Last time we talked, I mentioned that mixed-faith marriages are, despite evangelical Christian leaders’ insistence to the contrary, more than possible. In fact, millions of Americans find themselves in mixed-faith marriages: Jews and Christians, Muslims and atheists, Hindus and pagans, they all do what people do when they’re thrown together at close range: they figure out just how much common ground they have and they start clicking and making good sparks. Today, we’re going to talk more about the nuts and bolts of being in one of these relationships.
We discovered that something like 20% of marriages are between people of differing beliefs*, which is not making evangelical leaders really happy at all. Moreover, when you’re looking at very recent marriages, like those begun since 2010, you will discover that the figure is even higher, as in closer to 40% of marriages–with about 20% of people in a mixed-faith marriage involving a Christian and a “None” (a person who is not affiliated with any religion and doesn’t identify as any particular religion; not necessarily an atheist). The further we march into time, the more of these mixed-faith marriages there are going to be. Think about that–of your married friends who just married recently, there’s just about an even-Steven chance that they’re mixed-faith. That’s new information to me, and very welcome indeed. I hope it is for you as well!
Why I Wish Christian Couples Would Think about Deconversion Before Their Wedding Day.
If a given couple isn’t mixed-faith on their wedding day, there’s a high chance that they will be sooner or later. Young people are especially more likely to deconvert, pull back from religion (a process called “disengagement”), or change religions to something else–and conservative religious groups are far more likely to encourage their adherents to marry as young as possible. So for those couples who marry with bright-eyed expectations of staying Christian forever and ever, they may need to temper that hope with some forethought about what they’d do if one of them went a different route.
Most of us don’t do that. It’s almost like setting up a prenuptial agreement–almost a tacit acknowledgement of failure, a pre-planning of apostasy. As sensible as it would have been for me and Biff, my then-fiance, I already know that we both would have recoiled at the thought of talking about what would happen if one of us deconverted or something. When he did figure it out–some time after the event, I might add; who could honestly blame him–he was completely blindsided. That feeling of utter shock very likely contributed to his piss-poor reaction.
And if you’re here reading this, you probably didn’t think about it either.
Well, we’re here now. Let’s do what we can.
One of the hardest parts of a deconversion–especially one that occurs within a marriage or long-term relationship like that (I’ll be using the term “marriage,” but what I’m saying here applies to pretty much any relationship, including friendship or a parent-child relationship)–is that it often sparks very real grief and feelings of drift in both parties. In Christian relationships especially, it seems like partners stand in for symbols in each other’s lives. When I was Christian, I had certain very rigid expectations of my husband–and he had similar ones of me. We both thought that any two people of opposite genders could marry and it would work out somehow as long as Jesus had ordained that they get together. They might fight like two cats in a pillowcase, but ultimately they’d be able to go the distance if the marriage was ordered by Jesus to happen.
Well, we also had a third requirement for marriage: both parties had to be Christian. Our entire conceptualization of marriage required it. We didn’t even think about it, though. That wasn’t a goalpost that even came up until I deconverted.
To a large extent it felt like people were all but interchangeable in my religion’s view of relationships. I knew a Southern Baptist man when I was Pentecostal who used the exact same quirky, cutesy-poo term of endearment on every one of his long-term girlfriends–and got completely mystified and baffled by my raised objection to that practice. After I ended a brief but extremely intense flirtation in college with another evangelical, the man in question literally found a new interest by the end of that week and married her at the end of the semester–making me feel very special indeed, you can imagine. I felt like my marriage was very different, though. Mine was based upon Jesus’ careful consideration of my and Biff’s strengths and weaknesses and on certainty that we’d be perfect together. And, though I didn’t even put it into words, upon us both being Christians.
This teaching works very much to the advantage of Christian leaders, who push the idea non-stop. It ups the stakes for their adherents, who rightly see deconversion as the potential loss of every single person they love and every relationship they cherish. With those kinds of stakes, the real miracle is that anybody questions this dogma!
If you don’t think that irresponsible Christian leaders don’t deliberately teach that only Christians can have a good and lasting marriage, knowing full well that that teaching will lead their followers to the inevitable conclusion that a deconversion is automatic grounds for divorce and that it is completely impossible for people of differing religious stances to be in a relationship, then you’re only fooling yourself. There is absolutely no reason to think this teaching is true, but it sounds good and fits the general party line so that’s what gets taught.
