A reader writes:
I found out about you from Life Without a Net. I read your post about guilt. THAT is what I am going through. Very conservative religious upbringing, married b/c I felt guilty about sex before marriage. Now I find myself, 8 years later, still married to a woman I don’t truly love, a 4yo daughter I love dearly, and another baby on the way. I’m an atheist now, too. I’m in therapy. Trying to get my wife to go. I’m terrified of losing my family, but I don’t think I can be with my wife. Religion made me an emotional retard. Now I am paying the price. I’m reaching out because I’m desperate. I don’t know what you can say that will make it better, and I have no right to expect you to say ANYTHING. You seem happy now. I want that. I want to feel normal for the first time in my life. Thanks for reading this. – J.S. (Hyperlinks added by me. — WH)
First, I want to thank you for being brave enough to reach out for help, and being honest enough with yourself to admit the emotional mistakes that brought you to this point in life.
Second, please know that you’re not alone in experiencing this. If there’s one story I’ve heard a hundred times over the past few years, it’s this one. Lots of people are going through this, and the good news is that lots of people get through it and end up in a better place. So this is not an impossible situation, even if it feels like it now. It gets better, and I believe it can get better for you, too.
I don’t know if you can stay with your wife, and I don’t know if you should. Ultimately, that decision will fall on your shoulders, but here are several things to consider.
Right now, with another baby on the way, leaving isn’t a good option. Your letter didn’t mention any kind of abusive behavior from your wife towards you, or any other compelling reason to leave, so I’m going to assume that the relationship is at least basically functional. If there are no extenuating circumstances, you should stay through the birth of your child, at least. And after that, you need to be aware of the possibility of Postpartum Depression. So right now, my advice to you is similar to the advice I give to teenagers living with oppressively religious parents. Leaving isn’t a good option right now, and you have a part to play until leaving becomes a reasonable possibility and you can decide what’s best.
Once your child is born and your wife is past the danger of PPD, you have a lot more options. Ultimately, you will be trying to find the life path where you get to continue being a loving father to your children, and where both you and your wife are happy with the state of your love lives. Remember that the whole “broken home” thing is largely a construct of Christians. The dangers of growing up with divorced parents are greatly exaggerated, and the “Nuclear Family” is largely a figment of Christian moralist imaginations. Poverty, lack of education, lack of healthcare — these are the things that ruin children’s lives. If you provide for your children, support them, and love them, it is ok if you decide not to have sex with their mother anymore. Lots and lots of people have divorced parents, and they are fine. Think of all your friends, family, and other people who are fine, well adjusted adults, and notice how many of them have divorced parents.
So if you decide that you can’t stay with your wife, it doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean you’re letting your kids down. Your measure as a parent is how you behave towards your children.
Remember that sadness is an appropriate response to loss. Right now, you’re grieving quite a few things at once. You’re grieving for your marriage. You’re grieving the loss of your religion. You’re grieving the childhood, young adulthood, and ultimately… the adult life you feel you could have had if you had not gotten married out of guilt. And it’s likely that you’re also grieving for the pain you imagine your children will experience if your family breaks up. So it’s ok for you to feel sadness. It’s appropriate. It’s what you’re “supposed” to be doing right now. I encourage you to find someone to help you through your grief. There are support groups popping up everywhere for “recovering” Christians. My good friend Darrel Ray has a group called Recovering Religionists. Perhaps there is a chapter in your area? If not, try to find at least a good non-religious friend you can confide in.
It’s obvious from your letter that you feel some guilt and embarrassment about some of the things you’ve done as a Christian. When you look at your wife, you may be seeing in her all the things you now dislike about your “Christian self.” She may represent the past you regret. So in deciding whether or not to stay with her, you’re also having to come to grips with how you feel about yourself and your own past. With this in mind, my advice to you is this: Don’t be a martyr. You do not need to “make up for the past” with your wife. You do not owe her penance for marrying her or giving her children. You owe it to her, and to yourself to be honest and to do the best thing based on who you are today, and who she is. If you stay with her out of guilt, and only behave as if you love her, you are depriving her of potentially finding someone who really does love her and wants to be with her.
Whatever you decide, it’s important for you to act lovingly towards your wife. I don’t mean “in love.” I mean lovingly. Treat her with respect and honesty and remember that she’s as much a victim as you were when you were a Christian. Therapy can definitely help, but make sure that you pick a licensed marriage counsellor with science background, not religious. Recognize that therapy isn’t magic. If you have never loved your wife, going to therapy probably can’t turn her into someone you love, or change you into someone who can love her. If this was a mistake from the beginning, it might be best to cut your losses while the children are too young to really understand what’s going on. If, on the other hand, you feel like there was once some passion and romance, and you feel like it would be worth trying to recapture, therapy might be a good tool.
JS, many people make themselves miserable in the present by mourning the loss of a future they never owned in the first place. Happiness is not a representation of how many of yesterday’s desires are realized today. Happiness is dependent on how we respond to what is happening this instant. Be who you are today. Be honest with yourself and your wife. If you do these things, I believe you will make the right decision, and things will get better. For everyone involved.
I do wish you the best. Keep in touch.
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