I lost My Unbelieving Wife To - Religion! Can this work?
June 7, 2018 3:04 PM   Subscribe

I've been married for 22 years. We've both been unbelievers this entire time. We devoured Ingersoll back when atheism was still a major stepping out. Our unbelief was educated, reasoned, and arrived at through rational study. My wife has taught math at a Catholic school for 15 years, she never had reason to discuss her personal philosophy. The thought that her being around that all the time might bring about real spiritual feelings was something I considered, but mostly in a joking way, with her always saying that's "silly" "ridiculous" "Are you kidding? No way!" WELL...

Then came the bombshell, and a shocker it was - she was interested in becoming Catholic and this is something that means a lot to her. She says she loves me very much and hopes I can accept this and hopefully we can just move on. Then a second gut punch: she said she has been thinking this way for THREE years(!) She says it has been hard to keep this secret, but just didn't want to tell me because she knew, or at least was very afraid, that I wouldn't accept it and leave her. During these past three years she would just "go along" when I was ranting about some Christian outrage and never even hinted she didn't feel the same disgust (or whatever). Now, I feel such a sense of betrayal. None of the priests, anyone, over the last three years, ever suggested she might not want to conceal something like this from her husband. Have any of you found yourselves in this position? Can this possibly work? I know that this is usually the other way around as a problem - and a person of faith becomes an atheist, but...well, here we are. Is there something I am missing? Not thinking about? Can my marriage of 22 years possibly work after this dual-bombshell? I hope someone can help with a specific answer based on a similar experience, etc. Thanks, AskMe, in advance.
posted by Gerard Sorme to Human Relations (108 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I have not faced this issue, so I can only speak as an outside voice. I'm not religious myself.

Perhaps you might want to wait and see whether her faith changes the nature of your relationship. She's been religious, if covertly, for three years. Is she any less kind and reliable than she was three years ago? Is she any less happy or fun or good to you? Do you have any reason to believe that the actual functioning of your marriage will be worse in the future?

It must feel awful that she hasn't been honest with you about this the past three years, but her fear that you would leave her seems valid to an outside observer, at least in retrospect. It seems from some of your statements that you are considering leaving her ("Can my marriage of 22 year possibly work . . . ").

It's hard to find the perfect time to tell someone that you have changed. If your wife talked about it too early, then it may seem just a passing fad -- and perhaps one you would be tempted to argue her out of. And she may, herself, have wondered if it was a fad. Then again, if she waits too late, then she's in the situation you've described.

I'm about the same number of years into my own marriage, and I've changed in ways my wife could not have predicted at the time, just as she's changed in ways I couldn't predict. Why not see what it feels like to be married to this current version of your wife, rather than guessing based on the experience of others who may be very different from you two? Can you bring yourself around to saying "Let's see how it goes?"
posted by ferdydurke at 3:29 PM on June 7, 2018 [52 favorites]

when I was ranting about some Christian outrage

Well, there's your answer as to why she hasn't confided in you about this.

I think you need to think about how much your atheism means to you. Personally, my atheism is just my own thing, and few people who know me know that I'm an atheist, as opposed to someone who's generically non-religious. But it sounds like atheism may be fairly central to your perception of who you are - hence this feeling of panic and threat when it turns out that your wife's beliefs may no longer align with yours.

This is NOT a betrayal, because it isn't about you. It's about something that's changed in the way your wife feels and thinks about her own place in the universe. People undergo fundamental changes throughout their lives. Has this change in belief really altered her in some way that makes her unlovable to you? Is she no longer the person she was? Was her own lack of belief really something you cherished and admired in her? Or was it just comforting to reassure yourself that she basically agreed with you, and provided a kind of 'echo chamber' for your own thoughts? You're the only one who can answer these questions. I'd tend to think that if you're that rigid in your mindset, something's ultimately going to crack in the relationship.

Maybe you can just be philosophical about it? I tend to take the view that if someone has religious faith, then it's understandable that they might want to convert others to the same belief - from their standpoint, they may be saving souls. But as an atheist, what does it matter to me what another person believes and takes comfort from?
posted by pipeski at 3:30 PM on June 7, 2018 [102 favorites]

Have her morals changed? Her ethics? Her sense of justice? These things are much more important than religion.
posted by soelo at 3:32 PM on June 7, 2018 [46 favorites]

What is the extent of her religiousity? Is it the sort of thing where she suddenly developed a personal spirituality and Catholicism resonated with her, plus maybe she enjoys the community aspect of it? Or, does she now believe that, as a heathen, you will burn in the lake of fire for all eternity?

If it’s the former, I definitely think you can at least try to make it work. There will be an adjustment period of course, but I imagine after time it will become just another facet of her and her personality.

If it’s the latter, well, I think it will be a much greater struggle. I have known a couple who this happened to and it ended in divorce. There was too much of a divide in their world views after the conversion and the non-believer felt continually disrespected by the now-believers’ certainty, that they were going to hell. That plus their endless attempts to evangelize made the day-to-day aspect of the relationship really unpleasant.
posted by scantee at 3:34 PM on June 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

I think there's an important lesson to be learned here: when you show contempt for a point of view, you are making it very unlikely that those who hold that view around you will feel comfortable sharing that part of themselves with you, so you had better limit your open contempt to views that unquestionably deserve it (some do). Did you never think that--setting aside her own beliefs--your wife might like and respect at least some of her colleagues at the Catholic school she teaches at, and find your "ranting" and "disgust" hurtful and misguided?

I am epistemologically an agnostic and personally an atheist, with many religious relatives. A scary number of them are Trump death-cultists, and I couldn't care less what they think. Others are also evangelical, but are grappling with these issues with sincerity and good will, and are appalled by what other evangelicals are endorsing politically these days. Some of them are just ordinary people who happen to have drawn different conclusions about the functioning of the universe than I have. I really have to take care, when I'm speaking where I can be heard, not to unfairly confound the three groups or to insult people who haven't done anything to deserve it.

I think you should start by apologizing to your wife for acting in such a way that she didn't feel safe confiding in you for three years. If you can't respect her beliefs, at least you can respect her as a person of judgment and sense and morality. If you can't convey that much, your marriage is doomed.
posted by praemunire at 3:36 PM on June 7, 2018 [125 favorites]

My mother turned to religion as an escape mechanism after six miscarriages and a stillbirth. We are South Asian, so there's a lot of stigma and not a lot of support for women undergoing such emotional (and physical) trauma. She then proceeded to become hellishly judgmental, and telling us (her parents, my stepdad and I) that she loved God first and us second (she says it to this day, with my son and boyfriend as well.) Every decision she makes is based on whether or not her action will fulfill God's wishes. She is a hypocrite when it comes to her gay brother, and it's impossible to have a conversation with her without it devolving into a judgment on my lack of obedience to her monotheistic belief.

My stepdad has long since divorced her.

You are understandably reeling from a situation in which your partner of 22 years hid a secret (knowledge that you deem important) from you for three years. That's a separate issue from the fact that you now know she is no longer an atheist and your belief system is no longer something you have in common. A counselor can help you work through the former issue of feeling betrayed by your wife. Seek counseling on that front, and also to explore why your wife felt you'd leave her if you knew she was religious.

There are plenty of couples with different belief systems who lead long, happy married lives. They do that by accepting that each of them has different beliefs, and by not forcing those beliefs on the other. They handle differences of opinion like they handle other arguments - with compassion, compromise, and kindness. This was what my mother could not do. Is your day-to-day life going to change significantly now that your wife is Catholic? Does she want you to attend church with her? Why did she feel that you would leave her if she was honest with you? How is her telling you now going to change how things have been in the last three years? You both owe each other empathy and respect. As long as your life together doesn't change significantly, and you're both able to respect each others' belief systems (or lack thereof), does it really matter if she's religious? You fear what you don't know - in this case - who your wife is as a Catholic. Give this time. It doesn't sound like she's an unreasonable person who is demanding that your relationship change. It hasn't in the last three years, has it?
posted by Everydayville at 3:37 PM on June 7, 2018 [12 favorites]

Do you know for sure the priests knew that she was concealing this from you and thought that was OK? The fact that you say this makes me wonder if you just assume the worst about religious people. Are you a proselytizing atheist? You may not be, but those can be just as obnoxious as proselytizing Christians.

It does seem that she might have had reason to think that you would reject her and even want to leave her if she admitted her feelings to you. If you want to preserve your marriage, try to have compassion for her in that fear.

I’ve known some couples with very different religious beliefs who have maintained their marriages. It’s very possible if both partners make an effort. Couples counseling might be a good idea.
posted by FencingGal at 3:40 PM on June 7, 2018 [28 favorites]

She held back from telling you something she was wrestling with internally because she was afraid you might leave her. So when she finally summoned the courage to tell you, you are considering leaving her. Her holding back makes sense.

I am not religious. My partner is. We make it work because we both respect each other full stop, because our ethics align, and because we see each other live out those ethics every day.

Do you respect her? Have the ways she lives her life/treats other people/votes changed? Are you a live-and-let-live nonbeliever or a snarky-superior nonbeliever? Do these questions not matter to you?

It's up to you whether you can make it work. Religion doesn't have to get in the way.
posted by headnsouth at 3:41 PM on June 7, 2018 [59 favorites]

You sound pretty intolerant of religion in general, so no surprise your wife wasn't comfortable confiding in you. Someone's religion doesn't change who they are. Your wife is still the same person. You interact with religious people every day, unless you're some kind of (non-religious) hermit. Can you even tell the difference between atheists and the devout, unless they tell you? Religious people are just people, it's a part of their life but it has almost nothing to do with what kind of person they are. Get a grip on yourself.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:43 PM on June 7, 2018 [15 favorites]

Have you ever considered the fact that you, too, might develop a spiritual side and become Catholic? And before you say it will never happen, you’ve both said that before and look where we are.
posted by Jubey at 3:46 PM on June 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

Is there something I am missing? Not thinking about?

That your wife was entitled to reconsider her own mind, at her own pace, because she is her own person. Can you try on a different perspective, one in which any "betrayal" is on you? Your loving partner of 22 years didn't feel safe in your marriage to openly discuss her ideas and feelings. She's clearly continued to want you, and for your marriage to survive, despite this. Please have some sympathy for one another, and see a marriage counselor.
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:51 PM on June 7, 2018 [57 favorites]

A relationship between a religious person (at least involving a non-evangelical religion) and an atheist can work, I've been in one for 6 years as the atheist. But both people need to come at it from a place of non-judgment, and each needs to be able to accept that the other's beliefs are not about them. It's not obvious that you're anywhere near this place, judging from writing about this as a "betrayal".
posted by advil at 3:55 PM on June 7, 2018 [10 favorites]

I’m going to disagree with most of the responses here so far. This would likely be a dealbreaker for me in a marriage. I’m not an agnostic; I’m an atheist. There is no God. I could not be married to someone who believes in a delusion like that, and wasn’t interested in getting help to try to end that delusion. It’s one thing to have friends who believe in religious nonsense, but I wouldn’t want to live day in and day out with someone who believed it.

The fact that she didn’t tell you for three years goes to show that she understood just how much of a dealbreaker this probably would be for you. If you can make this work, great. I hope you can. Marriage counseling might help.
posted by greermahoney at 3:55 PM on June 7, 2018 [20 favorites]

I think knowing why would make a big difference. If it's to escape from grief or trauma, it makes some sense. Did she analyze the religion and bible and decide it made sense to her over science or is she using religion as a form of escape?

I think you can make a marriage work where one person uses religion as the thing that calms their anxiety. I'm not so sure if it can work if she is an actual believer. I think you might want to take time to understand her beliefs before deciding that the marriage is over. I don't think I could be with someone who believed that the earth is a few thousand years old. I think could be with someone who felt like the church services made them feel peaceful and got something out of the Bible in an allegorical sense. Find out what catholicism means to her and not assume all catholics holds the same beliefs.
posted by parakeetdog at 4:24 PM on June 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

I understand you feeling betrayed because she hid this from you, and that is something I think you need to sort through. But in terms of her wanting to become a Catholic, I guess the question you need to figure out is why. Is it because of the sense of community? Is it because she thinks there might be a God out there? Or is it because she believes in conservative values? I know a lot of liberal Catholics who believe in God and find comfort in prayer, but who are also liberal and believe in the rights of women, gays, etc. You need to understand why she wants to become a Catholic and how it fits into her values. Maybe her values will be the same as they always were, but that's what you should find out. There are lots of reasons people join religions. I met a woman who was Catholic and became a Mormon simply because she moved to Utah and everyone else was Mormon. If your wife works at a Catholic school, sounds like that could be playing a role.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:27 PM on June 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Another atheist-married-to-an-atheist weighing in to say I would be okay with my wife developing an interest in religion. I value her as a person a hell of a lot more than I value a coincidence of views on this particular topic. If your atheism is so overwhelmingly important to you that you simply can't live with someone who doesn't share it, then I guess you'll have to leave her. But I join with others in pointing out that your frequently and vigorously expressed contempt for religion is sufficient explanation for her concealing it from you. If I were you, I'd apologize and try to accept her as she is, but I'm not you. You have to think seriously about what's most important to you. I wish both of you good luck.
posted by languagehat at 4:31 PM on June 7, 2018 [15 favorites]

in general the Catholic Church is big on recruiting and converting. if you see your wife starting to pressure you stand firm in your beliefs. don't feel bad if you decide to leave. my parents are mixed religion and one is Catholic. they are completely in love but the difference is that neither is practising. the Catholic Church initially tried to get my mother to convert.
posted by biggreenplant at 4:38 PM on June 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

When / if you're ready, it might be helpful to ask what the religion means to her. As a person who vacillates between mildly religious and agnostic-leaning-atheist (/ nature-oriented woo), what appeals to me in religion are things like "you can't control everything, in some ways you're at the mercy of a larger universe" and "be kind even when every situational clue makes you want to lose your patience because it'll come back to you in some ineffable way and that's who you want to be." To me religious spaces give me more frequent reminders of things like that, a community of people with similar aspirations (and more easy-to-access community than almost any structure in today's US society), and a bunch of cultural nostalgia to my youth.

