After I deconverted, my husband was convinced that I’d change dramatically. I wanted to talk a bit about that, because I see that same fear playing out among the other ex-Christians I’ve met. (PS: Hi guys! You’re up kinda late, aren’t you?) Since it’s the New Year, it’s that time of year we’re all thinking of changes we need to make anyway, right? So let’s plunge in.
Let’s be clear here: Everybody changes. They always change. Right now, you are changing. In five years, you might not recognize yourself. And the younger you are, the faster that process is happening. The stuff you feel passionately about now, you probably won’t care about in a few years. The clothes you love the most right now, you’ll be tossing out in a few years because you just aren’t wearing them anymore and need the closet space for newer stuff. The tattoos you get now, you may well find yourself paying to erase some years down the road. The causes you sacrifice almost everything for now, you might oppose later on in your life. Change happens, and resisting change just brings griefs of its own.
I’m no different from anybody else. My mom once told me (as an adult) that she never bought me clothes for holidays or birthdays because she had no idea what trends I was following right then. I can’t even remember just when I stopped caring about Aqua or decided I’d had about enough of wearing makeup, but at one time I adored both. I don’t remember when I went from hating mayonnaise to liking it on my sandwiches, or when I went from hating coffee to desperately craving it every morning. But these are kind of external things; they are indicative of bigger things, sure, but they’re just the normal rotating list of likes and dislikes that everybody has.
I’ve had some really big turnarounds too. I’ve mentioned I used to be against abortion rights for women, back when I was Christian. I used to really favor the death penalty and I don’t anymore. I used to be way for unlimited gun access and I’m not anymore. I used to really dislike the idea of socialized medicine and I’m all for it now. There are a lot of positions I hold now that are 180s from those I held as a young person. And that’s okay. Anybody honest will say that we’re all under a constant series of reviews and revisions, and that’s how we grow as people.
But Christians don’t like change. They say their god is unchanging, the same “yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” and that stability is seen as a divine grace rather than as stagnation. And if a lack of change is good enough for a god, then it is surely good enough for people. That’s why you’ll see Christians held for decades to promises they made when they were little more than toddlers, and why Christians tend to deeply resent new changes to their existing order–and why they are so firmly against changes like women’s ordination and gay rights.
I was raised Catholic, but when I became a fundamentalist, I began to change in rather dramatic ways. I remember the exact second I realized I didn’t fit in very well as the person I already was: a man who’d later become a pastor at a small church told me after a church service that “God would have to convict me about my clothes.” I was wearing turquoise denim pants and a giant belted cotton woven shirt printed with stars, my favorite outfit. (It was the 1980s, and I’m not apologizing. I’d wear that exact outfit today if I still had it.) It hadn’t even occurred to me that a god would care about what I wore, but over time I learned that it was downright shocking what minutia he seemed to have opinions about. The groupthink started small like that, but it grew larger and larger over time.
Though it didn’t come easily to me at all, I was trying my best to fit into a mold that wasn’t even vaguely Captain Cassidy-shaped. I learned to keep my voice low and subdued, my words respectful and soft-spoken, my dress demure and “modest,” and my actions ladylike and graceful. I learned that my main job as a Pentecostal woman was to be as little of a “stumbling block” as possible for my “brothers,” who were under no such constraint regarding me, and to of course get married and make babies.
It was like My Big Fat Pentecostal Wedding when I finally married Biff after a shockingly long engagement by either Pentecostal or “worldly” standards, and I tried my best to be a good little Christian wife. Though we shared the ideal of a stay-at-home wife, like most folks we couldn’t afford that by a longshot, so I worked outside the home and learned to value Biff’s spare time way more than my own. I grated under all the restrictions I allowed myself to be put under, but I didn’t even think about rebelling against them for the most part.
More than a few people have speculated since those days that maybe Biff wanted to marry someone like me–a vibrant, outspoken, and confident young woman with serious opinions and deeply-held egalitarian ideals–to turn me into a proper little docile Christian wife, like Dr. Higgins tried to do to Eliza Doolittle. I can’t speculate for sure, and I’m sure not asking him, but it sounds plausible. Certainly I’ve met several men since then who seemed quite drawn to certain qualities in me–qualities they then tried to destroy, both overtly and sneakily, once we’d gotten together. I genuinely think that some folks think that they can “conquer” those qualities, which will then invalidate and neutralize them.
