23 February 2011

On "unequally yoked" marriage | Part 2 of ?

This is a post among an unknown number of posts to come about "unequally yoked" marriage. Googling for "unequally yoked" produces an absurd amount of hits. I've found most to be about what to do before marriage. I'd like to write a bit about what it's like from within marriage.

Here's a link to the index for this series

It's been about four months since I last wrote about my "unequally yoked" marriage. Looking through that post, there's probably a lot that will be quite similar, but I think it would still help others who read this blog and are in similar situations to hear my reflections after some time has passed.

I'll start by revisiting some of the "intro" comments I made in the previous post. I still agree that the majority of commonly available advice from blogs or internet forums on mixed-belief marriages involves the following buckets:
  • Wishy washy: of the sites and people providing advice that actually try to be helpful, most of what is provided is not very concrete, direct, or specific. "Bear with it," "hang in there," "be patient," "respect one another" and so on.
  • Bail-out: A good number of posts and discussions simply ask/say this: "Do you have kids yet? No? Run for the hills." Nuff said.
  • My spouse doesn't care: The ones discussing staying together often do so from the point of relating personally with the type of situation but are often in a form of it in which the other spouse is only a believer for social or emotional reasons and doesn't actually care if the spouse believes or not
I'm still not satisfied with this advice. There are others who I'd say feel similarly about such advice and who also aspire toward some better solution, like LikeAChild, DoOrDoNot, and HeIsSailing (among others). Perhaps our mutual blogging, sharing, and commenting can help not only us, but others as well. Here goes...


I'll start by saying that this has still not been much fun with respect to the pure "Quest" aspect of things. I just don't know as much as I'd like. I'm unconvinced that Christianity is true and actually have significant doubts that it even could be true. I don't know that I'll ever be able to prove it, though. I think I've come to accept that fact more. I still find that many believing friends don't really like that fact. It seems that their approach toward me can, at times, be one of "If you can't prove it's false, then you should believe." Perhaps the insinuation is that if I can't formally prove Christianity is false, then I had no grounds for walking away. Maybe so. Then again... I just don't believe anymore. That's that. What should I so about that?

I'm still firmly in the belief-is-not-chosen-but-just-happens-inside-a-black-box camp. I feed in inputs (books, blogs, thoughts, ponderings, conversations, etc.) and out comes some resultant "yay" or "nay." So far, it's been "nay."

I'd also state that our circle of friends has pretty much dropped any contact with me outside of formal events where we are brought together physically. There are about five friends I can think of right now who still get together with me regularly and would seek me out to make something happen. With the rest, if I didn't see them or they didn't have religious engagements with my wife... I'm not sure I would really ever see or hear from them unless they wanted something (most of the emails I get are requests to events, something having to do with prayers for someone sick, or something involving donating money to the outreach I used to be a part of).

Franky, my plans to embark on the Truth-Seeker Challenge have all but fizzled. I hope to pick it back up, but it's quite difficult. I have lost much of the urge I originally had to burn through books at a rapid pace. I've begun to really get into woodworking, including making my wife a Christmas picture frame and making my good friend a cribbage board for his birthday. I'm working on another cribbage board right now and honestly find it more tangibly rewarding than going over the variants of "free" will, the nuanced opinions of what constitutes a reliable testimony when it comes to the gospels, how some violent/scandalous OT act was actually good and holy or didn't really happen like that, and so on. Wood working is satisfying; internal debate about how to interpret differing theological opinions is like the worst ice-cream headache in the world.

Marriage Specific

---( Counseling )---
My wife and I have begun to see a marriage counselor. This is probably the most significant development since the last time. He was recommended by our Catholic friends and I was a bit cautious about this, not knowing how he would advise us in our situation. I was also cautious in general... simply because I had nothing to go on except for recommendations from a small sample size. In our first meeting with him, he had my approval. I liked his approach in general -- very specific questions followed by a great job listening with an occasional interjection of affirmation (you say, "And this makes me feel x," and he says, "Of course, because it's natural to feel x in a situation like that because...) just to show you he understands. I also was very glad he focused on specific goals toward the end of our first meeting by asking, "If we were to have 'success' in these meetings, what would the outcome look like?"

