Ask Richard: Former Catholic Wife Cannot Hide Her Atheism Any Longer

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I am married to a Catholic spouse. When we were married, I was Catholic too, but became an atheist about 10 years ago. I kept my nonreligious belief to myself for fear of backlash from my husband. A couple of years ago, though, after an argument about evolution he point-blank asked me if I was a “devil worshipper” (his definition of an atheist). Of course I said no to the devil worshipping, but did confirm my atheism. My husband had a horrible reaction. I couldn’t believe that he, a pretty much outwardly non-religious guy, would have such a strong reaction. I tried to talk to him again once he calmed down (and the kids were in bed), but he refused to listen to my “evil” beliefs. His derogatory manner woke up the kids and, not wanting them to hear all that and concerned that a messy divorce would harm our children, I agreed to keep my beliefs to myself.

Cut to today and I am weary of hiding my views. It feels like this marriage is one-sided and I am more of a child than an equal partner. Do you have any advice for how I can get him to respect my atheistic belief? Should I even be trying? He entered this marriage with a Catholic wife and I feel guilty that I’m not that woman anymore for him. Am I asking too much of my husband to acknowledge my atheism? I am torn between a longing to be true to myself and a vow I made to my husband on our wedding day.

Thanks for any advice you can offer.
Melanie

Dear Melanie,

I think this is not as much a conflict between atheism and Catholicism as it is a conflict between an old model of marriage and a new model.

The old model is very often supported by cultures steeped in the Abrahamic religions, where the husband is completely in charge, and the wife is completely subordinate. The new model is where the husband and wife are equal partners, with equal authority, rights, responsibility, input, and respect. Important decisions are negotiated, not dictated.

At the time of your wedding, you and your husband both subscribed to the beliefs of Catholicism, and probably you both more or less accepted the roles that are expected in the old model of marriage. So when you say that it feels like this marriage is one-sided and you are more of a child than an equal partner, that is probably the kind of marriage you have had from the beginning.

But along the way, you grew.

It’s not your fault. You can’t help but grow. You outgrew your belief in a father-god, and you also outgrew the child/servant/wife role that at the time was the only option you knew. The vows you took existed in a context that has fundamentally changed. The person you have grown to be is no longer the person who made those promises. You might not have to entirely abandon your vows, but instead adjust them to your new needs; you might be able to preserve the love, the caring, and the mutual benefits, but the roles must no longer stifle either person.

Spouses who are still both theists get into this conflict. The controversy on the surface is not the underlying dynamic. Even if you still believed in God, I think that you would be too constricted by the roles and expectations of the old marriage model. The precipitating controversy could be a dozen other issues such as wanting to have a career, or to have more authority and input in family decisions, or wanting to assert your own preference over that of your husband sometimes instead of always having to acquiesce.

Or wanting to be able to disagree about an idea such as evolution and still be treated respectfully.

An important distinction that both of you must try to understand is the difference between respecting the other’s beliefs and treating each other respectfully. Neither of you are likely to be able to respect each other’s beliefs. They are too opposite. But it is quite possible for both of you to treat each other respectfully, even though your beliefs contradict.

So approach this problem as a choice between an old model or new model marriage, rather than as a conflict about whether or not gods exist. To focus on that would be a counterproductive distraction. It seems clear that you will not be able to ever return to the cramped, subordinate role, so if your marriage is to survive, it must change. It must be one where both people have roles that nurture rather than squelch their individuality, and they freely choose to stay together rather than submit to outmoded and dehumanizing social/religious expectations.

I strongly urge you to find and both meet with a regular, not pastoral, marriage counselor, someone who can help the two of you negotiate a revised and renewed relationship. The Secular Therapist Project might be a useful place to start looking.

Adjusting will be difficult for your husband at first, because he will probably think that he has so much power to lose. Hopefully, he will see that if he tries to cling to having power over you, he will soon be the king of an empty kingdom. Hopefully, he will see that being equal partners treating each other respectfully will in the end be much more satisfying for him than being the boss of a resentful and resistant subordinate who will eventually leave in order to avoid suffocation.