Over the years, Christians–especially young people, who have way less experience with reality and relationships–have been taught quite a few ideas that not only are objectively false but will be totally destructive and counterproductive for most people to try to put into real-life use. I’m not just talking about the weird, bizarro-world spin their leaders put on sex and marriage.
I’m also talking about how the religion as a whole pushes the value of creating and maintaining various illusory facades–and the more conservative the flavor of the religion, the more insistent its teachings are in that area.
The Happy Christian Marriage Illusion.
Biff and I got married with the goal of getting him into full-time ministry, which he called “getting paid to be a Christian.” He was a charismatic and talented enough public speaker that I thought he had a real chance of making that goal. Though I didn’t feel much like the sweet, submissive little Pentecostal wife that most of these full-time Christian ministers seemed to have, I was on board with helping him achieve his goal because I truly and fervently believed that was what Jesus wanted us to do.
We operated in what I now think of as The Happy Christian Marriage Illusion: this idea that a marriage that operates on Christian principles (which vary by denomination, as if I needed to clarify, but include things like teachings about sex, gender roles, home/work responsibilities, and attitudes about family life) will be a happy one and will last till death, while one that does not operate on those principles will not be happy or last. The system that was preached to me and taught to me (from Catholicism to Pentecostalism, but way more stringently in the latter than the former) was considered perfect; deviating from it was thought to be totally disastrous.
An ideal Christian marriage looked like that weird, whitewashed 1950s relationship one can see best exemplified in old Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best reruns.** That is the marriage I felt compelled to display to the world. Even when reeling in misery I was chirping about how happy a proper Christian marriage was. I’m sure that Biff was fairly happy with the marriage for a variety of reasons, but I was not. I don’t know if anybody knew that, though. I was very good at presenting the required facade.
I did it for a couple of reasons: first, I blamed myself for my failure to be happy because clearly I wasn’t working this perfect system correctly if I felt mistreated and unhappy, and second, my church taught that prosperity gospel idea of “speaking truth to power,” which meant that if I mouthed the words and went through the motions, “God” would reward my obedience by making my words true in the end. Looking back, I’m astonished I ever fell for that teaching, but I did for years–for the same reason that a pigeon in an experiment will keep tapping a bar in the hopes that sooner or later a food pellet will drop down into the cage, but not knowing when–or why–it happens.
Biff wasn’t just facing the end of his dreams of full-time ministry (because oh, you know that no WAY was our denomination going to let him do that with a non-Christian wife), but also the utter end of his personal dreams of a blissfully happy marriage based around shared religious beliefs, practices, cultural norms, and observances. He was already unhappy that I wasn’t following his every order and being the sex doll, live-in maid, brood mare, and mommy figure he wanted; he realized before I even did that my deconversion meant I would no longer have any reason whatsoever to budge on my opinion that his desired marital configuration was deeply unfair and intolerable. As long as I’d been Christian, the possibility of achieving that dream had always been there, wafting just out of reach but still theoretically attainable. When I deconverted, that possibility dissipated like mist on a desert morning.
The problem went deeper than his vocational goals, though. I’d struggled with the gender roles my religion had prescribed for me, but I’d never really rejected them; had I stayed Christian, he had every reason to hope that eventually I would fall into line just like all the other women in my peer group had. I’d ended up relenting on some of the religion’s other demands, after all. I’m sure he thought that eventually,
relentless and calculated emotional manipulation, haranguing, and strong-arming Jesus would change my mind about everything else we disagreed on, even having children (he profoundly wanted them, while I profoundly did not). But if I didn’t accept fundamentalism’s basic premises about what makes a marriage happy and healthy, and–worse–if I rejected its teachings about gender roles, he knew perfectly well that there was absolutely no way he would ever find enough authority and power over me to force me into compliance.
I’m not the first ex-Christian to note that it seemed like as long as I was still playing the game, even if I was playing it really badly and there was a ton of drama erupting all the time, my then-husband felt that at least there was a chance of things working out like he wanted. But when I deconverted, I wasn’t even pretending to play the game anymore. I’ve heard about a number of Christian wives who’ve expressed the same sentiment to their deconverted husbands: that they’d rather their husbands be wife-beaters or substance abusers than non-Christians, because then at least there’d still be the merry-go-round of forgiveness and contrition and at least the spouse would still present the right facade to the rest of the world. That sounds absolutely owl-eyed gibbering horrifying and crazy to people outside the Christian bubble, but I’ve heard it often enough by now that I suspect it’s an actual formal teaching that Christians receive.
