An Athiest And A Preacher Walked Into A Bar

…. and I dated both of them.

Two months from my wedding to neither of these women, what better time to start dishing on my exes, right? (My attorneys have advised me to clear this post with my fiancée before posting this… okay, we’re good!)

Also, Warning: This is going to be long!

First came the atheist, a remnant from my most successful dating profile ever, she was perfect on paper, but anything but in real life. Perhaps she will have the same criticism of me. She was perfect on paper, but in real life we couldn’t see eye to eye where it mattered most. She hit all the check points: Adventurous — check; Atheist — check; intelligent — check; bleeding heart liberal — check; attractive — check; dancing — check; timing — eh, not so much, but whatevs (yea, I said “whatevs,” like a teenage girl). The only place that we didn’t really click was on our relationship expectations.

Not her.

Not her.

I used to say, half-jokingly, that her version of a relationship was a lot like my version of being single. She went on a number of “meetings” that many people would have called dates. She would grind on strangers at clubs and stayed out with random guys until early in the morning. She intentionally led guys on for attention and had visible crushes on friends. Obviously, I was not okay with this, but I tried to tolerate it to avoid being called jealous, which I do have a problem with. The only difference between her version of a relationship and my version of being single was the physical intimacy with someone else outside of the relationship: that was her line — and even those the lines were kind of blurry at times, but, on paper, she was perfect. That’s probably why I fought so hard.

Her life wasn’t perfect either. I don’t mean to vilify her. (I mean, I’m okay with it if that happens, but that’s not my sole intent. :-p) She was going through her own things at the time — same as everyone else: family drama, work drama, exes and fake friends, plus a recent divorce. She was married young and hadn’t really had the life most of us got to have by that age. I was turning 30 and she was stuck at 23, mentally. At the risk of overgeneralizing, people in their early twenties can be pretty self-centered. It was like she restarted her post-divorce-life at the age when she first got married. I kept thinking that if I could hold out, she would grow out of it, like it was just a phase. The longer we were together the more I realized that it wasn’t a phase, it was the real her.

Nevertheless, I gave, and I gave, and I gave. I begged for reciprocity. Every inch was a battle. Every request was too much. She passed within three blocks of my house, daily, but refused to drop me off when I slept over. Normally, that relationship would have never reached relationship status and would have ended after she stood me up on our second date because she was day-drinking, but I was in a bad place and I was grateful to anyone who wanted me. I stayed because she was the first real hope I had since I had been engaged five years before. She was the first to accept me when I was depressed, poor, and living at home again. I was grateful because I barely liked me then.

Only she didn’t actually accept me. The facts of my circumstances were annoyances that went in one ear and out the other, like, “I don’t care about your mother’s cancer, just move out.” And I did, as soon as she got better, but even that wasn’t good enough for her. When I moved she refused to sleepover because, and I quote, “you don’t have paper towels yet,” which was really a pretext for “I made plans for after I leave here.” No surprise we broke up not even two weeks later.

I left because I was lonely.

I was a sex toy in the nightstand, the card in her back pocket, a man on a shelf that she played with whenever she needed attention but would never love. Real couples fight, we never did. Fighting with toys is crazy. I pushed the box she kept me in to the edge of the shelf, but I was too afraid to fall, until I did. The fall hurt. I was scarred and dirty, but real, like The Velveteen Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ – Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit

I won’t say that she never cared for me. In her own way, she did.  I met her parents, vacationed with her grandmother, and she even introduced me to her ex-husband. She wanted to move-in together, eventually, and we even talked about having a family someday.  She wasn’t a monster. She was selfish and I was a distant, distant second.

At the end of the relationship, I vowed she would never be a page in Sean Adams’ history, yet here is in a chapter of my life I’m calling “Shelfish.”

So naturally…(huh?)… the very next person I dated was a female pastor?

Also not her

I wanted to get as far away from my ex as humanly possible, so I jumped at the chance to date the pastor. Honestly, I thought at worst, it would make a great story. Ironically, I met her with my “Naked Skydiving” profile. When she first messaged me, I thought it was an attempt at conversion, and I wondered if she read the part of my profile where I switched my religion from “spiritual but not religious” to “atheist.” She was an interesting character. She was an outdoorsy person and a poet, a liberal feminist and a pastor, sexual but conflicted.

