Many who experience a faith transition are concerned about the emotional pain of our parents. But it isn’t actually our parent’s pain that’s a problem for us. Our problem is…
Difficult conversations take place when what feels sacred to your spouse feels painful for you. If you’re in a mixed-faith marriage…
You started your marriage as believing Mormons. The church you trusted wrote the script you had both decided to follow. Then, you experience a reality earthquake and realize that God didn’t write that script or any of its fine print.
What do you do?!? The church doesn’t prepare marriages for this! These lessons won’t ever be found in LDS curriculum:
- How to Have a Fabulous Relationship with Your Believing Spouse after You Leave the Church
- How to Unconditionally Love Your Spouse Who Feels Betrayed by the Church
- How to Navigate a Mixed-faith Marriage Without Fear and Judgment
Mixed-faith couples need a new script
I’m not in a mixed-faith marriage, but those I’ve talked to all agree: you have to create a new script based on values you still share. It’s hard. Often messy. With lots of scratch-outs and re-writes.
Not everyone wants to write a new script. Some people can’t. Not every marriage can (or should) be saved.
But many marriages can make it.
The following is a curation of suggestions from post-Mormons who’ve been on this journey for a while.
10 tips for building a stable mixed–faith marriage
#1 Go slow. You have likely been digesting information longer than your spouse. Focus on sharing feelings rather than facts.
#2 Resist reacting to your spouse’s fear. When learning about your change in belief, your spouse may say a lot of things that scare you. Shutting down, withdrawing, hiding, and blaming yourself won’t help. What your spouse likely needs is more reassurance that you are committed. If your spouse says, “I don’t know if I can stay in this marriage,” consider saying “I’m 100% dedicated to you. I plan to be here to love you as long as you’ll let me. I want you in my life as much as ever.”
#3 Create safety. And more safety. Repeatedly make statements like this:
- You don’t need to agree with me for me to love you.
- I don’t trust the church; I still trust you and your ability to choose what’s right for you.
- It’s okay to tell me when you get angry about something that happens at church. I won’t use your experience to try to convince you to stop going. I understand that you can be upset about an experience at church and still have a desire to stay committed to it.
- There’s a lot of emotions I’m still working through. Sometimes I’m angry. I’ll try to find ways to work through my anger without involving you, but it’s likely that sometimes you’ll see it’s there. If I’m angry at the church, it doesn’t mean I’m angry at you.
- I understand there’s a lot of emotions you’re working through. I don’t blame you for feeling hurt or confused or angry. I’m telling you my beliefs have changed because I love you and wouldn’t want to hide this from you. Talking to you about this has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because I’d never want to cause you pain.
- I haven’t stopped wanting to be with you forever.
Safety opens up the possibility of discussing specific issues.
#4 Try to address specific things your spouse may fear. Keep in mind—your beliefs have changed, but your spouse might be especially concerned about your behaviors. Many believing spouses have thoughts like this:
- Will you continue to be kind and good without the church to guide you?
- Will you be faithful?
- Will you start drinking or using drugs?
- Am I losing my eternal family?
- What will happen to our kids?
- Will I have to go to church alone?
- Are the things we’ve had in common disappearing?
- What can I count on? (I thought I could always count on our common beliefs to hold us together.)
- Will you think I’m stupid and judge me like you judge the church?
- Will we ever get to share sacred experiences again?
- How will I tell my family?
- Will anything ever be the same again?
Don’t try to address this all at once, but be aware there may be many fears circulating. Whenever discussions get too intense, go back to statements of love, take a break, and try again later.
#5 Set aside time where you agree not to talk about the church. Ask your spouse questions like this:
- What can we do to serve others together?
- What can we do to have fun together?
- What new skill can we learn together?
- What (non-church related) books can we read together?
- How can we relax together?
- What can we plan (and look forward to) together?
#6 Resist your desire to protect your spouse from negative emotions. Let them feel everything without making it mean anything about you. [Not easy. But this one pays off big when you can do it.]
#7 Listen for ways you can support your spouse without sacrificing your mental/emotional health. Find out what matters to them. Aspects of the church that no longer have meaning for you may be significant in their life. Here’s what some non-believers have done for their believing spouse:
- One man I talked to told me that he sits with his wife during sacrament. He had stopped attending church but realized this was extremely hard on her. He decided to go back only for sacrament meeting. She knows he isn’t going for him; he goes for her. When a sacrament speaker says something she knows will be hard for her husband to hear, she squeezes his hand. This has become her way of saying, I heard the speaker. I know this isn’t easy for you. I know you love me. I love and appreciate you!
