The most powerful thing two people can do is really communicate.
When there’s a veil in between them, it’s much harder to do that. Not impossible, but a lot harder. I discovered that truth in the early days of my membership in the Unequally Yoked Club (UYC). There’s a reason Christians find the imagery around the Crucifixion miracle of the “tearing of the curtain” so incredibly powerful. Even I, long out of the religion, find the image very moving. Imagine: suddenly there is nothing between people and their deity. Suddenly everybody can see inside the holiest part of the temple. Suddenly everybody can access its truths. There’s no more blockage to the flow of information. No more hindrances to true communication. No more hiding. No more secrets. No more lies.
No more illusions.
Too bad we can’t pull that off in normal life.
People may say they want one thing, but the simple truth is that either they don’t know what they really want, or else they’re wrong about what they really want. We’re always saying we want stuff we don’t actually seem to want when rubber hits the road. If you don’t believe me, watch a pair of entitled yuppies buy a house–they’ll want a wine cellar, exercise room, professional kitchen, you name it. Two years later, the wine cellar will be storing junk and the exercise room will be an ersatz laundry-in-waiting closet. The professional kitchen? The most cooking it’ll see is the toasting of Eggo waffles. We say we want particular things, but what we’re really aiming for is an image of ourselves in that situation. We want to believe we’d throw magnificent dinner parties, learn to make gourmet meals, exercise every day in our kitted-out home gym. We want things aspirationally. We want the image they confirm. We want the dream they help us indulge in.
A long time ago, I worked for a cell phone company whose entire thrust of business was being transparent and simple. People said they wanted that. They said they wanted easy-to-understand plans and fairness in handling customer accounts. They said they wanted to do business with a company that kept jobs in America rather than outsourcing. They said they wanted to do business with a company that put customer service as a priority. They said they wanted freedom from contracts and obligations. They said that. I’m sure they even meant it. But the business ended up going under the block because in the end, what people wanted was free phones and special perks. I’m not kidding. I worked in that company’s disconnection department. Day after day I’d try to explain how the plans we offered would save these people–who’d just told me that they valued economy and fairness–thousands and thousands of dollars; I’d tell them that my company would always treat them well and fairly. I’d talk about how we never outsourced. I’d demonstrate everything under the sun.
I was good at that job–stupendous even; for quite some time I was in the top bracket of agents at that call center. But my efforts meant nothing to way too many customers. Was I offering a free smartphone and a month of paid service? No? Then I could jolly well piss off. Even if in the long run that smartphone and month of service would cost that customer thousands of dollars extra, even if the new company they were switching to was infamous for shoddy service, even if the new company was also infamous for outsourcing, all that mattered was a free smartphone and month of service. Slowly my company began to figure out that what people said they wanted and the businesses they patronized were two totally separate things. Idealism is nice, but it doesn’t keep a company in the black, does it? So we may say we want one thing, but in reality, in actuality, what we actually do is another matter entirely.
Relationships are like that too. We may say we want a partner with a great sense of humor. We may say we want someone sophisticated, or hardworking, or whatever else. We may carefully arrange our dating profiles to only allow through inquiries from people who meet a very specific set of criteria. But ultimately, we may end up with someone totally different.
I remember thinking about this for the first time when I was a member of a childfree rant board run by a guy named Turtle (this would have been about 5 years after leaving Christianity; I was still a bit of a mess). Turtle hated kids. Oh man, he hated kids. Well, he hated bad parenting, I think, more than kids. But he was the angry administrator of a board devoted entirely to stories about bad parenting and strategies for coping with it and other such trials as childfree people have, like Breeder Bingo. It’s amazing to me now that the board lasted as long as it did. I think it just reflected the first backlash against the cult of motherhood in the United States.
I bring this up to ask: Wanna make a wild guess about what kind of woman Turtle ended up getting with? Yeah. Turtle was as shocked as we were that he had fallen in love with a single mom. I was still happy for him–but not everybody there was so pleased at his good fortune as to have found a good and loving partner. He ended up closing the board down after a while. I still run into folks who used to post there–but Turtle himself has vanished. I think he realized that in the end, the future he saw for himself was radically different from the future he was actually building.
