The Way to “Divorce-Proof” Relationships is by Education and Healing, Not Shame

“Things might have gone differently.”

That’s a tough reality to face.

In the aftermath of a breakup, our brains cling to over-simplified stories to help us cope. Hopefully, we hold these reductive stories only temporarily.

Stories like: “It’s all their fault; they are bad!” and its counterpart: “It’s all my fault; I am bad.”

The first helps motivate us to get away from a toxic situation, which is the first step to clarity. The second offers a sense of control even if it’s at our own expense: “I am to blame, but at least the world isn’t just cruel and arbitrary.”

Often, when the breakup is sudden or dramatic, we oscillate between these extremes as we try to make sense of what happened.

With time and self-awareness, we can land somewhere that’s more based in reality.

For me, that reality looks like this: Things might have gone differently.

Is that painful to admit? Yes, but it’s also freeing. I have a lot of life left, and now I can actually learn and change my patterns (including both how I behave, and what I tolerate from others) instead of repeating them.

Both Ryan and I have worked to see each other with respect and good will, taking ownership of ourselves, apologizing, and genuinely wishing each other the best. For this I am deeply grateful. It is from this point that I now feel comfortable enough to write in hindsight.

Because we had to fight through a lot of ideological quagmire to get here.

[Ideology is a collection of normative ideas and ideals that rely on basic assumptions about reality which may or may not have any factual basis.]

I can’t save everyone I care about from heartache, struggle, or loss. But I am convinced that I could have been empowered to make better decisions with more solid, rational wisdom to frame my spiritual convictions.

Here are the things I wish someone would have told me.

Things might have gone differently if I didn’t let purity culture and religious pressure push a nascent relationship towards marriage.
Instead, I could have taken ownership of my own decisions about what I was comfortable with and what aligned with my values without involving two families, countless friends, my own name, and the government.

Things might have gone differently if I didn’t so easily accept other people’s ideas about what the highest call to service means.
Instead, I could have given myself time to explore to my own gifts and passions and how God might be cultivating those in unique ways to pour out for the world.

Things might have gone differently if I wasn’t groomed to believe that a commitment to the Bible was enough to sustain a healthy relationship.
Instead, I could have looked for things like emotional maturity (including my own), shared interests and values, and genuine trust.

Things might have gone differently if someone had told me that breaking up can be a good thing, that it can be done with maturity and care, and it doesn’t mean a relationship has “failed.”
Instead, I could have saved a friendship and possibly prevented years of strife and emotional baggage.

Things might have gone differently after getting married if I knew the difference between “spiritual counsel” and a licensed counselor.
Instead, I could have started the work of emotional healing a lot earlier instead of endless band-aiding with biblical platitudes. (I’m not saying spiritual counsel doesn’t have a place, but very few clergy are trained to help with inner emotional healing and trauma recovery. Confusing the two can be damaging, if not further traumatizing, as it was for me.)

Things might have gone differently if I knew that it was okay to have doubts, that faith and doubt can coexist, and that a space where you can’t question certain paradigms is not a safe space.
Instead, I could’ve realized that the wilderness is part of the journey, not straying from the path. Ryan and I could have been gentler with each other in our searching.

Things might have gone differently if I had the language to identify spiritual abuse when “ministers” shouted at, shamed, dismissed, and gas-lit me.
Instead, I could have drawn boundaries, not opened my heart to them, and sought help from responsibly trained professionals.

Things might have gone differently if I had poured more into friendships based on values and mutual support instead of gate-keeping beliefs and fitting in.
Instead, I could have avoided the dizzying rebound between questioning authority figures and clinging to them out of fear. Wider social support means less over-dependence on any one person or group.

Things might have gone differently if I knew that feelings of discontent, confusion, and even loneliness can hit whether or not you’re in a relationship.
Instead, I wouldn’t have expected a romantic partner to assuage all those things for me, but rather for us to walk alongside one another.