- Another man I talked to has recognized that going to church is too painful for him right now. However, while his wife and kids are in church, he does errands, housework, and tries to find ways to make Sunday afternoon special. His wife smiles when she comes home from church and he loves it!
- A woman I talked to chose not to make tithing an area of contention in her marriage. When she sensed it was extremely important to her husband, she spent time thinking about the ways he’s supported her. He honors her choice to stop attending church and to stop wearing garments. She’s decided she wants to honor what’s important to him in the same way he honors what’s important to her.
#8 DO NOT hide aspects of your life from your spouse. For example, if you want to try coffee or alcohol, talk to them in advance. Share your reasons and listen to their feelings. Consider giving them time to adjust or being willing to negotiate a plan. If you don’t tell your spouse in advance, be sure tell them immediately afterward. Maintain honesty no matter what.
#9 Try talking about the church indirectly. When your spouse feels you are attacking the church, they may feel you are attacking them. For some couples, it works better to have discussions about religion in general, about other faiths, or about Mormonism in a less personal context.
- Try learning about and discussing Fowler’s stages of faith or spiral dynamics as described in episode 5 of the Liturgist podcast.
- Try reading Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind.
- Consider watching movies like Going Clear, Spotlight, Holy Hell, or Wild Wild Country. Discuss the movies without making connections to the church.
- Look at adult spiritual development and aspects of Mormon faith crisis as presented by Thomas McConkie.
- Read When Mormons Doubt and look at Mormonism through the lens of philosophy. Talking about the ideas of truth, beauty, and goodness is a fantastic way to talk about the church in general terms. [Seriously—even if you don’t read this book with your spouse, read this book!]
- Consider listening to Allan and Kattie talk about their mixed-faith marriage in Marriage on a Tightrope – Hearing another couple work through their challenges might make it easier to start discussing yours.
#10 Focus on learning how to trust yourself and have your own back. Most people in a mixed faith marriage start out hoping the other person will change. This may or may not happen. Rather than linking your happiness to a possibility, you can choose to meet yourself with compassion. Right. Now. You don’t need to do everything perfectly in order to be worthy of your love. As you learn to trust that you will be there for you, your relationship with your spouse will get easier.
One person I interviewed gave me this analogy: When you started your marriage, you were holding hands and walking down the same path. The pathway split and you stepped apart on separate paths heading the same direction. The paths are close enough that you can each be on your own journey and still hold one another’s hand.
For more resources on navigating a mixed-faith marriage look here.
It feels like this!
A Mormon faith crisis begins when our shelf comes down.
Anyone who’s been through it knows exactly what a “shelf crash” means. As Mormons, we were taught to put those things we don’t understand about the church “on a shelf” to look at later. The implication is that—given the church is true—eventually, we’ll get an answer to anything that troubles us.
But the truth is: you can only fit so much on a shelf.
When your shelf has reached maximum capacity, the whole thing can come down.
And what a mess it leaves!
Food storage and the bean collapse
I want to share with you the most poignant description of a shelf collapse that I’ve come across, written by J.T.L. and shared with permission:
Early in our marriage my husband and I were long-term house sitters for a couple serving a mission. It was a great arrangement – we had a place to live and they had peace of mind knowing someone was caring for their home. As part of the arrangement, they encouraged us to use their copious food storage which for poor newlyweds was a huge blessing. Being good Mormons, there was a lot of food stored all over the house – it was sort of like living in an apocalyptic grocery store.
One night we woke up to a horrible crash followed by a soft cascading sound. When our heart rates slowed enough to assess the situation we realized that the shelf in our bedroom had collapsed, spilling its load of assorted dried legumes all over the bedroom floor. It was a phenomenal mess. We could hear beans finding their angle of repose for a long time after the initial cascade. In retrospect, it was quite spectacular.
15 years later, on a night in November, another shelf crashed to the floor. This one I had dutifully packed on my own – carefully filled with all my questions and concerns about LDS doctrine, practices and culture. I faithfully put them on the shelf, as instructed to do. That night, as I readied for bed and placed the new policy of denial of baptism for children of same-sex couples, the shelf tore from the wall and spilled the entire load all over my bedroom floor.
What does one do when years of accumulated turmoil gets dumped into your living space – in the room of your marriage bed?
