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.


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