Sure, religion is associated with stupid stuff, but what isn't? Every group I ostensibly affiliate with probably has one horrible member or has officially espoused something I completely disagree with. So when I'm feeling religious, I'm just like "the religious people who oppress gay people are just completely wrong. This religion is about love, not hate. I'm so glad I found gay-friendly parish."

There's also very much a cultural aspect to this. I could see it being very hard not to start thinking of yourself as Catholic if you're sitting through masses and lighting the Advent candles and etc etc etc for years on end.

There are a lot of selfless, kind, gentle people who specifically link those attributes to their religion. I'm not completely surprised that it has rubbed off on your wife. When you're around people who think that way for long enough, you start to associate "being a really really good person" with "being religious" even while acknowledging that there are a lot of non-religious good people. I shared just two car rides with someone who worked for Catholic Charities, and you could immediately see how her faith connected to values like "I'm not at the center of the universe" and "I'm just here to humbly do as much good as I can even while acknowledging my own imperfections," and it made me wish I could decide to be Catholic without having a million complicated feelings about the last couple millennia. Your wife has had a lot of time to differentiate how religion works in the lives of good people from those abstract issues, so it makes sense to me.
posted by salvia at 4:38 PM on June 7, 2018 [14 favorites]

This would be pretty close to a dealbreaker for me but in your shoes I would do three things:

1) Apologize for my part in creating/maintaining a dynamic where my partner felt they had to keep a major personal change like this secret for so long. Even though I would also feel betrayed and hurt as you do, the fact remains - you had a part in the dynamic between the two of you that led you to this particular juncture. There were things you could have done better to allow a space between you for change and truth-telling; you have a chance to try to do those things better now.

2) Ask my partner to tell me about their experience, and what their religious beliefes now are, and promise not to interrupt or probably even to respond right away; just listen and try to understand where your wife is currently standing in her beliefs. "Religious" or even "Catholic" can mean a lot of things and you need to understand what you're dealing with to decide how you want to proceed.

3) Ask my partner to do couples therapy with me. Either you're on the verge of a divorce or you're on the verge of some major renegotiating of your shared and separate belief systems, and either way, a third party mediator would likely be really, really helpful as you navigate whatever comes next.
posted by Stacey at 4:49 PM on June 7, 2018 [39 favorites]

How would your marriage be affected by her decision to convert to or observe Catholicism? Are you expected to make meaningful, material sacrifices?

Because nothing you've said has mentioned anything like that. You did say that your wife herself felt "afraid" to tell you. Has that not made you examine your own behaviour?

I was lucky to grow up in a secular household, so religion does not trigger any particular emotions with me. I've done lay practice (non-residential) in a Soto Zen monastery, and am quite curious about religions.

I've also been married for twenty years. My wife is not exactly religious, although she holds religious beliefs and our family conforms to them.

If my wife decided to observe or join a new religion, it would be a big change, for sure. It would be different. On the other hand, she's gone back to school and is doing a heavy-duty comp sci program, leaving very little time for family. It's been challenging, but I don't feel threatened by it. It's just a big change.

Try to support your wife. Respect her choices. Presumably she is respecting your choices, too.
posted by JamesBay at 4:53 PM on June 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hi. I’ve done the Lite version of what your wife is doing (we’d been married less time, he’s agnostic, I converted Episcopal, but three years before “coming out” is about right). I felt guilty for “pulling the wool over his eyes,” as if I had tricked him.

I am still married about 8 years after I dropped the mini-bombshell. My husband is still not religious (and likely never will be). I know some other couples who married knowing they weren’t on the same page, or who married and one partner left their shared faith for another.

All of them have had the same core problem as every married couple eventually will: one partner changes when expected not to, or one never changes even though their partner was secretly counting on it. All of them have coped variably, or are still coping variably, or eventually could not cope. It’s not quite on the level of (say) incompatible sexual orientations in a couple, but it might help to frame it as an orientation you both have, and with the mindset that neither of you should expect the other to grow out of it.

I really do think it is. My conversion threw my husband for a loop, and my spiritual-but-not-religious family of origin, but one day my father admitted, “I always knew you’d turn out religious.” Affectionately, too.

Like your wife, I’d spent a long time denying it in myself, because I’d had a lot of people close to me denouncing it, and for a time I assumed they must be right. When I went to Mass as a kid, I was ashamed that I liked it, that I felt something, that it moved me.

I tell you all this in case you’re hoping to understand her perspective better, because that right there is one of your best indicators of the future of the relationship.

Best case scenario, you both still want to understand each other, even if you wouldn’t have deliberately chosen to grow apart in this one regard. Worst case scenario, you find that the divide is too great. Here are ways that might manifest:
  • One of you is in mourning and you can’t even talk respectfully about your mourning because your perspectives on death are incompatible
  • One of you gets emotionally too close to a third party who is closer to their own philosophy
  • She has to go stag to her friends’ weddings because you can’t even stand to set foot in a church (and she hates it; if she likes it, NBD!)
  • You feel embarrassed or ashamed if she speaks of her faith around people you admire
  • You ask each other lots of questions under the premise of “understanding” each other better, but it always ends up feeling like a debate instead of a dialogue, and you both end up feeling drained and unheard.
If you want to really stretch yourself, I have a dare for you: google the term “unequally yoked” (barf, I agree) and read the numerous tortured blogs by devoutly religious women whose husbands have drifted from their once-mutual faith. Note your frustration, sit with it, keep reading, don’t comment. Try your damnedest (...sorry) to empathize with them, through the looking glass. That really is where they are; they have something in common with you, and their husbands have something in common with your wife.

If, after doing this, it suddenly feels like your wife’s perspective is actually a lot nearer your own, and she’s worth working around this particular incompatibility, start there. It will help if she feels the same about you, of course.

I’m of the opinion that the real irreconcilable difference is not between believers and unbelievers, but between people who do and don’t wish everyone in the world agreed with them.

Take time to identify the permeability of this line between you, and the spirit in which you’re looking across it.
posted by armeowda at 4:54 PM on June 7, 2018 [59 favorites]

This is your chance to grow. A lifelong relationship is only guaranteed one thing: you're both going to change. This is a big change, and it requires a big leap of faith (yes) on your part. This is your chance for atheistic, spiritual development. You tell your wife, "I love you and I want to know who you are now. I'm sorry you didn't feel safe telling me about this part of your inner life. I want to know what it feels like to you, what it means to you and what you think it means for us." Be quiet and listen. Put yourself to the side and use the opportunity to more deeply know another person, the person you have committed to love and support in life.
It is much easier to bond with someone who is just like you. This is harder, and that's why, if you can do it, it will be incredibly rewarding and deepening.
Or not. You can always break up if find you just can't accept it eventually. But you should try.
posted by nantucket at 4:57 PM on June 7, 2018 [18 favorites]

(Or: Jinx with armeowda.)
posted by nantucket at 4:59 PM on June 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

(Yeah, but nantucket put it more elegantly.)
posted by armeowda at 5:01 PM on June 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

This was a dynamic in my last relationship. We initially discussed and bonded over not being religious. I slowly realized that he was much more committed to his atheism, but it took a bit of a blow-up for him to realize I didn't share his level of commitment.

For me, I grew up in the South, and religion was largely defined by the ways the dominant culture subvert control over marginalized people: ostracizing difference, preaching conformity and distrusting intellectual or scientific thought. My uncle committed suicide when I was young, and rather than help my traumatized family, the Catholic church turned their back so the rest of their flock would know how sinful acting on suicidal thoughts were. I was going to have none of that in my life.

My partner had grown up in the Bay Area, where even the Catholic church is pretty aligned with my social values. Most people are open to the fact that the bible is allegorical. Once I understood the church experience he was railing against, his excessive anger made a lot less sense to me.

I can understand joining the church under those circumstances. I still probably won't because it would take a long slow process to actually warm up and feel the sort of safety and community other people feel in church. But working in a Catholic school over 15 years could probably get me there.

Maybe she has made a complete Evangelical 180. But I would be open to the fact that the Church has done a lot within our lifetime to become a social institution that could provide value in my life well beyond whether or not there is a God. And unlike a lot of other social institutions, it remains available to you as you age. I could find my people in school or dating or bars when I was in my twenties in a way that's not quite true now.
posted by politikitty at 5:09 PM on June 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

If you reach a point where you want to consider her side of this, try to understand what a lot of women have been through in the past ~4-5 years as it has become increasingly obvious that a lot of people are walking around with homicidal hatred for us (along with a sizeable chunk of the rest of the population) and that nobody human is coming to help. The psychic pain of this has been...a lot.

Hell, I went from atheism to back to being a damn witch, which up to pretty recently had been an embarrassing phase I went through a long time ago. Some part of it was wanting to dissociate from toxic/lethal white male atheism without going full Heavenly Beings, but some of it was reconsidering what I used to study about power and energy and intention and realizing I want to spend some more time on that. Even if there's nothing to it, the exercise has been good for me.

If my husband's attitude was like yours seems to be, I doubt I'd feel comfortable telling him either. If he wanted to frame that as betrayal, I'd counter that he let me down first by not being someone I could talk to.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:09 PM on June 7, 2018 [53 favorites]

My husband and I have been married for just over 12 years. I am a theist, he is not. Our families range from athiest to pagan-ish. We laugh together at some of my mother's more outlandish ritual-esque things, we talk about religion and faith and what it means for us, and for our child. He makes space for me to attend church, or did when I was still attending; he tolerates my altars, and my silent prayer, and talking to people about it sometimes.

I nod along with him and add my own outrage when someone uses faith or religion as a means to abuse another, or to discriminate, or to control. That doesn't change my own faith in any way - I can acknowledge the way religion has hurt the world, and have my own faith in it. That's...surprisingly easy to be honest. The internal difficulties about being complicit, or enabling, aren't but there's nothing that says 'cannot criticise religion' because you have faith.

Most of the people I know with the most incisive, most useful critique are priests, in several faiths. So. That's not really the problem I think.

You founded your bond with your wife, at some level, on this shared athiesm and how you practice that (which is different to how my family is athiest, how my husband is athiest, fwiw) and now not only has it changed, but what you thought was an immovable pillar was her agreeing with you about those outrages but not the athiesm you think prompts it. You think the bond is about athiesm, in some way, maybe?

These kinds of changes can end relationships, and your wife seems to have been right to allow herself the room to feel comfortable before talking to you about it since you immediately leap to both divorce, and I imagine arguing. And I also imagine a lack of empathy for the kinds of things that prompt these conversations and conversions. Talking to athiests about faith journeys is rarely emotionally safe, and you have proven her assumptions about your behaviour correct.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:12 PM on June 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

Agnostic, non-practicing cradle Catholic here.

It sounds like you're kind of dealing with two separate but related issues: (1) the feeling of betrayal from your partner hiding something from you for three years, and (2) the fact that your wife has developed a spiritual life and that you find this idea repugnant. I have a few thoughts.

The first thing I would suggest is that you ask her questions. Your post is scant on details about her evolving worldview, so I'm assuming that's because you don't know the details, or perhaps that you know them but don't consider them germane. I would suggest that you ask some questions along the following lines, and that before you dive in, you practice asking them and hearing the responses in a non-judgmental way:

* How did this shift develop?

* What is it about Catholic thought, theology, and communal life that appeals to you?

* How do Catholic values, as you understand them, relate to the values you held as an atheist and a humanist? Are they worlds apart? More alike than not? How so?

* What is your concept of God?

* What are your thoughts, as a potential convert, on the well-known problems related to the Catholic Church: the sexual abuse scandal, the formal essentialism and bigotry related to sex and gender, the adherence to "Natural Law" in 2018, etc?

