We’ve been talking lately about mixed-belief marriages. For purposes of discussion, a mixed-belief (or mixed-faith) marriage is one in which the partners believe markedly different things about the supernatural. They might be a Jewish person and a Christian, or an atheist and a Muslim, or a pagan and a Hindu, or any combination of these and more besides.* Galen’s written some breathtakingly good posts since then on the topic that I highly encourage you to read. And to a huge extent a lot of what we’re saying here applies to any long-term romantic relationship, not just a formal, recognized, legal marriage. Today I want to talk about one of the big fears that I’ve seen Christians talk about regarding mixed-belief marriage.
My first foray into the subject was a post about how these types of marriages are not only possible but often do extremely well, which is something that I don’t think conservative Christian leaders want their flocks to know.
Then I covered what I think one of the first questions should be for a couple finding themselves in a mixed-belief marriage: What do I really want out of this relationship? And sometimes someone is going to decide that he or she would rather have a Happy Christian Marriage (or no marriage at all) than one with a non-believer. When it works out like that, it’s sad, but there’s not much else one can do for it than find a graceful way out of the relationship.
But more and more often, that’s not how it’s working out.
More and more often, Christians are not only marrying non-believers in the first place, but even in a marriage that begins with both partners being Christian, when one of them deconverts then the still-Christian spouse decides to try to work things out instead of insta-dumping the now-ex-Christian.
Earlier I wrote that after couples figure out that they would rather have each other than the Happy Christian Marriage they were taught to want, at that point it’s a matter of logistics. There isn’t a lot of information out there for people who really want to figure out those logistics. So here are some of what I see as the logistics. I don’t present myself as some kind of professional psychologist or counselor, but as someone who was once a Christian and is now an ex-Christian and someone moreover who has listened to countless people describe their own situations. Nor do I pretend that anything could be universal to all people and situations–just common.
First Things First.
Core points of people’s personalities don’t really change much past their teens without serious, long-term, sustained effort.
If before the deconversion you were a decently ethical and honest person, you’re still going to be that way afterward. Indeed, plenty of Christians are decent people who treat others with dignity, love, and fairness. Just as Jesus doesn’t change anybody by magic, leaving Christianity doesn’t either. It may feel like the end of the world for a Christian to discover that his or her spouse has deconverted, but what’s really going to be weird is when the Christian finds out just how little has actually changed about his or her mate after deconversion. There’s a core in people that doesn’t seem to shift much once we hit a certain age.
Those core components of our personalities are stuff like how honest we are, what we think about sex and gender relations, our general tolerance for frustration and annoyance, whether we view the universe as fair or not, how generous we are, how polite and fair we are, how much we need social interaction or alone time, how likely we are to become (or stay) addicted to things like drugs and gambling, how controlling or insecure we are, and even how trusting or skeptical we are.**
That’s the stuff I see only rarely changing after conversion or deconversion. Usually it takes therapy or a serious knock upside the emotional head for us to even see that a change might be needed. If change occurs it’s usually not going to be much: an intensely private person might branch out and start socializing more, for example, or someone might realize that the universe really isn’t fair. Or someone might seek therapy to learn better methods of managing frustration, or learn to stop unhealthy patterns like comfort eating.
That’s why someone can convert and claim, in the euphoria of the moment, that some massive change for the better has occurred in his or her person–but given time and familiarity, that person will revert back to his or her core personality because the tough work of change has not actually been done. Realistic Christians will readily concede this point, but even the most liberal Christians tend to believe that such magical, complete change is possible through faith.
That’s why the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan, Phil Robertson, can claim that
magic “Jesus” changed him from a violent pervert (in a testimony video that the linked writer literally calls “one of the most powerful testimonies [he’s] ever watched”) into a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ and then turn around and repeatedly and proudly reveal that he’s still totally a violent pervert. At his core, he didn’t actually change. He might feel like he did and even desperately hope that he did, but ultimately he shows his true colors anytime he’s not on his best behavior. He’s hardly unique; my then-husband Biff, who was a very fervent Christian, was almost a mirror of Phil Robertson–and Jesus didn’t change him at all either, except to make him more adept at hiding and hand-waving away those parts of himself.