We’re certainly not all the same, but most of the atheists I have come to know are optimistic realists. We hope for the best and prepare for the worst. What I’ve said above is about hoping for the best; now here’s the part about preparing for the worst:

You should be prepared for the possibility that your husband will not be willing to cooperate or not be able to adjust, and either one of you could initiate a separation or divorce. It is a painful prospect, but people do survive, and can even end up thriving. Sometimes a separation or divorce where people are able to be true to themselves is better than a marriage where people are forced to be false.

Even though separation or divorce is an awful upheaval for the kids, there are important negative lessons that they might be spared. Keep in mind that children are very perceptive, and they can often see through their parents’ polite façades. Watching your husband treat you with contempt and watching you repress yourself could teach them that that is how husbands and wives are supposed to relate and respond. What they witness in the two of you will become their main role models when they start to seek out their own spouses.

You should become well informed about the laws in your state governing separation and divorce, spousal support, and child custody. Have a clear picture of your financial and occupational resources, and what the prospect of living on spousal support would be like in practical terms.

Consider the social environment where you live. Because most custody settlements require ready access to the children for both parents, you will probably have to live reasonably close to each other. What are your resources of supportive relatives and friends, and what is their attitude toward atheism? In a contentious separation or divorce, that will probably come out either inadvertently or in an attempt to use it against you. Be prepared.

This is the undesired possibility that we hope will not transpire, but being well informed and prepared will help you to be more confident when negotiating with your husband, for instance insisting that you go to a marriage counselor together.

Be the optimistic realist and approach this as a complicated but not insurmountable challenge. As an atheist, you have a rational and reasonable nature. Use that nature to keep your emotions within an acceptable range of control, and to remain a patient, strong, and confident adult in your interactions with your husband. Hopefully, he will see the value in the intelligent, conscientious, and loving woman he married, and he will gradually respond in kind.

I wish you, your husband and your children whatever is the outcome that is the most beneficial possible for everyone. Please feel free to write again to let us know how things are going.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • C Peterson

    Our model of marriage, where a commitment is based on vows, is fundamentally unhealthy. Vows are of the moment, but not things that can be realistically maintained. People change, as we see here. Marriage should be seen as a contract- something that is easily voided if the initial conditions change. It is sad that we have somebody here who feels guilty for changing over time. If there is a failure, it is with the husband’s inability to adjust to his partner’s change, not with the one who is changing.

    Certainly, our society has grown healthier, and our families more functional, with the growing view of marriage as a contract, and of divorce as an evolution rather than a failure. (I’m not suggesting divorce here- the counseling advice is excellent- only that this option should be realistically on the table, and not a source of guilt or fear.)

    In addition to the suggestion for secular couples counseling, Melanie should also consider personal counseling, given the guilt she feels around this matter.

    • http://www.facebook.com/karen.uncoolmom Cary Whitman

      “Our model of marriage, where a commitment is based on vows, is fundamentally unhealthy. ”

      I must respectfully, but completely, disagree with you on this point. It seems to me that the vow is fundamental to the marriage, without it, marriage is simply a legal contract, and I can’t see how more than a tiny fraction of people could see their marriages as only that.

      The legal contract is, of course, very important, but the vow to stay together and work things out if at all possible, is what the marriage is really all about, and I disagree that that makes a marriage “unhealthy”, on the contrary, I think that’s what makes a marriage healthy.

      Certainly some marriages will, and should, end in divorce, and I’m all for no-fault divorce laws because it should be completely up to the couple to decide when to divorce, and I agree that divorce should not be considered a “failure”, just the end result when all other options are gone. But just because initial conditions changed, doesn’t mean divorce is the only option. That’s where the vow comes into play. Everyone should expect change in their marriage, the vow is a promise to try to work through those changes together, instead of giving up, that’s what makes for a healthy marriage.

      No where does the letter writer say she no longer loves her husband, she seems accepting of his faults, but she clearly feels like she is being asked to make all the sacrifices, instead of compromising and working out their problems together. This is not a healthy situation, in order for their marriage to last, something needs to change. But we should all respect her for being true to her vows and trying to make the marriage work even if she can

      • C Peterson

        A “vow” to try and make things work is one thing, but marriage vows typically go beyond that, to things that no honest person can truly promise. Nobody can promise to love somebody else forever. Making such a promise forces somebody to either be delusional or to lie.

