I had this big long old post I was doing about exactly how my time in the UYC came to an grueling end, but for various reasons (including that Biff is one of those tiresome dipsticks who threatens lawsuits every time he feels slighted), I decided to gloss over a lot of that drama.
Here’s the sanitized version, because we’re going to need it in this particular discussion: After about a year of wheedling, arguing, manipulating, cajoling, yelling, strong-arming, and other such measures that failed to achieve his goal of getting me back into Christianity, Biff–who, for the new readers (hi! I see you guys–thanks for joining us!), was a popular and wildly charismatic youth pastor/minister, evangelist, and super-uber-fundagelical Christian–began threatening, disturbingly vividly, to cut me up with a butcher knife if I didn’t fall back into line. I stood up for myself immediately, but he refused to retract the threat. Later that night, he tried to tie me up against my will to sexually assault me. I got away and for reasons I still don’t understand but which I’m certain had more to do with a desire to showboat than any particular concern for me, Biff called the base MPs to come to the apartment as he said he was afraid he was going to harm me. He seemed a little surprised about getting hauled off by the MPs, who made him go play in the base’s mental hospital for a short while. While he was gone, in a truly movie-worthy adventure involving last-second plan alterations and everything, I fled with the clothes on my back and a satchel to Canada.
(By the way, please, no pity. It’s done and done, I got away, I’m safe, I’m not asking for sympathy and don’t need or want any. I’m proud that I finally saw the light and got away before I became a statistic, and yes, Biff is an absolutely horrid monster in human skin, but no, neither he nor any other “bad Christian” I encountered had anything to do with me leaving Christianity.)
The reason I’m bringing it up is this: violence was Biff’s nuclear option. It was the go-to threat he thought would finally cow me and bring me to heel. It was the one thing he had left in his arsenal, the one weapon he had left that he hadn’t hauled out. In his view, as he actually even said to me once, he “had to try something, right?”
Now, not everybody uses violence as their last resort. Obviously. But when you’ve got an aggressive person who doesn’t quite understand boundaries, someone who was taught somewhere along the way that any measure that achieves the goal is a good measure, you can bet that the violence variant of the nuclear option eventually rears its head. It’s a possibility that lurks back there ready to be pulled out in time of crisis like that stupid pinwheel thing from Krull.
Biff really thought that if his threat worked and I bowed under, that everything would go back to normal and then it’d be just this grand story he’d tell our children one day about how he’d finally rescued his apostate wife from Hell. He saw nothing whatsoever wrong with threatening me or scaring the tar out of me. Sometimes you had to break eggs to make an omelet, after all. The end result–me not going to Hell, becoming docile again, and staying married to him–mattered way more to him than my widdle fee-fees about being threatened. Or at least that was the rationalization at the time.
To the non-Christians in the UYC, I’d like to ask: Are you afraid your spouse has a nuclear option?
I’m betting it’s not violence, but there may be another one there. Is there a threat that is lurking beneath the water, ready to leap out like a Deep One to seize you both if you refuse to “come to your senses”? If yes, I bet it’s divorce or estrangement.
The idea of losing one’s family to a religious divide terrifies most ex-Christians in the UYC, and for perfectly good reason. Is refusing to attend church worth the loss of all that is dear to a person? Usually the answer is “no.” And the Christian in the marriage knows that and way too frequently wields that threat like a club to force compliance.
But what is really being gained by using threats? You can’t love that which you fear. The threat itself is a sign that something’s horribly wrong with the relationship. Things have gotten so bad, communication has deteriorated so much, the illusion has proven so sweet, that someone’s willing to go to absolutely any length to get their way. Even if it means brutalizing a once-beloved spouse. Even if it means terrorizing someone with their worst nightmare come true. Even if it means losing love. A facade means more than the truth at that point.
The idea of Christians threatening ex-Christian partners with divorce blows my mind even worse than the idea of Biff using domestic violence and rape as re-conversion tools. I mean, the Bible’s pretty clear about domestic violence–it’s all good as long as you don’t kill your partner. But it’s even more clear about divorce. Whatever the Old Testament allowed, the New Testament is even more crystal-clear about divorce than it is about abortion or any other relationship topic: divorce is bad and condemned in all but one situation, which is adultery (and weirdly, not “deconversion”). In fact Jesus flat-out tells people (or at least his ghostwriters have him telling people) that if someone ends up married to a non-believer, and the non-believer is content to stay married, the Christian has to stay married too.
But like they do with most of the Bible, the vast majority of Christians pick and choose what they’re going to take seriously and what they’ll consider optional. Even the most literalist of Christians will quickly decide that the verses about divorce surely don’t apply–they’re contextual, obviously. It must be especially galling for ex-Christians in the UYC to see just how easily their believing spouses toss aside verses about divorce that are difficult to follow but trumpet others condemning “unequally yoked” relationships and use them to justify divorce in the very next breath.
I know it’s hard to be married to an ex-Christian. The illusion’s been broken and destroyed; there’s a lot of dream-wreckage to deal with as the couple rebuilds their life together. It’s embarrassing for one’s friends to see that the Christian is now attending church alone. It’s mortifying to be offered pity and “prayers.” It’s scary to contemplate one’s beloved going to Hell. It’s hard to know what to say or do that won’t offend. But nobody sensible ever said marriage would be easy or that married couples won’t sometimes have to struggle to understand each others’ changes. This is a big change, but ultimately, it’s a rather cosmetic one.
