Pure Sex, Pure Love

When is the right time to bring up religion in a relationship?

Cindy and Peter met in January and they hit it off instantly. They were both into mystery novels and had long dinners debating politics. They started seeing each other twice or three times a week, had lots to talk about and great chemistry. And since they were both in their 30s, Cindy says things were moving pretty fast. About a month into the relationship, Peter invited Cindy to brunch on Sunday, and she said it would have to be a late brunch because she was doing a reading at the 11 a.m. Mass at her church. “He was shocked, and a whole big discussion came up,” Cindy told me over coffee recently. “It turned out that he’s not religious at all, and doesn’t have much respect for people who are. We saw each other a couple more times, but things really cooled off after that—for both of us. Next time I’m going to bring up my faith a lot earlier.”

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Your faith is a very personal thing: When is the right time to bring it up?

Popular dating books don’t have a lot of advice here. Mars and Venus on a Date, the John Gray spin-off of Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus pretty much avoids the topic of religion and dating except to note that churches are a good place to pick up. “If you aren’t very religious, start going to church as a way to meet men,” he advises women. (That’s a topic for another column!) Mostly, advice books swoop in as Captain Obvious to tell you that religion is a good thing to discuss before you get married. Thanks for that, guys.

The one dating guru who does tackle the subject says to zip it: Religion is one of the top five topics you should never discuss on a first date. “There will be plenty of time to discuss theology and the roles of religion in your life, but on date number one, avoid this topic like the plague!” says John Moore, author of Confusing Love With Obsession: When You Can’t Stop Controlling Your Partner & the Relationship.

I spoke with several Catholic, Jewish and non-religious young men and women who said if those are the rules, they break them all the time.

“I sneak it in there on the first or second date very casually,” says Monica, a 29-year-old graduate student. “I make some joke about growing up in a strict Catholic family and all the rules we had, or something like that, and the guy will almost always pick up on it and talk about his religion, and then it’ll all be out in the open.”

Bill, 28, says he’ll always discuss it in a first conversation as well. “There’s an element of transparency: If it’s important to you, you should let the person know early on.” Xavier, 27, agrees. “You don’t want to sound like a zealot about it, but a tangential approach works. Like, recently I said: ‘I can’t drink because I gave it up for Lent.’ You certainly don’t want to say ‘Hey, I’m Catholic. What’s your deal?'”

But your faith is a deeply personal issue. You don’t go talking about your family secrets or your previous relationships on a first date, so why do you need to talk about religion so soon?

It indicates your motivations for dating, apparently. For better or for worse, religion is associated with commitment, which isn’t what everyone on the dating scene is after. If you’re interested in something serious, a shared faith is going to be more important than if you’re just casually dating—and so it’ll come up sooner.

Xavier says if he’s dating a girl just for the fun of dating, religion doesn’t matter. “I want to raise my children Catholic, and end up with a Catholic woman, but I’m not ready for all that yet. As long as we’re all clear that the relationship won’t be anything serious, religion doesn’t need to come up and we can have fun, whatever we believe.”

The non-religious singles I spoke with said the person with the strong faith needs to mention it first, although there are risks: Karen, a 23-year-old law student, says she’s not religious and if a guy she’s dating goes to church or other services regularly, she’s more likely to head for the hills. “Guys who are religious are like girls in their 30s: very serious and looking to get married. And I’m nowhere near ready for that kind of commitment yet.”

It seems to boil down to a few questions: How important is your faith to you? How important is it that your partner shares your faith? And what kind of relationship are you looking for with this person?

It’s answering those questions that’s the challenge. I’d like to hear from you: Let’s say your faith is important to you, that you are looking to get married and that you’d not only just prefer, you insist that your partner-to-be shares your faith. Religion needs to come up soon—casually, but clearly. How can you make sure that your comments come off correctly?

And what if there’s a little more gray area: Maybe you’re growing in your faith, you’re personally searching or you’re not sure of what you really believe. Or perhaps your partner’s religion isn’t a deal breaker. What if you’re interested in getting married, but probably not anytime soon? Should religion come up, even casually, in the first few dates—or is that something to be avoided like the plague?