Welcome back. BTW, did you know that the Halloween post is where we busted 666 comments? I just thought that was funny. Y’all are the best. Also, remember that “soulmate” stuff I’ve been talking about? Courtney Stodden, a teenaged reality wanna-be star who married a guy in his 50s and gushed on nationwide TV that “God blessed me with my soulmate,” has apparently figured out that soulmates don’t necessarily mean a lifelong relationship as she has dumped her baffled soulmate. Whoopsie.
Today we’re going to talk about change and the fear of change in the context of the Unequally Yoked Club.
When I was leaving Christianity, before that blowup at the end with Biff, one of the things he kept expressing was his dislike of the “new normal” before him and his wish that I’d go back to the way I’d always been. I didn’t realize how common that sentiment was until I began hanging out with other ex-Christians.
Humans aren’t really good at change sometimes. We don’t like change much. I think that’s why death is so scary for us. It’s the biggest change there is. If someone comes along who seems very sure about what happens afterward, of course many of us are going to listen. But not just these big changes scare us–for some people, any change, even a little one, is enough to get us hopping. We get used to certain ways of acting and dealing with things, with certain negotiation tactics and coping strategies, and when something changes, when something thoughtlessly goes off and makes those tactics and strategies worthless, we’re not quite sure what to do with our hands anymore.
I see toxic Christianity, especially the more evangelical and Calvinist branches, as one long string of negotiation tactics and coping strategies, so it stands to reason that loved ones in those organizations would be even more upset about someone leaving it all behind. I see that type of Christianity as especially calcified and ossified, as especially brittle and incapable of changing. Christians in those varieties of Christianity, especially like the one I was in toward the end there, are often very proud of the fact that their church and doctrines don’t change–except that they do, of course; any group made up of people is going to change in some way somewhere over time. But these Christians don’t see that, or they ignore it and deny that it is happening all around them. I heard the verse about our god being the same “yesterday, today, and tomorrow” shouted, sung, wept, prayed, moaned, whispered, and shrieked more times than I can count. And that stability, lest we forget, is what I clung to as well and what drew me into the religion.
I think it drew Biff in too, though. Our brokenness clicked together like puzzle pieces. I needed stability, and so did he. But he stayed convinced of that stability where I realized it was a false stability. I saw how our doctrines differed from the Bible–and how all Christians’ doctrines do, really; they all pick and choose; it’s just that they pick and choose and prioritize different things in different ways. I saw how thoroughly impossible it’d be to force a truly Biblical experience into a culture and context wherein it just doesn’t work anymore–simply put, we’re not first-century Near Easterners or Greeks, and it’s just not realistic to expect that a religion based on that culture is going to work when picked up and plopped down on a 21st-century world.
I’ve seen missionaries lament that the real problem is that Christians are trying to shoehorn a very culturally-specific and context-dependent religion into all cultures and contexts, when not all cultures or contexts are a good fit for the concepts it’s pushing, which kind of flies in the face of the idea that this religion is workable for everybody no matter who that person is or where that person is from. It’s not a universal religion and it’s not a religion suitable for everybody in all places, times, and situations any more than one diet is the best diet for all human bodies.
Crazy, I know–almost as if it’s not really divinely-inspired. But I shied away from the idea of cultural context like it was a deranged serial killer with a knife beckoning to me. I needed to believe that this religion was totally awesome for all societies no matter what their situation was. I needed this religion to be perfect. So if someone was failing at it, like that person was doing something “sinful” or was not as fervent as I thought was reasonable, I saw that person as the failure, rather than the system itself.
The system could not change; the system did not need to change. Perfection doesn’t need to change; it cannot admit that changes are even necessary, much less desirable. Such a change would be making the system more perfect, and perfection can’t be more perfect. Therefore, the person in the system needed to change.