I think you should ask these questions and others like it for two reasons. The first is that this person is your partner, and you owe her the respect of acknowledging and trying to understand her journey as an autonomous adult with a functioning intellect and her own subjectivity. The second is that, in your position, I wouldn't know where to begin without having answers to questions like these. In some sense, you don't know what she is considering converting to until you hear her tell it.

The second thing I would suggest is that after learning more about her evolving worldview, you begin a conversation about her hiding this from you for three years. It sounds to me like you both owe one another something of an apology, but either way, your individual needs for healing around that situation need to be discussed.

I am not clear from your original post what makes this a problem for you: Is it the fact of belief itself? Or is that you associate any form of Christian belief with negative traits, behaviors, and politics?

If it's the fact of belief itself, that seems really thorny and possibly more of a dealbreaker, unless you are willing and able to change your own views somewhat (not toward religion, but toward tolerance of it). It may be worth it to you to know whether she believes literally in a personal deity, in transubstantiation, in the Trinity, and so on. There are many practicing Catholics who don't believe in these things, though probably fewer of them are converts.

If it's that you are worried that your wife is on a path toward homophobia and protesting abortion clinics . . . I mean, I just kind of doubt it unless she had these viewpoints as an adult atheist as well, but you need to get that straight from the horse's mouth.

I think there are two things I would add, specifically about Catholicism.

The first is that it's entirely possible that your wife comes through the other end of this process as an agnostic / atheist. The Catholic Church's "Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults" can take more than a year, and in many cases it is a very rigorous intellectual process which encourages genuine introspection over conversion. There is a lot of on-the-face-obviously-stupid stuff in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and your partner will need to figure out if she can stomach that stuff.

The second is that there are many ways to be a Catholic! It's been my experience / prejudice that converts to Catholicism from evangelical or mainline Protestant Christianity are more right wing / hierarchical / patriarchal, but that former non-believers arrive at Catholicism for numerous reasons. The Catholic Church is an astounding and immense philosophical and theological tradition, it is inextricably linked to Western culture and thought, and it holds so, so much in common with basic humanism. Your partner may admire these things about the Church, and maybe she just happens to find that the religious aspect integrates her experience as a person more completely than atheism. You mention a feeling of betrayal that your wife did not pipe up when you were "ranting about some Christian outrage." It's entirely possible that she didn't object because she agreed with you in those cases.

I've rambled on too much.

tl;dr - love your partner and approach this situation with as much humility and curiosity as you can muster.
posted by kensington314 at 5:28 PM on June 7, 2018 [9 favorites]

First, Thank you for all of the thoughtful responses. Some have really helped and some not so much. I hear a lot of judgment about my judgment. Let me clarify one thing and make this clear, I would hope it would help some of you understand why I feel betrayed.

We went into our marriage 22 years ago feeling lucky to have found each other in no small part because we were both unbelievers. There's always something that bonds a couple. Usually many things, but it really IS different in that we both married with our eyes wide open to our unbelief. Shared values and how that was a very different time in atheism than it is now in 2018. I see religion (the biblical god, if you will) as someone said upthread - delusional. We have felt this way for 22 years. I thought. During those three years she would go right along with my pointing out cruelties we would see committed in the name of "God." If recognizing that and discussing it together is somehow intolerant, then I guess I'm intolerant of the dangers of believing in, what I see as, fantasy. So, three years and she's the same wife I married in 1995. But for three years I am not told that she no longer believes in a fundamental foundation of our marriage. Those shared values are the same for an unbeliever as they are for believers. To judge me and claim that I am some tyrant because I'm not accepting of her as her own person - totally misses the whole idea of what brings two together - as a couple. To no longer believe in what we bonded over (and more, but understand how important it is/was), and keep that a secret is not just fear of tyranny, it's a fear of my knowing she has done a 180 when right up until recently she, herself, was still making the case for atheism when we would see something on the news, hear a philosopher discussing the issue, whatever. It wasn't just me ranting - she was ranting too! I regret using that word, because some took that to mean something more than just simply "clearly and apologetically opposing religion."

With that said, It has helped to hear the ideas about listening. Setting aside everything like I just dropped in on the planet this afternoon and listening her tell me what happened is wise counsel. It's something I haven't been too good about because of the duplicity of the past three years. It's easy to make it sound like I created an environment that was tyrannical, but that's just not the case. She was with me each and every step.

Thanks again to ALL of you. It has helped.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 5:28 PM on June 7, 2018 [12 favorites]

Sorry, I let the edit window go by without correcting something. I meant UNapologetically when I wrote, "some took that to mean something more than just simply "clearly and apologetically opposing religion."
posted by Gerard Sorme at 5:36 PM on June 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

To no longer believe in what we bonded over (and more, but understand how important it is/was), and keep that a secret is not just fear of tyranny, it's a fear of my knowing she has done a 180 when right up until recently she, herself, was still making the case for atheism when we would see something on the news, hear a philosopher discussing the issue, whatever.

I can definitely hear the pain of her hiding her changing viewpoint from you, in this comment. Granting that you know your wife and I do not, I do think maybe there's something in here that could be helpful to you, which is seeing her own ambiguity and ambivalence and struggle. One mode of the religious or spiritual viewpoint that is difficult to understand is that faith doesn't necessarily mean belief. It often means trying to balance some sense of the transcendent with the modern mind's rational materialism. This is a conflict, and a person of faith need not necessarily resolve it.
posted by kensington314 at 5:39 PM on June 7, 2018 [14 favorites]

When I met and married my husband he told me he was categorically an atheist. As religion is a deal breaker for me I allowed all the lovey dovey gushy stuff to sweep me up and fell hard.

Turns out after we’ve been married a few years that he’s actually an incredibly devout person but his belief system doesn’t have a creater god so he’s technically an atheist.

It also turns out that he’s the same person and I love him and his faith more than ever. I can’t imagine him walking away from it because it’s part of the fabric of who he is. He’s not trying to convert me, our kids will make up their own minds, and I try to not be the arsehole atheist I was in my 20s, ala Dawkins etc.

Love her and see it as part of her and love it.

(And move to Australia, atheism isn’t a minority here or particularly interesting. We’re just super racist. )
posted by taff at 5:43 PM on June 7, 2018 [13 favorites]

It sort of sounds like you're describing a kind of atheism within which someone can commit apostasy. If that's the case, it might actually be worth it to check out how various religions deal with apostasy as a social phenomenon, as there may be parallels, to see if any of them are helpful to you.
posted by XMLicious at 6:11 PM on June 7, 2018 [13 favorites]

People rarely make dramatic shifts or self-discoveries in a nice neat tidy fashion, with advance notice issued to all concerned parties. Most people don't get to sit down at a notepad and plot the emergence of some new changed aspect of their identity. I've seen my friends and loved ones slowly unfold/stumble around/subconsciously wrangle with everything from sexual orientation to career/vocation and not put the pieces together for a very long time but then suddenly go "holy shit, I've been accidentally prepping for nursing school for four years!"

These discoveries are often a critical mass thing, preceded by interest and research and sometimes dogged avoidance/denial. So unless she's flat out telling you she converted three years ago and hid it from you, your framing of this as deception is pretty ungenerous. It sure sounds to me like she's been fighting like hell against what she felt, and just can't anymore.

You get no guarantees, at the altar. The promises made are often pretty naive in the face of the kind of change a real living person can experience in several decades of actual road miles.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:25 PM on June 7, 2018 [36 favorites]

My husband and I have been married 24 years and I have to say that what we bonded over was in part things we have both left behind, at different times. The times we were changing were hard. But ultimately our bond to each other pretty easily has carried the day.

So I recommend you turn towards your wife, if you want to keep her as your life partner, and I agree that listening to her about this specifically is huge. But also, just...date her, go find things to bond over other than making fun of believers or being upset about the innumerable cruelties done in the name of religion. Take a class together or travel or whatever else you might like to do.

Because then at least if it doesn't work out, you've given the current her, and your 22 years, a really good effort. And also, you've given her something to turn towards as well. Because there might be a lot of reasons she didn't share this with you, but at the root of all of them there's some kind of disconnect between you.

And laying that on religion would certainly let you off, but it probably won't save your marriage.

As for Catholicism...my relationship to religion is complex but when I met my husband he was very Catholic. I went through the RCIA as mentioned above in a kind of attempt to see what the Church might offer me. I think there is a lot of beauty and tradition and even rational exploration of the world within the Catholic tradition which was pretty interesting actually, and I also know a number of kickass Catholics. But I have to say that when I got really up close to it via the RCIA which does present all the dogma, it was...overwhelmingly ugh.

It would not surprise me if your wife goes through something like the same curve. I would actually recommend reading the current Catechism together, bearing in mind that it was published in 1992. (That is not a typo, nineteen ninety-two.) It makes it super clear where the Church stands and if you can just...let it speak for itself while loving the heck out of your wife, I suspect everything will get clearer fairly quickly.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:30 PM on June 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

I was raised by fundamentalist Christians and became an atheist with views similar to what you describe about considering all religion basically a harmful and dangerous delusion. I was very hostile to religion and religious people for a long time. I haven’t changed my mind about the delusion part, but I’ve become much more accepting of religion as I’ve developed some nuance in my thinking about it being harmful and dangerous.

One of the things that really helped me was reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. I’ve even come to see religion as important and beautiful and healing in some circumstances. I also see myself as far more similar to religious people that I did before, despite being a queer atheist scientist who thinks actual religious beliefs are basically nonsense. I think you might find it helpful and interesting.

I very much agree with the other commenters who suggest listening to your wife and getting to know the ways she is changing and seeing if you still fit together. A scary and hard thing, especially if you’re feeling betrayed. It is always scary when your partner changes and scarier when the thing that is changing about them is something you love or something they love about you. I hope you all find new things to love in one another and everything works out.
posted by congen at 6:45 PM on June 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

My dad became a devout Catholic (we went to church on Thanksgiving!) several years after marrying my anti-organized religion mother (shortly after they started having kids) and they do just fine. My mom doesn't do anything church related except showing up for baptisms, first communion etc (like she does for my cousins). Their kids vary in how religious they are.

As a child of such a relationship (I'm an atheist if that matters), my initial reaction to your question is of course it can work, why wouldn't it? But I don't think my parents bonded over being anti-religious, so it's not an exact parallel.

Also, part of why it works is that both think everyone is going to be wrong about something (s), even very smart people. My dad also didn't change fundamentally when he became religious. What problems they have, they'd have even if they were both religious (or not).

Now, I feel such a sense of betrayal. None of the priests, anyone, over the last three years, ever suggested she might not want to conceal something like this from her husband.

Many priests aren't going to boss their parishioners around; they view their job as to help people work to a conclusion on their own. Your wife keeping this to herself was her choice. So religion isn't stealing her away.

That probably doesn't help with the feeling of betrayal, but I can understand her decision, in light of your strong reaction. Not to say you're wrong to have one, but if she was still solidfying her thoughts and feelings on the matter, she really wouldn't have been in a good space to manage your emotions. Also, if the ranting was a bonding exercise for you two, she may have prioritized that over her new religious outlook, so I may not just be the fear of your reaction that led her to hold back.

Most religious people I know, especially the ones I respect, wrestle with their faith, so it wouldn't surprise me if at some points when she was ranting too she wasn't being dishonest in the moment. She may even continue to agree with you about somethings that you wouldn't expect. Catholics are far from being of one mind about everything.
posted by ghost phoneme at 6:52 PM on June 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

To no longer believe in what we bonded over …

and you haven't changed in any way over those years? What a couple bonds over isn't necessarily what keeps them together. We're none of us 100% rational, either.
posted by scruss at 6:53 PM on June 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

Lyn, I understand what you believe with this, but if two devout members of the Catholic Church, joining together under that shared common value of "sanctity"; 22 years later one spouse, still devout, the other acting devout but not believing at all and, in fact, is hanging around the local atheist bookstore for three years while still saying "all the right things." Um, I believe this conversation would be completely different for some of you. If you read my follow-up you would see how this played out. There was no three year long discovery and then the big reveal, this was six months, apparently, of serious study followed by three years of "being Catholic" in all but actual membership in the church.

To some of the other respondents who question my "tolerance." I won't write again, so let me say this...I do not believe in Gods, of any kind. I would like to listen and see if maybe there is a difference between maybe her feeling the need for a transcendent meaning in life versus an actual belief in a God. And there is a BIG difference. I think much of religious belief is dangerous. For example, specifically with the RC church, I believe teaching kids that at mass everyone witnesses bread and wine magically become the actual flesh and blood of a 2000 year old man that may, or may not, have existed, is just a twisted magic show topped off with cannibalism. (No symbolism in the RC church at mass.) This is just crude, archaic, and dangerous thinking. I honestly believe teaching that to a child in 2018 is child abuse. So, yes, this is more than choosing which team to cheer for on Sunday afternoon. A choice to accept that nonsense is choosing to accept supernatural mind-numbing sickness.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 7:07 PM on June 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

I know many people who are happily married to someone of a different faith background. (I’m one of them!) It does require a degree of open-mindedness and willingness to admit that other people experience the world differently than you do. It’s also helpful if your value systems align — my husband and I both believe in serving others and seeking justice and leaving the world better than we found it, even if we come by those values differently. We ask different questions but end up with a lot of the same answers.

