever then has only one choice, when in fact there are lots of ways you can get support from your partner."
A final thing to keep in mind is that your partner's resistance or negativity isn't one-sided. "People have such a hard time realizing that there's a systemic relationship between all these issues," Taylor says. "It's not just that one partner is resistant—the other is also playing a role in the problem."
With some couples, a partner might use religious or spiritual issues to create a sense of separation, because he or she is afraid of intimacy, Taylor says. In family therapy, this is called triangulation. "You have an unsolvable problem 'outside' the relationship that you focus all your attention on—drinking, working too much, sick kid, aging parent, religious beliefs—and there's no energy left for the relationship." Such a situation takes away the possibility for intimacy, Taylor asserts.
In other partnerships, one person will assume a teacherlike role and communicate the message that "if you just believed like me, or acted like me, then the relationship would really work," Taylor says. "There are many forms of teacher-student dynamics, and they mostly lead to distance and trouble."
So if you're interested in making your relationship work, try examining how your actions and emotions contribute to the dynamic. "It's like a biosystem," Taylor says. "You can't add more rain without having a change downstream."
Practice Your Relationship
Of course, spirituality is all about union; it isn't meant to be a dividing force. If you feel your practice is becoming the source of friction in your relationship, you might want to examine the intent with which you are practicing. "At the end of the day, your practice is a way to connect to yourself and open to others," Lee says. "Yoga is relationship, whether it's the relationship between the breath and nervous system, or the relationship between you and the person on the mat next to you who has B.O. If you don't like the way your hip feels in Pigeon Pose, do you get rid of your hip?"
Lee suggests viewing the challenges that come along as a way to enhance your spiritual practice and help you delve deeper into acceptance and compassion. "Obstacle is really key," she says. "Anything that's difficult is more fodder for deepening your practice—rather than trying to change anything or anybody, you learn to work with things the way they are."
And if you're intent on having a healthy relationship, by all means keep practicing! Whether your partner shares your spiritual beliefs or not, your practice can make your relationship better. "Most spiritual practices teach the components of a successful relationship: valuing compassion, forgiveness, commitment, honesty," Taylor says. "When people bond with a spiritual practice of awakening, then all these cultural and relationship issues about who's going to the right church or following the right leader disappear." Then the spiritual experience is maximized and made real; heart meets heart. "I think relationship is one of the greatest spiritual practices," he says.
Lean on Your Yoga
Your partner may grow to appreciate the changes your practice creates in you, even if he or she doesn't share your beliefs. Holly Case, a 31-year-old mother of three in Auburn, Michigan, noticed this happening with Jason, her husband of 11 years, as she deepened her own yoga practice. "He was skeptical at first. He teased me about it, saying it was for New Age hippies," she says. "He thought it was a little silly." But as Case began to benefit from the emotional, spiritual, and physical changes she was experiencing, she found that it changed her relationship for the better—and that Jason noticed and appreciated the changes as well.
"If I seem really stressed out, he even suggests I do yoga because it has such a profound impact on my mood!" Case says. And, she adds, the patience she's learned on the mat has helped her get a handle on her reactions instead of blurting out something that might cause a fight. "Yoga has given me more patience, and I'm less likely to say something unkind when I'm upset."
Case says her study of the Yoga Sutra and specifically the practice of satya (truthfulness), has helped her realize when she was inadvertently undermining her relationship by being less than truthful with Jason. "When we were first married, I just left out details when there was something I didn't want him to know. I didn't realize that doing so was a form of dishonesty. As a result of meditation and reflection during my yoga practice, I saw that omission of facts was just as detrimental to our relationship, and I started telling the whole truth, which made me more aware of which things I would once have tried to hide from him, like spending money."
You Can Change Only Yourself
As anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows, it's easy to blame your "other half" when you're not happy with your own life, or when you feel disconnected from your deeper self. But the choice to change or tap into your spiritual side still belongs to you. It can be difficult to recognize and acknowledge shortcomings in ourselves, but one of the pluses of most spiritual paths is that they help us become more self-aware.
"Yoga can show us that how we relate to ourselves is an indicator of how we relate to others," Lee says. "I think sometimes, depending on how they've interpreted different teachings, people get the idea that yoga is a goal. But in reality, it gives you tools for your life—it's not a guarantee of happiness."
Lee notes that people are often shocked to learn that her husband, who she's been with for 11 years, doesn't practice yoga—and for the most part, it doesn't bother her a bit. "I've been on yoga retreats and there are couples there, and a part of me will think that's cool, but the other part of me doesn't really care. It's my thing, and I like that it's my thing," she says. She admits that there are a few small challenges in their relationship, like differences in diet—"He eats whatever he wants!"—but in the long run, "you'd be kidding yourself if you think if you get a yoga spouse it's going to be all that different. You're still you and all you can work on is you."
When we really open into our spirituality and deepen our practice, we become more self-aware. This can help us not only identify our own role in our relationship challenges but also understand how to move past our limitations and into a place of sincere and profound acceptance. Ultimately, we begin to recognize how our spiritual practice exists to help us grow—not to change those around us.
"Every relationship goes through crises," says Richard Miller. But if you're able to summon truth, compassion, and acceptance to face them, then the challenges can profoundly strengthen your partnership. "When couples really start communicating from their deepest truth and stop trying to change their partner, I often see a passion and love arise that wasn't there before—a deepening into intimacy that's really amazing to watch."
Recently, Woodward spent a harmonious day with her husband, and when she found herself thinking, "Will he ever come around to sharing my interests?" she stopped herself. Delving into the lessons of her spiritual practice, Woodward says she reflected instead on the things that have improved in their relationship and decided to be content in the moment instead of becoming too attached to what may happen in the future. "When I'm not pushing, it's easier for us both to be giving and open. I'm trying to just appreciate and experience that as it happens," she says.
George Taylor remains optimistic that with compassion and openness, most differences—including wildly varying spiritual beliefs—are surmountable: "Any of these issues is an opportunity to move more deeply into an intimate relationship," he says. "A spiritual journey can be an amazing thing for both partners, as long as they're tuned in to compassion."
Meagan Francis is a freelance writer in Williamston, Michigan.