A long time ago, I wrote a series called The Unequally Yoked Club (UYC). It was about how Christians deal with the deconversion of a spouse. And wow, did it ever resonate with people. I’ve been wanting to return to the UYC lately, since I’ve seen new developments on that front in recent months. So today, I want to show you what happened after I deconverted from Christianity, and the ups and downs of how I handled sharing the news of that deconversion with my then-husband Biff. I didn’t do everything perfectly, but then, I reckon almost nobody ever does.
A Bright Prelude, Sort Of.
Biff and I didn’t ever have what you might call a blissful marriage. From the start–even before the start–it was rocky. I didn’t figure out until long after the marriage had dissolved that I’d married a textbook narcissist. So I went into the thing in good faith, with someone who was not acting in similar good faith.
I deconverted a few years after our wedding day, when I was about 24–not long before we moved briefly to Japan. At the time, I didn’t know another person who’d ever deconverted. I didn’t even know that there was a word for what had happened to me. As far as I could tell, I was literally the only person in the world who’d been a fervent Christian, as true as true could be, and then discovered it was all a pack of hooey.
(If you’re wondering, the feeling one gets in that situation might be best summarized as crushing loneliness.)
But after putting out tentative feelers to my TRUE CHRISTIAN™ husband, I rapidly concluded that he wasn’t in the least concerned about the things I’d discovered. I don’t remember us ever sitting down and having a serious discussion about my deconversion; looking back, I don’t think it would have changed much. Biff hadn’t joined because of facts and reality; he’d joined because he got something deeply satisfying from fundagelicalism that he couldn’t get from any other source.
To Go, Or Not To Go.
Some folks deconvert and are still totally cool with continuing to go to church with their families.
I wasn’t one of those folks.
Even before my deconversion, after our first church’s assistant pastor Daniel died of cancer, I began skipping church.
At first it felt so scandalous to sleep in while Biff noisily showered and headed off to the little storefront church we’d begun attending. Very rapidly, though, I discovered what so many other Christians do when they miss church: it really hadn’t added anything to my life. In fact, I now felt I had a real “day of rest.” I worked hard and always had, and it didn’t take long to notice that Sunday’s church meeting destroyed the one day I usually had to rejuvenate myself for the coming week. Between preparing for church, getting there, sitting through hours of it, and then coming home, I burned easily three-quarters of the day.
And if those hours had been truly rejuvenating, those hours would have been an expense well worth paying. But they weren’t. I saw that from the get-go. Church was, simply put, irrelevant to me. It was a superfluity to my life, if not an aggravating and unnecessary expense. I lost absolutely nothing in cutting it loose from my list of obligations.
Tomorrow Doesn’t Look Good Either.
The first time I skipped church, Biff didn’t say anything much. But gradually, he began to pester me with questions: Today? Why not? When?
I never thought he was really concerned for me, however. He always hinted that the real problem was that my absence from church hurt his chances of becoming a pastor one day. He needed to have “his house in order,” as Pentecostals called it, and that meant having a Happy Christian Marriage.
See, there are three ways that someone can get into a pastor gig in the United Pentecostal Church, International (UPCI). (Or at least, this is how it worked back then.)
The first is, obviously, to attend a UPCI-approved Bible College (they did not truck much with seminaries; the “joke” about them was that they were cemeteries), and then apply to a church that needed a head pastor and get hired that way. This approach is all but foolproof, but it takes time, money, and a great deal of effort.
The second, which is what our friend Gene had done with that storefront church, is to start a new church somewhere. Anybody could do this. Christians call these church plants. Church plants are exceedingly difficult to grow into full churches, as well as mega-expensive and super-time-consuming.
The third was to slide into a pastor position through extensive volunteer work. Typically the path began in youth ministry, which any fool could get into at the time. It took more time than the other two options, but it was also more fun than those others and required no money or any special amount of effort beyond showing up every Sunday. So this was the path Biff chose. (It’s also the path satirized in The Babylon Bee.)
We’d gotten married with me knowing he wanted to be a pastor. I’d spent years helping him in whatever ways I could to achieve that goal. But no way, no how was he ever going to be a pastor if his wife wasn’t at church with him every Sunday without fail.
And we both knew it.
I patiently endured Biff’s cajoling and demands; I’d already made clear that I wasn’t going to church unless I wanted to do so. Sometimes I felt like going; often, though, I did not.