But no system is perfect. It was shocking to me to realize that Christianity was not perfect. I slowly perceived that it was harmful to some people and societies, rather than helpful. I slowly began to realize that its concepts and ideas were harmful to me personally, that they were there not to help me at all but to keep me docile and obedient so I didn’t make the men around me feel challenged or nervous. I slowly began to see that the promises the Bible made–and that my church pushed as “gospel truth”–were not only not actual truthful promises, like you or I might make, but that these promises existed purely to keep us at the gambling table, much like a casino understands that it must pay out a little to keep people there longer.
Worse yet, I began to notice that the Bible itself changed. Its conceptualization of a number of concepts changed from the Old Testament to the New, to the point that Christians nowadays will retreat behind “Oh that was the old days, that doesn’t apply anymore” when someone points out the Bible’s thoroughly barbaric stance on slavery, rape, abortion (Yahweh was all for it, incidentally, despite what modern Christians do to contort and warp out-of-context verses), murder, genocide, and a host of other topics, though these same Christians will still take refuge in Jesus being the same “yesterday, today, and tomorrow” and may well consider the Old Testament’s supposed condemnation of gay people as valid. I noticed that the New Testament’s promises about prayer changed too–in the New Testament itself even; in the gospels, prayer is always answered no matter what, but by the last books, prayers have a laundry list of conditions–a list familiar to most contortionist Christians–that must be met before the Christian god will consider doing what is requested.
Despite these changes, in many ways I view Christianity as fearful of change and hostile to it. I’ve lost count of how many Christians I’ve seen openly pine after the “good old days” when they were culturally dominant, when Christian patriarchal privilege was utterly unchallenged, and when people acted more or less the way these Christians think people ought to act. That all of these things were that way due to the terror of very real social, cultural, even legal penalties rather than people just wanting to be that way doesn’t even occur to them. Even when this fact is pointed out, they still whine about how much things have changed. Indeed, the Tea Party’s built its entire appeal around their adherents’ fear of change by promising that if their candidates get elected, they will do their best to bring back those old sexist, bigoted, racist days. The deeper one ventures into fundamentalism, too, as I discovered personally, the more nostalgia one discovers for these “good old days” and the more racism, sexism, and bigotry one finds in both the members and leaders of these sects–and the more barbaric their god seems, to the point that a Pentecostal’s god seems to have absolutely nothing to do with, say, a liberal Episcopalian’s god save for the general name and sourcebook.
It used to shock me that sexist, racist bigots tended to create a sexist, racist, bigoted god for themselves, but I’m well past being surprised anymore. Nor am I surprised anymore to discover that a racist, sexist bigot not only fears the changes coming in society, but worships a god who emphatically never changes and thinks of his or her sect as an unchanging sect.
Try it yourself–see how often a fear of change parlays into a demand for the return of unwarranted privilege and unquestioned dominance. See how often that fear ends with a whine that people should just go back to the way things used to be.
Not for nothing do I consider most forms of Christianity a way to deal with the fear of change, especially change that humans can’t really control.
I saw all of this in a slowly dawning realization that one summer. I began to see how people used religion to address their fear of change and their need to control the changes going on around them. But I was changing, and so was society. I couldn’t stop it. The more I learned, the more changing I did. I couldn’t just not learn, couldn’t just not see the stuff I was seeing, couldn’t just not think. There came a point when I realized just how absolutely inadequate this religion was to meet any need I had in my life, and even moreso how harmful and cruel it was not only to me but to those around me, because it simply did not have a way of addressing change in a healthy manner.
Biff’s opinion was that obviously the problem was me, not the religion we followed. Like any multi-level marketing victim, he was convinced, as I had once been, that “the system works, if you work the system.” (BTW: I heard this exact sentence many times from my MLM friends, and saw someone saying it as recently as the Penn & Teller Bullshit! episode, “Easy Money.” That saying clearly has some sticking power.) As I had once judged those who didn’t seem able to fulfill the religion’s demands, Biff judged me.
Not only did he judge me, but he openly lamented that I had changed and no longer believed. He openly pined for the good old days, when I’d known my place and had been on the same page he was. He didn’t like this new wife; he didn’t like this new person at all. He wanted his old wife back. He felt like he’d married one specific person, and like Jacob, had discovered that the woman in his bed was a totally different person. I get that and I was sympathetic even at the time.