I mean really. What do you do?
Here I am, a year later, still standing in my pile of beans, still wondering what to do. Still slightly shell-shocked that I am surrounded by the mess that came as such a heart-stopping surprise. I’ve asked a few people to help me assess the situation but most people take one look, offer their condolences, and move on – glad that their own shelves are intact and speculating what I did wrong that caused mine to collapse.
And so I am still standing with my pile of beans in the bedroom. My husband and I both live with the mess that has to be stepped over or waded through many times over the course of a day. There is no avoiding or ignoring it. I wake in the night to sounds of it shifting. It is there, quietly demanding to be dealt with. Most of the time I just observe it, alone. Sometimes I get ambitious and sit down and start sorting – convinced that I can put everything back where it belongs – then I realize with exhaustion how all-consuming the task will be and do I really want to save them? They were distasteful in the first place – that’s why they were on the shelf. Other times I am ashamed for how long I’ve sat on a hill of beans and start sweeping it up to throw it away but then I stop – it’s still good food – it would be such a waste to toss it all.
What I long for in these lonely hours in my room is someone to sit down with me and help me sort out the kidneys from the pintos…or help me sweep it up and throw it away…or put up a new shelf and start over. I just need some help – but where do you find someone who is willing to sit for hours, days, weeks, months, years in someone else’s mess?
Oh, how we relate to the Mess. Mess. Mess. Mess!
The word I use to describe my shelf break
After my own shelf broke, I started describing the feeling like a “reali-quake” (reality + earthquake). First came the giant realiquake, followed by many significant aftershocks.
My whole world was shifting. I was in emotional pain like never before. And the Relief Society wasn’t bringing me dinners! The community that I always thought would be there for me couldn’t see my pain.
And why would they?
The church doesn’t prepare anyone for this. They teach people to judge anyone who can’t keep that shelf intact. They teach people to believe that a person whose shelf collapsed must have done something wrong. Or, at least, they weren’t doing enough of what’s right:
- They must have stopped reading their scriptures and praying.
- They stopped focusing on “what they do know.”
- Maybe they never had a testimony.
- Maybe they don’t take their covenants seriously.
- They might have read anti-Mormon literature.
- They might have listened to apostates.
- They were probably offended by someone.
- They are too quick to forget their blessings.
- They are too proud and think they are smarter than prophets.
- Maybe they broke commandments.
- They may want to sin.
- They don’t have enough faith.
- They must have been deceived by Satan. (In the last days, even the elect will be deceived.)
In other words, those who leave have nobody to blame but themselves because there isn’t any valid reason to leave.
In the Mormon paradigm, anyone who leaves is either a threat to be avoided or a lost sheep that needs to be rescued.
Regardless, the person who steps away is a problem to be dealt with—not a person to be understood.
So, what does a Mormon faith crisis feel like?
It feels like an identity crisis.
It’s shockingly lonely.
It’s a time you want to be understood by the people you’ve always relied on more than you want air.
But they’ve been taught to not want to understand. They’ve been taught to ignore any evidence that doesn’t substantiate their beliefs. They’ve been taught to shut out everything that might lead them to question the church—including you.
Your friends in the church may try to “help” you, but they can’t validate the pain of your faith crisis or happiness you find outside the church. That would be anti-Mormon.
[Note: I completely understand why some active Mormons disagree with the last two paragraphs. It wasn’t until I stepped away from the church that I could see how the church teaches (a ton of things) indirectly. Of course, the church doesn’t teach anyone to act in negative ways towards those who leave. Through repeated messages – using phrases like lost sheep, gone astray, and deceived by Satan– the church teaches its members how to think about those who leave. Staying in the church is always portrayed as good. Leaving the church is always portrayed as bad. No stories are ever told about someone who had valid reasons to leave. Many people leaving the church today are suffering betrayal trauma because of significant breaches of trust. Active members of the church are taught they should seek to bring inactive members back–not be open to the possibility that those leaving are experiencing trauma for legitimate reason.]
What are the common negative emotions brought on by faith crisis?
While there is amazing relief from not having to keep making sense of things that don’t make sense, there’s also a ton of negative emotions during a faith transition. Especially at first.