But we do that, don’t we? Christians especially. Remember that Love/Life Seminar I attended at 16? I was told to want aspirationally. I was told to seek partners who were gung-ho for my version of religion. I was sold a fantasy life of what my marriage would be like. I was told, and believed entirely, that I was supposed to base my marriage on a shared opinion of Jesus. I was taught that it was totally okay to base my life happiness around another person’s personal choices and decisions. I was taught that Jesus had picked my spouse for me, so it’d all be jusssst fine.
If you substitute “Thai food” for various terms in the above paragraph, you’ll start to see the problems I have with that mindset now. Obviously, people change. Their tastes will change too. Their beliefs will very likely alter over time. But my illusion–indeed my entire happiness–depended entirely upon my partner being, believing, and acting in a certain way. It depended upon another human being to play a particular role in my life. It depended upon that person not changing, growing, or altering his view of our shared faith. I couldn’t have been more reckless and more wrong than if I’d based my future happiness around my spouse being fanatically in love with Thai food forever.
So you see all these Christians gloating about marrying their “best friend,” but in reality, what they’re signing up for is the fantasy of the “happily married Christians.” Best friends know they’re both going to change over time, and they’re in it for each other. But people signing up for an illusion will find their “best friend” status shattered when one person leaves the religion and refuses to play along with the fantasy they once shared. I once had a best friend as a child who played along with my astronaut fantasies; we filled entire notebooks with starmaps we observed in our telescopes and with facts about this or that astronomical concept, but over time, we grew out of the fantasy together and went on to other shared interests. Still, we remained best friends (no, I never told her about being a Space Princess). But try that with religion. Best friends don’t dump each other just because one person changed interests. They care about each other and their love is based upon wanting to be around each other, not around this one paramount interest.
Christianity, though, doesn’t work that way. Christians are encouraged to put this one shared interest above all others, and then Christianity insists that both partners feel the exact same way about that interest forever. Christians are encouraged to see their relationship not as a union between two people in love, but as a couple ordained from the beginning of time to be together and now working together to achieve their god’s ultimate goals for them as a couple. It all depends upon the other person not changing, though.
I should have seen the conflict coming; you see, I’d been living a very similar one for years.
Before we’d gotten married, I’d realized how serious he was about wanting kids and I’d told him one night shortly before the big day that I was never going to have kids, not for him, not for anybody. I was all of 20. He’d already known this fact about me; we’d talked about it off and on in the previous years of our dating and engagement. What I didn’t know was that he’d talked to our pastor about it behind my back and had been advised to humor me, since all women always change their minds about that subject and I was young and obviously just silly.
Not knowing about the subterfuge going on behind my back, I told him, “Either you want me, as I am, which involves the reality that I am completely not ever not having kids and will never change my mind, or else you want someone else. And if it’s someone else, then we need to not get married so you can find her.”
I think to this day that I did the right thing. I brought the illusion in front of his face. I tore the veil. I showed him the truth.
And he responded as he thought he should have, by telling me that of course he wanted me and not some fantasy married-with-children Mayberry fantasy. He knew that marrying me meant not having kids, and he said he’d rather have me and no kids than not have me but have kids with someone else.
He was lying.
There’s no other way to put it. Maybe he thought he was telling the truth, hoping it’d become true if he said it, or was just playing for time, who knows; I can’t guess at why he lied. But the truth in actuality was that yes, he absolutely did want children. He wanted them with his wife. He wanted me to be his wife, which is where the problem came in. He was convinced that if he just prayed enough (and exposed me to babies and children often enough), our god would change my mind.
And it was totally okay that he wanted kids, just not that he was going about getting them the way that he was.
A few times over the years we had it out over his constant attempts to strong-arm me into having children. He had our friends hand me babies to hold and give me the hopeful “Well? See? It’s cute, right? You want one of your own, right?” look as I fumbled uncomfortably with the burden. He convinced me to get into Sunday School volunteer work, and every time I got out of classes all frazzled and annoyed, he’d give me the hopeful “Well? See? They’re fun, right? You want a bunch of kids now, right?” look. He’d say things like “When you change your mind and want kids,” knowing I’d protest, but if I failed to protest out of sheer weariness, he’d leap on the occasion as proof that I was softening (which I never did; I’m in the middle of menopause and still haven’t ever found myself wanting kids, not even in a gauzy “what if?” kind of way). It was a daily war, day in, day out, that we waged for years over my body and my choices. He took it for 100% granted that one day I’d relent, and did not live in silent hope that I would, but actively worked his hardest to try to ensure that it’d happen.
