After the kids were in bed, we sat down on the couch like we always did to watch an episode of Friends followed by the local news. I turned to my wife of thirteen years and asked her a question she did not see coming:
“Could you see yourself still being married to me if I were no longer a Christian?” I asked.
After a brief stunned silence, she replied: “Well, I don’t know how to answer that because that wouldn’t be you.”
Gulp. I ventured a little further. “Well, what if it were me? What if I weren’t a believer anymore? Could you still see us together?”
After a long thoughtful pause, she answered: “But that’s not the man I married. That wouldn’t be you.”
I tried pressing the issue a little further but it was late in the evening and tears soon made an appearance so I ended the conversation abruptly and thought of something lighter to discuss.
Hypersensitivity has always been a weakness of mine, and I would much rather shut up than make someone else cry. In fact, in response to my wife’s obvious pain, I shut down about this topic completely, effectively ending that conversation for the next year. I had wrestled with my own questions years before and had stuffed them deep inside for as long as I could. But now they had resurfaced and I wanted to test the waters to see if this was a conversation to which I could invite the person I needed most to join me. What I discovered that night frightened me and led me to shut her out of this journey I was on. I decided to search for answers on my own for fear that the process would completely alienate me from my life partner.
During my year of silent searching, I did what many do when they find themselves in a very different place from their spouses: I developed a double life. On the outside I continued going through the motions of Christian service. I even took on the responsibility of teaching an adult Sunday School class because that was so much more bearable than having to sit and listen to somebody else teach. On the inside, however, I had lost my religion, and the things people around me were saying were starting to make my skin crawl. I kept that to myself, and only shared it with one or two other people who I knew would be non-judgmental, and who would not feel personally threatened by my apostasy. At that time, I had not yet discovered any online communities for people like me, so I felt pretty alone. It was like having a secret life, except mostly in my own head. But the truth came out eventually (as it always does) and a year down the road I found myself standing on the other side of an apparently unbreachable gulf separating me from the woman to whom I had committed my life, and with whom I had helped bring four beautiful daughters into the world. At one point, our marriage had been the envy of others in our church, but now we were in serious need of crisis marriage counseling.
Because our faith had been so central to our lives, and because our common commitments were the very reason we were drawn to each other in the first place, we decided to see a Christian marriage counselor who was on staff at our local Baptist church. In retrospect, I see that this wasn’t exactly a brilliant decision. That’s not to say he’s not a terrific guy; on the contrary, I’ve known him for many years and have the utmost respect for him personally. But a Baptist minister isn’t the best choice to mediate between an atheist spouse and a Christian one. There’s a conflict of interest there because two of the three people in that scenario will necessarily see the third as broken and needing to come back to Jesus. Our complicated situation demanded compromise, but for Evangelicals, compromise is a dirty word. It represents a falling short of what God wants and therefore must be resisted. In a very short time we had developed some deeply painful problems (some of which were my doing) and we needed to find a religiously unbiased third party to help us navigate these very troubled waters. We didn’t do that, and after a year of weekly counseling and countless hours of intense conversation, in the end we decided to divorce.
It was a gut-wrenching decision for both of us and the financial and emotional toll has been pretty tough on us both. This experience has impressed upon me that nobody’s important life decisions can be made by someone else, so you shouldn’t even try. If you haven’t lived another person’s life, you don’t know all the reasons why they do what they do. But for us, we both came to realize that we were on completely different paths. While we share a common passion for the well-being of our children, so many other important trajectories have changed that we no longer live in the same ideological worlds. We continue to be partners in parenting, and I happen to think we still make a pretty good team. Our girls always come first, and they will never see us disrespecting or insulting each other because that’s not who we are. It’s not ideal, no. But we’re doing the best we can, and I think our girls have a pretty good life.
Cries for Help from the Unequally Yoked
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t receive a distress signal from someone who has left the Christian faith but is married to someone still very committed to it. Religious differences within marriage happen all the time but some are far more stressful than others. A Methodist married to a Presbyterian might sometimes fight over predestination, and a Baptist might fight with a Pentecostal over speaking in tongues. But at least all of these people believe in some basic core beliefs like Abrahamic monotheism and the divinity of Jesus. Imagine what it does to a relationship when one spouse doesn’t even subscribe to the very concept of divinity while the other one does. That’s pretty awkward, right? Even that is manageable though, if those differences were there from the start of the relationship. Incidentally, the amount of tension it produces also depends greatly on the exact character and strength of the beliefs over which they disagree. But when both spouses enter the marriage as devout Evangelicals and later one of them deconverts? That is a recipe for marital trouble.
