How My Faith Almost Cost Me My Marriage.
Anything I write here is subject to change. I am in it. Right now. All these emotions are real time. I’m still trying to understand them and how they affect me, my life and my relationships.
“Ashlee, I think I need to go see someone.”
“I don’t know. I just feel stuck.”
She would press. I would lie. I told her it was my job. But really, I knew what it was. I felt stuck in our family, in our marriage. I didn’t want to be there anymore.
My wife Ashlee and I have been married 9 years today. This is how our story has made me better.
Before we met.
I was a child. I had enough wits to make it through high school pretty easily (academically, anyway), but not enough smarts to have any idea what I wanted to do next. I was actively involved in the church I was attending (actively is an understatement…vigorously? obsessively?), and 90% of my social interactions took place either within its walls or under its influence. The other 10% was split between my parents and my co-workers at Eat ’n’ Park (you know, that place off the highway next to Cracker Barrel).
Church was the thing that defined me. I was steeped in Evangelical culture. I lived for short term missions trips (to exotic, tropical climates, of course), youth group lock-ins, and singing weird songs while doing weird dances (but not too weird…we’re still baptists, after all). It was inferred (or sometimes plainly explained) that “the world” was our enemy. We needed to guard ourselves from anything that wasn’t derived from a direct and literal interpretation of the Bible (Translated into English. NIV or ESV only, please). We learned to scoff at any mention of evolution in science class. We learned that people were offended by our prayer, and that unless we evangelized our faith and converted them to it, it would be taken away from us (there is so much to say about this sentence). We learned that we were right, and they (anyone objecting to our weirdly specific theology) were wrong.
I grew up in a world where our unquestionably correct worldview was being questioned.
This is how I perceived it at least. (There’s definitely an argument to be made that this is not at all what I was taught. In fact, I’m certain there are a great many points of misunderstanding on my part.)
I say all that to say, the thing that defined me the most was completely inflexible. I did not experience a culture of exploration — self or otherwise. I experienced a culture where I was on either the right side or the wrong side of a problem, and that the right side could always be found in a direct interpretation of the Bible (Translated into English. NIV or ESV only, please).
We Got Married.
Ashlee and I met at a Christian summer camp where we were both counselors. (I’d never been to camp. I didn’t like camping. I didn’t like kids. I signed up because they said they’d give me $150 a week.)
She was between her Sophomore and Junior year in college, and I had just enrolled in a local state university intending to earn a degree in religious studies (this was the only thing I knew that I was interested in at this point in life).
The first few weeks of camp I thought she was super annoying. She was loud and rowdy, and had very little regard for how those around her perceived her. If I had to assign a motto to my life at that point in time (and really, for the next 10 years), it’d be “stay in your lane.” Ashlee refused, and it was offensive to me.
Our circles of friends all had crushes on each other (#highschool #eyeroll), so in their quest for each other, Ashlee and I found ourselves in the same place at the same time a lot.
To this day, the change that took place between annoyance and fondness is still pretty unclear to me. Looking back, I think that the brazenness that I found so offensive at first became the thing that won me over, and today is the thing that I admire most about her.
In all, we dated for a year, were engaged for a year, and then were married. For those of you not doing the math, I was married at the age of 20. She was 22. We were babies.
What I Wanted vs. What I Did.
Upon marriage, we immediately jumped into as much responsibility as humanly possible. Within a few months, we had a dog. Within 18 months, we had our first child. Over the next 5 years, we’d have 2 more children, buy a home, and get another dog. For me, these things were what being an adult was about. Not because it’s what I wanted, but because that’s what I thought I should want.
The truth is that I had no idea what I wanted because I never thought about it. On top of being just generally and emotionally immature (yep, still 20), I’d never had to worry about understanding what I wanted or how I felt personally because my experiences in the church said that those things didn’t matter. Emotions and desires, I interpreted, were deceptive and useless unless directed toward God in the form of worship (weird songs/dances) or prayer.
Me Without Me.
“But Adam,” you say,
“how can a literal interpretation of the Bible tell you when to get married and how many kids to have? And in such succession?”
Here’s a shocking revelation. It can’t.
What I’ve come to learn about myself is that my preferences are in stark contrast to the environment in which I grew up. And I’m not talking major philosophical ideas here. I much prefer city living to suburban living. I’d rather put money into traveling than home improvement. I don’t really care about nice cars. And I really really hate any sort of lawn maintenance task.
