The Ethical Dilemma: Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don

Joan-Reisman Brill gives advice to a Christian-turned-atheist feeling stuck in a religious marriage. Plus, advice on how to deal with a hateful sister-in-law that won’t let you see your brother.

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Coming Out To Spouse: I am 30, raised Christian and for most of my life just assumed what I’d been taught was true. But now I’m seeing inconsistencies in my faith, and I’m beginning to really think about things for myself. In short, I’ve become an atheist. Here’s my conundrum: I’m married to a hardcore fundamentalist, and I’m afraid if I “come out” to him, our marriage will fall apart. We have a young daughter together, so I’m also worried about the consequences for our child. I’m not sure whether I should keep my atheism a secret to keep the peace, or confess to my husband and let the chips fall where they may.

—Damned If I Do?

Dear If You Do,

And damned if you don’t. You have to decide on a course. But first, you must firmly embrace the fact that in becoming atheist you are doing nothing wrong and you have nothing to feel guilty about. You’re just looking at the world with fresh eyes and responding honestly to what you’re seeing. Unfortunately, we can’t be sure those we love and who love us will do the same.

Let’s consider your options: If you decide to keep your “secret,” you will secretly suffer from being false to everyone, including the most important people in your life. In the hope of saving your marriage and protecting your child (and perhaps additional children that come along), you will be repressing your true self and essentially deceiving everyone around you. This is not healthy for you, your marriage, your family or community. It also means you will have to participate in indoctrinating your child(ren) into believing the same whoppers you can no longer believe yourself. Taking this path to preserve your marriage may still lead to its demise, since you will be bottling up bad feelings that are bound to manifest in some destructive way.

If you decide to tell your husband, there can be a range of possible reactions: At one extreme, he might throw you out and try to bar you from contact with your child. At the other extreme, he might understand and accept, and even come around to share your views. The most likely scenario would be a combination somewhere in between—perhaps dismay at first, followed by some level of understanding over time. Or, conversely, an initial effort to be understanding that eventually fails, in which case your marriage might also fail.

Only you can even guess what your husband’s reaction would be. So I would suggest you prepare to tell him, but first do a bit of preparation for the possibility that you might find yourself instantly rejected and banished. You should figure out what friends or relatives would support you (emotionally and perhaps financially or with shelter until you get your bearings) if you have to make an abrupt exit. I’m hoping there’s no fear of physical violence, but that’s also something to consider and avoid—perhaps by having a friendly witness in the next room, or a public setting for the big reveal. It’s also a good idea to line up a neutral, non-religious marriage counselor for you and your husband–and if he refuses, just for you. And, unfortunately, it would also be a good idea to consult a divorce lawyer before broaching the topic with your husband.

Some people might think it’s ridiculous to even consider rocking the boat of your marriage because of different views about silly bible stories. What’s the big deal? The fact is, it is a big deal in your case. So before you opt to take what may appear to be the path of least resistance and say nothing, you should think hard about the idea of continuing to live a lie. Why should your husband control the entire family’s beliefs? If he loves you, won’t he want to try to understand and accommodate your perspective? If not, wouldn’t it be better for you to move on ASAP, while you’re young, and build a new life with someone who accepts and embraces you as well as your ideas? Won’t it be at least as harmful for your child to be raised as a religious fundamentalist with a closeted atheist mother as to have her deal openly with her parents’ divergent worldviews?

Ultimately, it’s your decision. Please follow up to let us know what you decide and how it goes. We’re rooting for you!

Big Sister-in-Law Is Watching You: My brother is married to a woman who has been seriously ill, physically and mentally, for decades. The problems are too numerous to get into here, but a new issue has just emerged: She has decided I’m a bad influence on my brother and insists he have no further contact with me. At one point he gave me a private phone number and e-mail address where I could reach him without her knowing, but then he was overcome with guilt and told her about them. She insists he must share everything with her, and he complies without even objecting. I have never communicated with him to bad-mouth or conspire against her, but now it’s been weeks since I’ve heard anything from either of them. Both of them are or have been in therapy, but neither follows anyone’s advice (his therapist advised him to leave her).

I really want to just check in with my brother periodically as I think he’s in desperate straits, but she will know if I try and will go ballistic on him as well as me. What should I do?

—Blink Twice If You’re OK

Dear Blink,

This is abuse. No one has the right to infiltrate another person’s privacy. No one should be controlling whom another adult may or may not communicate with—and no adult should accept those terms in a relationship. Your sister-in-law is bullying and isolating your brother to an alarming degree, and what’s even more alarming is that he is allowing it. This sounds like a case of a co-dependent relationship that has spiraled into a miserable folie a deux.

You have the right to call or e-mail or snail mail or even show up at their door, regardless of what either of them has prescribed. You certainly could just ignore your “restraining order” (as long as they don’t get a legal one) to check in periodically, even if it means she’ll rage at you and him. But if you are convinced that doing so would just make things worse—and especially if your brother (independent of your sister-in-law, if that’s conceivable) sincerely begs you to desist—you need to make clear that you are there for him/them whenever they choose to reach out to you, and then just back off.

This has all the earmarks of a terrible situation that may be beyond you, or a team of therapists, to fix. All you can do at this point is be accessible and patient. If you believe, however, that your sister-in-law is physically abusing your brother or that your brother actually wants to be rescued from the emotional abuse, you should contact the authorities. Drastic measures may be necessary to extricate him from this quagmire. But if he really doesn’t want to be saved, there’s not much more you can do.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.