        “Vows” that promise to try for certain common goals are reasonable, but promises to actually meet them are not, and force people into the sort of guilt that the writer of this letter is feeling. That is not healthy.

        • http://www.facebook.com/karen.uncoolmom Cary Whitman

          I see your point, but if you take all promises to their literal extreme, then they are all lies. I promised my bank I will pay off my mortgage, but we all know that there’s a non-zero probability that I won’t. I promised my son that I will pick him up from a school function tonight, but I could get hit by a bus on the way there and never make it.

          Should I never make promises that are not 100% certain? Are you calling me delusional because I wouldn’t enter into a marriage unless I truly believed that it would last forever? Are you telling me my marriage is unhealthy when you don’t even know me?

          I would never encourage someone to stay in an abusive situation just because they made a vow, but in 23 years of marriage, the vows I made to my husband have definitely been a factor in keeping us together through some of the rough times, and I can now say with certainty that I’m glad we stayed together.

          I don’t think vows and promises necessarily lead to guilt, anyone who is at all reasonable knows that no one can ever be completely certain about anything, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t promise to love our children forever, or promise to pay for their education, or promise they can get a cat once we get settled into our new house. None of those are guaranteed, but I honestly believe I will do whatever I can (within reason, of course) to make them all happen.

          • indorri

            That is definitely a valid explanation. On the other hand, given current statistics, I can’t say that it’s necessarily reasonable to make such a promise. Non-zero probability and uncertainty is inherent in anything we do, yes, but divorce rates are a rather big non-zero probability these days. Whether that’s a present day cultural problem or a reflection of issues that have always been present in life-long monogamy but were suppressed through past societal stigma against divorce is something worthy of consideration.

            • http://www.facebook.com/karen.uncoolmom Cary Whitman

              Statistics can hide a lot. Given the age we were when we got married, our education level, income, and probably our race too, our chances of having a marriage that lasts a lifetime are much higher than average. But that’s beside the point.

              You may call me a delusional romantic, but I don’t think anyone should go into a marriage with the attitude that they can always get divorced if it doesn’t work out. You should go into marriage expecting that it’s for life, but knowing that it’s not all going to be sunshine and roses, sometimes it’s heartache and sorrow, sometimes you are going to have to work through some hard times. In my experience, working through some of those hard times has made our marriage stronger in the long run.

              To get back to the letter writer, it sounds like she doesn’t want to leave her husband, he may be a loving wonderful guy most of the time, but he has shown a huge lack of respect for his wife on this religion issue. A good marriage counselor might be able to help them work through it. She seems be be accepting of his absurd beliefs, he needs to have someone give him a big slap in the face and remind him that he may lose his beautiful wife if he doesn’t start giving her the respect she deserves.

          • Chris Bastian

            Actually, no, you didn’t promise your bank that you would pay off your loan; you promised to abide by an agreement that you would either pay off the loan or accept known penalties: fines, accrued interest, or ultimately property forfeiture. As for vows of marriage, bear in mind they carry with them no legal value, and in the context of Atheism, no sacred value either. Your marriage license is your legal agreement to abide by the legal rights and obligations of marriage; “vows” of any sort are merely an assertion of your present frame of mine to those around you.

      • Carmelita Spats

        I respectfully disagree. My husband and I view our marriage as a legal contract. We’ve been happily married for 20 years with the profound understanding that we are both too damn lazy to work anything out. If the marriage requires effort at any point, we divorce because having to “work” at the marriage would be the equivalent of seeking employment at the Lucky Smells Lumbermill where you wake up every day to the sound of somebody banging two metal pots together and you find yourself in a small bunk bead with a nasty foreman standing in the doorway. Yes, there are tiresome people who say that if you ever find yourself in a difficult situation, you should stop and figure out the right thing to do. But there are times in this harum-scarum world when figuring out the right thing to do is quite simple, but doing the right thing is simply impossible, and then you must do something else.