The deconversion part is a key component of this conundrum. See, relationships depend on good communication and in order for communication to work there needs to be some mutual ability to empathize with the other person, to see the world through their eyes. If both partners began as non-believers and one of them later converts to Christianity, the new Christian is less likely to misunderstand the perspective of the non-Christian because she was once one herself. But when both partners grow up thoroughly submerged in a tradition which vilifies unbelievers and then one of them expatriates into that camp, this move will likely make no sense to the still-Christian because he has never been anything else. If the Christian is an Evangelical, in a way the deconvert has now become the enemy (albeit unwittingly) because that tradition views skepticism as a malady to be overcome and it sees non-belief as a fundamental threat. The kind of liberal Christianity you find in mainline denominations (Catholic, Anglican, etc) is less obsessed with “faith” than Evangelical Christianity, so you won’t likely see them display as much angst over whether or not both spouses believe the same things. Liberal Christians care less if your beliefs are all “right” and more about how you conduct yourself in the world. But Evangelical Christianity stresses right belief first and foremost (believing that all else flows from this font), so when one partner quits believing the right things, we now have a major relationship crisis. It compounds the problem that the lifelong Christian cannot possibly conceive of how or why the deconverted spouse would ever stop believing in a religion which has been their frame of reference for everything since the time they were old enough to tie their own shoes. This inability to empathize becomes a source of constant misunderstanding so that communication breaks down every time conversation gets even a little bit deep.
I suspect this happens a lot more now than it used to. Years ago, our world was “smaller” so that you mainly interacted with the people of your own local community. This effectively insulated you from the myriad alternative worldviews and belief systems “out there” in the world. Back then it was a lot easier to spend your whole life in one way of thinking because everyone else around you probably thought the same way about the most important life questions. But today we live in an increasingly globalized world, with opposite cultures connecting to each other wirelessly, mixing and mingling so that you can easily get exposure to people who see the world very differently from you. Thanks to the built-in selectivity of social networking, you can still choose to shut unwanted voices out if you must, but it takes some effort. We also live in an information age in which our knowledge base grows daily and is accessible at the click of a button. With that kind of regular exposure to new ideas and world-shifting paradigms it’s inevitable that some people will change their minds about really important, big-picture issues. And that’s a good thing. Growth is good because everything that’s alive grows. When something stops growing, it’s beginning to die. The only problem here is that a healthy marriage depends on both partners growing together in the same general direction. If one grows out of something which the other sees no need to “grow out of,” now we’ve got a problem.
I’ve seen this go several different ways now. Over the last three years, I’ve interacted with quite a few couples who navigated the treacherous waters of an “unequally yoked” marriage with varying levels of success. I’ve seen couples grow cold toward one another and go their separate ways and I’ve seen couples agree to disagree and get along just fine. I’ve even seen a few couples who transitioned together out of their religious worldview and their marriages are as strong and healthy now as they’ve ever been (incidentally, more often than not, they report a notable improvement in their sex life). I love being around those people because they give me hope. I’d like to believe that most marriages could make this work if they are willing to lay aside some of their differences and find common ground. Divorce always hurts, and I’ll never look back fondly at mine, even if in the end it was the only thing left for us to do. But I will continue to hope for better things for my friends in similar situations. It can work, if both spouses can manage to respect one another as equally responsible agents of their marriage’s success. It takes a lot of patience, a great deal of implicit respect, and some very open and honest conversation. I for one feel highly unqualified to tell anyone else how to successfully navigate this minefield of potential misunderstandings. But I have friends who are working hard at finding solutions and providing advice on how to best approach these emotionally-charged differences.
Dale McGowan (author of Parenting Beyond Belief) has spent the last four years researching mismatched marriages in order to find out what has helped those who made it through these challenges successfully. I cannot tell you how eagerly I have anticipated this book, due out in August of this year. It is entitled In Faith and In Doubt, and if you or someone you love is working through a religiously mismatched marriage, I highly recommend you purchase this book in advance. It is the only book of its kind that I am aware of, and I wish it had been written four years earlier. In it, Dale will address some of the things that helped those whose marriages have held together. I didn’t get an advance copy or anything (ahem) but he was gracious enough to forward along a response to a question I had. I asked what advice he has gleaned for couples who find themselves in mismatched marriages and this is what he said:
Sometimes there is no fix — that has to be said firmly. But more often than not, if there is a genuine mutual love and determination to make it work, these nine best practices can make the difference:
1. Never try to convert or de-convert your partner. This is the biggest red flag for tension and conflict and often leads to divorce.
2. Talk about your differences of belief as early as possible in the relationship.
3. Work out agreements for all shared practices, including churchgoing, parenting, and family religious identity, by defining your negotiables and non-negotiables. (This is one of the most important for practical purposes. Some things matter more than others, and many couples find out that some of the things that would have been huge sticking points don’t matter at all to the other person.)
4. Focus on shared values more than different beliefs.
5. Make personal respect non-negotiable, even as you question and challenge each other’s ideas.
6. Engage in and learn about each other’s worldviews — and that must be a two-way street.
7. Remember that the opinions of believers are not always the same as the doctrines of their churches, just as believers must remember that the opinions of nonbelievers are not always the same as those of prominent atheists.
8. Raise children with the freedom to choose their own religious or nonreligious identity. Expose them to many traditions, beliefs, and practices.