I’ve heard people explain the painful aspects of having their shelf break. During the months (and sometimes years) after losing their testimony, people often feel:
shocked, betrayed, alone, scared, anxious, worried, misunderstood, stuck, silenced, hurt, judged, confused, shunned, deceived, angry, sad, depressed, devastated, abandoned, hopeless, duped, terrified, lost, traumatized, embarrassed, shut down, blindsided, helpless, uncertain, rejected, unfriended, trapped, alienated, disconnected, frustrated, ostracized, disrespected, conflicted, isolated, ignored
Besides all this, many grieve. They have lost their community, their certainty, their structured life, and their important relationships.
Many regret or resent. They realize they made decisions they wouldn’t have made if they’d known the church wasn’t true.
Many feel guilt and shame for having accepted and brought others into a belief system they now see as harmful.
Many go through an existential crisis wondering what’s the purpose of life, if God exists, and what matters anymore.
If your shelf has broken recently, here’s my message to you: All of these feelings are normal.
Though most of these emotions don’t feel good, none of them are dangerous. They don’t come from Satan, they don’t mean you’re on the wrong track, and they don’t mean you’ve done anything bad.
In time, they won’t feel so intense.
I’m so grateful for those who comforted me during the initial stages of my faith crisis, letting me know it gets better! They were right. It. Gets. Better.
Update – September 27
It has come to my attention that active members of the church are reading this article. This is awesome!
For those active in the church
You might be wondering what to say to someone who tells you they’re not attending church anymore.
The most helpful thing you can do for them right now is to let go of any desire you may have to change their mind about anything connected to the church. Though rescuing them might feel loving to you, you don’t understand—church is PAINFUL for them. Now is not the time to preach or to shut them out. If you want to show love, consider saying something like this:
- I can only imagine the pain which has led to this decision. I am so sorry that you have been hurting this deeply.
- You have integrity that I’ve always admired. When you tell me this decision feels right for you, I believe you.
- If you want to talk about the reasons you are leaving, I want to hear them. I am willing to listen with an open mind. If you don’t want to talk that’s okay, too.
- My love for you is not based on your activity in the church. I love you! That won’t ever change.
- I want you to heal from the pain you’re in more than I want anything else for you. It’s ok with me if you don’t ever come back to the church.
For those currently experiencing a faith crisis
When you are in the realiquake stage, it may feel impossible to know how to connect with anyone who can’t see that reality has shifted. You might be wondering what to say to someone when you tell them you aren’t attending church anymore.
Trying to have a conversation with someone who believes (what you believed not long ago) is like talking to an alternate version of yourself. So disorienting!
I know it feels like the sanity of all humanity is on the line. (Hang on to me if you need to.) This is what I want to tell you: your brain is seeing far more danger than what actually exists. Now is not the time to try to convince believers there are things about the church they can’t see.
The most helpful thing you can do for them right now is to let go of any desire you may have to change their mind about anything connected to the church. Though rescuing them might feel loving to you, you don’t understand—church is BEAUTIFUL for them. Now is not the time to preach or to shut them out. If you want to show love, consider saying something like this:
- I can only imagine how painful it is for you to hear I’m leaving the church. I know this isn’t what you expected and I’m sorry you’re hurting.
- You have integrity that I’ve always admired. I know you love the church and that you believe it helps you to be a better person. When you tell me the church feels right for you, I believe you.
- I’m willing to answer any questions you may have about why I’m leaving, but I won’t share unless you ask. It’s not my intent to get you to change your beliefs.
- Although I’m distancing myself from the church, I’m not rejecting you. I love you as much as ever!
- Now that you know I feel differently about the church, you might worry you need to edit yourself as you talk to me. You don’t. If a topic comes up that I’m not comfortable discussing, I promise I’ll let you know. In our relationship, you always get to be you. I don’t ever need you to see the church the way I do in order for me to love you.
Being the one losing belief and being the one watching a loved one lose belief is hard! So often, I wish non-believers and believers could just put their arms around one another and grieve together. There was something that we used to have in common that we don’t anymore. That’s loss. Maybe it’s a loss that wouldn’t be quite so painful if we could feel it together.
What comes to mind when you hear the term “healthy boundary?” If your answer includes any attempt to control what another adult does, keep reading because that thought isn’t serving you. That’s not a healthy boundary.
In reality, adults can choose to behave however they want. If they choose to break the law, we can choose to call the police but we cannot control their actions.
Our job is to choose our actions. In every situation in our lives, we decide what we will or won’t do.
So, what is a healthy boundary?
A healthy boundary keeps other people from coming into our physical or emotional space—the parts of us we choose to keep separate.
