"I still haven't even told my wife the whole truth yet. I'd love to hear more in your blog about your process of 'coming out' with your wife, and how you two have coped with everything over the last decade."
Thanks to this reader (I’ll call him John) for giving me fodder for this week’s blog post. His predicament is fairly common for those leaving the faith; it seems that only rarely do both spouses in a marriage leave the faith together. Over the years I’ve received a number of messages from married doubters, usually men. Typically the wife remains a believer, though sometimes she eventually joins him in leaving the faith. Otherwise, the couple either remains in a mixed marriage or ends up parting ways.
I’ll share some of my story in this post, but with a couple of caveats. First, since every couple and every situation is different, our experience can’t be used as a template for all couples in which one of the partners is going through a deconversion process. Second, ours is a long, personal story, so I can only share a few salient highlights in this context. My only goal in writing this is to provide a little inspiration to those struggling in a mixed marriage.
Shortly after we began dating in 1991 after my year of seminary, I intimated to Charlene that I had experienced two crises of faith during college but that I had recovered and was aiming to become a missionary Bible translator. She was thus aware of my potential vulnerability to doubt, but little did either of us suspect that I would, nearly ten years later, experience a relapse that would end our missionary career and lead me away from the pastures of faith.
I did experience a brief period of doubt for maybe three or four weeks during our yearlong furlough in Texas in 1999, but I kept it secret from Charlene, since I felt confused and unsure of which direction to take, and I didn’t want to upset her until I was more settled in what I believed. As it turned out, after confiding my struggles to a respected Christian professor, I regained enough confidence in my faith to return to the mission field in the summer of 1999.
As I recounted in my book, it was less than a year later, in the spring of 2000, that I was again struggling while reading through the Old Testament with Charlene in Africa. I didn’t initially let on to her the extent to which some of the passages troubled me. I sought answers to my questions on the Internet and instead happened upon Robert Price’s online critiqued of fundamentalism, Beyond Born Again. Even before I finished the book, I felt my world coming down around me, and I couldn’t continue holding onto an evangelical faith I knew in my heart to be unfounded. Before that point, in struggling with doubt I wondered if I was just off my rocker, but when I read Price, I realized there were good reasons for my doubts and that I was certainly far from alone. I’ve never been one to be able to hide a secret, so with fear and trembling, I confessed to Charlene that I was again experiencing doubts. Having recently read Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe, I could honestly say I did not doubt God’s existence at that point, but I did doubt the inspiration of the Bible and the claim of Christianity to be the only way to God. The details of how I “came out” to her are like a misty fog to me now nearly 11 years later, but I think I started off with something like, “Charlene, I have something difficult I need to share with you.” Then I proceeded to spill the beans as gently but as truthfully as I could. She was of course taken off guard and disappointed, but I don’t think it was as much of a shock as if I hadn’t informed her of my prior struggles before we married.
I am grateful to Charlene for not reacting more negatively than she did, and I consider myself fortunate to be married to her. Based on the correspondence I’ve received from others, it does not work out so well for everyone. Some spouses react with surprising bitterness and even vindictiveness. I heard from a guy who had a two-and-a-half hour “coming out” conversation, after which his wife accused him of abandoning her. She explicitly compared his act to adultery. Another friend of mine was told by his wife that she will never have children with him until and unless he returns to the fold as a Bible-believing Christian. Yet others end more happily. Within a several months of one man’s deconversion, I heard back from him with the news that his wife had followed suit. Others are more like Charlene and me, where the two remain committed to each other in love despite their differences.
Given the uncertainty over how the believing spouse will react to the doubter’s coming out, it’s no wonder that John (the reader I mentioned at the beginning of this post) has been reluctant to tell the whole truth to his wife, and I can’t say I blame him. Yet at some point it will become more uncomfortable for him to continue hiding his secret than to face the prospect of her reaction to his new views. And when that time comes, he’ll no doubt find his own way to reveal to her where he stands. For my part, I felt that hiding a secret of this nature for any significant length of time could lead to a breach of trust, so I determined to let her know as soon as it was settled in my mind that I could not longer subscribe to the evangelical party line.
To make a long story short (the longer version is available in my book), we returned from Africa to the mission headquarters here in Texas, where I received counseling and experienced a renewal of my faith for a few months, after which it all fell apart again in late 2000, and I faced the dreaded task of revealing this to Charlene again. It was a terrifying roller coaster ride for both of us, and Charlene was understandably unhappy with my new relapse, perhaps sensing correctly this was going to become my long-term position. Perhaps a year later I started doubting God’s existence (I had held to deism during that transitional year), but I didn’t ever come out and tell her explicitly I didn’t believe in God, perhaps because I never came to the point where I was certain God does not exist. Instead, I stated my agnostic position and later agnostic/atheist/secular humanist position to friends, both verbally and through e-mails that she read, so she became aware of my evolving position naturally over time.
Incidentally, I should confess that I do not hide my e-mails correspondence from my wife, nor does she hide any from me, so she’s aware of a lot of what I write and read from others and vice versa. I think this helps us understand each other’s world better without having to preach to each other. It’s a decision we simply made early on when we shared a common e-mail account, and then we never grew out of it when we set up separate accounts on the same computer. (If you’d like to contact me without Charlene reading your message, please indicate, “For Ken only” at the top of the message.)
My inclination at the beginning of the “coming out” process was to try to justify my position to Charlene and to take every opportunity to explain what I now believed and why. I didn’t want her to think I was just randomly going off the deep end for no good reason, and I wanted her to appreciate and maybe even accept my reasons for not believing. It would even be fair to say I wanted to convert her to my point of view, and I know she wanted me to return to Jesus, praying much toward that end. We had some pretty tense exchanges, but eventually we both realized there was little to be gained in sparring over our respective positions. I don’t recall that we’ve engaged in a single discussion, let alone argument, over religion in the past six or seven years.
In a nutshell, my advice to those in a mixed marriage is 1) treat your spouse with respect, 2) love your spouse, 3) don't go off and sow your wild oats, and 4) did I say respect your spouse? (Not that I'm a model on any of these points, but it's what I strive toward.)
For many in a mixed marriage, the greatest source of tension is in how to teach the children. Since I’ve blogged about this previously, I won’t say more here. Our story is still in progress, but once the kids are grown and more of the outcome has unfolded, it’s possible that Charlene and I could write a book together on our shared experiences--how we learned to compromise, feel each other out, develop patterns in relating to each other and to our children, etc. Perhaps there’s a niche for a book like that, though I’m not sure how big the market would be. Whatever the case, if it can be help to others struggling through a mixed marriage, it may be worth the effort. Both Charlene and I are in favor of preserving marriage whenever possible, especially when children are involved, though I recognize there are times when the relationship is so poisoned due to rigidity on the part of one or both parties that a decision sometimes has to be made to move on. Thankfully that has not been the case for us, and we’d like to do what I can to help make it as rare as possible for others. Charlene has corresponded with a few Christian women whose husbands have left the faith to offer encouragement and support, so if you come out to your wife and she’s struggling with your deconversion, feel free to reach out and let me know; I know Charlene would be glad to help.
Thanks to all who’ve read and/or responded. Please keep the good questions coming in as fodder for my future blog posts!