When a Christian says that he or she used to be really horrible before conversion, especially if abusive behaviors, addiction, or criminality was involved, it’s time to hold onto your wallet and keep the kids close. Christians talk like that because their culture greatly rewards people who can claim really dramatic turnarounds, but even when I believed in Christianity I noticed that these “named and claimed” turnarounds very seldom seemed to result in real, lasting change–any more than “miracle” cures did. (Of course, my religion had plenty of spin-doctoring to apply to both truths, but their ad hoc flailing-about only raised more questions than answers!)
Religion can make good people do bad things, and it can make bad people do good things, but ultimately it doesn’t really change a good person into a genuinely bad one or vice versa. It is always interpreted through the lens of how moral or immoral someone is as a person. That’s why jerkweeds seem to gravitate toward really abusive forms of Christianity, while very loving people seem to follow a version of Christianity that is completely alien and unintelligible to those who’ve escaped the abusive forms of it. Someone very honest might squirm when asked to exaggerate a religious claim or someone who is fundamentally self-centered might learn to at least present a facade of friendliness and compassion, but in a long-term, close-quarters relationship like marriage, the truth comes out.
That, however, is not what Christians tend to learn about where their faith system fits into their general personalities.
Christians learn from an early age that they have this core of Jesus-ness in their personalities that is brought by their faith in him, and that this core is what leads them to be moral, good, compassionate people. Everything good about themselves is that core of Jesus-ness. Everything bad is their “sin nature.” People are born sinful and wretched (according to most denominations; nothing I’m writing here is totally universal in Christianity, just common), so anything good they do is because of that Jesus core. Their faith in Christianity, therefore, is what makes them capable of being good, loving people.
Well, I know.
And lots of other ex-Christians know.
And lots of our loved ones know exactly what happens when that “core” is removed:
Once we deconvert, something becomes crystal-clear:
Religious beliefs aren’t really a part of our core after all.
They are actually something draped over our real cores and interpreted through the lens of our essential personality.
When we get married, most of us promise to love each other through “better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” That’s a vow that even a lot of non-Christians say and mean on their wedding days–because we know that we want our love to last through changes in circumstances.
Well, maybe people’s beliefs are a sort of circumstance too. A big circumstance for a lot of folks, but still something that fits around what we’re like deep inside rather than what we actually are deep inside.
And I’m not sure it’s a good idea to base a relationship on circumstances–not if one wants that relationship to last through time. Circumstances change–sometimes infrequently and sometimes not much, but change is just part of life.
Maybe you are convinced in your most secret heart that your partner will always play Tron Light Bikes with you every single day,*** or that you will both always love Basque food more than anything else in the world–or on the idea that you’ll both be Republicans, or be Southern Baptists, or want to go live in Italy, or want to have six children. And such a hope is frequently doomed to disappointment because those aren’t core parts of us and when it comes to non-core stuff, people change all the time.
That kind of change is inevitable. There’s not a way to stop it. I don’t think Christianity deals well with this idea–maybe because their conceptualization of their god is an unchanging one, which makes stasis perfect and change imperfect. If we’re alive, we’re changing–and the younger we are the more quickly and dramatically it happens. As we grow and gain new information, our desires, goals, and beliefs shift and change almost on their own as a result. A deconversion won’t be the first or last change someone ever faces in a relationship. It might not even be the biggest.
You might change too in some significant way sometime down the line. Maybe you’ll even deconvert. Maybe one day you and your spouse will both be the same religion again, or maybe not–and if so, then the religion might be different. And before you say “No way!”, let me tell you that most ex-Christians would have said exactly the same thing before they deconverted (including me), and some Christians would say the same thing regarding their own conversions. Even if you could say with 100% certainty what you yourself would or wouldn’t do way down the line, it’s not a good idea to predicate your entire future on two people always staying the same.
It seems like sometimes Christians go into relationships with this unspoken rule: “I will always love you–unless you change and stop liking what I like and doing what I do.” Ironically, I’ve been reading a Christian advice manual called The Love Dare lately that flat-out says on Day 39 that if someone’s love “can be told to quit loving, then it’s not really love.” But I see Christians do exactly this all the time–and often justify their rejection of their loved ones with scrunched-up eyebrows, copious tears, and mournful-sounding Christianese. I lost every single Christian friend I had after I deconverted, and I sure ain’t the only one who saw that happen. We’d based our relationship not around mutual respect or caring, but instead around our mutual shared belief in Christianity and our shared religious practices. They had no idea in the world how to care about me as a person–they could only handle relationships built around those shared interests and practices. Even today, regular readers of my blog will have noticed commenters talking about how Christians only seem interested in striking up friendships or offering “dialogue” as long as we’ll let them preach at us.