And then I full-on deconverted. I would never return after that.
Biff didn’t take that well at all, but it’s not like he could physically drag me there.
We went to Japan, yes, where we lived blissfully free of almost all church entanglement. After failing to thrive there, we relocated to Portland. Biff immediately joined a UPCI church in the area. I visited once, just to see the place, but dashed my husband’s wildest hopes to pieces by refusing to return.
Now, he still didn’t understand the situation fully. I’d tried, in halting language using unfamiliar concepts to us both, to explain. But he never believed that this change was permanent. I don’t think he got it until we had a huge fight about him throwing away some makeup I’d purchased for myself.
That night, we both realized a few things at last. He finally realized I was no longer Christian, while I finally realized that he was going to be as difficult about this situation as he could possibly be.
The Thing About Religion.
Nowadays, millions of mixed-faith marriages exist in America. The people within them know the truth that Christian leaders everywhere seek to obscure: Religion’s only a problem for a couple if they make it a problem.
And Biff was trying his best to make religion a problem for us.
He was 100% convinced that if he pressured me hard and long enough, I’d give in and return to church. That was his stated goal: to get me attending church again. If he could do that, he was sure that social pressure (which he labeled the Holy Spirit’s working) would bend me under his will again.
But he reckoned without his host. I simply refused to return to church. His plan couldn’t get off the ground without my cooperation. The further I got from Christianity, the more church culture bothered me, and the less willing I was to even consider returning.
What followed was a very tedious patch of what he called spiritual warfare. He’d never prayed at home before, but now suddenly he began wailing and gnashing his teeth in our walk-in closet like someone had literally died. These undignified demonstrations were done entirely for my benefit, but I typically just left the house while he was at it. I’d go for walks, or bike rides, or just sit on the patio reading with my grey ladycat in my lap in the swinging chair out there.When I got home, he always emerged from the closet red-eyed and puffy-faced. He’d glare at me accusingly and stiffly walk around with tear-soaked cheeks so I could notice that he’d been TOTALLY BESEECHING JESUS FOR MY SOUL, GYAHHH. I’d politely ask if he felt better while ignoring his sorry little display. He’d visibly deflate and go wash his face.
It’s hard to be a sanctimonious, grandstanding prat when nobody reacts the correct way to the act. Because this behavior was very obviously meant to emotionally manipulate me, it was equally easy for me to dismiss it. After a few repeats of this performance, Biff dropped it without a word. I could see why. It was a lot of effort to expend for no reward.
After Everything I Have Done For You (That You Didn’t Ask For).
A few days ago, someone linked this video in the comments–and it made me laugh, because it felt like a word-for-word description of the next phase of Biff’s plan to re-Christianize me.
As Biff gradually realized that the spiritual warfare stuff wasn’t working, he decided to try to bargain with me. Oh yes! See, he’d totally go out with me to do the stuff he absolutely hated and considered beneath him, and in return I’d go to church with him every Sunday.
He saw no downside to this offer.
I did, though, and it was a dealbreaker.
He was seeing the situation in his usual, distinctly self-serving way. The way he saw it, he didn’t want to go out and see movies and drink beer and listen to concerts, but he did want me to go to church. I absolutely didn’t want to go to church, but I did want to do that “worldly” stuff he disliked (worldly is Christianese for anything less than 100% Jesus-centered). So he thought he was being downright magnanimous in offering to do stuff he disliked if I’d do something I disliked in turn.1
But I wasn’t asking Biff to do anything he didn’t want to do. Nor was I asking him to stop going to church. I refused to go to church, but I didn’t care if he joined me in the things I liked doing. (Plus, I could just imagine the hangdog, put-upon, hard-done-by, whipped-puppy look he’d wear the whole time. He’d already done it once when we went to see a movie.) Nor did it matter to me if he went to church; I had lots of stuff to do by then while he was gone.
The coin he offered, I didn’t value; the coin I offered, he didn’t even recognize.
Biff actively resisted understanding what compromise truly is. He didn’t want to see that his offer wasn’t a valid compromise. He decided that it meant everyone enduring something they hated to get something they wanted, and that’s not what it really means.
In the first place, going to church wasn’t just an onerous and boring few hours for me. After my deconversion, it went from boring to traumatizing. I got panicky just thinking about going back.