So if it’s important to you that your wife agrees that your belief systems are “right” or contain some objective truth, then yeah, your marriage probably won’t work out. If you’d like it to work out, practice some humility. The universe is a really big place and there is space for all of us.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:10 PM on June 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah okay if you think practicing religion is child abuse then yes, your marriage is over.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:14 PM on June 7, 2018 [65 favorites]

Hang on there for a minute. Your wife's been teaching in a Catholic school for 15 years. Is freaking out over a belief in transubstantiation at this late date where you want to go with your relationship?

I mean...you can. Just consider whether that's where you want to go, and why you have been okay with her working there so long if this is really your bottom line.

That said, when I said read the catechism, yes, all of that is in there. The section on the 6th commandment is also freaky. And at my RCIA I got to hear from one of the principals who witnessed the 'miracle' at Naju (ew.) All of which is to say...your wife is working with people who every day are her team, and they are probably all fairly thoughtful, caring people, who have somehow reconciled that with their Catholic faith. If they were born Catholic, that's probably because they haven't examined things that closely. Or they may have, and may believe those things. Whatever...the thing is her experience is, she's gotten closer to these things and they are attracting her.

If you trust your wife and love her though, I think you can probably expect that there's a very large likelihood that the more she learns and the more she has space to express her learning in your relationship, the more likely she is to come to a place that is at least recognizable to you.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:22 PM on June 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

Someone's religion doesn't change who they are.

many religious people in various religions would consider that to be a catastrophic failure, or a sham conversion, if it were true. change -- total transformation -- is exactly what some people are after and the spark for a conversion experience. the promise of change to the essential self is one of religion's many lures. often the promise of change is also a promise to upend the new believer's every relationship, to make them anew or to break them apart where the other party refuses to be transformed as well. there's a famous relevant line in the bible about this. christianity and catholicism in particular is stuffed to the gills with narratives about giving up loved ones to follow god, and anybody who has read the right, or the wrong, Graham Greenes or Waughs is going to be uneasy even if their fears turn out to be unfounded and the marriage survives and thrives. love of god winning out over love of man is a Theme.

this may have absolutely nothing to do with this woman's feelings, intentions, motives, or experiences. but it isn't irrationality or some loopy atheist bigotry making her husband imagine things to be afraid of.

to the poster: if she is willing to promise relative openness and honesty about her thoughts going forward, I think you should work to the utmost of your abilities to drop any outrage or resentment about not knowing until now. It's possible she was deceiving you because she didn't want to talk about a very private thing. highly understandable if not ideal. but it's also possible she's just as opposed to hypocrisy and irrationality as she ever was, and now that she's a believer, she's even angrier about harm done by believers. when she critiqued religion over the past few years, maybe she wasn't pretending; don't assume she's lost her critical faculties and ethical compass until you have real reason to be sure.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:24 PM on June 7, 2018 [20 favorites]

Well... You might want to keep an open mind? Catholicism as a culture is amorphous, complex, and sometimes cynical.

It depends on your feelings. If you are really offended by this organized religion, then you make those decisions. But spirituality is a complex thing.
posted by ovvl at 7:35 PM on June 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is your wife, not some atheist cartoon version of a papist. Believing in god does not magically make one a murderous dictator or cannibal. I think you'd be really well served in working with a therapist individually on coming to terms with your extreme views on religion and religious people (I see this as an agnostic). You're jumping to weird conclusions that sound trauma-based rather than fact-based, despite how much organized Atheism tries to convince followers they're totally rational. You're participating in atheism as a religion right now and it's creating problems in your marriage. Are you more invested in atheism or in the person who is your wife? You have a chance to hold on to both here, if you step away from dogma.
posted by lazuli at 7:39 PM on June 7, 2018 [57 favorites]

Popping in to say that being spiritual and doing spiritual things in a group can and should be a part of human life. Live music, group meditation, sports, etc., plenty of things can fulfill this very important human need.

You're right about organized religion, of course. Do you want to be right or happy?

Everyone needs a spiritual life. If you don't engage in some sort of spiritual life and/or allow her to, then that's probably how she ended up secretly drawn to Catholicism.

I don't know how you square this now, but that's the underlying situation and some possible ways out.
posted by jbenben at 7:49 PM on June 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

You can have your own beliefs. Woman don't have to tell you her own. Woman doesn't have to justify her beliefs to you. Except in your world, she does. That's why she didn't tell you.

Now ask why you're upset. Because woman.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:55 PM on June 7, 2018 [16 favorites]

Thanks for your update. I think I understand better why you feel so betrayed. But I also understand why your wife didn’t want to tell you. You’re not just not religious yourself. You’re extremely hostile to religion. That’s not meant to be insulting. I can’t think of any other way to describe your views.

So can your marriage be saved? Maybe. But you’d have to be willing to drop your cartoon version of Catholicism and understand why it has come to be meaningful for her. The Catholic Church is actually one of the more intellectual Christian traditions. Catholics are not idiots. The theology is complicated and well thought out. If you really want to save your marriage, it might benefit you to talk to a priest and try to understand Catholic beliefs. I’m not saying you need to believe them yourself. But I think you need to understand what they really are.

That’s if you really want to work to save your marriage. But given the way you feel, it might make sense for you to just decide that it’s over. I agree that if you truly believe religious education is child abuse and that people who hold religious beliefs are delusional, this might not be salvageable.
posted by FencingGal at 8:21 PM on June 7, 2018 [15 favorites]

...as educated, reasoned, and arrived at through rational study
...she said she has been thinking this way for THREE years!

Well, could you possibly use those same educated, reasoned, rational thought processes to examine whether your life, marriage or wife has substantially changed for the worse to the point of considering divorce over those past 3 years, now that she's confessed to having held those different beliefs during that period of time? If no, then... what would make you believe that her labeling her beliefs over the past 3 years has changed or will change anything in your life, marriage and wife, but your perception of it. That would be, as you put it, delusional.

I think that religion here is a red herring: your marriage surviving is actually dependant on whether you can adapt *your* (black and white) beliefs.

It is entirely possible that your wife can and does, at the same time, agree with your logistical arguments and points on specifics of religion, and support you in your beliefs, and also, at the same time, personally indentify with the community as a whole and/or value system of a specific religion.
posted by OnefortheLast at 8:55 PM on June 7, 2018 [11 favorites]

It's easy to make it sound like I created an environment that was tyrannical, but that's just not the case. She was with me each and every step.

Well, as it turns out--she actually wasn't. That recognition alone should inspire you to undertake some serious introspection and reconsideration of the last few years. You can cling to your feeling (and it is a feeling) of rationality and superior insight, or you can try to save your marriage, but you can't do both.

Atheism, by itself, is a negative quality. It just means not believing in something. I seriously doubt I could ever marry a person who believed in God, but I also know that insofar as I'm looking for a spouse with shared values, just "being an atheist" gets me almost nowhere--it's merely the absence of an impediment. Surely atheism isn't the only value the two of you have shared. Did those values simply evaporate when she became Catholic? If you truly think of atheism as the one true bond between you, if you had nothing else in common, if you did not love or respect or admire her except as she was an atheist, then, yes, your marriage is definitely over. But that seems pretty unlikely, doesn't it?
posted by praemunire at 9:00 PM on June 7, 2018 [16 favorites]

You do realize that many religious people aren't delusional, right?
Let's use your bread/wine; blood/flesh example. Most religious believers would agree with you on the logistics of your point. That doesn't mean they are lying to you or betraying you, and it doesn't mean that they are lying to/betraying their religion. Maybe if you were open to including in your world, with any respect, some people who don't share your beliefs, you could have a discussion with them, and find out WHY they participate in these rituals/ceremonies when they can logically reason that the literal idea of it is absurd, and that religion, for many, is a spiritual or community practice based in individual symbolic, represented, metaphorical etc. interpretations that aren't black, white or literal. You'll likely find that there is a whole world of grey that exists in between literal black and white, that you refuse to acknowlge. Your life, wife and marriage all exist in that space. I hope you are open to (re)discovering it.
posted by OnefortheLast at 9:15 PM on June 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

Thanks to all. Too bad we can't all really know each other. The internet completely changes usernames into caricatures based on emotional phrasing that I didn't really mean literally. We didn't just sit around and rail against religion, btw, that's far from what our marriage has been about. I suppose that tolerance can sometimes be mono-directional based on where you stand yourself. There was too much of that in this thread from me - but a lot from others who projected far more on to me than what I actually feel. And then there had to be THAT poster who brings things into the discussion that is so far from the truth it would be funny if you actually knew me. (The one about women. wow.) I regret the "abuse" comment. Maybe it's still too raw for me. Maybe the question was asked too soon, with too much emotion. But thanks again to everyone. Truly.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 9:21 PM on June 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

Did you have a good marriage this last three years? Why do you think your wife took so long to say something? I think it's because she is trying to stay married to you, because you're important to her, because you've been married for more than two decades. I think biting her tongue this whole time must have been difficult and I'll bet it's not the only sacrifice she's made for this marriage. I assume it takes work to be married that long, for both partners, am I right? She put all this work into this marriage because she loves you and obviously she sees a basis for your relationship. You had enough in common for her to last three years! If immediately upon hearing her feelings you're really thinking of divorce without even a little discussion or effort in trying to work things out, or counseling, I don't know. I feel really sorry for your wife, but if that's really the way you feel you should just let the poor woman go and give her a very good deal on the divorce.
posted by sacchan at 9:30 PM on June 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

I think your wife probably fucked up by keeping a huge secret from you for three years with who knows how many people outside of your marriage -- multiple priests, apparently, and probably other colleagues at her Catholic school.

How many times have you and your wife been in a group where everyone but you knows she's Catholic? Messed up imo.

People in the thread have been rushing to blame you for this betrayal, because your wife knew you would be upset. This is ass-backward moral idiocy. Because your wife knew how important your shared non-religion was to you, she was under more, not less obligation to let you know what was up. Instead, she ran around behind your back for 3 years, apparently including six months of intense, secret Bible study.

Either Metafilter decided it's now totally thumbs-up on double lives, or people are being unfair to you.

She owes you an apology and explanation for this. "You made me lie to you because I knew you would be hurt" doesn't cut it. She needs to talk to you in a way that makes it clear she understands that the way she behaved was not acceptable. The conversion, ultimately that's up to her. But the respect she owes you as an equal? Not optional. Hopefully the famous religious code of ethics will help her out here.

All of that said, marriages can survive fuck-ups. Your wife came clean to you, finally. That's good. Now we have to look forward. Assume your wife is going to remain Catholic. What problems does this cause going forward?

I don't really believe that you guys had nothing in common other than atheism. You must still have many things in common. You may even still have in common many of the things that previously underlay your shared atheism. She's Catholic now, but she may still agree with you about the hypocrisy of some of the religious, for example.

If you ever have children, obviously that could be a problem area. If you're planning to ever have children, you've got some real (perhaps intractable!) work ahead of you to figure out how you will raise them.

A lot may depend, ultimately, on why your wife decided to make this change. You're going to have to have a good discussion about that with her, one in which you suspend your judgment that the doctrines themselves are insane. Why, after 19 years of marriage and 12 years of being in a Catholic institution, did your wife want to explore becoming Catholic (and, at the same time, dissenting from the ideological core of your marriage)? Is / was there something important lacking from her life, or from your shared life together? People are complex. I can't really guess at your wife's reasons, but you will have to investigate them. You love each other, after all.

It might be that Catholicism was your wife's way of checking herself out of your marriage. If that's the case, then the marriage is in trouble (although Catholicism is not really to blame). Or it might be something else completely! I think if you really work out why your wife's feelings have changed, you will have a better handle on the prognosis for your marriage.

I'm sorry you're dealing with this. It sounds very difficult. Good luck!
posted by grobstein at 9:37 PM on June 7, 2018 [9 favorites]

pipeski just saved me from posting a long winded answer: she believes, you don’t, move on and be happy.
posted by Kwadeng at 9:53 PM on June 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

On second thought, and after having read your updates and favorite answers, I think you should get a divorce since it’s pretty much what you are arguing for.
posted by Kwadeng at 10:10 PM on June 7, 2018 [16 favorites]

Practically and statistically speaking, most people who've been happily married for 22 years aren't going to get a second chance at that if they start over. So consider that angle as well: would you rather try to find a way to have a 25+ year marriage with a change you didn't expect, or accept your possibly-small odds at finding another partner you could build that much of a life with?
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:17 PM on June 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

this may do the opposite of help, but have you ever seen "The End of the Affair?" (I would say "or read" but I haven't read it.)

watch it, but understand that you are contemplating being the Julianne Moore of your partnership, not the Ralph Fiennes. personally as an atheist I find her religious choice tolerable but her romantic choices repellent and heartless (to two men at once!) think about whether you admire or despise her and remember again that although she is the convert Catholic betraying the atheist, she is most closely analogous to you in her choices, not to your wife. supposing that you do leave your wife over this, which you don't have to do.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:24 PM on June 7, 2018

OP I can empathize with your position. My best friend and I have known each other for 20 years, and we're both solidly secular humanist. Over the decades we've spent our fair share of time recreationally discussing our frustrations with a lot of things associated with various religions (his views on religion are similar to yours). If he came to me tomorrow and told me he had converted to Catholicism I would be shocked and my first thought would be that he had a brain tumour or was experiencing mental/emotional health issues (Please note: I am not saying that religious belief = mental illness, this reaction is specific to the severity of the change in world view).

