I wrote this post, and the one that follows it, as a contribution to “One in Christ – A Week of Mutuality,” a bloghop-slash-Bible-study held over at Rachel Held Evans dot com from June 4 – 10, 2012. Be sure to check out the stuff happening at Rachel’s place this week because I know it’s gonna be awesome.
I have a troubled understanding of gender, of how it defines us and brings us together – especially in marriage.
It would be convenient (and partly true) to blame it on the time I spent in a cultish Christian church pastored by a deeply misogynistic man with narcissistic personality disorder. But I think being an American woman in the 21st century is the main reason for my confusion. That and the fact that my parents didn’t monitor my television watching, so I consumed lots of totally sexist and objectifying media input from a very early age.
When I took this already-disordered thinking about sex and relationships into the church, some things seemed to clear up and other things just got murkier. The problem now was that instead of learning what this rapper or that porn star thought about the value of women, I was supposedly learning what God thought about the value of women, and it wasn’t much better. For instance, my pastor blamed a lot of problems in his marriage on the fact that his wife was so “rebellious,” so I heard a clear message that women should “submit to” and be supportive of their husbands in every way and at all times. Even (especially) when their husband was wrong, unkind, or mentally ill and merrily frolicking after his delusions of grandeur.
And yet, my pastor also encouraged me to push and pull against my (first) husband’s opinions and preferences, to guide him subtly to be more submissive to the leadership in his life (a.k.a. our pastor). Basically, women were supposed to submit to their husbands unless their husbands weren’t doing God’s (the pastor’s) will. In our sick little circle of trust, whoever in the relationship was closer to (more easily controlled by) our tyrannical spiritual authority was the one who got to call the shots in the relationship. And if the other partner didn’t get their stuff straight, it was not unlikely for our pastor to recommend separation or divorce.
No, really. Two of my dear friends were living apart less than two months after their wedding. Thankfully, they reconciled and are now living happily ever after, twelve years and two children later. Unfortunately, another one of my good friends broke off her engagement to a young man that our pastor consistently undermined with “jokes” that questioned his sexuality. You see, because this young man was studious and sensitive, determined to follow his conscience and respect his parents, he was a threat to our pastor. And he was the only one in our inner circle with the strength to leave the church of his own free will.
After leaving Christ Church, my husband suddenly seemed ill-pleased with letting me handle the reins of our relationship. I suppose he figured that since our pastor had disappeared from our lives, I might actually be open to a relationship of mutuality. What he didn’t count on, however, was how my wounded heart would leap all the way over to the other side of the spectrum before even considering something that looked like “balance.” I wasn’t sure who God was and I wasn’t sure who I was, but I knew I was hurt and angry and I knew I wanted to understand the world for myself. No more taking things at face value. No more rejecting things out of hand because they weren’t “Christian.” No more being told that I should or shouldn’t be a certain way because I was a woman. No more pretending to be perfect.
So I started listening to shock-rock CDs, and I brought home a copy of the Quran from the library. My husband told me that just wasn’t okay. And I told him, “You’re not the boss of me.” I don’t think he liked that. You see, although my husband hadn’t enjoyed our pastor playing puppeteer in our relationship, he put up with the interference because it actually paid off for him – it kept me in check. (Our pre-Jesus relationship had been somewhat tumultuous, to put it delicately.) I think he had assumed that he would still get all the benefits of living within a repressive patriarchal cult without the nasty side effects. I think he had no idea how deeply the cult experience had wounded me. I think he had no idea that I’d married him for all the wrong reasons, not the least of which was the blessing of our pastor.
Sometimes I wonder if we could have saved our marriage if we had taken time to learn how to relate to one another in a gentle, respectful way. But I didn’t want to take that time, I just wanted to run away from a situation that made me feel trapped. I was tired of not measuring up to some (supposedly Biblical) standard set for me by a man. I was tired of repressing my feelings, of being belittled for personality quirks and character flaws, of being ordered around and sneered at.
At one point I said to my husband, “You say you love me, but you don’t. You love who I was. If we were to meet now, as I am, would you still want to marry me?”
“Well…” he shifted his gaze. “Some things would have to change.”
“You mean I would have to change.”
He didn’t respond to that.
So I left. I felt simultaneously liberated and damned. I believed then (and I sometimes still do) that I committed a grave sin by getting divorced. Although I believe in God’s forgiveness, although I think the influences surrounding us when we married may very well have made our union invalid, and although I know the circumstances we endured during our marriage (such as the implosion of our church and his father’s sudden death) may very well have doomed our relationship, I still frequently imagine that I am somehow cut off from God because I chose to leave. This is why I haven’t seriously pursued converting to Catholicism – because I cannot bear the thought of being denied communion (being rejected by God, as it were) if I am not granted an annulment. This is why it took me so long to start attending worship services at ANY church. And it wasn’t until just now – right now, as I wrote this post that was really supposed to be about something else – that I realized how troubling it is that I still believe that God’s acceptance of or displeasure with me is contingent on my relationship with a man.