After Biff figured out that I was quite serious about having deconverted, the bargaining phase of his grief cycle began.
It took a little while for me to realize that his goal was nothing less than to get me to step foot back inside a church, with the assumption that once I did, his god would “convict” me and make me want to re-convert again. His entire plan hinged upon getting me to darken the doorstep of a church.
After Biff was done with Basic Training, we were stationed in San Antonio. The process of getting relocated was a long-familiar one to me, though it was all new to Biff. After the excitement died down and I’d found a new job, the attempt to strong-arm me into church attendance began anew, but I found it even easier to refuse his attempts and blandishments now than I had in our earlier life; at this point, nobody knew me as a Christian wife or even knew who I was, so Biff’s attempts to say anybody was worried about me fell flat.
This was just before San Antonio’s gentrification push geared up. The Boardwalk was just becoming known as a party destination in and of itself, though I will always remember it as the isolated, lazy, stone-bound river from the movie Cloak and Dagger. I liked San Antonio. I liked driving on the freeways and working at my job at a print shop. I liked the balmy early-summer evenings where I could sit outside on my hanging chair with my aging grey cat on my lap and read while she purred and tried to interfere. I knew that Biff was becoming increasingly agitated the longer I was out of church, but I figured–still with a level of optimism I regard as sheerly reckless now–that he’d figure himself out over time. Meanwhile, I had a lot of living to pack into what was left of my youth. I’d missed out on about five years of popular culture and I dove into it with glee.
At this point I didn’t really care if Biff accompanied me on this journey or not; I figured we’d find stuff we both liked to do and work out whatever differences we had. I’d stopped thinking that married couples have to like everything the same way. It was okay with me if he wanted to burn half his weekend going to church, or if he wanted to dress or act a certain way, or if he refused to go to movies or listen to fun music. But I also wanted it to be okay with him if I wanted to do other things with my Sundays, or if I wanted to dress or act a certain way, or to watch movies or listen to fun music. And that was apparently not on the table for him as an acceptable outcome of my deconversion.
Biff was horrified about me buying “worldly” music (read: not “Christian Contemporary Music” that sang about Jesus in weirdly sexualized, lurid ways) and wearing “worldly” clothes (read: not the burkha-like Pentecostal uniform), but even more horrified at the idea of me discovering “craft” beers. I’d discovered a liking for them in Portland while he was gone, and saw no reason why I shouldn’t continue exploring a world that had previously been unknown to me. When we went out, I’d get a beer or a glass of wine, and Biff would silently fume even though we’d talked about this already and he’d at least said he wouldn’t be a pain in the ass about it. I’m a half-beer drunk, so you can rest assured I didn’t ever drink much or even often, but as far as Biff was concerned I was a raging alcoholic.
One night, when I placed my order at a restaurant, ending with a request for a Shiner Bock, Biff said, “And I’ll have one too.”
I stared at him. “You sure?” I asked, teasing a bit.
He nodded grimly, as if he’d just volunteered to leap into a fire. The beers came and I enjoyed mine. Biff took a drink of his and got the weirdest look on his face. He looked at me with the most pained expression I’d ever seen on him. “You… you like this stuff?” he asked.
I nodded. This was my favorite beer (and still is, second only to Bod’s Pale).
He got another even more pained look and tried another sip. Finally he put the beer down. “I just can’t do this,” he said. “I can’t believe you’d do this.”
“I never asked you to do anything,” I said coolly. “If you don’t want a beer, don’t get a beer. It won’t bother me.”
As he continued to talk, though, I realized that he seriously thought that he was offering some kind of olive branch by doing this thing he really didn’t want to do. He thought if he did something he hated to make me happy, it might make me want to do something I in turn hated to make him happy. This was his idea of compromise. But the plan’s success hinged upon me wanting him to do something he hated, and remember, I didn’t want him to do something he hated. I didn’t have the least bit of desire to coerce him into drinking beer, listening to music, or anything else he didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to change him or make him do things he felt were antithetical to who he was. But if I thought for one moment he was going to extend the same courtesy to me, I was quite mistaken.