Things might have gone differently if we had surrounded ourselves with people who affirmed the equality of men and women.
Instead, we could have had role models and peers who modeled true partnership, and men that help bear each other’s burdens so the weight doesn’t fall completely on women.

Things might have gone differently if I hadn’t been told patriarchal ideas about sex and intimacy that disproportionately harm women (and often harm men, too).
Instead, I could have learned to love and appreciate my body; that sex was a connection to be shared and enjoyed, not a commodity to be regulated or owed.

Things might have gone differently if I knew that ALL relationships go through stages and prolonged struggle wasn’t an automatic sign that it was a bad match.
Instead, I could have more soberly reflected on which things were deal-breakers (respect, equality) and which were viable for compromise.

To put it simply:

  • More education and less ideology would have helped me make better decisions when I was single and dating.
  • More freedom to explore theology and personal development and less pressure to spread doctrine would have helped us avoid getting cornered in cognitive dissonance, which put a toxic amount of distress on us both as individuals and on our relationship.
  • More listening, believing, and empathizing (for both of us) and less shame and manipulation would have allowed us to soften and lower our defenses when the relationship deteriorated, increasing the chances of finding common ground to heal from.

I don’t know if the end result would have changed. We had very little context for our relationship outside of our religious involvement and desire for full-time ministry.

What I do know is that despite Ryan and I hurting each other, I really believe he was trying. And he knows I was, too.

The wounds that are far, far deeper for me are from the ministers that I genuinely believed God would work through, who showed me shame when I needed comfort and threw platitudes at me when I needed them to listen.

To believe me.

To help me feel safe when I felt lost, alone, and hurt.

Instead, they told me that more sex would fix things.
(It won’t. This is so damaging and abusive.)

That I needed to forgive, before I even felt understood.
(That’s not actually possible.)

That forgiveness automatically means reconciliation.
(It doesn’t. Forgiveness is releasing a debt from the past; reconciliation is having good reason to believe things will change in the future.)

That emotional abuse is a normal part of marriage growing pains.
(The fact that emotional abuse is common does not make it acceptable; it makes it a virus that needs to be named and dismantled for the sake of our kids not repeating the toxic cycles. Generational history of the wrong thing does not make it the right thing — it normalizes it, and that is the danger. Most of the church is ignoring or enabling it in the name of fundamentalist interpretations of scripture.)

This messaging is not from God, and if you encounter it, you need to run to better support.

God heals.

And healing always starts with com-passion (suffering with) and honesty.

Shame is poison to both. If we want to heal individuals and marriages, we need less shaming and more compassionate spaces of listening.

Less quips and quick-fixes and proof-texting; more gritty, patient work to get to the bottom of the pain and dysfunction.

Oh my goodness, less misogynistic Christian marriage books.

Less ideology; more education.

I can’t go back in time in my own story. But if anyone reading this is not yet married or married and struggling but not yet divorced, my prayer is that you take all the time and space you need to find healing instead of escalation.

Run, don’t walk, away from spiritual abuse and callous religious leaders.

Remember that your partner is a human being made in the image of God — even if separation or the end of a relationship is necessary.

Remember that there is no perfect partner or relationship, AND respect and dignity are not too much to ask.

Real help is out there, and you are worthy of it.


A Word About Abuse

This deserves its own post, so I’ll be brief for now: if you are not trained to respond to the disclosure or allegations of abuse (including mental/emotional, physical, sexual, or financial), then you need to be a stepping stone to someone who is.

Do not counsel an alleged victim about “what God would have them do.”

Do not try to find ways to justify abusive words or actions.

Do not discredit the person who is making the abuse known.

All of these reactions, while typical, are human responses to information that makes us uncomfortable. We may not want to believe that a person we know is capable of abuse. We may feel a desire to protect our authority figures, organizations, or someone’s reputation.

The disclosure of abuse might make us feel sad, angry, skeptical, disgusted, upset, or vulnerable.

Those feelings are understandable, but they are secondary to making the sure the alleged victim is safe and supported.