Going in, I was apprehensive about paying >$100/hr for a high priced "friend" to listen to us dialog. I wanted to pay for what he was skilled at, not what I could have someone else do for us for free. Discussing goals and targets reassured me that his focus was on results and outcomes, not just on the process itself. Some goals that came up were:
  • Improved communication: when discussion religion related issues, we both tend to get pretty upset. I get defensive if I feel challenged on my non-belief, and she gets hurt if I insult her belief or imply that it's ill-founded.

  • Unity: I have noticed that we both retreat to outside sources of comfort. She typically seeks comfort from other married women when she's having a hard time with the fact that the marriage and life she envisioned isn't happening. I tend to retreat toward other non-believers (blogs, my parents, or Minnesota Atheist activities) because it's the only forum where I feel like I can speak my mind, discuss objections to Christianity/religion, etc. without offending someone.

    We've certainly lost some common ground that united our relationship, but we both voiced a desire to "rebuild" around something or anything in order to mend this issue. I don't know what the solution in this area would look like, but we both recognize the lack of closeness that used to be there. She probably feels it far more, as she has lost the part of me that could comfort her "spiritually" (say by praying over her for healing or bringing up some inspirational passage to help her through hard times) and lead our family as a Christian (call her on to serve god, teach our kids the faith, etc.). That's a big hit to take. I realize that something was lost, but I'm hoping that the counseling can help us recognize that a) perhaps the "hole" doesn't need to be a "hole" (perhaps there were reducible components to what the religious common ground provided and we can redirect there instead of fixating solely on religion being lost), b) we can acknowledge the hole but side step it and wander off into new territory together (some new topic, books, games, method of sharing/consoling), or c) I don't really know where else I was going. The point is that anything to rebuild the connection and mutual bond/comfort provided through our relationship was a huge goal of the counseling.

  • Kids: my wife raised the issue of how to raise our children. This was an interesting one, and increased my opinion of the counselor, because he denied addressing this as it was not really his specialty. I liked that he didn't have any qualms about immediately making that known. He said he could provide some book suggestions and perhaps discuss the issue slightly but didn't want to make it a focus. Thumbs up for humility, honesty, and not taking my money for something he doesn't think he can help with.

  • Acceptance:I brought up a theory that some kind of acceptance of our situation would help tremendously for both of us. For my wife, I think of my non-belief like a bruise. Every time she sees a couple who are friends of ours and is reminded that we don't have that kind of relationship anymore... I think of it as someone whispering in her ear, "You don't have that anymore, your husband isn't a believer" or the like. Because the situation is so raw, it's like a bruise and it hurts to get poked. This leads to tears and upsetness. I have mine, as well. I get quite defensive when challenged or when I think others think something is wrong with me, that I'm stupid, or unjustified, etc. in my non-belief. I'm not comfortable in my "new skin." I suggested to the counselor that "true acceptance" would produce the same reaction to these religious situations as being told that the sky is blue. They are simply a fact of life and are what they are.

    Maybe my view was too simplistic and the sky will never have the emotional impact of changed beliefs in a relationship, but nevertheless I thought that something like this would help a lot. Or, if not (and the counselor didn't seem to agree with my model but I don't recall him suggesting a different one at the time)... something that could help give the emotions some cushion in these situations so that they weren't as "charged" as they currently are for us both.

  • I'm sure some other things came up, but I'm not thinking of them right now. These were the biggies

We've been to two counseling sessions so far. The last one went quite well also. We discussed how things go when I'm attending something religious. I talked about how it was awkward for me to see all these people we both know and how my wife typically does not empathize with me but typically tells my why the events shouldn't be awkward, which gets me upset.

We also talked about a conversation we had which went very, very well. My wife talked about an experience she had in her woman's group in which she didn't think she had shared her thoughts very well, and I mainly asked a lot of questions to better understand why she felt like she did, what she thought the cause might be, and how she might avoid that happening in the future. While apparently I made the classic mistake of actually trying to help her fix the situation... she nevertheless really, really enjoyed that we had the long discussion. I talked about how I think I share my thoughts constantly with her but how I don't think she does the same with me. I said that I really wanted to know what was going on in her head and life but that it just didn't seem like she was motivated to share much unless I actually asked and kept the conversation going. She shared that it's usually that I'm busy and she doesn't want to bother me for fear of me getting annoyed. Fair enough! I do think that most of the times when I share, it's when I track her down and start a conversation no matter what she's doing, or over some common event like dinner in which I dominate the conversation with respect to time. And, yes, when she interrupts me woodworking or on my computer, she usually gets a sigh of impatience. I told our counselor that the "short sighted me" is definitely impatient, but that the "big picture me" needs no convincing, whatsoever, that communication and listening to my wife is extremely important (hence me being aware that I already want my wife to share with me but don't feel like she does as much as I'd like).