Basically, a boundary is a statement of what we will do to protect ourselves if another person crosses a line that we’ve decided isn’t okay for them to cross.
Healthy boundaries are about us, not about others. Boundaries are a way we honor our body, our property, our emotional space, and our parental responsibilities.
When should we create a boundary?
In general, we tell other people about a boundary if they violate it.
For example, if we consider being yelled at a boundary violation, it’s not until someone yells at us that we need to say, “If you continue to yell, I’m going to leave the room.”
Some people don’t mind engaging in yelling matches; other people hate yelling. Boundaries aren’t a one-size-fits-all thing. That’s why it’s important to let someone know if they have crossed a line.
How to implement a healthy boundary
Here are the 3 simple steps:
- Get clear about our goal. This step is sometimes the most challenging because we have to get honest about what we want for ourselves. If our primary focus is to change another person rather than taking care of ourselves, we aren’t ready to set a boundary.
- Set a boundary. Make a request and let others know what we will do if they choose not to honor our request.
- Follow through with love. If we get angry when someone else chooses not to honor our request, we weren’t making a request in the first place. A request doesn’t take the form of you must do this or I’ll be mad at you. A request is asking someone for something, fully allowing that person to make a choice. When someone doesn’t abide by our boundary request, we love ourselves enough to follow through.
Let’s look at some examples.
Hypothetical Example – Parents Send Religious Gifts
Let’s say my parents send my children Christmas or Easter gifts that include Mormon propaganda—like CTR rings, For the Strength of Youth pamphlets, scripture bookmarks, or scripture story videos. If I notice I’m resenting my parents for sending these gifts, I may want to follow the steps to set a boundary.
Get clear on my goal: Maybe I decide I want my home to be religion-free. [Notice, this isn’t a goal about changing my parents or needing them to be different. It’s a goal to protect my home from things I don’t want in it.]
Set a boundary. I tell my parents what I want and also what I will do if they choose not to honor the request. Here’s an example of what I could say:
Mom and Dad- I don’t want my kids to receive religious gifts. I want my kids to be as free as possible from religious indoctrination while they are young and I don’t want religious materials in our home. So, I am going to send these gifts back to you. If you decide to send gifts like this again, I will throw them away. I’m telling you this because I love you and I don’t want things like this to get in the way of my relationship with you or your relationship with your grandchildren. When you come over, I don’t want you to wonder why the kids don’t have the gifts you sent.
Follow through with love. If my parents choose to send religious gifts, I throw them away. I can do this without drama or yelling or making any attempt to change them. I don’t have to make these gifts mean my parents don’t respect me. Instead, I could think, “wow, it’s fascinating that my parents would continue to send these knowing I’ll throw them away. I guess if it means that much to them to send these gifts, I can take 15 seconds to put them in the garbage.”
Perhaps, in this scenario, my parents would be honoring their values in the best way they know how. Maybe they think the failure to send religious gifts means they aren’t doing their religious duty so they choose to send the gifts. I don’t have to agree with their reasons; I just need to honor the boundary I set.
When I do, their gift-sending is no longer a problem because I take on the responsibility to make sure my home is religion free. If I value a home without religious stuff, that’s my job to create that environment.
Hypothetical example—Testimonies at a family reunion
Let’s say I’ve decided not to attend church anymore. At a family reunion, three of my cousins bear their testimony to me.
In this situation, I wouldn’t necessarily need to set a boundary. I could simply tell my cousins that I see things differently and I love them no matter what they believe.
Or, I may decide that because I’m still working through a lot of emotions connected to my faith transition, I’m not ready to listen to them discuss their religious beliefs.
Get specific on what I want. Perhaps I decide that I want to spend time with my family, but only when they are not talking about religion.
Get clear on my goal. Perhaps I decide I want time away from hearing other people (including family) talk about the church.
Set a boundary. I could tell my family what I want for me by saying something like this:
As you know, I’ve recently lost my belief in the truth claims of the church. I love you all and I don’t expect you to change beliefs. But I’d like to request that you not bear your testimony to me and that don’t ask me questions about what I believe. I’m also not comfortable hanging out with you while you’re talking with each other about church stuff. If religion becomes a point of conversation, I’m going to take a walk or go read for a while. Then, when you’re ready to talk about other things again feel free to come get me. Please know this isn’t anything against you. I think there will be a time when it isn’t an issue for me to be around church-oriented discussions. But for now, this is what I need to do to take care of myself.