You haven't mentioned the conservatism of Catholicism as a concern yet, but I'm not clear if that's because you and your wife are already socially conservative or if you're just so wrapped up in dealing with the ohmigod my wife believes in fairy-tales part of things that you haven't got there yet. Your wife going from decades of apparently staunch atheism to converting to an authoritarian religion (albeit one she has social connections to) is notable. This is, at least potentially, a much bigger change than just discovering a spiritual side or a desire for ritual or community. I'm curious how well traditional Catholic beliefs mesh with your wife's previous stances on social issues: feminism, LGBT rights, divorce, sex-positivity, abortion, contraception, the use of condoms for AIDS prevention, etc.

In your shoes I would be asking a lot of questions to find out the how, what and the why of this religious awakening. What has drawn her to religion in general and Catholicism specifically (besides proximity & repeat exposure)? What exactly are her new beliefs? Why did she decide to tell you about this now after successfully hiding it for years? How does she want or expect your relationship and lifestyle(s) to change now that she's out to you?

And, despite what some people here have said, I don't think you're at fault regarding your wife hiding her conversion from you for 3 years, nor do I think you owe her an apology for your history of (admittedly strong) criticisms of religion. You've described a 20 year long dynamic of shared religious criticism with no obvious indications until now that her position had changed significantly.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 10:26 PM on June 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

Look, what was your purpose in asking this question? Ask yourself that sincerely.

Was it:

1. Find a way to make this marriage work for the long term without a divorce given the way things are
2. Find a way to end this marriage, including support for that decision, given the way things are
3. Find a way to change the way things are

Also: There's a reason people have suggested reading blogs by religious people whose family member becomes not religious. Sometimes a person has a belief system in which everyone who doesn't follow that belief system is a Bad Other on the same moral plane as child abusers, and then someone they love leaves that belief system, and they have to decide whether they treat that person as a Bad Other or whether they change belief systems (sometimes to a more tolerant variation of the original, where you keep all the same beliefs except the belief in Bad Others).

And by the way, the system of belief I'm referring to you having isn't "atheism" (there's no God, which isn't a value statement). It's something beyond that (it's right and proper to follow rational thoughts and evidence in all parts of life, and teaching and endorsing irrational behavior is wicked and evil-- this is a value statement).

Since I don't believe in religious coercion, I don't think you need to answer one way or the other to be a good person. It is perfectly acceptable for you to maintain your current belief system-- in which case, you are probably going to divorce your wife, and what you need is support for that. People here assumed you were looking for #1 in the three options above, which is why they keep suggesting the very threatening option of abandoning your belief system. But you don't have to just because your wife did. It's perfectly okay to say, "this is my moral stance and I will not abandon it".
posted by Cozybee at 10:41 PM on June 7, 2018 [14 favorites]

I'm assuming no children are in the picture or future. That would be the deal breaker.
Her spiritual journey (an ongoing thing) is hers alone. It's nice if she lets you know about it, but she neither owes it to you nor to herself to continuously conform to your prescribed worldview. Put yourself in check about that. You just learned something about yourself.

Meanwhile, step back. Don't ask (and become judgemental) about her choices. They are her choices, and none of your business. That wedding ring does not give you the right.
You feel hurt. You are afraid about what has happened. You fear what will happen next. It is not entirely in your control. So you are circling the wagons and making a hard stand.
Understandable. She knows you better than anyone, so her timing was her choice.

If you can, let her take the lead. This will be a bumpy ride and may take a long time as she explores her current spiritual awakening.

Do you love her for her own self? Can you be there for her, when you get nothing out of it? Can you trust her positive side, to make this journey into herself?
She may leave you behind. She may circle back to you. Do you have the patience and faith for that?

Are you open to the changes you may experience? Stop shaking your head. Accept fear, and move on.
This is a new chapter. Don't close the book just yet.
posted by TrishaU at 11:01 PM on June 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

To no longer believe in what we bonded over (and more, but understand how important it is/was), and keep that a secret is not just fear of tyranny, it's a fear of my knowing she has done a 180

You mention tyranny a fair amount in that comment. I don't think fear of tyranny is the only reason someone might not feel comfortable or safe telling another something important. She might also have been afraid to tell you because she was afraid to find out that even though you love her, you don't love her enough to work to accept this new aspect of her. That you would choose your own religion over her. Or that she loves someone who loves an image of her that does not reach the entirety of who she really is.

Regarding the example you mentioned above about transubstantiation, I'd counter (as very much not a Christian) that you may find that there are many things in your own life that you take part in, enjoy, respect, or love even though doing so is contingent on (often unconsciously) ignoring certain parts of them, considering them not essential to the whole, or finding them simply not disturbing enough to outweigh the value of the good parts.

Find out what she actually believes, what it means to her, what she sees as the good parts and what she feels is their value. That has to be the first step.
posted by trig at 11:52 PM on June 7, 2018 [14 favorites]

I'm agnostic, not an atheist (because to me, atheists just argue for the other side of a non-provable argument), and my husband is as well. My grandmother, who is now 96, was raised Catholic in a Bavarian village (so the deepest German south), served as a nurse during WW2 and married my Jewish grandfather after he was released from Auschwitz, despite everyone's protests. In the 29 years I have been around her, she has never once dragged me to church, never once tried to impose her beliefs on me, and has accepted everything I have done. For a long time, my family worried about me being boyfriendless and someone brought up me potentially being into girls, and my grandma just shrugged it off. I eventually met a Japanese guy and my atheist, oh-so-enlightened parents and younger brother made some stupid racist jokes. My old, catholic grandma just welcomed the man who made her granddaughter happy.

I understand that this is not the same situation at all, but you seem to operate from a point of view that ALL religious people must be bigoted, closed-minded idiots. Isn't that pretty bigoted and closed-minded of you? You know your wife - other than the religion part, which I agree she should have told you about - but she is your wife and you must have reasons to love her other than "I thought she was also an atheist!"

I agree with you that many people use religion to justify doing evil, and I do have some mistrust of organized religion. But claiming "all religious people are X" is pretty discriminatory (I assume this includes Jews, Muslims, etc.?) and not very enlightened at all. Is your wife evil now? If she is, leave. If she isn't, what does it matter to you whether she chooses to believe differently? Because atheism is a belief as well, you just don't want to admit it.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 12:04 AM on June 8, 2018 [27 favorites]

As a lifelong atheist from a Catholic country, add me to the list of people asking you to shut up and listen to your wife so she can tell you her experience. Catholic people can range from conservative to liberation theology, and it's more important for a marriage that your ethics and practice to be congruent than what you think in your heads -- as long as you respect each other intelectually, which tbh it doesn't shine through in your comments.
posted by sukeban at 12:24 AM on June 8, 2018 [16 favorites]

I understand that this is not the same situation at all, but you seem to operate from a point of view that ALL religious people must be bigoted, closed-minded idiots.

These last years since 9/11 when Christopher Hitchens went islamophobic in overdrive and Elevatorgate demonstrated that Richard Dawkins is an asshole when he's not talking about evolutionary biology (and sometimes when he's talking evo bio) up to the overlap between the manosphere and the "reddit atheist" communities have proved without a doubt that atheists can be bigoted, closed-minded racist, misogynist idiots too so let's not pat ourselves in our backs about how enlightened we are, because we aren't.
posted by sukeban at 12:29 AM on June 8, 2018 [25 favorites]

I feel like people are being really unkind to you here. In my opinion, your wife fucked up, big time, by not telling you when she started thinking about this. This isn't three years of pretending to like meatloaf when she actually could go either way on it, this is three years of pretending that she has fundamentally different beliefs than she does, and actively lying about those beliefs. I feel like that, in and of itself, is a reasonable point to be like, 'You know, this is a dealbreaker for me, I'm done.' Three years of active lying about a thing that she knows is important to you, and that you think is important to her? That feels like more of a betrayal than the actual conversion does, to me.

As for the Catholicism itself, I think it sort of depends on you. Sure, Catholics (I'm from a big family of them) have a range of beliefs, but the thing that I haven't been able to get past is that they all support their church, and their churches all support Rome and the Pope. She can't just support her church--that's not how Catholicism works. If she puts money in the collection plate, some of it stays with her individual church, and some of it goes to the Archdiocese, where it's used for church stuff, including a bunch of things that I find morally repugnant. The fact that my family contributes to this causes me (a queer, or, as the Catholic church phrases it, "someone with a defective human nature") pain on a daily basis.

I wouldn't be able to get past it, and I don't think that you're a bad person if you can't. You're allowed to feel that this is a dealbreaker for you.
posted by mishafletch at 2:18 AM on June 8, 2018 [10 favorites]

How many people of faith do you know? Are there any you respect?

I’m having a lot of trouble writing this comment, so I hope it comes off as intended (with generosity and compassion).

My husband and I have been together for 11 years, married for 6. As two atheists in a Catholic region (he was raised in the church, I wasn’t) we bonded over our mutual understanding of the world. We shared reading lists and videos about our mutual disdain for religion, we both expressed frustration about the damage we saw religion inflicting on peoples minds.

And then, about two years ago, things started to change for me. I can’t explain it, and that’s been the most frustrating thing about this experience: whereas I once relied on rational explanations to capture my deepest feelings, I now find that I can’t. It’s easier for me to describe what I don’t believe in: direct retribution for sinning; a literal heaven with fluffy clouds and a hell with fiery pits; rigid structures of right and wrong.

Faith, as I’ve learned, is a vast, vast ocean, and sometimes we use the closest shorthand available to describe ourselves: Christian, Catholic, Baptist. Sometimes it’s about what we have available around us as examples of faith.

I’m saddened to hear that your wife kept this from you. I think I understand why, but it doesn’t excuse it. I hope you can both overcome this change, and this betrayal. I hope you can share each other’s journey a little bit.

You might like Nicole Cliffe’s essay on her conversion to Christianity: How God Messed Up my Happy Atheist Life. I related to it a lot, your wife might as well.

“When talking to non-theists, I do a lot of shrugging and “Crazy, right? Nothing has changed, though!” When talking to other Christians, it’s more, “Obviously it’s been very beautiful, and I am utterly changed by it.”

Both of these things can be true at once, somehow. Atheist me would have never believed this; now I do, and my life is richer for the nuance.
posted by third word on a random page at 2:21 AM on June 8, 2018 [23 favorites]

I notice that you recommended one of my favourite podcasts (On Being) on Metafilter a good while ago. That leads me to believe (heh) that you could understand (not share! Understand) your wife’s spiritual journey if you can get through this together. A couples counsellor might be a good first step.
posted by third word on a random page at 2:31 AM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree with others above that it sounds more like what you're looking for is permission to leave, but since you did ask 'can this possibly work?':

Yes it can work, there are plenty of relationships where it does work. I'm a Catholic married to an atheist (I didn't convert but I did go back to the Church as an adult), it's fine. And by 'it's fine' I don't mean 'it's nothing' - this is of course a significant area on which we have some pretty big differences, which we have had to find ways to respectfully discuss and deal with over the years - but we have been able to do just that, as have a very large number of other couples.

So it's not so much can this kind of marriage work. It can. It's more can your specific marriage work, on which the answer is up to the people in it. I would say, probably yes, but only if you yourself can find a way to reconcile the views which currently seem incompatible in your own head. These would include: your view of your wife as a thoughtful, loving person vs. your view on what following a religion means, what a particular belief/system means to you vs what it means to someone who believes in it, your views on atheism as a 'fundamental foundation' of your marriage vs the marriage you have right at this moment, probably other stuff too.

It is theoretically doable for a theoretical person. Whether or not it's doable for you is another question; it may not be, no matter how hard you try. (And it may not be doable because of factors on her end rather than yours, of course.) I think you should try, because 22 years of a loving marriage is a big thing to lose. Try your absolute best, sit down and talk to her about where she's coming from without trying to argue her out of it, try marriage counselling so a neutral party can help you both find ways to have these discussions, and if you put your heart and soul into it and it still doesn't work then at least you can walk away knowing you did all you could. But, it's your call.

Part of these discussions would also need to be about how you feel about your wife not telling you about this until now. And while you do come across as pretty angry and inflexible here with the talk of duplicity and betrayal, you also sound like you're hurting, that this has knocked your feet out from under you and made you feel as if your comrade in arms has defected to the enemy without bothering to let you know. Those are valid feelings - they probably don't reflect her thought processes, but they are nevertheless valid ways for you to feel. They are something else you as a couple will have to find space to discuss, and that means her being able to do a lot of listening and understanding and you being able to pour out your pain.