Over the next few weeks, he continued in his campaign to learn to love his new wicked Jezebel of a wife. He tried listening to my new CDs (and actually liked Counting Crows, as I recall; I came home one evening and found him and his Christian friends listening to it on our huge cabinet stereo–remember those?–and making notes about its pseudo-Christian references), but overall he hated them–especially the more edgy ones like the Nine Inch Nails–though to be honest, I wasn’t always enthused with them and was just trying out new things. He insisted on going out with me and my friends to the bars and clubs we liked, and he hated every second and ended up almost getting thrown out a few times for trying to proselytize. He tried more beers and made faces every time, every time giving me the same hangdog look. When he saw the clothes I’d bought, he’d get the same look of utter dismay.
I got so used to that look. That beaten-puppy-dog, sorrowful look: “How much is enough? When are you going to come to your senses? Don’t you see how bad this is? Don’t you want to stop all this craziness and come back to church now? Haven’t you had enough?” Sometimes he’d even articulate it, to my intense embarrassment. It was like he was talking to a little child who was acting out. He knew so much better than I did what I needed to do, and for some weird reason I just wasn’t listening to him anymore.
He began asking pointedly why I didn’t want him to be happy. Didn’t I want him to be happy? Doing this thing, going to church, dressing this way again, acting this way, praying with him, they’d make him soooooooo happy. Why didn’t I want him to be happy? Why did I constantly refuse to do those little bitty things that would make him so enormously happy?
I realize now that what I just wrote would make perfect sense to most Christians. But to me, at the time, it was shockingly cruel of him to even suggest that it would take me doing something horrible and painful to me to make him happy. That’s what he thought would make him happy? Me sacrificing my newfound independence and happiness? That’s what it would take? Because that’s what would happen if I acted Christian again to make him happy. The constant life of lies had eaten my stomach, had destroyed my mind, had ruined my outlook. I was not only unwilling to lie more for him, but repelled by the idea of lies in any part of my life anymore. Repulsed. Disgusted.
So yes, I was sad when I realized that’s what it’d take to make him happy again, but, after a while, furious. His happiness depended upon me living a lie. His happiness depended upon my happiness being destroyed. It’s like those wingnuts who claim their religious freedom depends upon women’s rights being rolled back–you know that’s not what “religious freedom” means, just as I knew then that if my husband’s happiness depended upon my unhappiness, that wasn’t a very healthy form of happiness at all, was it?
I don’t know about y’all, but me, I think that’s a horrible way to treat someone you’re supposed to love.
Contempt began to creep into my feelings. I can’t pinpoint when; it was a slow and insidious growth. I truly think that love can withstand a lot of things, but it cannot withstand contempt. I had managed to love Biff through his constant parade of lies. I’d managed to love him through his never-ending manipulations. But I couldn’t continue to love him through how he was treating me, like some lesser human being who was somehow intrinsically broken and needed him to fix her. I was supposed to see how a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ reacted to the stuff I was doing and feel convicted, but I didn’t. I was supposed to see how my beloved husband was reacting to his wife’s changes and want to change back, but that ship had sailed long ago. I was supposed to see him doing these things that, again, I had never asked or required him to do, stuff that, again, I didn’t care if he did or not, and I was supposed to feel moved to volunteer to do stuff he wanted and constantly asked me to do but which I felt was abhorrent and excruciating (attend church, wear dresses again, etc).
The truth was, I knew he wasn’t a good Christian at all. I knew he lied and manipulated people. I’d recently come to the realization that whatever he meant by the term “love,” I didn’t recognize as love. And if he was going to treat me like a sub-human, like some big DIY project, like some child he had to correct, there really wasn’t much else left for us. At least, that’s what I thought. He had one more nuclear option in his toolbox, one more thing he could do to try to get me to toe the line, something I would never, ever have suspected he’d ever do to me. We’ll talk about that last desperate salvo soon. There’s a lot to unpack there for me even now, and I’m just not up to it at the moment.