But I’d built my decision making process around the premise that right and wrong do not consider my own feelings or my own desires. So absent any sort of independent thought, I just looked around. Everyone in my circle took the path that I was about to take, and considering that 90% of my social interaction came from within the church, I made a subconscious connection that this was the “right” way to live.
This is how I made literally every major decision in my life.
I feel as though a small aside is in order here. I want to clarify that I’m not blaming those around me for the decisions I made, nor am I accusing them of the same decision making process I went through. There are many men and women from this time that I look up to to this day. All I’m saying is that my personally unique combination of environment, observations, and interpretations led me down a path that not only devalued personal emotions and preferences, but vilified them.
I know what you’re thinking:
“Marriage is a major decision. Are you saying you got married because that’s what you thought you should do? Not because you wanted to?”
Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
I avoided this question for years because I already knew the answer. I had assembled a box for my life that didn’t reflect any of my own personal desires. Including what I wanted in a spouse.
Something else you need to understand about Ashlee is that everyone loves her. Everyone. This includes the people that influenced my life the most while we dated. Given my mindset at the time, it’s not hard to reconstruct my thought process: I look up to these people > These people really like her > I should really like her > I should marry her. Notice the distinct lack of introspection in this process.
When Shit Hit The Fan.
We’d come to the point in our lives in which the whirlwind would finally subside. We were pretty comfortable in our home, our 3rd kid was about to turn 1, and I’d finally (finally) landed a stable design job (because it turns out religious studies wasn’t my thing). Things were slowing down for us, and we couldn’t wait to just chill for a while.
For the first time in our marriage, we had a moment to step back and take stock of where we were and how we got there. At the same time, I was able to look more deeply at the brand of Christianity I had subscribed myself to.
That statement makes it sound like I took some intentionally investigative approach to my faith. I didn’t. The reality is that I just became increasingly uncomfortable in my own skin, and had no idea how to identify the discomfort.
In church they would teach that we should be unwaveringly confident in our faith. Often using a litmus of:
“If I lived in a time or place where it was difficult to be a Christian, would I be a Christian?”
The answer for me was always a surprisingly quick “no.” Of course, I never told anyone that. I was hardly able to admit it to myself, and certainly, approaching the question of “why” was not something to even be considered.
I’d heard about people that had gone through this process before. They were used as warning signs. Examples of people who’s shoes I’d never want to be in. The fact that I had even come to this point was dangerous and felt sinful. In the same way I avoided questioning my motivations for getting married, I avoided the question of why I felt uncomfortable in my faith. I didn’t ask because I knew the answer, and that the answer would lead me down an inevitable path to atheism.
You see, the only faith I’d ever been exposed to was binary. All or nothing. Rejecting a piece was to reject the whole. So, in my eyes, to challenge it was to reject it. To reject it was to leave behind the culture that defined me.
Can you see where this is headed?
This is how I landed in the darkest period of my life. I had opened the flood gates of questioning the whole of where I was as a human. I was staring at a decision between continuing to subscribe a faith that I knew I hadn’t fully accepted, or facing the possibility that all of my decisions had been made with pretenses that were no longer valid. Both options were equally depressing. Choosing a half-hearted faith led to a life of faking it, but allowed me to maintain the status quo. Rejecting faith meant that everything had to change.
I knew the answer I wanted to choose, but was paralyzed by the fear of how significant the changes in my life would be, and more importantly, what other people would think of me.
I quickly began fantasizing about ditching everything. I wanted to leave and never come back. I resented my wife, my kids, my house, my neighborhood, and my friends. They were all just a byproduct of this faulty decision making process.
My day to day consisted of going to work, coming home, and hiding in a bedroom or an office until it was finally time to put the kids in bed (a task I dreaded) and go to sleep. I’d sometimes find reasons to stay late at work in order to avoid all of it. Getting out of bed was the hardest part of my day. When I got to work, I’d sit in my car for 45 minutes sometimes before I could muster the energy to walk the four blocks to my downtown office.
Ashlee knew. She always knows.
For our entire marriage to this point, I viewed our relationship as a set of roles. I was supposed to be the leader. The tone-setter. The big-decision-maker. She would be the homemaker and caretaker. Never mind that she worked full-time and was our family’s largest financial provider while I worked at Starbucks and meandered my way through school. I would later realize that this approach to marriage was the single most hostile element in our relationship over the last 9 years.
