The Coin We Recognize.

The Coin We Recognize. April 8, 2015

A long time ago I ran across a metaphor that changed the entire landscape for me, emotionally speaking: sometimes people offer each other a metaphorical coin that the other person simply can’t accept. The coin’s not recognized as legitimate legal tender, so it’s either ignored or rejected outright. That idea made a lot of sense to me because of what happened after I deconverted from Christianity.

559 Roman coins were discovered buried in a clay pot in the ground; they are on display in Caerleon. (Credit: Helen Hall, Flickr. CC license.)
559 Roman coins were discovered buried in a clay pot in the ground; they are on display in Caerleon; the coins were likely buried around 160CE. (Credit: Helen Hall, Flickr. CC license.)

When someone makes a social overture to you, they’re offering you a coin. If that person says, “Hi, how are you doing?” that’s a sort of coin. Usually the coin is something you’ll recognize, so you accept it and offer one back: “I’m fine, and how are you?” You understand this coin. You know how this currency works, and you know how much the coin is worth. You know that the expected change back is not “Oh my gosh, my life sucks so bad! Listen to this horrible story about how my dog died and my spouse just left me.”

And most of us know–or worse, have had happen to us–a romantic gesture that went hideously wrong. Maybe one person totally misread some cues and proposed marriage to a partner who wasn’t interested in marriage. Maybe a gift was something that was actually deeply unpleasant to the recipient. In those cases, the initiator of the action offered a coin–gifts, an engagement request–that the other person could not accept. Sometimes you’ll hear this idea called love languages, but it’s the same basic idea.

People have a lexicon of gestures and phrases that are personally significant to them, and sometimes have trouble expressing different gestures and phrases–or recognizing different ones that are offered to them than the ones they think are significant. We hold out those coins–those gestures, those phrases–in our hands, and if conditions are ideal, then the recipient will accept them and hopefully offer one in return. When there’s a mismatch between what we recognize and what we get, or what our partners recognize and what we offer them, or if we’re always offering but never getting anything in return, there’s a serious potential there for hurt feelings and disappointment.

Probably the best example of a mismatch in coin would be a child giving a very elderly grandparent a baseball glove for Christmas. The recipient of such a mismatch usually tries to put a good face on it and be thankful for the thought at least, but if these mismatches keep happening, then it’s natural to start wondering if the person offering them is maybe talking more to themselves than to us or doesn’t care about us as much as we care about them. If we communicate that there’s a mismatch but don’t see any changes, then we’ll often start feeling like we won’t be able to maintain a relationship with that person.

In the same way, many ex-Christians experience this mismatch after we deconvert. While we’re involved with religion, we get trained to value the giving and receiving of particular coins. But when we leave religion, suddenly those gestures and coins don’t have the same significance they used to have, and suddenly we run into rocky waters with our loved ones when they continue to try to offer those old coins that we no longer recognize and when they can’t in turn recognize or accept the coin we offer them.

It’s a really big deal when a country changes its currency. The Czech Republic, for example, is considering adopting the Euro–and it may take some time for them to decide. Even just adding a new coin to an established currency can be controversial; witness the brouhaha around the Canadian toonie, its $2 coin. I was living there when it was introduced, and quickly my friends began derisively calling it “the queen with the bear behind” because it had the Queen on the front and a bear on the back. I thought it was pretty, with its heft and golden center, but a lot of folks hated it. It wasn’t necessary, they said; it was too outlandish-looking; it would be hugely expensive to retrofit vending machines and whatnot to accept it. And most Americans know about the objections raised about our own $2 bill and Sacagawea dollar. But money is such a personal and integral topic for us that changes to it can quickly leave us feeling annoyed or apprehensive.

That’s why I find this metaphor so helpful in understanding how my Christian husband reacted to my deconversion.

Biff kept offering gestures to me that he felt were meaningful to him but that didn’t resonate with me at all, and demanding of me in turn too much coin for what he was offering me, and wanting coin in return that I no longer had to give him. 

As an example, Biff began “lowering” himself to do stuff with me that I now found fun and enjoyable. Before, we’d been a really observant church couple–as you might imagine, given that he was a youth pastor aiming for full-time ministry. It’s safe to say that we were at church most days of the week, and at some points maybe even every day at some point for at least a little while, and twice on Sundays. Our whole life revolved around church and practicing Christianity. We shared a paradigm for functioning in a relationship, as defective as that paradigm was. We shared a vocabulary for expressing and receiving love, as unsatisfactory as it was for us both (think “men are from Mars” type bullshit; my whole church was completely gaga for that brand of parapsychology).

Once I deconverted, though, I stopped going to church soon afterward and suddenly Biff was either going to church without me or not going to church quite as often so we could spend time together. I know what he likely faced because I saw it every weekend with my own two eyes: the sadness, the concern, the sympathy… and the secret blame. Remember, my church went for that whole “umbrella” conceptualization of hierarchy where husbands were considered to be the masters and heads of their households. In that culture, a man who wants to get involved with ministry not only usually has to be married, but has to have decent control over his wife; if I wasn’t attending church, that I was “in rebellion” and that obviously reflected very badly on Biff. Though I didn’t know any women at the time who’d deconverted (or men either for that matter), I’ve noticed since then that when a married man stops attending church, his wife gets lots of sympathy and often special considerations for her longsuffering martyrdom, but when married women stop, their husbands get side-eye.

