It’s been two years since Mark left Christianity and not much less than 2 years for myself. Prior to leaving religion we were constantly told how much people admired our marriage and our commitment to each other. We were asked to lead marital class after marital class in our churches and often mentored newly married couples. Even after leaving the church and religion people still approach us telling us how much they look up to us as a couple.
Ah, I wish I could say the last two years has held the same amount of admiration and bliss for us as it has been perceived by others. While leaving religion has been absolutely the best decision for me, for Mark, and for our boys I can’t sit here and pretend that it hasn’t come with a shit load of difficulty.
In religion you have a set of rules that you live and die by. You have a community of peers that are there to encourage you, mentor you, and give you tools to adhere to the rules that god has set for you. You have the guilt and shame factor that comes in to play when you break any of those rules by lusting, coveting, lying, cheating, stealing, etc. You take pride in having been two people now formed into one flesh, leaving your parents and cleaving to your partner. Women know that they are ultimately to submit to the patriarch (husband). And the husband knows he is to provide. Divorce is not an option unless your spouse is beating you or cheating on you. Porn is considered a taboo sin and often lands a man in church run therapy sessions for sex addicts. And, sadly, you have a false sense of security that your marriage is great because you are doing all the things god has asked with a few failures but those are quickly hidden and never discussed for fear of judgement. And while many christian marriages appear to be happy and godly, many of them (at least the ones I have known) are really just maintaining an appearance of godly. Many men are hiding their porn use and when their wives eventually find out they are subjected to shamefests that rival republican/democratic debate practices. Men (and women) are hiding their true sexual desires and fantasies and resorting to biblical standards of vanilla and missionary. Always pleasing to the third man in the sky who is ever present in their lives. Again anything outside of the black and white rule box including questioning areas of grey is often unheard of and leaves so many people stifled, confused, and inhibited. But they are safe there and it becomes a really really comfortable place to reside. And in the end if you do start to question your marriage, your vows, the what ifs, you can always fall back on the belief that god chose the two of you for each other.
Remove the book, the rules, the community, because god said so lines, the lifetime of black and white and the shit hits the fan!
We left our bubble and after spending so much time questioning everything about our religion the questioning moved on to everything outside our religious walls. They just shifted from ‘is there evidence to support this’ to
Is divorce wrong? Is there even such a thing as right and wrong? As a society why do we practice monogamy? What would an open marriage look like? A threesome? Is pornography really harmful and bad? Are all drugs harmful? Are some safe and in what amounts and circumstances? What fantasies have we suppressed? Where do we land on abortion? Gay rights? Spanking? Politics? Lying? Secrets? Individuality? Expressions of self? Boundaries? Evolution? Strip Clubs? Prostitutes? What do we want to teach our boys about religion(s), masturbation, sex, relationships? How do we define our integrity and morality? If there is indeed no heaven and this moment is all we have will we regret having only been with one partner? Having not experienced everything under the sun? Will we lie on our death bed knowing that we lived a genuinely good and happy life? What is happiness? What are our natural biological drives and emotions? How much do we fight against what we see as harmful? How angry do we get? When do we let the boys experience church? Which relationships do we let go of? Which relationships do we maintain? Do we even maintain ours? Is it important enough for us to stay together for the kids? What does a voice really sound like? How do I know I’m not being duped or controlled again? How do I find peace within myself? What are my new boundaries for myself and my marriage? How do we respect each other when our answers are not the same? What do I share and what secrets are good to keep? Are secrets ever good? Is it possible to share all of oneself and experience intimacy rather than judgement?
And the questions just keep coming and coming and coming. It’s an endless cycle of learning, exploring, challenging, and that can be a very scary place in a marriage. It often feels unsafe for me. I’m a person who is challenged with anxiety issues and severe fears of abandonment. So to hear Mark talk through some of his questioning and to hear his thoughts that have always been hidden or silenced because of my judgement and the church’s judgement can send me spiraling in to the ugliest woman full of nasty insecurities. And what do I do when I fear the worst and can’t find my footing? I fight!
