I was married for 16 years, 14 of which were pretty good years. By “pretty good” I mean that we felt like we were a pretty good team, and others seemed to agree with us. We never fought, never raised our voices at each other, and there was a pretty even split of responsibilities between the two of us. We had a kind of “mind meld” about a lot of things for most of our marriage because we were both naturally very communicative and very much on the same page from the beginning about the most important things.
In a way, our relationship was never greatly tested because we were so much on the same page for so many years. Couples with less in common fight more because their differences are more obvious and can’t be swept under the rug. Regardless of similarity, however, it’s not necessarily a good thing that we never fought. In retrospect I see how the absence of conflict in our marriage owed more to my own reluctance to verbalize anything that could start a disagreement than it did to the fundamental health of our relationship. Despite the smooth daily functioning of our marriage, I was inadvertently following a script for the ideal Christian husband which taught me some lamentably unhealthy habits. In the end, unbeknownst to me, those habits drained our relationship of the very elements on which good relationships depend. I’m going to try to spell out what those habits are, where they come from, and how I hope to unlearn them for the sake of all my other relationships from this point on.
Learning to “Hate” Yourself
I’ve written before about the way Christianity teaches self-loathing. Jesus enjoined his followers to “hate” their own lives even to the point of metaphorically embracing their own crucifixion (good luck finding a healthy example of what that looks like!). Christians are always quick to minimize Jesus’s use of the word “hate” because it is clearly a hyperbole, forgetting that hyperboles are used in order to add emphasis—to make a point stronger, not weaker. Disregarding yourself and your own needs in the interest of self-sacrifice is indeed a kind of self-hatred and Jesus extolled precisely that when he commanded his followers to “take up your own cross.” There is no balance here between taking care of your own needs and sacrificing them for the sake of whatever ideal you are pursuing. You must “lose your life” for the sake of gaining whatever it is that you interpret Jesus to be offering.
Paul continues the same theme himself. I don’t know if he learned it from other early Christians or if it was his own idea in the first place and it later got superimposed back onto Jesus, putting words in his mouth. Either way, the theme of unqualified self-sacrifice shines through:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
The essence of love, the Christian tradition teaches, is to put the needs of others above your own, sacrificing your own happiness and well-being for the sake of others and for God, however your particular tradition defines that obligation.
The thing is, it’s not a bad notion in itself, is it? What a contrast to our egocentric tendencies this teaching presents! It has an undeniable beauty to it, doesn’t it? I can’t deny that it has a certain appeal, if for no other reason than its counter-intuitiveness. As intelligent beings we are drawn to irony precisely because we tend to learn and grow best as a species when we encounter the unexpected. Those moments when we observe the opposite of what we expect provoke our curiosity, and that’s when the great discoveries are made which push us higher into a new level of understanding the world around us. Our brains tingle when we encounter irony because our past has rewarded our thirst to understand the things that don’t make sense. So when someone says you must “lose your life” in order to gain it, we respond with, “Wow, man. That’s deep.”
But hold on a second. There’s something missing here. I can’t deny that there is maturity in learning to postpone your own gratification for the sake of something necessary. Shoot, I’m a parent and a teacher. My whole day is basically made up of ignoring my own needs in order to meet the needs of others. It’s an indispensable skill. But where is the balance? Where does this religion turn around and emphasize that you still have needs yourself? At what point does it finally stop and say, “But sometimes you gotta take care of you?”
I’ve read the Bible many times through and personally I don’t see it. When confronted with this imbalance, bibliophiles sometimes quote the verse where Jesus says you must “love your neighbor as yourself.” They argue that self-love is implied in that command, but it isn’t at all. Not only does the verse not give any such instruction, but even if it had, it would have been robbed of all of its force by the tenor of the rest of the New Testament which calls for you to deny yourself and take up your cross.
Another rationalization that gets tossed around goes something like this: If two people in a relationship simultaneously devalue their own needs in the interest of serving the other, each of them will have what he or she needs because of the “other focus” built into each partner. This looks good on paper until you realize that since neither person’s ideal makes a place for balancing the needs of self with the needs of others, both partners can become empty tanks by always pouring themselves out for the rest of the world without thought for refilling their own tanks. They are assured that God will magically refill their tanks like the woman whose lamp never ran out of oil and whose pantry always yielded one more day’s flour to make bread. But that’s just a story, and in real life it’s not the way human beings work. In real life you have a limited supply of psychological and emotional energy, and if no thought is ever given to the restoration of that supply, emptiness and burnout will be the eventual result.
This is Your Relationship on Religion
Speaking for myself, both nature and nurture conspired in my life to produce a perfect storm of self-negation. I had a double whammy: I was born with a highly empathetic nature, keen on helping others in order to feel valuable myself, then I spent 20 years in devout pursuit of evangelical ideals, taking Jesus’s call to “take up your cross” very seriously. In time I gravitated toward those subcultures within Christianity which emphasized “the cross” as a paradigm for daily living. My tribe of choice was virtually infatuated with the death of “self” and I even remember one of our leaders telling the men that the key to a good marriage was to “go to the cross.” “Lay down your life and die, brother. That’s the secret to a healthy marriage.”