Anyway, my homework was to schedule time to talk so that it was not an interruption but a planned activity and hers was to simply hear me if I said something was going to be awkward to attend. If he hadn't moved right into the next appointment scheduling, I would have added that I could do a better job of not being a pain in the ass at such events... not only are they awkward, but I make it far more obvious than I need to that I don't want to go (or be there when we're actually there). I guess I am still a little kid at heart...

---( Kids )---
This is still a recurring theme. We somewhat pendulum swung since the last time. Originally, my wife felt very strongly that she wanted to raise our children Catholic. I didn't like that idea. I discussed this in my last post when I said:
The alternatives? She insists on raising our children Christian and me having no say. Or I insist that she doesn't even teach them about her faith while I only teach them secular/naturalist principles that can be established via science. Both of these are win-lose scenarios, but I hypothesize that these types of situations will actuall kill the marriage long term. I honestly don't know if I could stick around were I in a relationship where my spouse literally asked me to keep my mouth shut about something I put so much work into for no other reason than she believed in it. I equally don't expect she'd put up very well with me telling her to keep something extremely important to her completely to herself and to never speak of it.

I still think that some kind of agreement to teach only universally agreed up on and proven foundations of human knowledge (science, logic, philosophy, mathematics, inquiry, etc.) while teaching them about (not as fact) various religions makes the most sense.

About a month ago (or perhaps less), this came up again and she said that she wasn't planning on raising our kids Catholic. I was about speechless. I couldn't believe it. She said that she had decided that if our kids asked her what something was or what she was doing (she prays in front of them and we have various religious artifacts around our house) that she would teach them about such things/actions but not teach them such things as facts. Wow!

Fast forward a few weeks and she's back to really wanting to raise them Catholic. We got into a pretty good argument over this that was quite similar to the others we've had, which brings me to setting aside an entire section toward it...

---( Belief based "right of way" )---
So... spouses hold mutually exclusive (mostly) beliefs x and y. Who wins? What do you teach the kids? My wife quite often returns to the statement that she really wants to raise the children Catholic because... she thinks it's really important. I remind her quite often that this issue is quite important to me as well and am uncomfortable with raising them Catholic because I don't know what kind of hindrance to free thinking this will produce in the future. My wife, however, is quite pained by the fact that she values her faith so much but might not be able to share it with our children. She expressed that she just wanted to be able to share the faith with them so much that it made her miserable thinking about suppressing that desire.

I don't know if I helped or hurt the situation by beginning to ask child-like questions...
- Who is Jesus? Jesus is god's son.
- Who is Jesus' father? Jesus has two fathers.
- Which one got his mom pregnant? God did.
- Where did the sperm come from? There was no sperm.
- Really? How did a baby come about without sperm? Hey -- our daughter would never ask these questions!
- Fine... Why did god flood the earth and kill everyone? She wouldn't ask that either.

You get the point. Or maybe you don't? My point, I guess, was that when my wife says that she wants to teach our daughter(s) the faith, I take that to mean a kind of generalized feel-good theology that makes a kids eyes wide about how awesome god is, how he can do everything, that Jesus is a super-hero for saving the world, and how god is just so darn ooey-gooey filled with buttery goodness that we should love him more than our night-time teddy bear, popsicles, or bath time. No one teaches their children "the faith" -- they get them started with a completely blind opinion of someone, and that opinion is completely formed by the parents.

Anyway, then my wife brought up something quite interesting... my original promise was that I would raise my children Catholic. I promised this in our wedding. She suggested that this gave her more weight in pursuing that end than my say in some other direction and asked what I thought of that. I'm still working through it but have two ideas:
  • First, unfortunately I'd have to say that I made the promise in ignorance. I'm not sure how else to say it than that. I made the promise under the belief that Christianity was true and that it was the right way in which to raise children. What do I do now that I don't believe it? I'm not sure how a prior promise, made completely upon the foundations of a belief can be binding if such a belief system is now believed to be false.