It’s very true that people sometimes try to pay each other in coin the other cannot accept. Biff thought that by pretending to indulge in these things he hated with me, that was a coin he could use to purchase my acquiescence on other matters that were valuable to him. But I couldn’t accept that coin. It wasn’t valuable to me. I didn’t care if he did or didn’t do something, and would far rather he not do things he didn’t want to do or hated doing. But the coin I offered him–the freedom to worship and be Christian himself as long as he didn’t mistreat me–was not a coin he in turn could accept. His long-accustomed dominance over me meant that he already could feel free to worship and be Christian, and he genuinely thought that his job as a Christian husband was to force me back into compliance and that mistreatment of others was sometimes the price the dominant party had to pay to do the job right. In retrospect, I’m not sure things could have worked out any differently. Neither one of us understood that back then.
I think of everything that unequally yoked partners can possibly do, respect is the one thing that works. I think it’s natural to go through grief stages when confronted with a partner who has made a big change in life and when it becomes obvious that the future one envisioned isn’t the one that’s actually going to happen. But I also think that when the grieving partner gets to the bargaining stage, it’s important to lay the stakes on the table. What is being bargained, why, and for what result?
I don’t think it’s okay to force someone to do something he or she just flat-out hates just to make ourselves happy. That’s not very loving. And it’s not really much of a compromise. At best, the Christian spouse is getting just a little respite from reality, just a little taste of the Happy Christian Marriage illusion that was shattered. At worst, the Christian spouse is breeding unhappiness and pain in the ex-Christian spouse and showing that ex-Christian spouse that the illusion matters more than the truth. That’s definitely what I eventually figured out with Biff.
If the de-convert wants to attend church sometimes, or wants to pray as a family sometimes, or even just doesn’t care one way or the other, that’s one thing, but far too often I see Christians in the UYC try to strong-arm their spouses into doing stuff that is simply dreadful to the new ex-Christian. Showing respect to the huge change that’s just happened would be a good start to finding a common ground upon which to build a new relationship. Not demanding the ex-Christian do things that he or she finds abhorrent would be way more loving, too. Figuring out where each other’s safety zone and comfort zone is, what each is willing to do and not willing to do, just how the ex-Christian feels about those outward shows of piety that so many still-Christian spouses seem to think are so important, all that seems important to me in the search for common understanding. And those feelings may change over time. The one thing I can say for sure about mixed-religion marriages that work is that I notice they involve a lot of honest communication and the giving of space and respect for the other’s viewpoint, without trying to force the other to do or say or think something abhorrent.
It’s okay to want a spouse who fervently believes in a deity–though I’d caution believers that any time you hinge your happiness on someone else’s actions, that’s a lot of potential for drama right there. There’s no promise that the next spouse would be a “forever Christian” either. Most ex-Christians I know were hugely dedicated while they were in the church, just like I was–most of us are flabbergasted that we ended up leaving. Dedication is simply no indicator of longevity of faith.
But once the Christian decides to hang in there, there’s a lot of honesty and communication to do. That’s a lot of grieving to do. There may even be some theological soul-searching, for those ultra-fundies who have just realized that their truly good and decent spouse is now going to be sent by their loving, all-forgiving father-God to an eternal Hell of torture and pain.
More than that, there’s some internal shifting that has to happen to unwind some of those mental tapes that Christianity indoctrinated nearly all of us with. When you’re convinced another person was your “happy ending,” as the song goes, when you’re convinced that you can only be happy in this one particular story and then the other person writing that story wants to stop and write a different kind of story, it’s very hard to let go of that fantasy to discover your own happy ending, the real one, the one that matters, the new story that is real–the different story that you yourself are writing with your spouse right now, every day.
At the end of the day, I hope that unequally yoked partners find new common ground and show love, respect, and kindness to each other. It ain’t easy for either the still-Christian or the ex-Christian in these situations, but I genuinely think that with love, respect, and kindness, a Christian spouse and I could have forged something new out of the ashes. Without those things, though, my marriage now seemed doomed.
Have a photo of a wolverine to symbolize whatever you think it should symbolize. Why? Because I’m afraid we’re all out of badgers.