My subculture romanticized brokenness, weakness, and loss as means of becoming more “one with God” in a kind of inner mystical union. This, we believed, was the good stuff. We had the secret. We were privileged to have discovered “the deeper Christian life,” meaning that we more fully understood and embraced the mysterious counter-intuitiveness of dying-to-live just as Jesus celebrated. But looking back, we really weren’t all that unique among evangelicals. The chorus of a popular Mercy Me song says:
So long, self
Well, it’s been fun, but I have found somebody else
So long, self
There’s just no room for two
So you are gonna have to move
So long, self
Don’t take this wrong but you are wrong for me, farewell
Oh well, goodbye, don’t cry
So long, self
I did like I was supposed to do and applied that mentality to my marriage, only it didn’t do what they said it would do. It didn’t produce life and health; it left me empty and unsatisfied. I never learned to recognize my own needs in my relationship because I was taught that’s just selfish talk. You should forego your own needs for the love of God and trust that he will renew your soul when the time is right. Well, that’s hogwash. It’s a lie. It looks beautiful in a twisted, knotty kind of way, but you shouldn’t be fooled. This isn’t some secret magic. It’s an empty offer that glitters with intrigue but in the end fails to deliver. When you lay down your life you don’t get it back again. It gets used up by others and it doesn’t return.
The Christian religion took advantage of my innate helping nature and turned it into codependency. I learned first to devalue myself so completely that I felt worth nothing in myself (“Apart from me you can do nothing”), then I learned to feed off of being needed by others, by the church, and even by my own family so completely that I virtually disappeared into those roles. I didn’t do this because I misunderstood what I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t get this way because I was doing it wrong. On the contrary, I got this way because I was doing it right. Too right, in fact. I internalized the values of my own tradition a little too successfully, and that’s a large part of why I came to see in the end that the whole enterprise is emotionally and relationally bankrupt. I did what Jesus taught us to do and I learned to hate my own life, giving it up for the needs of everyone else even to the point of ignoring and squelching my own needs in my marriage. It didn’t do what he said it would do, though. It didn’t bring life, it brought death.
To be clear: I’m not even saying here that my wife was doing anything wrong. What I’m saying is that I never learned to identify or verbalize my own needs in my marriage because no one taught me how. On the contrary, I was encouraged not to have any needs of my own. The goal was to forget “self” altogether and focus on what everyone else needed. There was no balance, no place for me in my own life. I was there only to lose myself and become nothing. That was the goal.
The Challenge that Lies Before Me (and You)
Now that I see this unhealthy pattern in my own past, what can I do to counter it?
First of all, I have to at least acknowledge that this is a problem. I’ve only recently begun to develop a vocabulary for these things, thanks in large part to other formerly religious friends. Those who have been devout Christians as I once was will understand the struggle with self-worth I am describing and they’ve likely seen its impact on their relationships as well. People did a piss poor job of teaching us to self-advocate or to make and maintain personal boundaries, especially those of us with any ministry experience. Consequently, some of us are entering our 40’s having only just begun to figure these things out. Our Christian upbringing stunted our emotional, psychological, and relational health, and now we’re having to unlearn a ton of bad habits and replace them with healthier ones.
With the help of my other post-religious friends I’m slowly learning to see that I have my own needs and that ignoring them won’t make them go away. When you ignore your own needs long enough you can’t help resenting those around you who keep taking whatever you will give, always expecting more and never expecting you to stop giving in order to take care of yourself. It’s a skill we never learned, but learn we must if we are ever to have healthy love relationships.
I’ve got a lot to learn about how to be in a healthy relationship. I’ve got so much still to learn about identifying and verbalizing my own needs, particularly if that means encountering disapproval from those whom I love. As a person plagued by insecurities I desperately need at least certain people to approve of me, but voicing my own needs can jeopardize that. I don’t have an easy cure for this. All I know to do is to stock up on the positive reinforcement you can get from as many other sources as you can find in order to build up the strength it takes to endure the displeasure of those who liked you better when you had no needs at all. You must be prepared for them to see you as selfish or failing to love them because suddenly you are asking for care of your own. This is a new dynamic, and it will not come easily, especially if patterns have already become set. People around you have come to expect an unwavering selflessness, and they will be disappointed in you. But go there you must if you are ever to make any progress.
Those of us who learned “the cross” a little too well must learn to really live, and it will take a lot of determination to overcome our indoctrination. But that is what humanism is about: We believe in life before death because we’re fairly convinced that everything else is made up fairy tales. There’s not going to be a redo, or a second life in which everything gets magically balanced out. It’s time to start being more fully alive now. Our relationships will be fuller and healthier if we do.