        • http://www.facebook.com/karen.uncoolmom Cary Whitman

          Ha ha. Yes, if you are getting paid in coupons and being served gum for lunch it is definitely time to find a new job!

          We are all biased by our own experiences and make assumptions that everyone sees things the way we do. I’m clearly guilty of thinking the vows are important to everyone because they are important to me. You and C Peterson see marriage as a legal contract, which is fine, as long as you realize not everyone sees it that way. To some of us the vows are at least equally, if not more, important.

          And, I’m going to challenge you a bit here, don’t you think your “if this marriage becomes work, I’m outta here” attitude could be seen as a kind of vow or promise? Don’t you think that both of you have occasionally given in to each other, overlooked a fault, or forgiven something weren’t sure you wanted to forgive just because you didn’t want the marriage to become “work”? You may not call it a “vow”, but it seems to me that it has pretty close to the same effect.

  • M. O’Leary

    Hmm…something about this letter is not right. Catholicism, for all its many faults, does not deny evolution. In fact, there is nothing in contemporary Catholic doctrine that runs contrary to the scientific facts of evolution as currently understood. In nearly 55 years of life (including 28+ years as a Roman Catholic (with multiple degrees from Catholic universities) I have never met a Catholic who denied evolution.

    • C Peterson

      An “argument about evolution” does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the husband denies evolution. Many religionists, including Catholics, see evolution as being directed by a god, whereas non-religionists don’t.

      As an atheist, my view of evolution is certainly at odds with the view of evolution endorsed by the Catholic Church!

      • Drew M.

        Fair point. I hadn’t considered that.

    • Drew M.

      That was my first thought too. I reread her letter twice to make sure I wasn’t missing something. I mean, could they be Eastern Orthodox?

    • RobMcCune

      The letter doesn’t say her husband denies, only that they were arguing about it. There could be issues relating to human evolution, it’s implication, or it being taught in school. For what it’s worth, my first big online debate about evolution was against a catholic who wanted intelligent design to be taught in school.

    • Mario Strada

      I don’t want to take over the thread, but how do educated Catholics reconcile evolution and the lack of a garden of Eden > Adam & Eve > Original Sin > Need for a Savior?
      If you take away the literal Garden of Eden doesn’t that take away the Original Sin and the need for Jesus?

      I am sure they use some kind of high wire act to justify it, I just have not heard a good one yet. I was born Catholic too, but in my days no one explained that to me.

      • indorri

        Raised Catholic as well. I always saw it as one of the “Mysteries”. Catholicism, despite practically embedding dogmatism and intolerance in religious doctrine in the Western world, was always much bigger on shrugging their shoulders and leaving it up to mysticism/faith on some articles (the Eucharist/transubstantiation is another issue where you get this, although you get some warmed-over philosophy in there when they have to justify how it’s “really” flesh and blood when that flesh is mostly held together by gluten and blood with that alcohol level would kill a mammoth.)

      • metalsheep

        I was raised Catholic as well. When I was Catholic, I didn’t really see this as a problem, as everyone “sins”. Everyone lies, cheats, and does things they’re not supposed to, therefore everyone “need a savior”, regardless of whether or not there was a literal Adam/Eve/Eden.

    • Gus Snarp

      It’s not usually Catholics who say atheists are devil worshipers either, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. There also happen to be an awful lot of Catholics who are not at all caught up on Catholic doctrines and what they’re supposed to accept and not accept. While the Church may officially accept evolution, it’s not as if they’re promoting it from the pulpit on Sunday. It’s officially accepted, but it’s not one of the teachings of the Church that parishioners are asked to believe. I’ve actually sat in a Catholic Church service and listened to the Catholic Priest rant against science and tell the faithful that God’s Knowledge always supplanted man’s knowledge. Now maybe you’ve got a good theological interpretation for how that wasn’t meant to attack evolution, or even science, the priest certainly didn’t make it clear what exactly he was talking about, and given a room full of religious people, many of whom never graduated from any university, Catholic or otherwise who’ve heard goodness knows what about evolution from other places, is it really that unlikely that they didn’t see this, as I did, as an attack on evolution and science in general? Is it not possible that you’ve never met a Catholic who denied evolution simply because there are a lot of Catholics who just don’t think about it much or bring it up in conversation, but if asked would say they don’t believe it? Have you polled all the Catholics you met on the subject? This is a case where anecdote is very poor evidence indeed.