Even if you are skeptical, it’s far better to start by believing than to risk being one more place a victim is devalued and deserted.

Here are things that are critically helpful to say:

“I believe you, and I’m so sorry. That never should have happened to you.”

“We’re going to get you the support and resources you need.”

“It’s not your fault. You’re going to make it through this.”

The priority then is to get them what they actually need. It might be physical safety in the case of domestic violence (and that could be a matter of life and death). It might be financial help or childcare while they take care of legal matters.

It’s almost certainly counseling.

You don’t have to be the one to provide those things, but you can change the course of someone’s life drastically by being with them as they find it.

Jesus, Trinity, and Loneliness

For those who don’t know much about my background, I was brought up in Biblical unitarianism, which means I was taught Jesus was the Messiah but not God incarnate. It was a denial of the Trinity. To most of Christianity, this is a serious heresy.

For those who don’t know much about where I’m at now, I’ll be studying under a Trinitarian friar and mystic for the next two years. To my previous belief system, this is a huge divergence from The Truthâ„¢.

I also have a lot of important friendships with people who are agnostic, atheist, practicing a faith besides Christianity, or another blend of spirituality and mysticism. I, myself, have plenty of days of not knowing where I land.

It’s a strange thing to float in and out of these spaces where the worldviews are so vastly different and, honestly, contradictory to one another. I’ve learned to gauge who and what is safe to share my honest thoughts and questions. I never lie, but sometimes I stay quiet if there’s nothing fruitful to add to a conversation or if a person is demonstrating that they will not consider other viewpoints no matter what.

I’ve observed 3 patterns as I’ve reflected on this weird navigation of different ontological worlds:

  1. A person’s beliefs tend to change according to the community that makes them feel valued, protected, or gives them a tangible way to understand the world.
    This means we are not so objective and critically-thinking as we would like to believe we are. Our emotions and pyscho-social needs drive us more than we would like to admit, even overriding our cognition. We often intellectually rationalize a shift of belief or worldview that was born out of deeper human needs.

  2. Religions and belief systems that most emphasize connectedness — with God/spirit, with earth and creation, and with each other — tend to have similar effects on people.
    They usually grow in empathy, patience, resilience, and generosity. Like nutrients and water for soil, these ingredients usually lead to a more fruitful life.

  3. Religions and belief systems that most emphasize rightness — either in dogma or “pure” behavior — can lead to gradually increasing isolation from people who see the world differently as well as harmful over-dependence on the in-group system and its leaders.

My intent here isn’t to point fingers or criticize anyone.

But at the same time, I’m done watching people feel cripplingly lonely because their sense of belonging and value is so tightly cinched to existential truth claims that they eventually cannot reconcile with their lived reality, and the human relationships associated with them atrophy in turn.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

It actually is possible to value relationships over agreement.

It actually is possible to give yourself patience and compassion in knowing you don’t have the world figured out.

It actually is possible to change your mind about a thing.

It actually is possible to leave an unhealthy system if it comes to it.

Or to stay for a while if you know the time isn’t right yet.

Or to ask for help if you’re not sure.

It actually is possible to find healing in a kind of church you used to denounce.

Or in a break from church altogether.

God is not bound by walls and pages and statements.

God is in the walking trails and
stargazing and
coffee shops and
libraries and
therapists offices and
concerts and
internet friends and
food markets and
local elections commissions and
bored moments at work and
afternoon naps and
sleepless nights and
panic attacks and
clumsy, failed meditation attempts.

All of it.

God is especially in the people who are different from you.

All of them.

After all, if we only love people who think and live exactly like we do, we don’t actually love them. We love the reflection of ourselves and we love our idols.

So what does this have to do with the Trinity?

I’m saying that the kind of love that integrated people talk about when they talk about Jesus can reach you whether or not you believe in the Trinity, whether or not you question God’s existence, whether or not you go to church.

The Trinity has been the biggest example in my life of people trying to draw lines of “in” and “out.” And while I think God-as-relationship and God-with-us are important tenets of the Christian tradition, using a singular belief as a litmus test of where God is or isn’t working is, frankly, bullshit.