9. Support and protect each other from mistreatment or disrespect, especially by those who share your worldview, including extended family.
In talking with friends of mine who have weathered this storm successfully thus far, their advice to me matches Dale’s “best practices” list very closely. Most emphasize a need for open communication and as much honesty as can be managed without hurting or insulting the other person. Wrestling with religious doubts can be an intensely private matter since you have to figure out for yourself what you believe without allowing others to unduly influence your ability to think for yourself. But if you keep it entirely to yourself, you are keeping a major part of who you are from your spouse and thus prevent him or her from ever wrestling with those issues for himself or herself. If I had my own deconversion to do over again, I would have expressed more of my own thoughts to my wife as I was working through them. I let my own fear of upsetting her shut me down, and that led to problems which greatly contributed to our undoing. It’s impossible to say whether more openness from me would have prevented our marriage’s demise. As Dale said above, sometimes there is no fix. Sometimes the ideologies of each person are just too divergent to sustain a healthy ongoing relationship. But you might as well give it all you’ve got and try to find a way to understand one another. Mutual respect and honest communication are your best weapons for this battle.
A Personal Word of Caution
Now I’m going to offer one caveat from my own experience and from my observations of several couples who have handled their differences better than I think I did. How best to handle being “unequally yoked” will depend largely on the personalities of the people involved. If you are the deconvert and you are a naturally pushy, arrogant type, then my strongest word to you is to chill out and realize that you’re only going to make things worse if you act like you know it all and your spouse is a nitwit. That’s a surefire way to mess things up. If you know you naturally lean in that direction, please do yourself and everyone else a favor and temper your own self-confidence and force yourself to listen to others, taking in their viewpoint so that maybe you’ll do a better job of communicating with them instead of lecturing them.
But sometimes the deconvert is just the opposite type. Sometimes when you’re the only person you know who has come to think the way you do, you are deeply unsure of yourself, and you almost wish you could shut off what you think entirely just so you can live in peace with your surrounding environment. You feel no need to impose your unbelief on those around you, and if anything you’re more likely to let others take advantage of your minority status. Perhaps you think being sacrificial and giving up who you’ve become is the more loving way to move forward. Well, I’ve got news for ya. It doesn’t really work that way. You can’t just shut off who you’re becoming; it’s not that easy. At some point, you’re going to have to start standing up for who you’ve become or else the relationship is going to tank anyway, because becoming a doormat is no solution—it only will make matters worse. If you live in a culture which privileges the still-Christian’s viewpoint, you will most likely find yourself and your own emotional and mental needs sidelined in order to maintain the status quo. This may seem at first like a fair concession to make because, hey, you two started out on a Christian foundation, right? Surely it makes sense to keep that going as long as you can, and to keep that as your mutual frame of reference for everything, right? No, that’s not really going to work as well as it sounds. In fact, it’s likely going to backfire and produce deep resentment in the person whose needs and changing identity are being squelched and forced back into the closet.
I don’t think I could put it better than my friend, Captain Cassidy, who blogs over at Roll to Disbelieve. She has an entire series on being “unequally yoked” and if you’ve got some time I’d recommend moseying on over there to check out what she’s got to say about this. For my purposes today, I want to leave you with her exhortation about standing up for who you are. I wish I had read this post back when I myself first deconverted. I would have approached a number of things so differently. Here’s what she has to say:
…a dominant faction does not willingly give up its power or peel back its own privilege…make no mistake: these marginalized and downtrodden people have to force progress to happen. If we wait until the dominant faction is damned well good and ready to give up its power and peel back its own privilege, we will be waiting a very, very long time. It takes being uppity and being absolutely positive of one thing and one thing only: that we are worthy of these same considerations…everybody deserves a home where they can feel safe and welcome.
May I respectfully submit the following?
A need that can only be fulfilled if one’s mate sacrifices some integral dignity and sense of self-respect is not a need that is legitimate or one that deserves fulfilling. There is simply nothing in a marriage that is worth sacrificing one’s dignity and self-respect. There is nothing anybody could ever want that should ever be achieved only on someone else’s reluctant back. There is nothing that could be asked legitimately that would require someone to live a lie or to deny some essential feature of his or her life or personality. If someone needs something like that, chances are that person needs to step back and really look at what is being demanded here.
I refuse to believe that love–true love, real honest-to-goodness Buttercup-and-Westley love–would ever want to hurt its target. I refuse to believe that real love would ever be content making someone else live a lie or sacrifice so much of themselves just to make someone else happy…
The house is for everybody, be that house our society or our personal homes. It shouldn’t just be one person’s personal playground at the exclusion and at the expense of the other people in the house. They get to have a house to relax in too. They get to have a house that feels like home to them too. They get a place where they can feel safe and welcome too. We all deserve that.
And ex-Christians deserve that as well in their own personal homes.
Well said. I’ll leave you with that.
For more Godless in Dixie, take The Godless Tour.