He wanted the woman he’d originally married. That woman was not me. That woman was gone and would never return. All that was left of her was a memory. His response was to try to force me to be her again, to force me to step into that woman’s memory, like a creepy widower trying to force his new bride to wear his dead wife’s clothing.
I can’t especially blame him for being upset. As I’ve said, he signed up for a Christian marriage with a Christian wife, and I changed the script on him and made that dream impossible, at least with me. But I do blame him for dealing with it the way he did.
But is it reasonable to demand that someone never change, or change only in carefully-controlled ways? I don’t think it is. We all have the right to change as we get new information and process new ways of doing things. It’s not reasonable to expect that one’s partner will never see the need to make a big change if it’s necessary. It’s cruel to hold someone to a mindset that may simply not work anymore or to demand someone battle change itself to remain just the way the Christian spouse wants and needs them to be.
Such a mindset is very unhealthy. It demands that the spouse be a certain way or else happiness is lost. It puts the Christian spouse’s happiness in another human being’s hands and rests a responsibility the Christian should be handling on the other person’s shoulders. It’s not fair or right to demand that another person handle our own happiness or to make our happiness contingent upon another human being’s behaviors and choices. In a way such a demand enslaves the other person and locks them into a form of bondage–and it does it under the guise of wanting what’s “best” for the enslaved spouse. Even Christian spouses that ostensibly want their newly ex-Christian spouses to be happy often really just want those spouses to be happy in the “correct” way and not in the way that actually brings that spouse happiness. I sure saw that with Biff; he was fine with me changing, as long as it was in ways he approved and was comfortable with. It reminds me a little of all those Christians who say it’s okay to question the religion, as long as one doesn’t go too far, can’t have that now can we, must skirt the edge of the biggest doubts and questions but not jump into the water. It’s not a very intellectually honest way of dealing with either people or doubt. Either you’re open to change or you’re not. Either you’re open to doubt and questions or you’re not. If you’re not able to confront the ultimate limit of the change and the questions, then it’s not honest to say you’re fine with change and questions. You’re not. You’re only fine with the changes and questions that don’t challenge you too much.
And, too, such a mindset of not wanting challenges doesn’t accept that sometimes our old ways of dealing with each other just aren’t going to work all the time. Biff was used to playing the “penis card” with me–he didn’t use that word, no, but it amounted to “I have the penis, therefore we’re going this way.” Patriarchal misogyny worked great for him–not so much for me, obviously. Once I deconverted, I saw no reason to let him have his way all the time just because he had outdoor plumbing while I had indoor. He was visibly rattled by not having the automatic trump card in all discussions. And he never did learn how to deal with me as an equal. He didn’t know how to exist anymore without that trump card. His response was to blame me for his own feelings of inadequacy.
It was very clear to me then, as it is to me now, that a big part of why he had chosen the flavor of Christianity that he did was that it gave him a lot of unwarranted privilege and an excuse to dominate people he viewed as inferior (women, non-Christians, etc)–it gave him authority he didn’t have on his own that he could exert over others. So really, he had no reason whatsoever to question the ideas our religion had given him about his superiority–no reason at all, except that going that route cost him his marriage. He kept his religious outlook, but lost his wife.
By the way, the last I heard, he’s still perfectly fine with that trade-off. The authority and dominance his religious outlook gave him were worth the breakup of his marriage. Maintaining his marriage to me would have meant questioning his privilege and dominance, and he had a lot to lose if he questioned those things. The changes I’d made in myself challenged his outlook. He couldn’t keep both the wife and the outlook. Even if he’d been halfway sympathetic about it, our church put a lot of emphasis on the “penis card.” So he chose the outlook. He could always find another docile little Christian wife (and indeed he did so immediately, before the ink on the divorce decree was even dry, as in the very next day after it’d been granted and I’m not exaggerating here at all), but learning to gracefully co-exist with an egalitarian non-Christian wife was simply not something he could do and maintain his standing in the church or his self-image as the big strong Christian man and “decider.”