No matter which side you’re on.

God will always disprove our systems. If we build up walls to keep the “weeds” out, she’ll surely be raising a vibrant garden on the other side and we will go hungry on our own account.

I’m also saying that it’s okay to listen to your body about what you actually need to do or stop doing.

Even, and especially, if doing so disappoints someone else.

Maybe you have to leave some beliefs behind at some point. Thank them for being scaffolding to stand on when you needed it.

If they didn’t serve you at the time, you wouldn’t have stayed.

And most of all, I’m saying: Stop trying to figure things out in order to find connection with “the right people.”

Instead, find connection with loving people.

In that freedom and healing, you might actually figure some things out. Even if it’s just how to live a full, human life without having 100% of the answers all the time.

You don’t need a verse to tell you matter. You just matter.

Let that be your dogma for a while.

When Moving Forward Means Going Back

Albuquerque & Personal News

Green chile everywhere. Hot air balloon festivals at dawn with a thermos of hot chocolate. Dry, blistering summer days. First swim lessons. My second-grade guinea pigs mating and reproducing while I cared for them on a school break.

I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico from age four to eight — those are a few of the memories that stick out from those years. I haven’t been back since I was a child. Now, it looks like I’ll be returning at least 3 times over the next two years.

Last week, I was accepted into the 2019-2021 Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) that is based in Albuquerque. The CAC is a center for spirituality that merges contemplative practices with an equipping for service and justice work.

The Living School is a two-year program, mostly online with three in-person extensives, that admits 205 students per cohort. It is in its essence a Jesus-centered program but incorporates genuine good-faith exploration of perennial wisdom including other religions, honest historical studies, and academic psychology.

The Living School is a “third way” answer to prayer for me — as someone who frequently finds myself at intellectual odds with religious paradigms but still feels a deep call to divine love and service, I didn’t know if there was a place for me. Father Richard Rohr’s work has helped me find common ground between science/humanism and childlike faith, both of which can fluctuate between helpful and stunting, both of which tend to be dead ends without the other (at least for me).

I’m honored and excited for this opportunity. But, I’m also nervous.

For one thing, this is the first time I’m really committing to something since being hurt by systems and people for not fitting in correctly. It’s hard to trust again.

For another, I’ve recently been working through some childhood traumas that have affected me way more than I realized until making therapy a priority this past year. I won’t go into detail, but one was repeated sexual abuse and another was a period of bullying at school.

Both happened in Albuquerque. Both when I was just six or seven years old.

Going forward in my spiritual maturity means literally going back to the place of my earliest traumas.

Trauma & Therapy

I’m a little bit terrified of going back to the same roads, the same landscapes, from a time that my brain has worked so hard to block out.

Yet… there’s something redemptive and beautiful about it. Like, of course this is the way forward.

It’s through.

In grad school and in my personal time, I’ve been studying a lot about trauma. I’m working on some longer writing projects that will go into more detail. The science that is emerging about the way our brains and bodies store trauma is complex, fascinating, and sometimes daunting.

The traumatic things that happen to us don’t just disappear with time and distraction. They are stored inside us, and they can affect us from the inside out until we deal with them.

That sucks, man.

But that’s not the whole story.

  • Trauma CAN be processed with patience, gentleness, and support. I’m emotionally healthier now than I’ve ever been, even before my rock bottom moments, because I’m not repressing or running away from the difficult stuff and I’ve surrounded myself with genuinely supportive people.
  • Trauma response is about keeping us alive. When we go through something awful, we might not have the resources to fully deal with it right in that moment. Maybe it jeopardizes our worldview or our understanding of God (“Why would God let this happen?”). Maybe we don’t have the social support or healthy coping tools to process it fully. So, our brains — and our bodies — tuck it away so that we can keep on living.
  • Trauma therapies are expanding in the most amazing ways. Scientists are finding chemical compounds that can reverse the effects of depression in our brains. Cognitive Behavior Therapy and spiritual practices are exploding, empowering people to be to take more control of their lives, building resilience and self-efficacy.