    • http://www.facebook.com/karen.uncoolmom Cary Whitman

      I don’t think what they were actually arguing about has any relevance at all to their marriage problems. The problem is that after their argument he resorted to name calling and showed a huge lack of respect for his wife and is now asking her to hide her beliefs and not be true to herself. This is not a healthy relationship and she should not put up with it any longer. Out of respect for her marriage vows and the children, they should try counseling and seek advice and help however they can, but she should prepare herself for divorce if her husband still can’t find a way to respect her.

    • Richard Raymond

      Funny, all the catholics I know deny evolution. “It’s only a theory !” they say. LOL

  • Rod

    Mr.Husband must adjust his thinking on what an atheist is and how an atheist thinks. No progress can be made until he takes this step

    • The Other Weirdo

      Yeah. Good luck with that. I remember when a Catholic ex-girlfriend of mine told her Catholic mother about her boyfriend: me, an atheistic Jew. “Well,” her mother’s response was, “at least he believes in Jesus.”

  • baal

    On the practical side, you’ll want to get a separate bank account in your own name regardless of the outcome. it can be used to buying presents where you don’t want the dollar amount known (like a father’s day gift). It’ll allow you a degree of freedom and establish a credit history.

  • CultOfReason

    I agree with Richard that the underlying issue here goes well beyond a discussion on theism/atheism and has more to do with control. This is clear when she says her husband was never outwardly religious, but then suddenly has a conniption upon learning of his her change in philosophical perspective. Someone who accepts the model of marriage where partners hold equal weight should not have an issue with a religious/philosophical difference of opinion.

    I also suspect part of the problem ties back to a certain level of ignorance on the part of the husband, both in religion as well as in science. Calling an atheist a devil worshiper, besides being disrespectful, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the term.

  • ecolt

    Melanie, my partner was once a committed Catholic and married to a Catholic woman. While his loss of belief was far from the only factor in their divorce, it did play a role.

    He and his ex-wife have been divorced for almost seven years now. She has remarried, to a man who shares her views and values. And my partner and I are happily living together in a home where Richard Dawkins lectures play on repeat, there are no little baby Jesuses on the Christmas tree and we enjoy sleeping in on Sunday morning. Both he and his ex-wife are far happier than they were when they were together, precisely because they have stopped living in a relationship built on lies and resentment and found someone who shares their beliefs.

    More importantly to your concerns, my partner has three wonderful children. While his youngest doesn’t remember when his parents were together, the older kids do and those memories are not happy ones. They remember their parents arguing, their mom storming out of the house, their dad being continuously unhappy. As painful as these memories are, the kids have great lives now. They’ve gotten to see both of their parents fall in love again and now have models for relationships that are based on honesty and equity. They have parents who are engaged and happy, not resentful and sullen. They have step-parents who are helping to raise them, and two new sets of step-grandparents to adore and spoil them. And they are being raised with options – they’re exposed to their mom’s religion but also to their dad’s insistence that, whatever they end up believing, they should be able to back up and defend their beliefs with evidence and logic. They have a parent who is free to voice his opinions, explain his reasons to them, and teach them to view the world critically and not accept any claims, especially those of religion, at face value.

    In short, the kids are better off. Yes, divorce can be a painful and confusing thing for kids to deal with. But in the long run it is far more painful for them to see their parents, their most important role models in life, unhappy and resentful. Maybe there is hope that you and your husband can work through your issues, but if not don’t fall back on the old line of staying together ‘for the kids.’ In the end, that can often lead to more harm than good.

  • ecolt

    Melanie, my partner was once a committed Catholic and married to a Catholic woman. While his loss of belief was far from the only factor in their divorce, it did play a role.

