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Archive for Friday, May 25, 2001

When religion breaks up a relationship

Changing faith is one challenge some married couples face through the years

May 25, 2001

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This has not been a good time for celebrity marriages. Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan recently called it quits, along with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise and now, Jane Fonda and Ted Turner.

And, yes, it was infidelity that got in the way of marital bliss with Fonda and Turner. Jane met another. Not another movie star or media mogul. She didn't steal Rupert Murdoch away from his wife; she wasn't seen dancing cheek to cheek with Alan Greenspan.

Actually, the third wheel in the relationship is Christ. According to an article in the New Yorker, Turner who falls somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic and who once called Catholics with ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday "Jesus freaks" said Fonda came home one day and announced she was a Christian and had been attending a Baptist church in Atlanta.

"Normally, that's the kind of thing your wife or husband would discuss with you before they did it," Turner said.

Fonda said she didn't inform Turner, a champion debater, because she knew he would have talked her out of it.

This brings up an interesting point. Religion, we have all been taught, is the glue that keeps a marriage together. Can religion also keep two people apart?

"Religion is one of the knottiest issues in a marriage," said Dana Mack, author of "The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions."

Mack, a Jew married to an atheist, knows this firsthand: "I face this problem in my marriage every day," she said.

On the other hand, she doesn't see why one spouse's conversion should break up a marriage.

"It's just one of the very deep and profound challenges that test the depth of commitment and emotional attachment of a couple," Mack said.

When a couple get married, they have to anticipate that 20 or 30 years later (Fonda and Turner married in 1991) they're not going to be married to the same person anymore, she said.

"The other day, I was in a restaurant waiting for my husband. I was sitting by a big glass window and I saw a man walking toward the restaurant and I thought, 'That's just what my husband is going to look like in 20 years.' And then I realized, it was my husband!" she said. "We sometimes get a shock when we realize we're no longer married to the person we married. But what do we do?

"I didn't say, 'Look at you, you look old, you're limping a little!' You have to realize that your spouse is an individual who is going to change over time. But keeping a marriage together means not just a commitment to your partner, but to the institution of marriage itself."

While Turner criticized Fonda for keeping her conversion a secret, Mack finds it understandable.

"Religion is a very, very personal and private thing," she said. "I have talked to many people who have converted and it's something they struggled with as individuals for a long time before they were ready to share it."

Once people are ready to make their decision public, it's often past the point of reconsideration.

"I don't know what it means to Jane Fonda to be a Christian," said Scott Stanley, one of the authors of "A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage." "But converts are usually the strongest believers."

Stanley says many nonbelievers are indifferent to their partners' religious views, but Turner is the exception.

"We've all seen how anti-religious he is. Not only is he an atheist, but he is not accepting of others' beliefs," he said. "It would be very difficult for her if she is moving in terms of a strong commitment to Christianity to be married to someone who has publicly made a strong commitment against religion."

The fact that it's enough to separate a couple isn't surprising, Stanley said.

"It's a huge issue," he said. "It gets to the heart of the differences in the ways they see life and death."

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