(Finally, one specific piece of advice I would give from couples I've known is to not make your acceptance of her beliefs contingent on how irrational you think those beliefs sound. (Talking specifically about metaphysical claims here, not intolerance or bigotry.) If she's Catholic, she is going to believe some things that just sound batshit to you, so the only way forward is to make peace with the principle of her believing in things you find mad rather than try to grudgingly persuade yourself that you don't find them as mad as other things maybe possibly if you kind of squint at it. You need to be true to yourself.)
posted by Catseye at 3:27 AM on June 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

You haven't mentioned the conservatism of Catholicism as a concern yet, but I'm not clear if that's because you and your wife are already socially conservative or if you're just so wrapped up in dealing with the ohmigod my wife believes in fairy-tales part of things that you haven't got there yet. Your wife going from decades of apparently staunch atheism to converting to an authoritarian religion (albeit one she has social connections to) is notable. This is, at least potentially, a much bigger change than just discovering a spiritual side or a desire for ritual or community. I'm curious how well traditional Catholic beliefs mesh with your wife's previous stances on social issues: feminism, LGBT rights, divorce, sex-positivity, abortion, contraception, the use of condoms for AIDS prevention, etc.

Statistically, the OP is likely to be American and this paragraph is wildly ignorant of American Catholicism. If American, the OP is also fairly likely to be fairly ignorant of Catholicism, too, relative to various forms of Protestantism, and I wonder if that's a factor in their reaction.
posted by hoyland at 4:13 AM on June 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

Being “spiritual” is one thing, but as an ex-Catholic I personally couldn’t respect a decision to willfully sign up to belong to an institution with such a reprehensible record, to say nothing of the sheer absurdity of the actual dogma. I have no particular advice except to say that your feelings are valid and you’re not an asshole for feeling like this.
posted by moorooka at 5:51 AM on June 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Nthing that equating Catholicism with conservatism is wildly ignorant. Right wing Catholic conservatism in the US is actually quite recent. During my childhood in the 1960s, Catholics tended to be liberal Democrats. Priests and other Catholics went to jail for protests against the Vietnam war. Priests were involved with the civil rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King, some of whose beliefs you would probably also find batshit crazy.

I don’t deny that a lot of evil has been done in the name of religion, but a lot of good has been too. People tend to have selective amnesia regarding the role of religion in the civil rights movement. And the 20th century saw millions of people murdered because of regimes based on atheism. But no one blames atheism itself for that, nor should they.
posted by FencingGal at 6:03 AM on June 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

If she puts money in the collection plate, some of it stays with her individual church, and some of it goes to the Archdiocese, where it's used for church stuff, including a bunch of things that I find morally repugnant.

This is also true of paying federal taxes, or participating in Western capitalism. I think there's a way that organized Atheism feeds into this idea of organized religion being uniquely evil, and it's not. There are plenty of evil people who are religious, in large part because evil people will seize on whatever justification they can for their evil, but that doesn't mean religion is automatically evil. I would definitely suggest that if you're reading capital-A Atheist works or participating in those communities, you may want to pause for a while. They'll likely feed the vitriolic part of you and create righteous fury that will be unhelpful in keeping your marriage together. Assuming you want to keep your marriage together.
posted by lazuli at 6:10 AM on June 8, 2018 [13 favorites]

> I believe teaching kids that at mass everyone witnesses bread and wine magically become the actual flesh and blood of a 2000 year old man that may, or may not, have existed, is just a twisted magic show topped off with cannibalism. (No symbolism in the RC church at mass.) This is just crude, archaic, and dangerous thinking.

OK, you clearly value your (frankly ignorant and cartoonish) view of religion more than you value your marriage, so I guess the marriage is over. But I hope you can find your way to leave your wife with something other than hurling a charge of cannibalism in her face. Again, good luck to both of you; I hope you can find a more devout atheist and she can find a more tolerant partner.
posted by languagehat at 6:46 AM on June 8, 2018 [44 favorites]

To me the issue wouldn't be the religion, but the fact that my spouse didn't include me in something so huge, that they hadn't trusted me, that they took themselves out of the team. I mean, religion would be an issue - I also have a marriage based in atheism and I suffered great spiritual abuse as a kid - but it would be a distant second to the betrayal of being lied to about it all.

She decided her finding of faith was bigger and more important than your union. That's going to take some time and effort to unpack and she's going to have to own up to that part, not just blame your views on religion for her secrecy.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 7:03 AM on June 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Nthing that equating Catholicism with conservatism is wildly ignorant. Right wing Catholic conservatism in the US is actually quite recent. During my childhood in the 1960s, Catholics tended to be liberal Democrats.

In my raised-Catholic experience, this is true but not necessarily useful, given that a strong streak of social conservatism for issues of sex/gender/orientation/reproductive rights/marriage and divorce existed (and exists) alongside more socially and politically liberal beliefs. One can be radically against war and radically for economic justice but also be pretty danged 'conservative' when it comes to social mores. That conservative streak is likely what's driven US Catholicism into more right wing territory, but the streak was always there. Plenty of raised-Catholic people ignore the socially conservative bits, but those bits have always been there, and technically one is not supposed to ignore them on pain of excommunication. So I wouldn't say it's 'ignorant' to link Catholicism to conservatism, though it may be an imprecise use of the term 'conservative.'

And in my further experience, adult converts often end up leaning pretty hard into accepting all tenets of the theology -- or lots of them, at least. (Not all converts, but the ones that do often go pretty hard.) And those tenets have practical consequences for marriage, including the use of birth control. Whether or not a conversion is a marriage-breaker is going to depend a lot on the individual convert, but there are a lot of reasons it could be, even if the person continues to vote the same way in elections.
posted by halation at 7:57 AM on June 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Those shared values are the same for an unbeliever as they are for believers. To judge me and claim that I am some tyrant because I'm not accepting of her as her own person - totally misses the whole idea of what brings two together - as a couple.

It may well have been the thing that brought you together. But I think you would be well served to spend a great deal of time pondering the question of whether what brought (past tense) two people together necessarily needs to be the same thing that keeps (present tense) those people together after sharing their lives for north of two decades.

People grow, and we change, and our worldviews adapt to our world. That is how the human do.

Your wife has spent enough time working in a Catholic school environment to be able to understand from direct personal experience that Catholicism is no barrier to being a decent human being. You have not. Perhaps you're about to, if you're open to the possibility. Or you could just declare Game Over and go find somebody else to be correct at; entirely your call. But seriously, what are you concerned about? Being converted?

Full disclosure: I am an atheist who spent the last twelve years before retirement working as a netadmin and ICT technician in a Catholic primary school; best employer I ever had.
posted by flabdablet at 8:06 AM on June 8, 2018 [12 favorites]

Your favorited answers lean heavily on you wanting a divorce. You can start couples counseling right now before this spirals out of control, or... I guess get the feedback you want and get a divorce. You speak in such declarative statements that I doubt her nascent questioning about her identity and beliefs was a realistic thing she could do with you. From all you've written, you would have quashed any and all self-growth.

Personally, I don't think that is healthy. A partner should allow for growth or thoughts to be expressed because if you can't trust and work through things with your life partner... then who could you do it with?

You haven't expressed any thought for how your wife is feeling right now that I saw. I also do not find that healthy. Your partner of 22 years is in pain, and you don't seem to give a fuck.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:48 AM on June 8, 2018 [26 favorites]

I'm gonna take another stab at this because I'm fascinated at the two poles of answers you're getting here, between "it was completely understandable/reasonable that she kept this to herself for so long" and "you are totally reasonable for feeling betrayed, she lied to you for years." Obviously, the truth probably lies somewhere between these two poles.

I want to say perhaps the reason you're getting two different poles is the difference between thinking of religion/spirituality as an intensely, and by definition, solo journey. There are few things in life that wholly 'belong' to our own identity and self and I'd say for many people their spiritual life is one of them. You might be feeling betrayed partly because you've always seen your faith, or lack thereof, as a shared value, a shared journey. You make reference to this many times. Whether or not you both started off feeling that way, it's possible your wife has come to see her spiritual life as an intensely individual part of herself, and that's neither right or wrong - it's just something you have to see if you can work through together.

I think the other thing that you could really hash out in couples counseling is, it's okay to feel hurt that she kept this from you, but some of what you write does indeed come across as if you feel like she has cheated on you with religion, or that she is being Catholic AT you. It's okay to feel this in your first reactions, but you will HAVE to work on letting this go in counseling. In other words -- counseling is always about the marriage, not about you, and to save it you can't hope that you will be victorious in your "rightness" that she did betray you. You'll have to work to understand her point of view, completely alien as it may be to you.

One of the 'four horsemen' of relationships is contempt. If you truly feel like you can't stop feeling contempt at her for making this choice, then it is probably over.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:55 AM on June 8, 2018 [16 favorites]

First, I want to offer you sympathy: my past year has been spent being ROCKED by an equivalent revelation about a close family member, and it has often felt like the world is collapsing around me as everything I thought was stable has turned out to be a sham. It is so, so hard, and I know it hurts. I know it feels like an incredible betrayal to find out you aren't on the same page anymore. I just want you to know that I hear you and I hope you are taking care of yourself. This might not be a problem that gets solved with logic and immediate action. It might take time and letting yourself ache. It might take a lot of mornings where you wake up and find out the world is unrecognizable. I hope you can be kind to yourself and to your wife during this time.

But second:

Did she analyze the religion and bible and decide it made sense to her over science or is she using religion as a form of escape?

You favorited a comment that contained this line, and it seems like you have a fairly simplistic view of religion, based on your comments here. Why do you think that religious belief and science/justice are necessarily opposite or incompatible?

I mean, I know why: some of the most bigoted and loud voices in "Christianity" claim that they are. But if you don't want your atheism to be judged by the misogyny and Islamophobia of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris, then why do you think it is fair to assume all Christians are necessarily on board with the Dobsons or the Perkinses who spend their time spreading hate for cash?

I've spent my life in the church, and literally believing in God while also believing in science (including evolution!) is incredibly common and normal. I'm not Catholic, but every Catholic I've ever known says "fuck Rome" and uses birth control and votes for pro-choice candidates and supports gay marriage. Some people believe communion is a metaphor, and some don't, but whether they do or not has nothing to do with being "delusional". Religion is the opposite of "escape" for me-- escape is sports, or netflix, or books. Religion is one of the only places where I can handle staring into the grim reality of our world, because I feel like I'm not doing it totally alone, and like hoping for better things is a mission statement instead of naivete.

I mean, someone above mentioned the increasingly violent misogyny being normalized in our public sphere, by men who claim to be basing their viewpoints on "rationality". You seem to be pretty sure that your view of rationality is objectively true, but so does Jordan Peterson. Can you understand why a lot of women are increasingly wary of rationality as the basis for a worldview, as it has been weaponized into a tool for literal terrorism so effectively? "Rationality" is the worldview of a lot of school shooters and incels, meanwhile my church is raising money for the homeless and running an education series on the issues facing Palestinians out of the belief that all humans have inherent value and dignity. Can you understand why these shifting trends in our culture might shake up a person's worldview? Can you understand why the increasingly virulent misogyny within atheist circles might have made your wife feel less comfortable in that sphere?

You might be interested in looking up the tags #canonjesus and #fanonjesus on tumblr sometime-- there are a lot of discussions there about how even non-Christians are often surprised to find out how much the establishment church has obscured and twisted principles of radical equality and justice into their opposites-- justifications of white supremacist patriarchy. Maybe your wife still wants to fight the power like she always did, but her perspective on how to do that most effectively has shifted. Maybe you can still have goals and perspectives in common even if your worldviews have diverged.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:16 AM on June 8, 2018 [31 favorites]

It seems like the answers in this thread break along two lines: people who feel that spouses owe each other 100% access to 100% of their internality, at all times, and damn the torpedoes. And those who believe that there are things that belong to a person alone, that can go unshared until the person feels ready. The latter half will side with your wife and the former half with you. So I guess it depends on where you truly stand, and what you TRULY fear about this situation.

Right now, honestly, it sounds like you're way too angry to know anything about yourself for sure. As with any sudden upsetting thing, you should probably take no definitive action for quite some time -- just sit with things and discuss and explore.

I will say that although I've been an atheist since childhood, as I get older, I have less and less ability to deal with a worldview that contains a shitload of hostility, whether it is in the name of Divine Justice or in the name of Supreme Rationality. God or no god, don't matter -- it all seems mean as fuck and the world is mean enough all on its own.