As I look back, I wonder how she was able to tolerate me. I would declare direction for our family without consideration of how it affected them. Only thinking of how it got us closer to the vision I’d conjured up on my own. Ashlee was more aware of this than I ever realized. For some reason, she still chose to love me and recognized that this was how things needed to operate in order for our marriage to be cohesive.
But the truth is, as you might expect, this approach took its toll on her, and our marriage was anything but cohesive. Our lack of partnership began to deteriorate what personal relationship we had left with each other.
The time came when I could no longer hide my distaste for the situation I’d put myself in. I wore it on my face and in the way I walked. She would inquire every now and then, but she could sense that it wasn’t something I was ready to talk to her about — and I could sense how fearful she was that I would tell her the truth.
As I continued to withdraw, the responsibilities of having 3 children and owning a home shifted wholly to her shoulders. All the while, the stress of wondering if her husband loved her continued to fester.
The Tipping Point.
When it happened, I had gone to a local coffee shop to do some work. This became a routine excuse for me to get out of the house. As I was headed home, Ashlee called me, but she wasn’t the one on the other end. It was my 6 year old daughter.
“Mommy is lying on the floor and says she can’t breath.”
She was having a panic attack.
It was in these moments of finding her hyperventilating on our bedroom floor, being interrogated by paramedics and doctors at the ER trying to understand the source of the panic attack, that I finally realized what I’d done to my family.
The Road Back (The One I’m Still On).
I began seeing a counselor, and something clicked for me in that process. I’d never had a truly safe outlet to talk about what was on my mind. Every other conversation I’d ever had came with some amount of bias toward the “correct” outcome. In counseling, I didn’t have to worry about how what I said would affect any of my relationships because the context was completely insulated.
It’s amazing how much you find out that you disagree with yourself once you say a thought out loud. There were countless cycles of “I believe x about y…Wait, no, that doesn’t make any sense.” Your brain (my brain, at least) is an echo chamber that can snowball thoughts into monsters.
Perhaps I did make all these decisions based on false pretenses. Maybe I mangled my faith into a weird perversion of what it was described to me as. Maybe if I had another go at it, I’d do things differently (I would. Pretty much everything, actually). But that’s not the opportunity I get. The opportunity that I get is to mend the wounds I’ve inflicted, meanwhile processing the doubts and answering the questions I have, not just about faith, but about every aspect of my life.
The interesting thing about allowing yourself to question things like faith and relationships is that you get answers (a shocking development, I know). You don’t have to project because you can just ask the question and find truth. For me, almost all of my projections were wrong. It turns out there’s a whole community of people working through the same doubts about faith and belief that I am (it’s one of the communities not circled in the comic above). It also turns out that there are faith systems out there that are not binary. I can accept things like the teachings of Jesus, while questioning the motives of someone who said that God told them to rape and pillage the women and children of their defeated enemies (Good thing God’s on our side, America).
Who knows where I’ll end up in faith, but allowing myself to ask the questions and accept the answers for what they are is a mindset that frees me from being paralyzed by what-ifs.
As for my family:
Ashlee and I have spent the last two years getting to know each other (9 years in is a dumb time to do that. You should do it sooner if you get the chance.). Rather than projecting who I think she should be (based on archaic and manipulative ideas of gender roles), I’ve begun to see her for who she is. She’s strong, intelligent, insightful, complex, caring, patient, and kind. I’ve learned that we do the best parenting together, and that I can know my kids better by asking good questions, and going on journeys with them rather than making strict rules and holding tightly to them (except for bed time. No stricter rule exists in the galaxy).
I love my kids, and I love my wife. My faith journey is still very much in process but is seeing more movement than it has in a decade. And this is where I am. Even though I wouldn’t get here the same way, I’m happy in this moment. With a wonderfully brilliant, beautiful woman who has somehow maintained the patience to hold us together. With a faith that does not require me to believe in fairy tales. With an outlook on my future that is not dictated by my past.
All this is super fresh for me. I hope you can sense how very much in the middle of this I am. But I think it’s important to hear stories that are in the middle. We often hear the glorious or tragic endings without ever experiencing the process by which they came.
I hope that my story can help your story