For me, this is such a powerful evidence for the inherent value of life.

I think in simple terms, the God I imagined growing up was transactional and formulaic.

If I pray and believe and study the Bible and take believing action, everything will work out how it’s supposed to.

I tried so hard to make Life fit into my view of God. Now, I learn about God by actually looking at Life.

Life is resilient and redemptive.
Life is tenacious.
Life is designed to let us learn from our past, not to be trapped by it.

Therapy has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, and it’s not because my therapist is magical or anything. Therapy means I’m devoting consistent time to checking in with myself and staying accountable to re-wiring bad habits and thought patterns. Therapy means I’m investing in my own well-being. Therapy means I don’t have to be scared of my emotions or experiences because I can learn how to work through them.

I’m of the opinion that everyone from a strict religious background (times 1,000 for women) should consider seeing a therapist because most of us have been taught not to listen to our own bodies in order to fit the narratives and doctrines we were taught.

This is just a friendly reminder that God created all of you. Your emotions, your intellect, your sexuality, your capacity for joy and pain alike.

They all belong. All of you belongs. It’s possible to live as a whole human, guided not by exploitative legalism but by sincere values. Personally, I think that’s exactly what God wants.

Therapy is just one of the conditions that helps me heal and flourish — there are others like supportive relationships, exercise and nutrition, reading constructive books, and making time for things I enjoy. But for the person feeling increasingly trapped by thoughts or emotions, therapy might be the place to start.

I remember feeling nervous about the idea of opening up to someone in such a vulnerable way. If it’s your first time, consider asking a friend to drive you for your first couple of sessions so you can talk about the experience afterward and make sure you feel comfortable there. The 3-session rule can be helpful: by the third session, you should feel generally positive about your therapist or counselor. If not, you can find someone else. And you can build trust over time, at the pace you are ready for.

Most cities have subsidized counseling programs that are inexpensive or on a sliding, need-based scale, so please don’t ever let resources keep you from taking your wellness seriously. You deserve compassionate care. There is always a way.

I’m definitely excited about the learning and the community that the Living School will bring. If I can manage it, I’ll stay in my Master’s program as well — I’ve decided on a Counseling Psychology concentration which will hopefully pair well with the contemplative aspects of the Living School.

But the thought of going back to Albuquerque is still complicated.

In this case, it seems like the way forward is to go back.

The Story of Sex Part 1: Is Masculinity Toxic?

The Story of Sex will be a series about sex/gender and sexuality in culture and relationships.

By now you’ve probably heard of Gillette’s new commercial that calls men to hold each other accountable for what it means to “be a man.”

Gillette is evolving “The Best a Man Can Get” into “The Best Men Can Be”

The response has been mixed. Many are praising how the company is engaging important topics like sexual assault and harrassment, bullying, and the treatment of women in the workplace.

But there has been a backlash as well. For instance, Piers Morgan on Twitter:

“Absurd virtue-signalling PC [politically correct] guff.”
“Let boys be damn boys.”

Morgan has consistently taken on this mantle of the edgy conservative voice-of-reason in recent years, so his response isn’t particularly surprising. He is in a class with people like Jordan Peterson who have stoked a base of mostly white males, their common grievances centering around perceived threats to the natural order of things. Rather than criticizing Jordan’s faulty intellectual premises, which others have already done better than me, I just want to take notice: people like him and Morgan are saying something that resonates with a large base of men.

The objective reality is that many white, western men are feeling attacked. Rather than judging that right off the bat, maybe we can just acknowledge it. 

The rise of Peterson and far-right cultural watchdog publications online that breed extremism (including literal Men’s Rights Activists) demonstrate it.

I read Morgan’s longer response to the Gillette ad, which I personally found to be a lot of cheap, incendiary bombast. But the idea that he kept coming back to was that movements like Gillette’s commercial are “man-hating,” “feminist assault[s] on men and masculinity” and send a “subliminal message [that] men, ALL men, are bad, shameful people.”