I never fully understood how complicated the interplay between religion, feminism, and human sexuality was for women. I guess I still don’t, but never was that more clear than when I dated the female pastor. The sheer fact that I have to specifically identify her as the “female pastor,” instead of just “the pastor” should speak volumes about the complexity of being her.

I had been on the verge of leaving religion for awhile. I bounced from religion to religion before deciding that I was “spiritual but not religious,” then it a leap of faith — forgive me — to finally admit that I was an atheist. (I will write about it someday.) Obviously, that would present some obstacles to dating a pastor; though, ironically, my atheism was a relief to her. She sought me out on purpose. She told me that it was easier to date an atheist than a religious person because there was less pressure for her to be a perfect Christian, a perfect Mennonite at that.

She also self-identified as a feminist.

The two labels together had perplexed me even before I became an atheist. She wanted to be a sexually liberated, modern woman, while simultaneously preaching to girls in her congregation the value of modesty and abstinence. She often talked about how conflicted she felt. Her congregation wanted her married, but at the same time, they didn’t want her to date. They wanted her to find a husband in the modern world, while adhering to the strictest of religious tenets.

She cried all of the time. It was hard to watch. I felt guilty for knowing her. I felt guilty that every day spent with me was a wedge between her and her faith. At times, I worried for her safety. The weight of the world was especially heavy on her shoulders.

Also, not her.

Fortunately, she found relief in her poetry, where she took on a new identity, and really became a new person. The feminist shined through as she chose her mother’s maiden name for the stage. The meek, insecure pastor was a lion on the stage, who spoke with confidence and swagger. I would have liked to have known that side of her better.

 

Ultimately, things just never really clicked between us. I was beyond sexless relationships and she was always so morally conflicted about it. It wasn’t a question of if we would have sex, it was a question of why. I still don’t actually know the answer to that. I never pushed for it. I was still a little weird-ed out by the concept of a dating a pastor and I didn’t want to force a commitment. She initiated it, then pulled back, then initiated, and pulled back. At one point she contemplated abstinence again months into the relationship.

I felt like a constant mistake.

I stayed out of a sense of obligation. I was afraid of what would happen if I left. I didn’t want to be the one to drive her from faith. I didn’t want to be a user, I didn’t want to use her. Dating a pastor was awkward enough, but to break up with her? I couldn’t. So, I waited until she came to it on her own, with some help.

How could she give a sermon in front of a congregation that her husband would never attend?

That question did it. When she finally ended it, I said “I knew it wouldn’t work.” I should have let it go. She hated me for weeks for not ending it sooner and letting her wrack herself with guilt, but eventually she forgave me. It was never really about me. I was her exploration of self. By forgiving me she forgave herself for being human enough to love.

After this relationship, I shut down my dating profile, not because it was a bad relationship, but because the system was flawed. Both of these women, who couldn’t be more different, were matched with me in high 90’s percent compatibility, according to OkCupid. The subtle flaw in the system was that compatibility was based on the number of questions answered, so if I answered 100 questions and the girl only answered 10, but we matched on 9 of those 10, we would show up as a 90% compatibility. The bigger problem is that words don’t mean anything, or rather, they mean different things to different people. The word relationship has a different meaning to different people. Faith means different things to different people. I learned that the person on paper and the person in real life may not be the same person you think they are because you interpret things differently.

I also learned a lot about myself in those relationships. I learned that I love singing karaoke. I became more active in social justice issues. Love of my giant, goofy dog was a barometer for the length of a relationship. Neither woman liked him and he was the most important non-person in my life. I rediscovered my love of poetry and writing from heartache and pain.

I learned that I can fight desperately to for someone with all of my heart and it still won’t work out, but that’s for the best. If you give it your all, and you keep coming up short, move on. It’s not you, it really is them. I learned that I am deserving of real love despite my circumstance. I learned that I have value and I shouldn’t let anyone take me for granted. I learned that you can’t force yourself to like someone no matter how nice they are and that staying can be more cruel than leaving. I learned that religion isn’t as big of a barrier as it seems, it’s about respect and acceptance, not conformity. I learned that the artificial barriers I had set to weed out people, were meaningless. I could be impressed by a woman I reluctantly agreed to go out with or have my heart dashed by a woman who looked so perfect on paper.  I learned to open myself up.

Nearly a year later, I met my now fiancee on Tinder (see my love letter to Tinder.) because I was open. And by the way, she loves my our dogs, plural.

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