Consider whether your wife, rather than succumbing to a cannibalistic delusion (?!) is just seeking a little bit of fucking peace. Consider whether you have it in you to help bring some peace to her world, and hey, maybe yours too.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:32 AM on June 8, 2018 [34 favorites]

Also, re: "She kept on church-bashing right along with me." My super-ultra-mega-Catholic coworker is the biggest critic of the church I know. Her social media is filled with long, thoughtful essays on how to redress the many wrongs done in the name of Catholicism; she threw a party when Ireland voted to legalize abortion. She goes to Mass multiple times per week. She knows it's complicated. She contains multitudes. As does your wife. As do you. Maybe it's time for you to access some of your own multitudes.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:38 AM on June 8, 2018 [30 favorites]

If you both got together because of your hardcore vegan or environmental advocacy and then you found out she was having steak dinners and rolling coal, you would likely feel similarly betrayed. And her not telling you about this evolution in her personal philosophies wouldn't be a private thing that you have no right to know about until she's ready. This can be a private issue for her but still foundational to the relationship, and from what you've said it seems like she knows it's foundational.

I don't think this relationship is doomed, but I feel like while the religion thing is a HUGE issue, the bigger issue in the relationship is how have things gotten to a point where she felt she couldn't trust you which led to you not trusting her. She likely acted in fear for 3 years and now you're reacting in fear. You both have to get past that to really deal with the issue of faith and atheism that is between you and suddenly out in open.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 10:49 AM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's possible that your wife has spend the last three+ years feeling just as betrayed--by herself!

Try to imagine it: she had a set of beliefs about herself that she valued, beliefs she shared with you, beliefs that she felt were part of what defined her as a person. Maybe it happened little by little or maybe it was all at once, but those beliefs changed. From your comments here, it sounds like if this happened to you, you would think you were having a mental health crisis. Maybe she felt that way, too, and felt incapable of reaching out to you for support. How terrifying! Maybe she felt disappointed in herself. Maybe she felt like she had no idea who she was anymore. Maybe she was filled with a deep and abiding joy because something that had been missing had finally found its rightful place in her sense of self. Maybe she's exhausted, emotionally and spiritually, after such a tumultuous experience. Maybe she needs a freaking hug.

I get how you feel, I really do; my husband and I bonded quite a bit over our mutual desire not to have children, and I would be beyond shocked if he turned to me and said that for the last three years he'd been dying for us to have a baby. I would, like you, be filled with fear that it presented an unsurmountable barrier to our marriage.

But because I love him and he is my best friend, I would also want to know more about how he felt and what his experience had been. Entirely separate from how his beliefs would affect me, I would want him to tell me everything because man oh man, what an incredible journey he'd just been on! Maybe he needed my help. Maybe he needed a hug. And more than anything else I would want him to feel safe enough in our relationship that he could talk to me about anything with the understanding that I would not judge him, mock him, or condescend to him.

The only way you can know for sure what this means for your marriage is to listen to your wife with kindness and empathy, without judgement or mockery or condescension. Listen to her like you would want her to listen to you after a stressful and identity-shaking experience. You are 100% allowed to feel however you want about this, but you also need to hear her and validate her for the person she is. After 22 years of marriage it's quite literally the very least you can do.
posted by jesourie at 11:50 AM on June 8, 2018 [22 favorites]

You ask, " Is there something I am missing? Not thinking about?"

Yes. You are missing that there are better thinkers than you who believe in God and better people than you who are confessing Catholics. You are not thinking about the possibility that your wife might turn out to be both.

Even if you're not willing to accept those things in the abstract, can your love for this woman -- which, presumably, is based on more than the atheism you once shared -- help you get there?
posted by hhc5 at 11:53 AM on June 8, 2018 [9 favorites]

people who feel that spouses owe each other 100% access to 100% of their internality, at all times, and damn the torpedoes

The thing is, though, that granting this kind of access is not a matter of policy, nor entitlement, nor morality; it's a matter of physics, and it's simply not possible. I am the only one wandering about inside this thing, regardless of how strongly I might wish that such were not the case and how lonely it makes me feel to think about it.

If somebody believes that I am granting them 100% access to 100% of my internality, or that they are granting me 100% access to 100% of theirs, then they are more deluded than any believer in the God of Catholic doctrine.

The parallels between a personal spiritual position and a set of ecological or political beliefs don't really hold water for precisely that reason. Ecology and politics are all about one's stance with respect to the rest of the world; as such, they're inherently shareable in ways that matters of the spirit, which are by the very nature of personal existence ultimately private, are simply not.

Oddly enough, the only people you will find who are capable of mounting serious arguments against this view are religious folks who believe in a God who sees all and knows all. So if that is indeed what you've been expecting of your wife, you might have more in common with her new Catholicism than you think.
posted by flabdablet at 11:54 AM on June 8, 2018 [7 favorites]

I want to add that I feel your feelings of betrayal are overblown. You say that your wife is, even now, still merely "interested in becoming Catholic" (emphasis added). She is now, while still contemplating this deeply personal, individual thing, coming to you even though her fears about your scorn, derision, and contempt for her nascent, inchoate thoughts (if not for her) have been borne out, if your comments in this thread are any indication.

Why do you think you are entitled to expect that your wife should have confessed to you three years ago that for the first time in her life, she had just experienced the slightest twinge of faith? I say that you are not.
posted by hhc5 at 12:04 PM on June 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

Then a second gut punch: she said she has been thinking this way for THREE years(!) She says it has been hard to keep this secret, but just didn't want to tell me because she knew, or at least was very afraid, that I wouldn't accept it and leave her. During these past three years she would just "go along" when I was ranting about some Christian outrage and never even hinted she didn't feel the same disgust (or whatever). Now, I feel such a sense of betrayal. None of the priests, anyone, over the last three years, ever suggested she might not want to conceal something like this from her husband.

This is a marriage. It's not all about you.
posted by flabdablet at 12:10 PM on June 8, 2018 [11 favorites]

Then a second gut punch: she said she has been thinking this way for THREE years(!) She says it has been hard to keep this secret,

I'm curious what is an acceptable amount of time to have been thinking about something in this situation? 1 day? 1 month? 1 year? Three years? I don't think you can answer that question satisfactorily. You are seizing on that because you want an axe to grind.

but just didn't want to tell me because she knew, or at least was very afraid, that I wouldn't accept it and leave her.

It sounds like she knows you pretty well and was correct.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:15 PM on June 8, 2018 [13 favorites]

A few thoughts come to my mind here, and they are not meant to hurt you, but to perhaps give you some things to think about.

1. People and relationships change over time. It is simply a fact of life. I have been married for enough years now to have sailed through some really, really hard stuff with my spouse where it felt like our world views had come totally out of alignment. What has saved us is the unshakable faith that each of us is at heart a good person who is honestly doing what they think is right. Do we each make mistakes sometimes? Absolutely. Are there things we will probably never agree on? Yep. Under that all, though, is my willingness to believe that my partner loves me, and despite his flaws is a wholly decent human being. Do you believe this of your spouse?

2. I hear how betrayed you feel here by the silence she kept on this for so long. Can you put yourself in her shoes for just a second? Hearing from the person you love most that something you are struggling deeply with is not something you can go to them with. How scared and alone she must have felt. And yet, she respected you and your beliefs so deeply that she wanted to spare you pain at the expense of herself. Because you and your relationship are that important to her.

3. The older I've grown, the more I've come to realize that truly the most dangerous thing about any belief is dogmatic belief that you are in possession of an unassailable truth. Whether it be religious belief, or a scientific theory or atheism, or political philosophy or whatever, we're all just trying to make sense of a big complex universe here. None of us has the monopoly on capital T truth. Are some likely more correct than others? Sure. Do you have to give credence to what others believe? Nope. But there is love and wisdom in listening to them and realizing that you likely have very little control over others' deeply held convictions. It's also important to realize that there are holes in your own knowledge that you may not even be aware are there. It's the nature of our human brains.

4. The big question is whether this has to mean the end of your marriage. From what you write here, your atheism is core to your identity and core to the foundation of your marriage. If that is the case and you are not willing to entertain the idea that others who believe differently are equal to you, well, I think you've already made your decision. It is not wrong. It is painful and it is your reality. I have a friend who made a similar discovery about his wife and it ended their marriage. He was hurt and angry and did a lot of damage to her, her family and their children in the process. Don't be that guy. I also have many friends who have different beliefs on religion who have typical to passionate marriages. Those folks are willing to accept their different world views, understand that each person values their own belief and is willing to look past that belief because their relationship, shared values in other areas and their love for the other person outweighs that difference. So it is possible. You will have to decide what is more important to you.
posted by goggie at 12:16 PM on June 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

If your partner says 'I didn't tell you for so long because I was privately struggling with how I felt and it seemed too unsure to actually talk out loud about yet, but I realize this feeling isn't going away and we should talk about it," that's one thing. But that's not what she said, she told you she kept it from you because she thought you'd leave her. That's a break in trust directly related to your relationship, as she herself admits.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 12:22 PM on June 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

But that's not what she said, she told you she kept it from you because she thought you'd leave her.

The two things are not necessarily separate. If I thought I had discovered that something might be true about me that I feared would destroy one of my closest relationships, I would spend a long time trying to understand whether it was actually true, and immutable, before I blew up that relationship.
posted by praemunire at 1:24 PM on June 8, 2018 [19 favorites]

Yeah, I really feel for you. It sounds like you're really upset. And I get where you're coming from on religion.* And even as someone who wrote that footnote, I get religious inclinations sometimes and can imagine being in your wife's shoes. (I commented more on this above.) The mind is an odd thing, and there are feelings that can be hard to put into words, and it can be possible to hold two views or to toggle between them, especially while one is incipient.

What stands out to me in your recent comments is more the sense of betrayal you feel. I feel a strong sense of hurt and sadness from you. I don't think you sound oppressive, more just really confident in and attached to your own view, and shaken by this surprise.

I understand why you'd feel that way. You and she share one set of jokes and reference points, and some chunk of them that feel important to you are about atheism. She relates to you and all that from one facet of her personality. And now, there's this other facet that connects her to the people at work and leads her to want to adopt religion. In a way, it could feel like she's been having an emotional affair; she's developed this bond that links her to others, and in fact, she's announced that she's choosing that philosophy over the philosophy that links her to you. That's scary to hear.

The good news is that this is not truly like an affair. People are allowed to have their own thoughts, and it's quite possible that she had mixed feelings or that this was all too new and delicate to talk about, much less with a hostile audience. And she doesn't have to choose between them or you. She also sounds open to not having this divide you? Personally, if a partner announced to me that they were suddenly religious, I'd be less worried about how I saw them and more worried about how they saw me and my lack of religion. (I couldn't be with someone who saw me as impure or damned or blind or holding them back from salvation.)

Anyway, could you guys go into couples counseling? I think you have a lot of talking and listening to do. Also, could you do personal counseling? I get the sense that you want someone to listen to your anti-religion ranting and care about the side of you that is angry at religion. (Care about you, not agree with your atheism.**) It's a valid need, whatever it is, but it might be hard for her to give that to you, at least for awhile. Couples therapy might help you guys figure that out. But having a second outlet to get that out might be nice for awhile. I know that recommendations to get therapy+therapy+therapy sound unrealistic in a time of crisis, but it's realistic on the time scale you're in. Divorces and significantly repairing relationships both take a while. If you're in the Bay Area, I know an incredible couples therapist.

My sense is that you don't want to get a divorce. I think you don't / didn't want to have to change your view of religion, which is somehow very important to you. But I get the sense that you're mainly shocked because in some areas that you thought you were bonding, she was also undergoing a quiet personal evolution. I think it's understandable to feel a huge "wait WTF?" about that. But you face a choice about where to go after that, towards calming yourself and finding some openness towards thinking about her side, or towards stoking your own outrage and blaming her.

* I mean, "God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son" because "the wages of sin are death," and God is so merciful that after devising this system of capital punishment he decided to arrange for His Son's murder in some ghastly filial blood sacrifice??

** Imperfect analogy, but after leaving a semi-abusive relationship, it wasn't that I wanted to rant about him so much as I wanted people to care about the side of me that felt injured, and I wanted validation that I didn't deserve it, and I was proud of having found my way out of that mental maze. My ranting was about me, not him, and there's something here that's about you, not religion.

posted by salvia at 1:27 PM on June 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think you need to really have some conversations with her where she is allowed to talk about what attracts her to Catholicism and what level of devotion she feels without arguing with her like a athiest subreddit troll.

Catholicism has a lot of facets and aesthetics (see the recent met gala dressing, madonna, kesha, r.e.m, etc) that appeal widely to people who might not necessarily subscribe to all the theology behind catholicism or support organized religion let alone be actual confirmed members of a church.

For example, there is a lot of Catholic writing that calls for service to the less fortunate based on the idea that there is a reflection of beauty in everything. IT can be really comforting and connective to humanity to feel that the imperfect (i.e. the addicted and homeless) around you are reflections of the beauty of existence just like you are. It is a real retreat from the US vs. THEM mentality that is dominating every breaking news cycle nowadays. You can appreciate things like teachings of absolute equality even if (or even more so) without subscribing full scale to the organization.