He dismissed my objections out of hand, however. Being a narcissist means never having to understand anybody else’s point of view! He liked church, and so therefore everyone did. My dislike of church was simply a sign of demonic oppression. Likewise, my refusal to accept his false compromise meant I just didn’t want to “fix our marriage.” This trouble we had was, therefore, all my fault.
When he laid out his false compromise–with the hopeful, pleading puppy-dog eyes of a child, like he had just totally figured this problem out for us and wasn’t I just the luckiest girl in the world to have such a smart husband–my hopes for our future as a couple disintegrated.
I think that’s the first time I realized that we weren’t going to emerge victorious from this conflict. I’d always assumed we would.
But now, I finally fully recognized the scope of our problem.
In Biff’s mind, the only successful outcome for us looked like the one he’d always wanted: us, together, going to church every Sunday to hear him preach, then going home surrounded by the many children he was still somehow positive I’d bear for him. No other outcome was acceptable to him.
He’d do anything to bring about this one allowable outcome, too.
And the End.
Very shortly after that, my TRUE CHRISTIAN™ husband threatened to physically hurt me for the first time. That’s when I fled from him, the marriage, and the whole damned country.
Oh, he stalked me for a while afterward–figured out where I was hiding and called there constantly, occasionally catching me and scaring the willies out of me with threats and whatnot. He still thought he could get me back under his control–and he’d settled on this terrifying tactic because once threats begin flowing in an abusive person’s hands, that becomes their new normal in a terrifyingly fast timeframe.
Finally I figured out how to make him stop: he’d found a new girlfriend who clearly had no idea he was stalking his now-ex-wife. I really don’t know what possessed her to do this, but she’d sent me a wedding invitation to their upcoming nuptials.
Armed with this new information, I coolly informed Biff that if he contacted me ever again, I’d make sure his new bride found out what he was doing–and I’d be calling her parents, too, and the county sheriff in his new hometown.
Like magic, the calls stopped.
If you’re wondering, I didn’t advise his new bride about him because I knew what would happen if I did. If Biff was around someone for more than five minutes after our breakup, they heard the whole story from his very self-servingly-deluded, narcissistic point of view. I knew she wouldn’t marry him unless she wholly believed his story and his claims of martyrdom.
I knew this from experience. People had tried to warn me about Biff many times before our wedding day. I ignored and brushed off every one of them. I even got a hint about his violent, darker side in college, when a professor of ours suddenly obtained a protection order against him after a private conference about his poor grade in the class. She tried to hint to me about what had happened, but I wasn’t ready to hear it.
In the beginning, Biff’s narcissism had drawn him to Christianity, where this flaw got mistaken by others as confidence and joie de vivre. And in the end, that same narcissism spelled the end of our marriage. My deconversion was simply a catalyst; it was the loss of power that really drove him right round the bend. He couldn’t function as an equal in a relationship, not after having tasted total dominion over another human being.
Biff was not the norm for a Christian in the religion, any more than our marriage was the norm for an unequally-yoked marriage. But it was probably closer to the norm for unequally-yoked marriages that crash and burn like ours did. Navigating the UYC successfully demands a lot out of the still-Christian spouse: empathy, a willingness to challenge the old rules, a determination to rewrite them where necessary.
A Christian spouse who can manage that, even haltingly, even slowly or with difficulty, is one to cherish. Sometimes the best such a spouse can manage is the establishment of a detente around religion for a while. But when that still-Christian spouse is focused on power above all else, or slavishly pursuing that Happy Christian Marriage illusion above all, a deconversion makes their deficiencies of character light up like a Christmas tree.
And it reminds everyone observing the fireworks that there is no way at all that so many terrible people could be able to exist in a religion powered and governed by a loving omnimax god.
NEXT UP: We’re going to look at some of those terrible people next. Christianity’s leaders continue to grapple with the fallout of their Paige Patterson scandal. Their reaction has been, to say the least, tediously predictable and yet also bizarre. And yep, we’re definitely heading into the UYC again in coming days. See you soon!
1 My compromise was that he could do his thing, I’d do my thing, and we’d let each other do our things without interference. If he wanted to go to church, fine; if I wanted to go out, fine. We’d just avoid talking about religion and politics and focus on building a future together with what we still had in common, and we’d consistently show respect to each other while we were figuring things out. It was just crazy enough to work. But my suggestion was shot down in flames. It wasn’t Jesus-y enough.
If you suspect that your partner is a narcissist, it’s a good idea to seek help. Here’s a good overall list of symptoms and coping strategies.
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