We’ve talked before about how our essentially mono-normative culture gives all of us certain social cues and expectations that folks embarking on non monogamous relationship journeys need to unpack from and escape from some to be internally comfortable and successful - and that reaching a place of emotional and embodied equilibrium and safety can be an entire step after reaching an intellectual understanding of our relationship desires. (Friends & non-mono countrymen with trauma history, lend me your ears - knowing things in our heads doesn’t always put our attachment habits, bodies, and vagus nerves on board with our intentions - let’s get our bodies on board too, and roll forward, here.) A part of my culture, here in the USA, that often gets brief attention and immediate dismissal in polyam spaces, is religious background. In my experience, local polyamorous communities tend to take it as given that you’re no longer religious, or you’re non-traditionally spiritual, or you’re part of a very liberal splinter spin off of a church that invites everyone to worship (and you still get some side-eye and might not be fully out at church). As a no-longer-religious, currently-agnostic, done-a-bunch-of-religious-texts-as-literature-and-ritual-and-myth-studies human, I fit that stereotype personally.
But lots of folks don’t, or at least don’t in a neat pattern. I know plenty of folks who are believers to a deep and important level in their lives, and don’t find that to be in conflict with non-monogamous relating. (Many of them are non-Christian, but not all of them, which has been an interesting exploration of patterns. People from more strictly structured religious groups in terms of hierarchy within the group - leadership that instructs a ‘flock’ or a defined not-leading class of any kind, regardless of group size - seem to have had more tendency to either change what group they practice with, change their belief, or leave religion as a concept while beginning to explore non monogamy, and more Christian groups featured this kind of structure than the folks I’ve met from non-Christian backgrounds for the most part.) A few people were happy to talk to me for a series about this on the podcast that’s coming up, and today, I’d like to share a little about how my religious upbringing affected my view of relationships.
I grew up Catholic, in a part of the US where about a third of the population is Catholic, another third is various flavors of Christian, about ten percent are various practitioners of other religious faiths, and the just about twenty percent remaining are somewhere between non-practicing and non-believing unaffiliated people. That’s a heck of a lot of Christian influence, and a lot of power of being in the biggest sect around. We never had to explain not eating meat on Fridays for portions of the year - a big chunk of the rest of the kids at school were doing it, or explaining that they used the under-12 loophole for fasting & dietary requirements until the day they turned 12 in their house. This would lead to cognitive distortions about how our cultural impact worked - simultaneously, my folks would complain that no one took religion seriously anymore or lived life according to it, and my dad would say “well, Catholics in the northeast don’t have to be strident and proselytizing about our beliefs - we run the school schedules and the legislatures, so we can let folks do what they want, and do what we want at home and not worry about it.” (He’d contrast this to evangelicals we’d see on TV or out and about.) But that underlying “let’s make sure we drum in our values at home,” was definitely still a thing, as was/is the culturally underlying series of messages about what a good life, relationship, and personhood should be like.
There’s a lot of repression and shame tied into messages about how sexuality should (or shouldn’t except in the very limited circumstance of marriage) work given to us in a religiously motivated upbringing - and unpacking that can take folks a long time and require giving away a lot of the ‘stuff’ that came attached to that shame. Part of the “catholics don’t need to proselytize” meant that we got reasonable sex ed in school (blue states for the win) but the message at home was very much, “ok, but only stupid sluts use that information.” You can imagine how that went over. Exploring outside of rigidly defined roles of how sex works, of how marriage could work for me (and how cohabitation could work for me, and how choosing not to cohabit works for me…) has helped me become immensely more confident in myself - but along the way I went from a church-every-sunday, do-you-prefer-that-mass-in-english-or-latin?, shall-we-debate-the-opinions-of-the-early-church-leaders? Person to someone who has read entirely too much religious theory and doctrine not only in the religious tradition I was raised in, but several more (Thanks, too many religious studies electives at McGill, and the library was great), but doesn’t subscribe to much beyond a vague sense of doing right and respecting other humans. Some people shed their shame-based inner voices without shedding the traditions and practices, but I couldn’t.
Some would argue that it wasn’t all or even mostly religion - that a lot of the messages I got were “find the one” and “base your life around seeking pure romance” and things like this that are largely societal constructs we all get in a mono-normative culture - but having been raised in a culture largely built around my religion or related religions (nearly 70% of the people in the area I grew up in are some flavor of Christian) I feel like that’s a big part of where it comes from. If we’re going to build people into our marriage-based, hetero-normative, mono-normative view of how relationships work, as per the religion’s view of sacramentally pairing folks off, then writing our stories, media, and goals for relationships into that shape makes perfect sense; and having to exit a LOT of cultural scripts when we exit the romantic ones similarly makes sense.
For the upcoming podcast series, I get to talk to folks who had a wide variety of experiences with this - who are still in their religious practices and who aren't, and who are from a few different backgrounds - but this is where I come at it from. My journey has been one of self-discovery, of deliberate decision making about the path I want, and shedding a lot of cultural and religious expectation and practice along the way.
You can find the podcast at readyforpolyamory.fireside.fm, you can join us on facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/readyforpolyamory, follow on Twitter @lauracb88 & instagram @readyforpolyamory, on TikTok @readyforpolyamory, and if you'd like to support us financially we're on ko-fi at ko-fi.com/readyforpolyamory. You can find 1-1 and group peer support sessions here. The book is available on Amazon; please leave a review if you enjoy it!