    I tried to illustrate this with her by asking what she would do if hypothetically, Catholicism was definitely true, but at one point she thought Mormonism was true and made a promise to raise her children as Mormons prior to discovering that Catholicism was true. I think she actually might have said she'd still be obligated to raise her children Mormons. I disagree. Or what if you promised to kill some enemy of the US as a soldier and then discovered that you had been set up to kill someone purely for financial gain -- would be obligated? I'm assuming that most of us would say, "no" to the second. Maybe the fact that it involves more of an "evil" consequence strikes us stronger than simply two beliefs in the same category. But the second has a similarity to my position -- I literally think that raising children to believe something as true may forever affect their ability to choose otherwise in the future.

  • Secondly, I think that one could view a promise as having underlying reducible components, such as "it is right to raise one's children to believe in the truth." In that sense, promising to raise them Catholic is really a continuation of the underlying component. The one I listed, coupled with "Catholicism is the truth" leads to the conclusion "it is right to raise one's children to believe Catholicism."

    If such a view of promises can be true... then not believing Catholicism is true undercuts the conclusion and thus it is no longer binding. Perhaps others will disagree, but that's how I've been thinking about this

As a side note, I'll still add that despite not having read as many books as I would have liked to... I've still busted my a** over belief and theology more than almost everyone I know in my circles. I find it somewhat insulting and frustrating to be told that one has more of a right to proceed with instructing a child on something which is believed, essentially, out of ignorance. I don't think I'd say that I've even read myself "out of ignorance" at this point, so I have a hard time believing others who try to convince me that they have justified their stance. Most of them believe based on personal experience or because someone they respect and have confidence knows more than them believes and thus those respected persons can't possibly be wrong, which leads to a confidence-umbrella provided when basking in their shadow.

---( Conclusions )---
I think that about wraps it up. I think we've become more stable, but I still think we "stumble" into both bad times and good. I'd like to find a more predictable "recipe" for marriage success given our situation and be able to achieve the goals listed in the counseling section.

I also would like to find some resolve about children. What do you think? What is your view on the question of "right of way" based on prior promises and beliefs no longer believed?

Lastly, I've recently entertained the idea of stopping to learn about religion altogether and simply focus on self-improvement, loving, doing, and living. This could be an unbelievable time-suck and frustration. So far it has been. I know a lot more, but I can't say that my study has produce a tangible positive return quite yet. I'm thinking I may go hard toward the truth-seeker challenge again and then may quite reading about religion altogether for quite a while and simply focus on living my life. I guess I've obviously been doing that somewhat all along, but I've felt a bit paralyzed to apply principles without knowing what they should be based on (secularism or Christianity). Maybe the time has come to take up my desire to get into meditation, finding a practical set of moral principles/moral system, etc. rather than floating in the wind. I'm still sorting that out, but thought I'd add these thoughts in as well for any comments about how you have or have't found balance, what you think the end result of your studies will be, etc. Where are we going with these long book lists and taxing drives to read tons of blogs and expend effort in commenting? What's the result?

My goal is certainty but I don't know if I'll ever get there. If it's not realistic and no matter how much energy I put toward this I'll never attain it... perhaps I should cut my losses and develop other relationships or skills instead?

Thanks for reading -- I realize that these posts on marriage and life in general can be quite long.


DoOrDoNot said...

First off, I see why woodworking is so satisfying to you. You are quite skilled and do beautiful work. Very impressive. How did you learn to do that?

Kudos to you for going to counseling. I hope you continue to find it beneficial. Hopefully your improved communication and connection with each other will give you tools to work through this kid-raising issue. At least they are very little at this point.

Regarding promises...Yikes. Of course one could say a promise is a promise but there are times when promises need to be broken. Breaking the promise will affect your relationship, so it has to be weighed against how it may affect your kids. The truth is that your kids will be taught something of the Catholic faith as long as your wife is Catholic, no matter if you stay together or not. It's more a matter of how you'll present your nonbelief, and how the Catholic faith will get taught. Will it be modeled only or will they be taught to participate? If they attend mass or Bible classes at all they'll be participating.