To the very end, he kept trying to assert his penis power over me, even when I literally laughed in his face when he did it. He didn’t know any other way of dealing with a partner, and he wasn’t in the slightest interested in learning any other way of dealing with one. His old way was perfect, after all. It was, he thought, sanctioned by no less than a god. He didn’t need to learn a new way. I needed to get back into the traces so the old perfect way worked again, or else he’d find someone who hadn’t yet bolted those traces.
To the Christians in the Unequally Yoked Club, I gently advise: Don’t make your happiness depend on your partner not ever changing. We all change. You could discover next week that you want to write Broadway plays and want to move to New York. You could discover a deep passion for MMOs or Thai food or aerobics. Or the change could be much deeper. You could become a vegan. You could feel drawn to the ministry. You could discover you’re not quite heterosexual. Changes like those aren’t made on a whim, after all; they’re intrinsic to our basic sense of self, and they have the potential to seriously alter your relationship. Yet these changes happen to couples all the time. There are ways of handling these big changes that will preserve and enhance a relationship, and ways of handling them that will destroy it.
And the way to destroy a relationship is to pretend these changes don’t happen and to demand that they never happen, or–worst of all–to demand the change unchange itself once it’s made. That’s like demanding partners ignore all the information they’ve gotten and deny all the thinking they’ve done about something and just keep going through the motions even though they know it’s not true anymore. And that is denying your partner the right to make necessary changes just so you can be comfortable.
How many times would it be okay for your partner to tell you “No, I don’t want you to do that,” and stop you from making a change you really want to make, one you must make to be true to yourself, one that you must make to maintain your sanity? How fair is it to tell someone that they must live a lie just to make you happy and comfortable? How loving is it?
I’ve seen a lot of mixed-religion marriages over the years, and the ones that succeed tend to be the ones that show respect for each partner’s choices and embrace change, even the changes that radically alter the couple’s way of interacting with each other. The couples that succeed don’t force each other to be responsible for the other person’s happiness. They take joy in each other as they are, and love each other no matter what changes may happen. They are flexible and learn new ways of interacting as needed. They can see a big change and say “Okay, so this is how things work now. I might not like or understand this decision, but I know it’s important to you and I want you to be happy and healthy. How is this going to affect your everyday life and our relationship? What is going to change about us?”
Now, I’m not saying that all couples can weather all changes. As I’ve mentioned, insisting such a thing would be both obviously wrong and mean. That example I gave above about wanting to write Broadway plays? That really happened to a passionately-in-love married couple I personally knew. He desperately wanted to go to LA to get involved in movies; she was a New York City girl at heart and wanted to get involved in New York’s Broadway scene. But both of them valued a living-together marriage, which made bi-coastal life impossible. In the end, they broke up because at some point the changes led them in directions that made reconciliation impossible. They had tried very hard to find a solution, I can assure you of that, but even with therapy they couldn’t find a way to both be happy; either he’d be miserable or she would, and neither wanted the other to be miserable at their own expense. It was an amiable breakup, one that made their friends much more upset than it made them. But I’ve seen other couples do just fine on a bi-coastal basis. Some couples will break up when a partner realizes that he or she isn’t heterosexual or even the same gender as originally thought, while others will weather even that big of a change. Some couples will break up over whether or not they’re having kids (there was a sad YouTube video a while ago about one couple singing about how this issue was breaking them up) while other couples will find a solution that works for them. People are all different, and what acts as a dealbreaker for some folks will be workable for others.
It’s up to you to decide how much change you can weather and handle. But weather and handle them you must, because change is coming your way whether you like it or not, in fact it’s here now if you’re in the UYC, and even if you cope badly, you’re still going to cope one way or another. You might as well do it in a way that affirms, honors, and values your partner and yourself.
Successful mixed-marriage couples are not scared of change. They know the secret, you see:
Life is change.
Everything changes. Even death, which seems like the cessation of change, is just the harbinger of even bigger changes. No matter how we regard change, change happens.
We can fear change, or we can embrace it.
It seems to me that love isn’t about fear. It’s about embracing.
Love is worth learning to embrace change.