I found your article to a woman from several years ago which has a lot of very clear and concise points, but it doesn’t totally help me out in my relationship right now and was wondering if you could help me think through my situation.
I’ve been with my boyfriend since high school. We’re now both in our mid-twenties. When we met we were both atheists. He probably more so because he was rejecting a strong religious upbringing. I grew up with a more casual religious background. It was never a big deal in my family.
He has a disability which prevents him from working, and I pay for most of our needs besides his healthcare and bills he can take care of with help from the state. We have lived together and have been for a few years. We are sexually active and have been for most of our relationship, which I personally enjoy.
He’s told me for years that he’s probably more agnostic, which I can accept as sort of a loose spiritualism, but I felt like he turned a page that I wasn’t interested in looking at. But I thought that would be the final evolution of this thought process, and I was wrong. Three weeks ago he told me that Jesus spoke to him after I got upset that he wasn’t helping me with chores that night. I wasn’t even raging upset, just a typical “Right of course you’re not going to help with the laundry, again” kind of upset. Mostly disappointed. But he told me he believes Jesus spoke to him. And I responded pretty badly, I thought he was using this “revelation” as a shock tactic to minimize the amount of work I was doing. A lot of tears, a lot of pain, and a lot of crying ensued for the next couple weeks while I’ve been alone. He is out of state helping his family, which I told him to he should do because I think it’s good for him to be around them, but that was all before any of this.
The other night he tells me he’s been “pure” since he’s been away. Of course this means he’s been withholding from any sexual thoughts. He also asks me if we can get married and “stop living in sin” until marriage. I was deeply hurt by this, as I have told him time and time again how I feel sex is a very good thing that is natural and can do a lot to heal a person if done in the interest of expressing appreciation, love, and understanding.
The cognitive dissonance I keep running into is that as an atheist, I love him with all of myself, uninhibited and embarrassingly sometimes too. That’s the kind of love I want reciprocated. But he’s telling me he never loved me like that. He always had something else occupying his heart (God? Jesus? Fear of fate after death?) but NOW as a Christian he has more capacity to love me “how I should be loved.” I have a hard time believing this.
How can someone who couldn’t reciprocate the love I gave without the extra layer of meaning and significance of theism love me WITH all of that extra stuff? And are theists able to love in the same terms as atheists? Is it selfish of me to want to be loved by someone that doesn’t have all of the extra bells and whistles of theism and doctrine? Am I just being an elitist about atheism?
The one left behind
Dear One Left Behind,
People change as they go through life, and most of that change occurs in their youth. It’s a natural developmental consequence as we move from adolescence into adulthood.
You and your boyfriend have been together since you were teens, and now you’re both young adults. Those are the years when most people go through the most important changes in how they think, how they handle and express emotions, and the attitudes and beliefs that they hold. This is why the younger that couples are when they marry, the more likely they are to get divorced. The changes they have not yet finished take them in different directions, and their relationship is strained beyond their ability to adjust.
You are now both at the age where for most people, those things slow down changing and begin to become firm traits, often life-long. This does not mean that neither of you will ever change any more. It means that for most people at your age and beyond, change is less likely, slower, and less extreme.
You have gone through several changes including your views on religion, love, and sex, and now those things seem to be pretty much stabilized in you. Your boyfriend seems to still be in flux, and recently a late-stage flurry of changes in him has caused an upheaval in your relationship.You and your boyfriend need to talk about many things in your relationship, and I think you would benefit from a counselor to guide the two of you along. It would be very important that that counselor is not a pastoral or religious counselor, but one who can remain neutral on the subject of religion, someone who you both feel will be unbiased.
Here is a list of questions you need to discuss in light of the recent developments in your boyfriend’s views and beliefs:
What are his attitudes, expectations, and desires about your stance on religion? Will he be able to “agree to disagree” with you, with no resentment and without constant subtle wheedling or needling to get you to convert? What about your attitudes, expectations, and desires toward his beliefs? Will you be able to keep shrugging them off, or will this become a wedge that keeps slowly and painfully dividing the two of you?
What are his attitudes, expectations, and desires about the roles you and he should play in the relationship? Does he expect a hierarchy of power where in classic Christian doctrine he, the male, is in charge and you are subordinate to him? In real, very specific terms, what does he expect about domestic responsibilities, chores, and duties? Are these hard and fast, or flexible? Will there be a way to negotiate a rebalance if one person feels unfairly burdened? You described an incident where such an imbalance was upsetting to you, and you thought he might be trying to manipulate you.
You seem to have very healthy and positive attitudes, expectations, and desires about sex. What do his remarks about “pure thinking” and “living in sin” mean in real, very specific terms about his views on sex? If those are significantly different from yours, is that an irreconcilable difference? By wanting the two of you remain sexually inactive until you get married, is he demanding that the two of you get married? What are your ideas about marriage in general, and what, if anything, would be the advantage of marriage for you as an individual?
What does the fact that your boyfriend’s disability makes you the primary breadwinner mean in your roles? Does his dependence on you cause you to feel reluctant to consider breaking up? There is no hard and fast rule that says that such a dependence is a bad thing, nor is there a rule that says it is a good thing. But you should take a long, honest look at your feelings about this. Staying with someone in large part because of guilt will foster an equally large amount of resentment.
The prospect of children, as I have seen many times, is the ultimate deal-breaker for many, many couples who have otherwise been able to adjust to their different religious beliefs. All that live-and-let-live can suddenly evaporate with a single “You’re not gonna raise MY kid that way!” The two of you need to talk exhaustively about this with a counselor’s guidance, and come to an agreement that is clear enough for you to write it down. The suffering that children will experience under two parents who are in bitter conflict is the most tragic aspect of marriages that should have been carefully reconsidered long before they happened.
You are very articulate in your expressions about love. When he says he wants to “love you how you should be loved,” and that has something to do with his religious beliefs, what does that mean? Ask him to explain that to you in real, very specific terms, not vague warm-and-fuzziness.
Near the end of your letter, some of your questions are about how atheists or theists in general can love and how they should love, and how atheists and theists might differ in that. Don’t concern yourself with such generalities. Focus on how you, the entire person that you are, love, and want to be loved back. You don’t have a duty to love him in any particular way except honestly. If honestly there is a serious mismatch between the way you can love and the way he can love, then a long and diligently honest conversation must begin.
I cannot predict the outcome of such a conversation, whether you will find a way to stay together or find that your paths must part, but if you stay together, hopefully it will be for well understood and agreed upon reasons, and if you go your separate ways, hopefully it will be for well understood and agreed upon reasons.
With either of those outcomes, I wish both of you happiness and fulfillment in your lives.
You may send your questions to Richard right here. Please keep your letters concise, but include pertinent information such as age, the part of the world where you live, relevant financial issues, and significant people in the situation. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.
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