I struggle with how to spend my time as well. I find myself pursuing multiple lines of interest. It can be a bit overwhelming. What have you studied by way of how to live your life that you have not found helpful? Maybe the meditation is something that you could pursue that could somehow be a bridge to your wife. Maybe while she has prayer or Bible reading time you could do meditation. Maybe you could share your experiences and see if you connect in any way with them. Maybe over time she'll even see similarities or begin to value what you are doing.

I am still being helped by blogging. I really like the community and I am still changing beliefs based on what I read. I'm trying to balance studying religion with living my life and finding ways to address the spiritual needs I have. I sort of bounce around.

DoOrDoNot said...

by the way, I know HeIsSailing produced videos or audios of he and his wife discussing their marriage and how they've worked through his deconversion. You may want to ask him about those.

Hendy said...

@DoOrDoNot: thanks for the comments. Re. the woodworking... I learned from an on-line article and YouTube video :) My mom made me go through one of those cursive workbooks when I was a lot younger because my handwriting was terrible and that let me get into calligraphy. Since then I've liked doing various artistic things and get cool ideas every once in a while that I try to manifest.

I agree that they'll be exposed/raised with some kind of Catholicism whether we're together or apart. I'm 99% sure we're past any kind of entertainment of divorce stuff, although the upsetness she endures at times makes me wonder if she doesn't still consider it! She says she doesn't. Good point about modeling vs. being instructed to participate. My main issue is that what will be taught is quite one-sided. Like I said above, the ooey-gooey warm fuzzy aspect of a loving cuddly lamb in the sky is what will be taught, not start-from-the-beginning coverage of why god created us knowing we would fall, killing off creation, why Lot was righteous when he volunteered his virgin daughters to the salivating masses, how a spiritual being can impregnate someone, how killing someone accounts for the transgressions of others, etc. Does that make sense? If she learns about religion, I think she should learn that it's a mixed bag filled with some considerable and unresolved issues... not be saturated with nothing by fondness until age 25 when she suddenly runs up against the discrepancies and ongoing debate. In my opinion, that is the recipe for thinking easily that "of course all of these issues have proper resolutions; Christianity can't be false." It indoctrinates in complete reverence and submission and locks one's mind of from seeing objectively down the road and actually considering that one might be false. I could be wrong though!

I like writing and discussing via blogs as well. I think it helps me process. As I write I get to analyze the stream and see if it makes sense as well as exposing it to others to receive feedback.

I've listened to HeIsSailing's first audio discussion quite a while back but never saw a part two...

DoOrDoNot said...

I was just reading tonight about closed systems of thought and how they prevent critical thinking and reflection, leading to blind acceptance. It was about marxism actually, but it can be applied to any closed system which purports to have all the answers and employs circular reasoning. some versions of Christianity also present this way. If you give your daughter a way out by encouraging questioning and reflection, I think you will prevent mindless indoctrination. And if she's like my son, she'll be asking questions on her own. He's already noticed discrepancies in the creation account and the fact taht dinosaurs appeared on the scene long before man and were extinct before we were around. He's wondered about homeless people being able to get to church to learn about Jesus to be saved, all sorts of things and he's only 7.

Hendy said...

@DoOrDoNot: great points. Thanks for sharing "from the future" (an older child than my own). I'll have to think about this more. Probably the most difficult thing is with the "promise" discussion I brought up. My wife would prefer that she had rights toward instilling Christian belief and that I would need to remain silent... That's a tricky conversation!

Anonymous said...

"- Fine... Why did god flood the earth and kill everyone? She wouldn't ask that either."

Wouldn't she? I don't know your kids, but it never pays to underestimate the propensity of children to ask uncomfortable questions. If children are "innocent," it's in that they think questions like this will have simple, satisfying answers, not that they don't concern themselves with anything touchy or unpleasant.

Hendy said...

@Anon: actually, re-reading that... you're probably right. Perhaps, though, not at her age. She's only 2.5. Just the other day ago at a Christian function, an 8 year old asked three of us sitting around how, if god created man at the same time as everything else, dinosaurs existed so long before us. I internally smirked and let the others at the table answer..

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