Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I was raised in a very conservative Christian home (and church) before my deconversion at age 30. I don’t believe in God anymore, but I still struggle with the religious programming. I feel guilty about leaving my abusive husband (we were married at age 18). I feel guilty when I think about my choice to not have any more children. And my choice to work outside the home and leave my three kids in someone else’s care. I feel betrayed when my (current) husband looks at porn or masturbates, because I was raised to think that’s a form of cheating, and also because I feel I should be having sex with him instead (even though I’m just not into it every day, since I work long hours and he’d prefer to do it with me only when I’m in the mood). I have a very hard time speaking up when I disagree with him about something, because I don’t feel it’s my place to do anything but yield to his wishes.
I’ve outgrown the need for God, but I can’t seem to outgrow his rules. I’m wondering if other people have dealt with this and how to speed that process along.
I think your troublesome feelings of guilt can all be traced back to a single religious rule: Women exist only for serving men and breeding children.
Feeling guilty about leaving your abusive ex-husband, feeling guilty about limiting the number of your children, feeling guilty about having your own work and using childcare, feeling guilty about not having as strong a libido as your husband, and feeling reluctant to assert your opinion with your current husband, can all be attributed to the lingering belief that you as a woman are in every way less worthy than a man.
But if you were to meet another woman who feels just as you do, I think you would not agree that she should give in to such despicable ideas. No, I think that you would strongly encourage her to fight her way out of that mental slavery. So keep doing that for yourself. You’re a lot further along than you may realize. With the exception of the last one, asserting your opinion, you have managed to continue to defy your guilt-ridden programming:
Despite the guilt, you did not return to your abusive ex-husband. Good for you! Far too many women return again and again until they are beaten to death.
Despite the guilt, you limited the number of your children so you could give them a higher level of care and resources. Good for you! Far too many couples have more children than they can adequately feed, clothe, nurture, and educate. Poverty becomes a multigenerational tradition.
Despite the guilt, you work outside the home to increase your family’s standard of living, and to assert that you are a person of consequence and competence. Good for you! Because of economic realty, the “traditional” husband-as-breadwinner, wife-as-homemaker family has been a small minority for several decades. Most families with children have two working parents. In unstable economic times, one of the breadwinners can easily lose their work, so it’s very important for the other one to also be employed, or at least readily employable.
Despite the guilt, you respect your own level of sexual desire, and you don’t force yourself to have sex more than you want. Good for you! Your husband shows respect for you too, by wanting to have sex with you only when you’re in the mood. Good for him! Couples where the man has a higher level of sexual desire than the woman are very common. This can result in the man pressuring or even forcing the woman to have more sex than she desires, or the man going outside the relationship for sex, or as in your case, the man relieving his sexual urges by himself. For the health, happiness and stability of the couple, that response seems far preferable to the other two.
As you have found, being free of the central belief of your religion does not mean that all the secondary beliefs automatically vanish. You may have to challenge each one of them just as pointedly as you did your belief in God. For instance, Christianity teaches that to think about adultery is equal to actually committing it. This is a ploy to keep even well-behaved people dependent on the church, since most human beings have active sexual imaginations even if they can control their behavior. It wouldn’t do to have only the actual adulterers begging (and paying) for forgiveness. No, a successful church needs the whole community to be continually sick with guilt and constantly needing the cure. So all sorts of thoughts are considered crimes just as grave as acting them out. When you see how deeply cynical, manipulative and destructive this teaching is, it may become easier for you to rid yourself of it.
Your husband is not “betraying” your marriage by masturbating. He’s accommodating the difference between his level of sexual drive and yours. No guilt or resentment by either of you is necessary or appropriate, because no one is breaking their agreements by their action. Making love should be just that, out of love, not fulfilling a duty. Strive for a loving and accepting attitude for each other’s and your own sexualities. You don’t need to live up to some primitive ancient ideal that never reflected the nature of the human mind, and was really intended only to centralize control over people.
So how to unsaddle yourself of inappropriate guilt? Firstly, acknowledge that most of your guilt is not really that powerful. It has not stopped you from doing these self-respecting things. It has been an annoyance, but not a handicap. You are what you do. For the most part, your behaviors are those of a woman who believes she is a worthy person, and that is what you are. Congratulate yourself for bravely going forth despite that emotional discomfort.
The second thing to do is to is to rid yourself of the lingering beliefs that stimulate the guilt. Beliefs are persistent, repetitive thoughts. Emotions grow out of thoughts. When you are feeling the guilt, the root thought will be close to the surface. It probably starts with “I should not..,” or “Women should not..,” or it will be some statement about your lack of worthiness. Find it, catch it, look long and hard at it, and see it for the lie that it is. You don’t live by that thought any more, so you are going to literally toss it in the trash. Write the thought down, capturing it on a piece of paper. Read it once, and then rip it to shreds and trash it.
Thirty years of training is a long time, but you can overcome it. The same thoughts will keep coming up again, and so you will probably have to do this trash-the-thought technique many times to wear them down. Always have a pencil and pad of paper handy for whenever the guilt and its root thought come up. The presence of the pad in your pocket will remind you to use this method immediately, and you can do it almost anywhere. On the bus or sitting in your car, at work or at home, this won’t attract much if any attention. Anyone nearby will only see you write something down and tear up a piece of paper. If you’re diligent and consistent with this, I think you’ll notice that the thought gradually comes up less and less often, and the guilt it spawns gradually weakens until it is finally gone.
Asserting your opinion with your husband is the only behavior that you mentioned that is still squelched by the old injunction against women’s equal worthiness. While I’m not implying that your husband is to “blame” for this, it could be that there is some difficulty in the particular patterns that both of you use when you talk together. Communicating with one’s spouse is extremely complex and multi-layered with many unspoken rules, habits, expectations, and unconscious agreements. The more you can make it a conscious, out-in-the-open process, the more control and choice you’ll both have in how the two of you interact. There is nothing as central and essential to a happy marriage as the ability for both people to talk openly, freely, easily, and equally about any subject.
Talk to your husband specifically about how you have a very hard time speaking up when you disagree with him about something. No one is to blame for this, you’re just looking for solutions. His attitude about wanting to have sex with you only when you’re in the mood suggests that he’s not a selfish or self-centered person. It sounds like he cares about your thoughts and feelings. Look for what both of you can do to make it easier for you to participate rather than automatically acquiesce. Holding back your opinion, thinking that you must yield to him deprives your partnership of your knowledge, your experience, and your wisdom. This should be an equal partnership. Two heads are much better than one when they can listen and work out agreements. Even if your husband has gotten used to you passively agreeing with him, I think after a brief adjustment he’ll be pleased to find that he has a smart and interesting partner who has helpful things to contribute.
Rachel, remember that you are what you do, rather than what you feel. I admire and respect you for the many things you have done in your liberation. Keep kicking your old programming’s ass!