In a way, it’s like such Christians have “majored in the minors,” to borrow a phrase I heard preachers use way back in my Christian days. Their relationships are based around circumstances like shared faith and practices, rather than on who we are as people and what essentially we are like. If we’re not already sharing faith and practices, their major goal is to make us share them; if we stop, their goal is to get us to start again. They’re not interested in us; they’re interested in whether or not we do and believe the same stuff they do.
There’s a real transactional element to that kind of relationship: “if you do this, then I’ll be able to do that, and then you’ll do this other thing, and at that point we’ll both do this next thing.” If one link in the chain is disrupted, the whole relationship gets disrupted and stands at risk.
It took me many years after deconversion to realize I was conducting my relationships (from friendships on up!) like that, and longer still to learn better. Realizing that Christianity’s claims were untrue was pretty easy compared to learning how to speak People–because socialization is a core thing for me, while my old religious faith was a circumstance draped around that core. And I think socialization was a core thing for all my Christian friends, too. For all our talk about our “church family,” I honestly and truly cannot think of one single person I knew back in my church days who actually had any idea how to maintain a real relationship with anyone outside of the prescribed and scripted way our denomination taught.
Here’s what I mean. If my friend Angela is used to us doing Christian things like praying and she’s always enjoyed talking about Jesus and our shared perceptions of how “he” is doing stuff in our lives and now she knows I no longer believe in Jesus, that’s going to make her feel very awkward indeed. Even if I respond positively, she’ll wonder deep down if she sounds silly to me–or she’ll suspect I’m being condescending. If I on the other hand want to talk about this cool new book I’ve read about an aspect of science that Angela denies is real, then we’re both going to feel weird and maybe frustrated. If one or both of us is controlling or easily frustrated, then we might fall into a pattern of arguments and conflict trying to evangelize the other to believe and do like the other. If what we valued in each other was our shared belief system, then when the belief system changes for one of us, we’ll struggle to find something else to value about each other–and we might not have the tools or the inclination to do it. Maybe Angela doesn’t want to do stuff that isn’t Christian in focus, or maybe I’ll refuse to do that stuff with her, and maybe neither of us is interested in the non-religious stuff the other might like. Hell, one or both of us might not even believe that it’s possible to have a relationship that isn’t totally centered around our faith and practices.
Now imagine if Angela and I are married. Now suddenly my lack of belief in some way reflects on her even more–and even worse, my deconversion will speak to our entire future together and to every one of her hopes and dreams about what her life would look like.
At that point, I’ve changed–and ruined–everything.
Angela now has a decision to make. And it will not be an easy one. She will have to struggle toward an understanding of what made our relationship special and figure out if she values that essential quality of our bond more than she valued our shared circumstance. We’ll have to make a new circumstance and drape it around that special bond we have–we’ll have to make a relationship that transcends the change in circumstance, one that rolls with it and gets up again and continues on the road.
Maybe she simply won’t want to do it. Not all relationships are able to withstand all changes, and I’d never argue that they should. Some changes in circumstance will be simply intolerable to us. But part of what married people do–ideally anyway–is figure out a way to work with a change in circumstance as best they can. If we truly love our spouses, don’t we owe it to them and to our shared history to at least try to find some way of rolling with a change before giving up on one of the most important relationships we’ll ever have?
So I’m proposing that it might be easier for people in a mixed-belief relationship to view religious beliefs as part of a person’s personality, but not one of the deepest, least changeable parts of that person’s personality–to consider that there are parts of us that go a lot deeper than whatever we happen to believe right now about the supernatural and that those more essential, less changeable aspects of our personalities might be more important to whether or not a marriage succeeds or fails than our beliefs.
Because if millions of mixed-belief and atheist marriages are doing just fine without shared belief in Christianity’s claims and–simultaneously–oodles of Christian marriages fail every year despite having shared belief in Christianity’s claims, then it is absolutely impossible for me to think that shared belief is essential to maintaining a long-term relationship.
We’re going to talk about some more elements of the Happy Christian Marriage next time — and I hope you’ll join us.
* Obviously, atheism is not a religion but the absence of religions, but until someone comes up with a more graceful all-inclusive word for this type of relationship I’m stuck. If you can think of something, please share with the class!
** I’m not even a kid person but I’m not sure there is anything in the world as cute as a very dubious baby.
*** I will kick your ass at Tron Light Bikes.