It took a long time for him to come to grips with the fact that this wasn’t a phase, but once he did, he launched covert ops offensives to win me back to the faith. If I wanted to go see a movie or grab a beer somewhere, he’d tag along; if I wanted to listen to “worldly” music, which meant anything but classical music, old-school hymns, and gospel, then he would as well. But he did every bit of it with this comically-obvious hangdog, grudging, pained expression, sometimes darting glances at me like a very small boy who isn’t sure you’re not just putting him on when you offer him his first olive to eat. Sometimes he’d even ask: “is this really what you think is fun now?” with this utterly hushed, horrified tone of voice, like he fully expected me to go “Oh my gosh, you’re right, what am I thinking here?” As a reminder, we’re talking about movies and an occasional night out, not stalking and murdering kittens. Maybe he thought he was showing me what properly moral people thought of such activities by being such a killjoy? Your guess is as good as mine.

And in return for this unspeakable torture he’d endured, he fully expected that I would in turn resume going back to church with him. If he wasn’t making wheedling demands and requests that I attend church, he was starting arguments about it or injecting what I’m sure he thought were sly Jesus jukes into nearly every conversation we had (such as saying stuff like “after you start going to church again”). If it wasn’t so blatantly manipulative and coercive I’d have felt sorry for him, he was driving himself so crazy trying to pull me back through the church doors by any means fair or foul.

The problem was, I never once asked him to do anything he didn’t want to do. I respected that he wasn’t interested in off-limits activities and was fully prepared to have fun by myself. I fully expected that in time we’d find new common interests that we could pursue as a couple. Every couple in the world has some differences in interests, and even my old church knew that. But to them, separate interests were things like “she likes classical concerts and he likes camping and fishing.” Our particular differences didn’t fit into Biff’s worldview.

His strategy to get us back on track was to offer me the coin of grudgingly going along with my weird new ideas in the hopes that I’d accept that coin and feel obligated to extend a similar one back to him, and thereby get re-immersed in Christian life and thereby stop rebelling. He was going to do stuff he hated and didn’t want to do, in hopes that I’d do stuff I hated and didn’t want to do. And like Christian bigots’ chirpy platitudes about equal marriage (such as Michele Bachmann’s infamous attempt, paraphrased: “we all have the right to marry someone of the opposite gender, so what the heck else do gay people want?!?”), it wasn’t a fair comparison. I didn’t value the coin he was offering. I did not believe it was okay for me to demand someone do something he hated as much as I loathed going to church. And because I had never asked for him to do anything, I didn’t feel beholden to do what he wanted me to do. Remember how we were talking about how sometimes people do unasked-for favors to barter for control over others? That’s what I think he was doing.

Another big problem is that he was making this offer because he wanted me to do something in return that directly benefited him but which had no upsides at all for me. But the things he was offering to do with me were things that didn’t really matter to me that much–they were mostly things I did while he was at work or otherwise occupied. There was a serious mismatch in benefits and costs for both ends of that equation. He was offering me a plugged nickel for my toonie, as far as I was concerned! On those rare occasions we could spend time together, I was fully open to us doing something we both valued and enjoyed–rather than something one-sided.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think love is two-sided. Both parties should respect and honor each other and want only what is best for each other. When I deconverted, I rediscovered the concepts of inner dignity and self-respect–and when Biff offered to do things for me that he that hated, I could not accept such a gesture because I respected his inner dignity as well. And if I couldn’t accept his offer to do things he hated, then I sure wasn’t going to reciprocate. Indeed, eventually I told him he should lay off; I wasn’t ever going to return to church as a result of these efforts. And he stopped doing those things immediately, which I’m sure was a relief to us both.

Looking back, though, I didn’t know how to express my discomfort with what was being offered and demanded. I couldn’t articulate quite yet that I had every right to wonder why someone who said he loved me felt perfectly okay with trying to manipulate me into doing something he in turn knew I loathed that much. I’ve had a few thoughts about why he did so, but we’ll talk about that later on. For now, just know that I don’t think such requests are loving.

We’re going to see this kind of coin offered when we deconvert. It’s okay if we respectfully call out this behavior and refuse to buy into it–and offer to find a common ground that honors both parties. As I wrote long ago, you have every right to refuse to do anything you don’t want to do. I refuse to believe that someone who truly loves you would even want to make such a terrible, crushing demand. At that point such a demand is about maintaining an illusion at someone else’s marked expense, and to me, that’s not loving either. If we want to make a sacrifice for someone else, or go to trouble for someone else’s benefit, that’s totally fine, but it should be our freely-chosen desire and not a response to an extortion attempt, and such undignified, one-sided sacrifices do not constitute the tone of an entire healthy relationship.

We’re going to talk about real compromise next time, on that note, and I hope you’ll join me.

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