See, Morgan himself reveals a serious dilemma in this kind of attitude. *Not all men* and *Let boys be damn boys* are paradoxical arguments.

Either toxic masculinity is a problem but only for a few men, or we need to let this kind of masculinity be what it is because it’s only natural.

It’s just a few bad men. But also, it’s all men — it’s in our genes.

Uh, what?

No matter which one it is, apparently, feminism is to blame — Morgan and Peterson agree there. Because reasons.

I think reasonable people can agree that we have a problem of male violence in the United States without much controversy:

  • 1 in 3 women have experienced contact sexual violence (source)
  • 1 in 6 women have survived rape or attempted rape (source)
  • 84% of domestic violence cases involve male perpetrators and female victims (source)
  • Between 1982 and 2018, 103 out of 108 mass shooters were solo males (source)

But the extreme violence isn’t what I want to focus on here. There’s another consequence of contemporary masculinity that has reached epidemic levels.

It’s also deadly.

Boys and men lacking a context for meaningful, connective relationships outside of romance has led to unprecedented levels of loneliness and isolation which is more harmful to someone’s health than smoking a pack a day and can exacerbate or even cause serious diseases.

Tragically, more men are dying by suicide, too.

This crippling lack of connection is well documented: NBC // Men’s Health UK // Upworthy // Boston Globe // Psych Central … and that’s the tip of the iceberg. The central theme is that emotional repression and fear of coming across as gay (don’t even get me started on the homophobia yet) are robbing young boys and men of deep friendships.

It is not a cheap shot at men when health experts and social scientists (many of whom are men, incidentally) bring the conversation back to masculinity. The core of these issues lies in the question: what are we teaching our children it means to be a boy or a man?

Discussing masculinity can be a spiraling rabbit hole, because many people will talk about what they think is inherent or “natural” to men when they’re really referring to social constructs and cultural norms. But biology plays a role, too. It’s complex to say the least.

We can make the conversation simpler, though. We can boil it all down to two questions:
1) What story were you told about what it means to be a boy or a man?
2) Does it have to be that way?

There are plenty of men like the ones I linked above who can recount the stories they were told about what it means to be a man — and the effects on their lives — much better than a woman like me. And the questions are rhetorical, anyway.

What I can tell you is that growing up with two brothers, in a tight-knit church environment, with a majority of male friends — I didn’t witness many emotionally vulnerable friendships between guys. As my peers and I are making our way towards our 30’s the non-romantic friendships are even more rare… and exponentially more important.

Defining masculinity in a healthier way is not only about women or violence.

Don’t get me wrong — gendered violence should be enough to make all of us care.

But men are struggling, too.

And if the caricature of feminism in your mind doesn’t account for that, then it’s probably not real feminism.

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Credit: https://theupturnedmicroscope.com/comic/logical-fallacies-strawman/

I follow and read a lot of feminists (both women and men).
Not a single one of them hates men.
Not a single one of them thinks all men are bad and shameful.

All of them — literally all of them — want men to experience more genuine connection, acceptance, and meaningful relationships.

It doesn’t matter if you like sports or trucks or fantasy novels or video games or music or art or gardening or photography.
It doesn’t matter if you are naturally an “alpha” or more reserved or the resident comedian.
It doesn’t matter if you look like an Abercrombie model or if gyms really aren’t your thing.

Masculinity means “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men.”

What if we defined masculinity by character and not personality style or appearance?

Masculinity itself is not toxic.

Gillette’s whole point is that every generation gets to decide what kind of qualities or attributes it wants to be characteristic of its men.

Violence is toxic. Bigotry is toxic. Misogyny is toxic. Emotional repression is toxic. Social isolation is definitely toxic.

Masculinity is not. Not if we define it better.

In upcoming posts: dismantling damaging ideas about gender and sexuality specifically within religious ideas about marriage.