    He and his ex-wife have been divorced for almost seven years now. She has remarried, to a man who shares her views and values. And my partner and I are happily living together in a home where Richard Dawkins lectures play on repeat, there are no little baby Jesuses on the Christmas tree and we enjoy sleeping in on Sunday morning. Both he and his ex-wife are far happier than they were when they were together, precisely because they have stopped living in a relationship built on lies and resentment and found someone who shares their beliefs.

    More importantly to your concerns, my partner has three wonderful children. While his youngest doesn’t remember when his parents were together, the older kids do and those memories are not happy ones. They remember their parents arguing, their mom storming out of the house, their dad being continuously unhappy. As painful as these memories are, the kids have great lives now. They’ve gotten to see both of their parents fall in love again and now have models for relationships that are based on honesty and equity. They have parents who are engaged and happy, not resentful and sullen. They have step-parents who are helping to raise them, and two new sets of step-grandparents to adore and spoil them. And they are being raised with options – they’re exposed to their mom’s religion but also to their dad’s insistence that, whatever they end up believing, they should be able to back up and defend their beliefs with evidence and logic. They have a parent who is free to voice his opinions, explain his reasons to them, and teach them to view the world critically and not accept any claims, especially those of religion, at face value.

    In short, the kids are better off. Yes, divorce can be a painful and confusing thing for kids to deal with. But in the long run it is far more painful for them to see their parents, their most important role models in life, unhappy and resentful. Maybe there is hope that you and your husband can work through your issues, but if not don’t fall back on the old line of staying together ‘for the kids.’ In the end, that can often lead to more harm than good.

    • Sven2547

      I want to echo ecolt’s last point on the fallacy of “staying together for the kids”.
      When my parents divorced back in the 90′s, we kids were their top priority. They ended up living in the same town, they were flexible with custody, and they never ever used us as middlemen in squabbles.
      Depending on the situation, doing the right thing for the kids might actually be getting the divorce. Being raised in two happy homes is better than one unhappy home.

      Hopefully this is all moot. Follow Dr. Wade’s advice and seek counseling.

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        agreeing with the previous posters re: the kids. the years of listening to the arguments, the shouting, the name calling, the crying… not exactly the happiest moments of my childhood. when my folks split, all of the sudden i could enjoy both of their company, while they were each being true to themselves, on their own terms, and happy. it was much better for everyone and i suffered no shame or stigma from my peers, as they came to understand my parents weren’t together anymore. those days are long gone, when the “shame” of divorce is so great it can ruin a child’s reputation.

        as for the letter writer, well. i don’t like the way this husband sounds at all. i agree with other posters about how marriage would be best if it were seen mostly as a renewable contract, and not a ‘sacred vow’ for life. i agree with Richard as well; the ‘old’ model of marriage is steeped in sexism, religious belief and narrative, and outmoded roles for the people involved in one that don’t jibe with the reality of modern society. it sounds like the hubby is all about the old model, and you’re not. it may be time to move on, people who cling to old fashioned traditions at the expense of the feelings of their supposed loved ones aren’t promising candidates for change. you have, and you should be proud. but be prepared to move on even further, for your own sake, as well as that of the children, and maybe even the husband. who might be happier with a more traditional wife.

    • MariaO

      If the ex-wife is catholic, she is not divorced. She may be separated from her husband, but she can not divorce or remarry.
      If she is divorced, she is not catholic in the sense the Vatican means. They do not recognize divorce and they will not give communion to those who insist they are divorced. The second marriage is not recognized and any children are considered illegitimate.
      It was not until the 1980s the Italian state allowed divorce – the then papa was NOT amused and the church tried all dirty tricks they could think of to stop it. In Malta the state still does not allow it. I do not understand how anyone dares to marry there… You can igore religious laws, but you cannot ignore state laws. Whoe to those that live in countries where they are the same!

  • SeekerLancer

    You should inform your husband that the Vatican itself recognizes evolution (of course they believe it’s god-guided however so if that’s what the argument was about then disregard this post) and views Genesis as metaphorical. Catholics are so mixed up they have no idea what the official stance of their church on anything actually is.


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