I didn’t even see the changes happening in me. I just knew that gradually I began to become nervous, moody, anxious, and fearful. I began to struggle and flounder in the dark waters of fundamentalism. I began to question my own morality and judgement–the very qualities that told me that genocide is not okay, that rape is never justified, that slavery is never, ever acceptable no matter what the stakes. But all of these things were okay, justified, and acceptable by the authors of the Bible, and by extension by the god I followed.
It didn’t take long for me to start wondering if I was even sane–we’ve talked about gaslighting, wherein an abuser tries to make a victim feel crazy for feeling a particular unapproved way. I felt emotionally manipulated by the stuff going on in my life, even controlled, even domineered–but I was told this was Christian love and the way things were supposed to be. Women were always happy when they tried their best to live according to how things were supposed to be, yet here I was unhappy! Surely that meant I was either demon-possessed, demon-oppressed, or not “in the spirit” enough one way or another, because if I was totally in the clear god-wise, I would be happy.
To nobody’s shock or surprise, I began having anxiety and panic attacks, though I didn’t know that’s what they were for many years. When I thought about that confident, vibrant young woman I’d been once, it was with great sadness and confusion–where had she gone? What had happened to her? I didn’t know–and it would break your heart, the grief I felt for that young woman’s passing. But I was now following a god who wouldn’t have liked her, or so I thought, so I did my best to sacrifice her on the altar.
Once I deconverted, Biff was afraid I’d change massively. Though we were having serious problems, he’d gotten pretty used to things as they were, and nobody likes change. He feared my deconversion greatly for many reasons. I told him that his fears were nonsense, but the truth was, I did change a lot–just not how he thought I would, or even how I thought I would.
So I’m going to outline now the stuff that did, and didn’t, change once Biff and I converted and once I deconverted.
Biff’s Changes Upon Conversion: 1) Became totally convinced he was right about his religion and that everybody outside of it was wrong about their own, 2) Began dressing very slightly differently, 3) Shaved off his beard and mustache, which were what had initially gotten my attention in the first place, 4) Became a raging homophobe and forced-birther, 5) Wanted to go to church all the time, 6) Got wayyyyyy into endtimes theology, 7) Began witnessing to everybody in sight, and 8) Began talking a big game about abstaining from sex.
Biff’s Unchanged Qualities After Conversion: 1) Still a raging psychopathic liar, 2) Still controlling and convinced he knew better than anybody else how people should live their lives, 3) Still possessed of sketchy and iffy views about other people’s self-sovereignty and autonomy, 4) Still not interested in fixing his piss-poor understanding of social mores, 5) Still incapable of understanding boundaries or respecting them, 6) Still manipulative, 7) Still convinced he was way more clever than he actually was, and 8) Totally not actually abstaining from sex before marriage (also: see point 5 in this paragraph for both my general response to his inability to control himself and his response to that response).
My changes after conversion ran along very similar lines, excepting the bit about facial grooming–I’ve always been cursed with a thin beard, I’m afraid. A lot of superficial things for us both changed after we converted, but none of those things really impacted who we were as people. We both needed to feel like we were right, like we had this thing covered, like we’d figured something out nobody else really had, like we were in the Cool Kids’ Club. Conversion just confirmed our delusions and our erroneous assumptions about the world.
But deconversion was a process that challenged a lot of those delusions and assumptions. It wasn’t as easy as being abused or poorly-treated and just walking away. We’re talking about a religion that consumed my entire life and affected every single aspect of my thinking and how I related to the world around me. So when I began questioning whether or not this religion was where I wanted to be, I also had to question quite a few of the assumptions that had led me to that religion in the first place. I had to investigate its claims, find out they were wrong, and figure out what those findings meant to my daily life. It wasn’t as simple as just discarding a failed idea. So yes, it meant I was going to change in a few ways.
Biff was very afraid that once I deconverted, I’d become some kind of deranged, adulterous mass-murderer. Remember, Christians tend to believe they have the stranglehold on morality and decency and goodness, which means that non-Christians don’t have those things (or if they very obviously do, not nearly as much as Christians do). And I’ve heard plenty of Christians say out loud that people deconvert so they can “sin” (and here they mean “have sex like crazed bunnies,” usually, but any sin will do), because Christianity is sooooooo against “sin” that someone who just insists on “sinning” will leave the whole religion just to do it without any pangs of conscience. This attitude is obviously not only wrong but pretty contemptuous, and doubly so when applied to a spouse–someone that Christian ostensibly loves and cherishes above all others!