That facade is the key to the whole problem.
Biff had a serious question to ask himself, one I don’t think he realized he needed to ask–and one I don’t think a lot of Christians know they need to ask themselves when they realize they’ve got a deconverted spouse on their hands:
Exactly what is the really important part of my marriage? What am I seeking? What do I want most in a relationship?
Life is not going back to the way it was–because “the way it was” was often horrific to the ex-Christians’ spirits: sometimes crushing us with its injustice and irrationality, and often repelling us beyond all imagining. Maybe we even tried for years to present the facade or to pretend that the illusions were reality. Maybe we even went through the motions, speaking words to truth and truth to power, and discovered that the teaching doesn’t actually result in any meaningful changes. It’s probably best to assume that there will never be a reconversion and that this situation is not a phase. The facade is over. There’ll never be a Happy Christian Marriage.
How much do we really want our spouse? Do we want our spouse more than we want the Happy Christian Marriage dancing in our head?
For that matter, what were the elements of that marriage model that we found the most appealing? Some elements of it will be overtly religious, of course, but many won’t be.
Is it possible that we can still get the happiness, stability, companionship, and mutual affection the illusion promises without having both partners subscribe to the same religious ideology?
Given that we’re not re-converting after de-converting, and that our mates very well may never deconvert along with us, given that this is the situation as it stands for the foreseeable future:
Is this where we can both be happy?
To answer these questions, both people have to have open eyes, minds, and hearts.
That’s a lot easier said than done. A lot of things may end up changing–superficial things, daily-routine things, most of them, but still, our days are largely made up of those things so I’m not minimizing that stress.
Moreover, our opinions may need to change too. There are always a few points where our opinions aren’t informed by reality–that’s just the human situation. Christian leaders have been teaching for decades that someone who isn’t Christian simply doesn’t have the Jesus Power necessary to motor through a marriage in an ethical, loving, compassionate, and caring way (in fact, I’m reading the Christian advice book The Love Dare, which makes that connection explicit by Day 10). That’s simply wrong, just as the idea that a Christian cannot manage that trick is wrong. And every so often someone will deconvert and feel a huge anger toward their old religious community–often with very good reason. A deconversion doesn’t just force the Christian spouse to re-examine old ideas–it’ll bring both partners face-to-face with some very strong opinions. On both sides, some of those opinions will not stand up to serious inquiry and will turn out to be based more on fear-of-the-unknown and demonization-of-the-Other than they are on reality.
The key is to at least find out which opinions are true and which ones aren’t before making hasty decisions.
Sometimes a Christian simply won’t want to examine those doctrines and clings very hard to their programming. Sometimes the ex-Christian’s anger is so powerful that he or she can’t let go of feelings of resentment or contempt toward the Christian partner for still having those beliefs (though let me stress that this is a terribly rare situation; usually the ex-Christian is very sympathetic and understanding about the partner’s faith). Maybe the ex-Christian aches for a partner who understands his or her new thinking and worldview; maybe the Christian is pining for the feeling of being in church with the whole family every Sunday, or terrified that the deconverted spouse is now going to Hell, or scared to death that the deconverted spouse will now do something really bad now that there’s no Jesus Power inhabiting him or her. Someone sufficiently indoctrinated or angry or frightened can get all kinds of ideas, and many will turn out to be wrong.
But maybe in time both partners will come to a place where they realize that now that they’ve left the script, they can start forging a new direction together that works for them both and leads to a lifelong and rewarding relationship.
Let the journey begin with a question, just like the marriage itself probably did.
* Obviously, atheism is not a belief system but researchers count it as one, kind of, so they can do their survey thang. I’ll roll with it.
** Ironically, my old denomination was rabidly against popular entertainment and didn’t “allow” adherents to own TVs, watch movies, go to parades or non-Christian plays, or watch or attend sportsball matches. Imagine my shock when I found out that most of our ministry team, including the pastors’ families, had TVs all over their houses. “But we only watch TV shows like Andy Griffith,” one pastor’s teenaged son told me very earnestly. Oh, I’m sure they did. Mmm-hmm.
ALSO: If it helps, I wrote a long series called The Unequally Yoked Club that is written for both the ex-Christian and still-Christian partners involved in one of these relationships, from the point of view of someone (me) who was in one and has talked to a number of other folks in one. For real, this is doable. This is way doable.