It seems to me that if the verses about divorce are optional, then so are the ones condemning mixed-religion marriages. But what do I know? I’m an apostate myself, and hardly an expert on what keeps a mixed-religion marriage together given how mine ended. What I have are a lot of thoughts and observations about what happened in mine, and what I see happening in those of others I know.
Struggle through, Christians. This is a worthy effort to make. I’m talking to you now. I hear about a lot of friction from mixed-religion couples at first, but you know what’s really scary about this change? How much hasn’t changed at all. Your spouse is still the same person he or she ever was. In fact you may discover your spouse is a lot easier to love and get along with.You know what’s even scarier? That shocking realization that religion wasn’t quite as important to the success of your marriage as you thought it was. You might realize that what really matters is respect, devotion, courage, shared goals, physical attraction, and affection, and that none of these are especially contingent upon your religious beliefs.
For every couple I hear about who breaks up, I hear about several more who are muddling through somehow, and a couple others that are actually doing even better now that they’re basing their marriage on love for each other and not on a shared hobby or interest. I’ve heard about countless couples who follow different religions and they’re perfectly happy and doing great. It seems very clear to me that religion’s exactly as important as couples make it. It seems even more clear that a lot of this “unequally yoked” nonsense is a direct result of the culture war that churches started decades ago–this effort to intensify conflict between believers and non-believers, to make religion way more important in a marriage than it has to be. These unspeakably reckless churches have a lot to answer for, for the misery they have brought upon so many couples who might otherwise have weathered a deconversion just fine but who, convinced that religion is super-duper-important, have blown that same deconversion into something impossible to reconcile.
Indeed, one of the most brutal and heartbreaking results of that culture war that I’m seeing lately is the proliferation of “spiritually single” tags people are using lately to describe themselves. No, my deluded dears. You are not “spiritually single.” You are physically married. That means you are also spiritually married. One flesh. And your partner is probably heartbroken to think that his or her love matters so little to you that you can be so cruelly, repulsively, dismissive as to say you might as well be single! What is that, a little self-pity? Probably not the most constructive thing you could do or the most loving way you could be treating your spouse.
Do you know what you definitely shouldn’t do, though?
You shouldn’t drag out the nuclear option.
Some stuff can’t be unsaid. Some threats can’t be retracted. Once issued, some words can’t be walked back. DEFCON doesn’t ever quite go back to whatever its low level is (sorry, everything I know about DEFCON levels, I know from Wargames).
The nuclear option is about inspiring fear and terror. It’s about using force to get one’s way. It’s about trampling your partner. It’s about punishment. It’s about drawing blood. It’s about revenge. About issuing blow for blow.
About hurting them and hurting them and hurting them until there is nothing left but ashes and bones.
So what part of that description sounds “Christian” to you?
When someone deconverts, it can be very painful for both partners to navigate the new waters. But I think it’s really important for couples to concentrate anew at such times on what is important: each other, their bond, their love, and all those things that haven’t changed a single bit. This is where the real challenge in love comes: to treat each other right even when it’s really hard. It’s especially important to avoid saying things that can’t be un-said later. The nuclear option might feel effective, but it is guaranteed to backfire. It might feel satisfying, but nothing’s satisfying in the face of losing the love of a committed, loving partner.
If I could give you any advice at all, it’d be this: proceed slowly and cautiously. Don’t make any sudden or precipitous moves. Show respect and courtesy while you’re figuring out how to respond. There’s no need to be hasty. Be gentle, keep your judgements and your declarations of prayer to yourself, and remember, you love this person. This person has probably had doubts for a long time, and you loved him/her just fine then. Nothing’s different now except that you finally know the truth. The label’s different, it might say “Best Foods” instead of “Hellman’s,” but the mayonnaise in the jar is the same.
I can guarantee that your ex-Christian spouse is racking his or her brain trying to make this as easy as possible for you in turn and being as gentle as possible to you as you figure out how to breathe again. Even in the middle of my worst emotional upheaval after leaving, I still loved Biff till the end, and I tried my hardest to make him comfortable and to let him know he was loved. It’s not easy to divide oneself like that. But just about every ex-Christian spouse knows how that balancing act feels. We’re knocking ourselves out here. A little charity would be nice.
And, Christians, look. If in the end you really want a religious marriage–or an ex-Christian wants an atheistic one for that matter, that’s cool. We’re all adults, and we’re allowed to set up whatever dealbreakers we want for our relationships, even ridiculous ones. I would just say this: there’s no guarantee whatsoever that your next relationship won’t just go the same route. It’s not a good idea, especially in an era when people are moving out of religion at a startling and breakneck pace, to base a marriage on both people always and forever being the same religion. Before you throw someone away, it’s worth remembering that people always change. In a few years, you yourself could become an apostate. Hey, weirder things have happened.
By the way, I would gently suggest that anybody who fears the nuclear option is coming should get into secular relationship counseling immediately if it’s possible. If one’s spouse won’t go, then one should go alone. That’s some nasty and nerve-wracking stuff, and it can be overwhelming to deal with that level of manipulation without some help. I wish I’d had help, that’s for sure. If I’d realized I had that option, you can bet I’d have taken it. But here we are, and I’m happy now. In the end, that’s about all anybody can say.
Be well. Next we’re going to talk more about the ridiculous idea of the “soulmate” and why that amazingly egocentric, self-serving belief can cause Christian couples a lot of grief when someone deconverts, because I’ve got more to say on the subject, including SCIENCE! Because science is awesome.
The weekend looms! I hope you spend it with those you care about most.