My husband himself was far from a saint, but like most seriously flawed Christians, he believed that without religion he’d have been ten times worse (a point I dispute fervently). It shocked me that he’d also say that the fear of prison rape kept him from doing serious crimes–to me, all I needed was my own desire not to harm others, but he needed this fear or else who even knew what he’d be doing? (Though I was thankful for that fear later, when he cited it as the reason he didn’t commit atrocities upon my person once I’d fled.) So he figured that if religion was all that was keeping him from doing unspeakable crimes and harming people, then clearly it was all that was keeping me from doing the same; now that I’d rejected religion, that obviously meant I was rejecting all control over my heinous urges. He was judging me by his own example.
To take a page from something Penn Jillette once famously said, though, losing religion didn’t make me want to do anything really bad because I’d never really wanted to do anything bad anyway. I’d never needed religion to tell me that hurting people, lying, or cheating was bad. I’d never needed a god to stand over me to make sure I behaved myself. And I’d already discovered, to my shock and dismay, that plenty of Christians who said they did need a watching deity standing over them were still doing those things, just more secretly–and then apologizing and acting contrite if and when they got caught doing them anyway. Being Christian didn’t indicate greater morality in a person–so it followed to me that not being Christian certainly didn’t imply less morality (that’s why I did the previous post and why I hammer that point home the way I do). There was no god holding anybody back from doing bad deeds, that much seemed quite clear to me then–and still does now!
So the things that changed in me were things like: rejecting the existence of the Christian god and Jesus Christ, refusing to go to church anymore or give money to religious causes, doing a 180 on my opinion regarding women’s rights, insisting on more equal sharing of household tasks, and expecting the respect of my personal boundaries. I rejected the Happy Christian Marriage illusion, rejected the denigration and second-citizen status of women, no longer kowtowed to male privilege, stopped thinking I had all the answers or that I deserved a say in someone else’s private life, tried to be less judgmental, and no longer bought the idea that “modesty” was my responsibility to anybody else or that I was in any way responsible for another human being’s reactions or behavior. And none of this was an overnight process; my deconversion happened over a period of a year or two, so I had been easing into this stuff for a while, rejecting or changing one major assumption and belief at a time until the avalanche that was my refusal to go to church anymore.
And yes, a lot of superficial stuff changed because those big things changed for me. I began wearing “worldly” clothes, got my long stringy hair cut and permed, got contact lenses instead of bug-eyed glasses, went out with friends, drank on occasion, listened to music I liked instead of crappy Christian stuff (which meant that some Christian music stayed, but most of it got tossed), watched TV and went to movies, and a host of other things. I slept in on Sundays, put my Bibles away in storage, and refused as politely as I could to entertain Biff’s blatantly and increasingly manipulative attempts to strong-arm me or browbeat me back into the fold. I didn’t do things just to annoy or pain him, but I wasn’t about to waste another second on stuff I knew wasn’t true and stuff I knew was harmful to me. He could either embrace the new me, or else reject me, but I wasn’t going back into that little box he held open in front of me, no matter how enticing he tried to make it sound; I’d figured out that it was downright dangerous to me and painful to be inside that box, and I knew my judgement in this matter was sound and valid despite all his attempts to make me doubt myself again. I would try very hard never to second-guess myself like that ever again.
The underlying “me” though, that just came back to the forefront after my conversion. I’d always been outspoken; now I let myself be so again. I’d been very confident before; now I allowed myself to feel confident in my judgement and evaluations again. I’d always been bubbly and sparkly, even “perky”; well, I definitely became that way again. A few years after my deconversion, my dad told me he was grateful to finally have his daughter back again; I hadn’t realized until then what a difference religion had made in me until then, but he had an earful to tell me about how drastic the changes had been as I’d tried so hard to fit into that mold, into that box.
That said, the superficial changes in my appearance and habits concerned Biff much more than the big major changes in my worldview or how I was slowly rediscovering myself again, aside obviously from the “I don’t believe in Jesus at all anymore” part of it. His response was, quite literally and without the slightest bit of exaggeration, to think and treat me as if I’d become possessed or gone stark raving insane. He’d always treated this emerging thinking of mine like some silly phase that he could change or stamp out, but now it was obvious that no, it wasn’t changing and he couldn’t stop it.