Now that you know that, is there any interpretation you can give his pre-wedding answer to me that is charitable? I felt very hard-done-by and betrayed. I’d been honest. I’d been open. I’d been totally up-front. And he’d said this was all right by him. He’d told me that he wanted me more than he wanted kids. I’d believed him.
If he’d just told me what he really wanted, that he really truly wanted children, that having children was enormously important to him, that being a father was one of his life dreams, if he’d just said any of that, both our lives would have been so very different. I might have been blinded in a lot of ways, but even I wasn’t stupid enough to marry a man who desperately wanted kids when I knew I didn’t want them. If he’d listened to me and taken me seriously when I said I wasn’t ever going to have kids, then chances are his desire to marry me would have been destroyed in a heartbeat. But instead, he decided that his god had said I’d change my mind, and so he was willing to humor me for a little while and play along, because his vision of his future involved me and clearly that meant I was going to have to figure my ish out so I could play the role correctly.
In the same way, it took a very long time for him to take my deconversion seriously. At first he said he wanted me more than the illusion of the Happy Christian Marriage, but as time wore on, it became abundantly clear that no, he actually wanted a Happy Christian Marriage. And that is okay, look, it’s totally okay if that’s what someone really wants. But be honest about it. Biff wasn’t.
His life goal depended upon me changing my mind. His happiness depended upon me doing something I radically didn’t want to do.
And he saw nothing wrong with that.
To the Christians in the UYC, I’d say this: It’s important to disentangle what you really want from what you say you want. The illusion is gone. The veil is torn asunder. Now you have to really look at what you really want out of life.
Do you want your spouse, in all his or her messy reality, more than you want the illusion of the Happy Christian Marriage? Do you want your spouse, as he or she stands, or do you want to keep trying to shoehorn that person into a role that no longer fits and may well never fit again? Is your happiness dependent upon another person sacrificing his or her happiness on the altar of your comfort? Or can you learn how to function in the new normal and figure out how to make yourself happy while still showing respect to the honesty your spouse has just shown by telling you something s/he knew you wouldn’t like to hear? Because, my dear friends in the UYC, this may well be how things roll for the rest of your lives. This might not be a situation that will change.
Just last night I saw a blogger refer to her hoped-for result of prayer (the reconversion of her husband) as “graduating from the Unequally Yoked Club,” and yes, I will own this: I seethed. I know how I’d feel about my spouse describing a major life decision of mine like that. I know how I did in fact feel about it when it happened to me. I felt dehumanized and belittled. I sure didn’t feel loved, I’ll tell you that.
Biff talked the same way. He very clearly felt that both about my refusal to have kids and my deconversion were just these phases that would pass soon, any day now, and then we could go on to our real lives together. But this was my real life, and this was our real life together. Disbelief wasn’t some phase that was meant to teach Biff some huge life lesson. My childfree status wasn’t some yoke or cross he had to bear, poor widdle him, what a mean evil woman he’d married. He was treating me like I was a recalcitrant movie star who was refusing to say her lines the right way. Didn’t I realize that the movie crew had to start shooting? Didn’t I realize that people were waiting for me to wake up from my various foolish delusions and get on with things?
For quite some time Biff had been resisting seeing the truth I was presenting to him. When he finally came face to face with the honesty I was showing him, now that he had the clear and certain understanding that I was never going to be the person he’d wanted me to be and had tried hard to strong-arm me into becoming (the happy, submissive, pregnant-and-barefoot Christian wife and mother), he did not react very lovingly at all.
At least one of us was seeing clearly. You ever hear about the Stages of Grief? Well, we’d had the anger. We’d had the denial. Now the bargaining was about to begin, and oh wow was it ever excruciating for us both. That’s where we’ll take up next time. As always, I do hope you’ll join me. You’ve been so incredibly patient to read all this writing and I appreciate you being here.