What I am trying to say is that you need to have some conversations with her that allow her to explore nuance and then you can proceed with accepting any differences in beliefs or breaking up.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:50 PM on June 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

A place you can look for more understanding is the ex-devout/orthodox/etc religion pages, especially on Reddit. There are a lot of couples who joined in marriage partially because of the understanding that they would share their faith and religion for life. Then one half of the couple leaves the religion or religion all together, and now what? Some people stay together and it works, some people divorce and it's for the best, and some people stay together and pity their spouse/sneer at their beliefs/lack of beliefs which is not great. Don't be in that last group.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 2:11 PM on June 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Maybe it's still too raw for me. Maybe the question was asked too soon, with too much emotion.

I think it's probably better for you marriage (if you wind up still wanting it) that your emotion is getting directed at internet strangers rather than your wife.

You asked if it can work. It can, but that means at some point giving your wife the benefit of the doubt. Hence all the comments approaching it from her potential perspective. You know your perspective already.

But you're very hurt right now, so you may not be ready. Is there a like-minded friend, who's your friend (not a couple friend) who you can call up and say, "I need someone to vent to, I want a few hours of not having to be reasonable or give anyone the benefit of the doubt. I can do that later." Bonus points if there's that perfect friend who will let you vent, then have that perfect sense of timing and know when to start helping you wind down. Then you can start to figure out what you want: to be married to your wife or not married to a religious person.
posted by ghost phoneme at 2:26 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I haven't read through all the responses, so apologies if I'm repeating others here. I just wanted to try and put a hard stop on your use of the word "duplicity" when it comes to the last three years. I feel like some of what you're going through is wondering how to deal with this genuinely world-shaking situation moving forward, but a larger part is how to deal with what you see as a mix of betrayal and violation. It sounds like for you, it's akin to your discovering an affair - the fact that she hid her actions and emotions from you is hurting you almost as bad - and in some points worse - than the actions themselves.

What do you want (other than for this not to have happened)? Are you looking for help with dealing with your emotions over the whole thing while you work your way toward a separation, or are you looking for a way to save things with this new, somewhat unrecognizable version of the person you love? Finding that out for yourself is the most important next step -- if you don't know what you want, you'll have a much harder time ending up there.

You didn't mention whether or not you and your spouse have kids, though the way you're writing makes it sound as if you don't. If not, and there's any part of you that is still thinking of having any children down the road, then I can see how ending your marriage might be your own inclination - especially when you say "I honestly believe teaching that to a child in 2018 is child abuse." But if you have no kids (or fully grown kids), and no plans for any, then what you're describing isn't necessarily a death sentence for a marriage. Plenty of couples are able to successfully stay together despite wildly different views on politics, religion, and even after an affair. Plenty (of course) aren't at all. It isn't a judgment if you can't live with a religious spouse, and to be perfectly honest, it also isn't a judgment if you find a way to stay together only to have her tell you someday down the road that she can no longer live with you. For many people of faith who are in a religion that affects all or most of their daily life choices, choosing to be with a nonbeliever simply isn't possible. So no matter what you choose, this will be a hard road.

But if you do think you want to find a way to stay together, please try to understand how your being the kind of person who calls someone you love having a crisis of faith "duplicity" is getting in the way of your spouse being honest with you. Your nonbelief essentially is a religion, that any deviation from becomes apostasy. In just a few paragraphs (particularly your followups) you make it clear how little room for anything resembling tolerance for her choices you have. Some of that is probably a result of being betrayed. But if she knows you and loves you as much as your many years together would suggest, she hid her actions and change of beliefs from you because she had to. Because she knew that if she said "I'm starting to think about ____," however tentatively, you wouldn't be able to take it or help her through it. And that's on you as much as it's on her.

So if there is a part of you that's hoping that you guys can work through this and stay together, you also need to know that this is likely a result of both of your decisions and actions, and not only hers. Something was missing in her life, and she couldn't turn to you about it. And that is something you may be able to fix.
posted by Mchelly at 2:30 PM on June 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

[This is straying pretty far from the original question. Try to keep it on topic.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 4:32 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ok I was trying to be supportive in my answer but I guess that wasn't good enough, sorry.

To answer your specific question with no other exposition at all: No, I don't think it can work. You are not missing anything, and you appear to be thinking very clearly.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 4:56 PM on June 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

> Did she analyze the religion and bible and decide it made sense to her over science or is she using religion as a form of escape?

I agree that having those discussions about why she was interested in becoming more religious and what she is getting out of it is vital, if you are interested in continuing the relationship.

Additional reasons to those given above, about why she might be interested in participating in a church, are what I would call a sense of community and what a Catholic friend of mine calls the "sense of the sacred." Those two are closely tied together in my mind, because the feeling one often gets when worshiping is one that is often called spiritual or loving or the "sense of the sacred" but which I myself believe is often a feeling of intense community unity and belonging.

Those are the two aspects of religion that I myself find most appealing.

Another aspect you might consider is how she considers her relationship with the church she has joined. It is one thing if she is 100% fanboy type believer and another if she is interested in taking the benefits she can from participation but also in using her participation to help move the church in a more positive direction. As someone who personally feels the church I grew up in is evil to the millionth power, I also recognize that my complete disengagement in it is allowing the church to continue do the bad things it is doing without any particular repercussions. What I am doing is making a 0% change in where that church is going. Whereas a different person who held many of the beliefs I do, but also believed "Well, there is some essential good there, let's try to rescue it" and stayed engaged while still working for the needed change, would very likely be making more of a dent in making that little corner of the world better than I am, for sure.
posted by flug at 5:54 PM on June 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

To the OP i just want to say: you are probably feeling a huge amount of grief as the result not just of your wife's three-year deception but also the loss of your closest friend. While the people who've noted that people change in marriages are correct, that kind of dramatic change in an area that defined yiur friendship and courtship has to result in a loneliness that hurts like a motherfucker. I just feel like that hurt needs to be acknowledged. I'm so very sorry for all that you're going through.

It has to be acknolwedged too that yiur wife is not experiencing the same loneliness because she has a whole new community to connect with over her conversion and belief. In emotional terms, this is not very different than if she had been conducting a 3 year affair and had now hit you with the news that she wanted to open the marriage so she can keep seeing her lover. She has hid an entire part of her being from you while making that emotional connection with other people and lied to you about it. That's not trivial and you are not some judgemental monster for feeling hurt.

In fact, I think you should spend some time accepting that this is a huge, heartbreaking loss for you that's made doubly painful by the fact that your wife is experiencing the joy of discovering herself.

I've been through something similar - it wasn't over religion - and I highly recommend therapy for yourself - not couples therapy - therapy for you to help you navigate and deal with this deeply painful loss.

As for your marriage, time will tell but I'd advise against making big life decisions while your pain is so big and raw and new.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:36 AM on June 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

In emotional terms, this is not very different than if she had been conducting a 3 year affair and had now hit you with the news that she wanted to open the marriage so she can keep seeing her lover.

You could of course choose to take this analogy seriously, and end up in a world of emotional pain as a result.

Or you could dispute it, on the grounds that the person she has been conducting this three year affair with is in fact herself - a person who has been part of your marriage since it began - so that no further opening is required nor sought.

And you could then go on to remind yourself that to be in love with another person must involve wishing them as much joy as they can possibly find in this, their one and only life; and that once this is properly understood, the question of how they choose to express their spiritual position becomes tiny by comparison.

You're in love with her. She's still here. You've lost nothing but an illusion: that for the past three years she's been enjoying sneering at the deluded every bit as much as you have. And if you were half the rational atheist you've always thought yourself to be, the shedding of illusions ought properly to be cause for celebration, not for wailing and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth.

Pull yourself together, man.
posted by flabdablet at 8:19 AM on June 9, 2018 [18 favorites]

the person she has been conducting this three year affair with is in fact herself

I mean, I meant that she was conducting an emotional affair with the Catholic church, which is quite different from conducting an affair with herself. The church and its agents are distinct from her, and her growing realtionship with them led to her hiding the self-discovery and changes that were bringing her joy from her partner, to the point of actively pretending she felt differently. To the extent that the church and its human agents were aware of any of this and were not encouraging her to be open immediately with her husband, they are complicit in it, and the odds are high, given the evangelical mission of churches, that her conversion was actively pursused and encouraged by the Catholic humans involved, and that involvement of other human beings with which she created and fostered a new secret intimacy, is what makes it like an affair.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:45 AM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

the odds are high, given the evangelical mission of churches, that her conversion was actively pursused and encouraged by the Catholic humans involved, and that involvement of other human beings with which she created and fostered a new secret intimacy, is what makes it like an affair.

The OP can’t assume that at all, and indeed in my experience of being Catholic this specific pattern (active evangelisation, group of evangelisers who’ve been providing her with a sense of community to replace her emotional connection with her marriage) is unlikely to be what’s happened. It would be cruelly unfair to her and their marriage to accuse her of effectively committing adultery based on a misunderstanding.

The OP should talk to her and learn about her feelings throughout this, as he should also get to express his to her. But I do agree with some of the later suggestions that private therapy for the OP to work through those feelings and rant to someone sympathetic in private is a great idea and wish I’d added that to my couples therapy suggestion upthread.
posted by Catseye at 9:31 AM on June 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

Full disclosure here. I am a person of faith, who used to be an atheist, and went on a similar journey to your wife's, when I was in my early 20s.

I do understand where you're coming from - it can be super-shocking if something that was core to your original relationship has shifted for one partner, but not the other. It's as if you both were committed vegans, and your partner confessed to secretly longing for meat. For some, that would be an absolute deal-breaker, even if the partner agreed to only eat meat outside of the house.

I did want to clarify a few things, though. If your wife's church is anything like mine (Episcopalian, not Roman Catholic), it would be really unlikely that she would complete a full conversion without your noticing it. Most churches ask prospective members to complete a class - sometimes a weekend-intensive, sometimes, over a period of several weeks. They also would like people to attend services, and be able to speak to why the tradition appeals to them. This culminates in a service of baptism (which will probably also include confirmation, since she is an adult). So, just because she is having those feelings doesn't mean she's taken significant steps to joining the church without your input.

Also, if her journey was anything like mine (and those I've heard about), it may have started off as a niggling little feeling, which she shoved to the side for many weeks, but, after a while, it grew to the point she just couldn't ignore it any more. Converting to a religion, or even considering it, as an adult is weird. A lot of us liked our lives just fine the way they were, and didn't really appreciate the disruption, especially at first.

I have definitely seen atheist/person of faith relationships work. I've also seen Muslim-Christian, Jewish-Christian, Pagan-Christian relationships work. The strongest of those that I've seen are based on mutual respect of each others' beliefs, as well as discussions about partners' needs being met and willingness to work together. Only you can say whether or not your wife's nascent faith is a deal-breaker, similar to the vegan example up above, but it definitely can be done.
posted by dancing_angel at 1:32 PM on June 9, 2018 [8 favorites]

If thyis was happening to me, I would feel devastated, but I think that this answer offers you a very positive possibility of moving forward: Ask for her forgiveness, and accept her new self.
posted by growabrain at 6:49 PM on June 9, 2018

It's as if you both were committed vegans, and your partner confessed to secretly longing for meat.

This analogy is also readily disputed, and I believe that doing so would help you.

Consider the following proposition: veganism is an ethical position one takes with respect to the world outside oneself that both requires and demands accommodation from other people; religious faith, by way of contrast, is an entirely interior concern.

I think you will find that successfully disputing that position would require you to let go of the atheism you value so strongly in yourself. So don't do that. Use your atheism to come to a genuine understanding of your relationship with your beloved.

Save your angst and your disputation and your need to be seen to be right for the extremely unlikely event that she starts doing her best to convince you that unless you also adopt her faith you're going to go to Hell. Which would be truly irritating, but really is unlikely; the kind of faith she's been attracted to is that displayed by caring, committed, school teaching Catholics, not prosperity-gospel fire-and-brimstone tent-fundamentalist fearmongers.
posted by flabdablet at 1:12 AM on June 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

It's very telling, to me, that you are framing this as duplicity, and lying, and almost as a direct attack on you. Heck, your question title flat out says that you feel you have lost your wife. It's pretty c;ear that, unless she changes her mind, to you, the relationship is over. I think that may, in fact, be for the best -- it is absolutely possible for an atheist and a believer to have a long-term, healthy, happy relationship... but the foundation of that relationship needs to be respect first and foremost, and trust. Meaning, your partner needs to know that you respect beliefs that you don't agree with, and that you respect THEM enough to respect their beliefs. And your partner needs to feel that they can trust you to not judge them because of their beliefs. It's abundantly clear that you do not respect your wife's beliefs at all, and given that she felt the need to keep those beliefs from you for THREE YEARS... she knows she can't trust you to continue to love and respect her when her thoughts and feelings slip out of perfect alignment with your own.

You have already made your decision, in your heart -- you have "lost" her, she committed "duplicity" against you, and you are clearly very, very angry at her. Let her go.
posted by sarcasticah at 11:08 AM on June 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

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