It’s important to note one thing, though: most of the stuff that changed for me, changed because the old ways of thinking and acting had turned out to be disastrously harmful to my self-esteem, dignity, and sense of boundaries–not that that mattered in the least. Biff wanted me back in the box–he wanted me to put everything back the way it had always been for us, and he wanted the Happy Christian Marriage illusion back in place. He wanted his old dominance reinstalled. He wanted the timid, fearful wife he’d had; even when we had serious arguments, he’d always been able to rely upon his god-given Penis Power as the “decider” in our marriage to cow me and get me more or less back in line, but now he didn’t have that power over me.
He bent his will entirely upon getting me back into church, since apologetics didn’t seem to be working on my mind and none of his emotional manipulations seemed to be having their old effects; he thought once the group got to work on me, I’d be reconverted again for sure, but he didn’t count on me simply refusing to ever darken a church’s doorstep ever again. I saw no reason to do it; church was not a place to find answers, but to be manipulated among a big group of people all hellbent on “fixing” me, and I knew that. I refused to allow that sort of manipulation to blind me to the truth.
Even worse than his lost control over me, though, was Biff’s discovery that once I began to refuse, to say “no,” and to assert my rights, those actions got easier and easier for me. The first step was the hardest; the first assertion the toughest; the first stand the most difficult to make. But every time I did it, it got easier to do it the next time.
It hurt a lot for me to realize that my husband didn’t believe me when I said that our religion and our old lifestyle had been harmful for me. I didn’t (and still don’t) think he’d have cared if I’d even been able to convince him of that. My needs, my emotional health, my sense of dignity and self-worth, they didn’t matter. What did matter was his comfort and his sense of security and privilege. And what mattered most of all was maintaining the Happy Christian Marriage illusion no matter what the cost was to me. He thought that my refusal to even pretend anymore meant I didn’t love him–because “love” to him meant for me to do whatever was necessary to make him happy no matter what, no matter how harmful that thing he wants is to me. I was simply not anywhere near as important as those things were. So much for my “godly” husband making me “priority number one,” huh?
So yes, Christians in the Unequally Yoked Club, some stuff is going to change when your mate deconverts. That is inevitable. Christianity is a religion that infects every single part of a believer’s life, so rejecting the religion itself means rejecting a number of underlying assumptions and manifested positions and habits associated with the religion. But the very basic stuff probably isn’t going to change a whole lot. Remember, a liar is still a liar after conversion–but by the same token, someone who is very honest and caring won’t magically become dishonest and callous afterward. A person who cares about truth will still care about truth. A person who loves you will still love you after deconversion.
If I could advise you of anything, Christians in the UYC, it’d be this: Try to remember your mate before deconversion–and remember that the changes after deconversion are probably happening because of some deep-seated need that has been long denied. Of course you want things back the way they were–it’s so natural to hate change! But going back to the way things were will hurt your mate. Is that really what you want? Comfort at the expense of a thinking, feeling human being you claim to love? Do you want your beloved to be happy and to live with integrity, or would you rather have the Happy Christian Marriage illusion even though it makes your mate miserable, even though forcing that illusion onto him/her will only breed resentment and cause pain?
Be really careful about denigrating your mate or pining for the Good Old Days. Your mate has so much integrity and holds the truth so highly that he or she was willing to challenge every single religious concept s/he held dear, after all, and to be honest with you about what s/he found. That’s huge. That’s a lot of honesty there, a lot of integrity, a lot of sincerity. And those Good Old Days were not good for your mate at all. Pining for them just marks you as not caring about your mate’s very real pain and anguish upon figuring out the truth.
Find out what the big changes are and why they happened, and work out if the truth of your mate is a truth you can live with. Maybe you can’t. Even if Biff had been able to deal with my deconversion with anything approaching grace, I know we’d have had some irreconcilable differences around my refusal to grant him automatic Penis Power dominance. But if we’d had a relationship built on mutual respect and love, if he’d been the type of person to value me and my needs at least as much as he valued himself and his own, we might have been able to hammer out a new relationship that worked for us both instead of the old one that only really worked for him.
And ex-Christians in the UYC, you deserve to live with integrity. You deserve to live truthfully. You deserve to be accepted as you are. You deserve love based on the truth you present. This might be the only life we ever get. Don’t waste it.
You have my permission to make the changes you need to make.
It’s a new year. It’s a new road. We’ve got a new car with 365-ish days on the meter.
Let’s get rolling.
We’re going to talk next about the warped expectations I had as a Christian bride, and what I’ve learned since then. Yep, we’re going to be talking about the “Husband List” circulating around. I hope you’ll join me.