Mark is a man who struggles with ADHD and the need to always push the envelope. He also is really struggling with anybody controlling him. He feels he has been controlled and manipulated for most of his life and now wants to control his own life. And what does Mark do when he feels others are trying to control him? He fights!
And so just as my anxiety and fear of abandonment can cause me to unjustly turn Mark in to my enemy and I can slaughter him with false accusations and assumptions, his fear of being controlled can unjustly make me out to be a raging nag or cause him to toe the line of safe just so he feels he has his independence. As you can see the polarizing stances of one needing independence and often losing sight of partnership and the other stance wanting to bail out before the ultimate imagined abandonment happens, causes some serious conflict. Neither one of us feels completely understood or safe. And the scale has become unbalanced.
It was much easier for someone like me to feel safe when there were rules to guide me and someone watching me from up above. I work well under that kind of pressure to perform. This newfound freedom with my own regulations is quite frightening and intimidating and at times I find myself desiring to once again hide under the confines and restrictions of religion. It feels safer there because it’s what I have always known. Outside of it the world and it’s lawlessness is quite frightening.
I can’t speak for Mark and how religion probably felt safe at times for him too but I have a pretty good idea in the ways a box helps reign in a wild stallion like him.
|Randall Sellers Untitled Landscape with Man and Two Women, 2005|
So leaving religion and remaining married has been a painful and arduous endeavor. I have been quite shocked at how difficult it has been. I’m not sure we would’ve survived at all if one of us would’ve remained in christianity. I’m not sure how any couple ever manages living in a home with completely different ideas about life and the afterlife. And for now that is where we have landed. We’ve landed with an agreement to focus on what we have in common. To focus on all the ideas we actually agree upon (because there are so many). We’ve agreed to continue working with our therapist (who is superb I might add!) . We’ve agreed on the urging of our therapist to actually talk less! Yes, she says we are the first couple she’s EVER had to demand that they stop talking about tough subjects. I have started on medication for my anxiety and find that it’s remarkable what happens when your mind is not making up stories about your spouse all the time. I can actually hear what Mark is saying and believe that he loves me. In my anxiety I hear what he says and immediately translate that in to a way he’s going to leave me. For example, if he says “A threesome would be awesome!” I hear “a threesome is something I need to have and I won’t be happy til I have it. You are not enough for me”. On medicine I hear “A threesome would be awesome” and recognize that sure at times I’ve thought that could definitely be sexually stimulating but that does not mean I need it, want it, or desire anything beyond the fantasy and Mark probably doesn’t either. I recognize that threesomes and a committed, monogamous, loving marriage are not really conducive to one another. Bravo to those who can pull it off though. I’m way too jealous and possessive to share my husband.
I’m starting to get glimpses of hope that we can land on different spectrums of what is right and wrong and still love and respect one another. We can have different opinions without hurting one another. We can share our fantasies, our questioning, our fears and our desires without being fearful of the what ifs. We can still be on the same team. Differences do not have to be deal breakers and partnership is a gift in this life. To have someone who loves me so deeply and to whom I also return that love is actually a really safe place to be. We just need to recognize how beautiful what we have is. And that is just going to take some practice and some work. I know I’m up for the challenge.
Do I think we will make it? I do. But not without a few more big battles and not without a mutual respect. But I think we are nearing the end of our trauma and wounds will soon begin to heal.
Even through all of the pain and fear I can say that our marriage is deeper, richer and way more genuine than it has ever been. Religion caused too much hiding and too much power over one another. We lost ourselves and our individuality or if we didn’t lose it we never had it. Our intimacy is much deeper and secrets are fewer. There’s a passion and desire for one another that has been stifled for too many years. We have a friendship that is uncharted. We laugh together. We cry together. We dance, we sing, we challenge, we flirt, we scream, we battle, we resolve, we see, we accept and we persevere. Because of that we will not only survive marriage after religion but we will make it the best damn partnership a couple could desire.