Follow through with love. If members of my family bring up church topics from time to time, I don’t have to take it personally. I could just excuse myself and go for a walk like I said I would. If my family constantly talks about the church, I may decide to leave the reunion in order to honor my boundary. But, I could do so because I respect myself—not because I want to change or punish my family.
Boundaries take courage
Of course, other people may not like, agree with, or understand the boundaries we set.
Having other people validate us isn’t the point of a healthy boundary. It isn’t anyone else’s job to take care of us. That’s our job.
When we love ourselves enough to take care of ourselves, we discover that resentment isn’t necessary at all. The world starts to feel like a safer place because we’ve got ourselves covered.
Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we just might realize that all we’ve been seeking from outside sources has been with us all along. There’s no place like being at home with ourselves.
Humans tend to create rules for how other people should or shouldn’t behave. We all know Mormons are particularly good at this!
The Mormon manual
A Mormon’s thoughts about someone who has left the church might look like this:
- You shouldn’t have let your doubts lead you astray.
- You should pray and read your scriptures more.
- You shouldn’t drink alcohol or coffee.
- You should remember your covenants to God.
- You shouldn’t wear tank tops or shorts.
- You should put your doubts on a shelf.
- You shouldn’t get tattoos or multiple ear piercings.
- You should keep going to church even if you’ve lost your testimony.
- You shouldn’t forget your spiritual experiences.
- You should focus on the good things the church does.
Mormons don’t think these ideas are wacky; they believe having a “manual” for how you should behave is perfectly reasonable.
The Ex-Mormon/Post-Mormon Manual
We who used-to-be Mormon don’t agree. Although we see the Mormon manual as absurd, we often come up with our own manual for what believing Mormons should and shouldn’t do:
- You shouldn’t judge me or anyone else for what we wear, eat, or drink.
- You should care enough about me to want to know why I left the church.
- You shouldn’t think I’ve sinned, been offended, or that I’m deceived by Satan
- You should want to understand the ways the church harms people.
- You shouldn’t see Joseph Smith as worthy of praise.
- You should believe me that I’m happier outside the church.
- You shouldn’t be ok with “worthiness” interviews.
- You should want to know what the church does with the money you give.
- You shouldn’t bear your testimony to me.
- You should understand how the church is gaslighting its members.
Just like believers, we think our shoulds and shouldn’ts are reasonable and good.
Manuals: how they backfire
Here’s the problem with having manuals for others: if people don’t behave how we think they should, we get frustrated, angry, or hurt.
We believe that if only they would follow our rules, no one (including us) would be emotionally hurt. But we don’t see that it’s our rules (not the other person) causing us pain.
This is a lot easier to see when we look at the Mormon manual for us.
Hypothetical: The coffee-drinking mom
If my son gets home from his mission and is disappointed that I drink coffee, it isn’t my coffee drinking behavior that would be leading him to feel sad. It would be his belief that I shouldn’t drink coffee that would lead to his negative emotions.
This is because it is our thoughts that create our emotions. No one’s behavior has any meaning (either positive or negative) until we have a thought about it.
This is good news for my son! Here’s why:
If my coffee drinking is the problem, he has no way to feel better unless I change and he has no control over me.
But my son does have control over his thoughts. In this hypothetical example, what if he were to decide to drop the defining, My mom shouldn’t drink coffee. What if he deliberately decided to practice thinking, My mom drinks coffee and that’s her choice. This isn’t a problem for me because there isn’t anything my mom can do that will stop me from loving her.
This new thought would give my son all of his emotional power back. Rather than blaming my behavior for his sadness, he would be taking responsibility for his emotions. He would be focusing on who he wants to be and how he wants to act around his coffee-drinking mom. This is 100% in his control.
If he chooses to love me while I drink coffee, there’s even more good news for him: he’ll get to feel that love.
If he chooses to think sad thoughts while I drink coffee, he will feel sad. Feeling sad is totally fine. As humans, we have the capacity to feel sad and we don’t need to resist sadness. But if he is sad, it is because of his interpretation of what coffee drinking means, not because his mom drinks coffee.
Hypothetical: The son getting married in the temple
Now, let’s say this son decides to get married in the temple and I cannot attend.
I could think my son shouldn’t get married in the temple or that the church should change its policy so I could attend his wedding. Or, I could blame my son for making this decision, thinking he should get married in a place I can watch him get married. Or, I could blame the church and decide we are both victims of some unethical policies. All of these thoughts would lead me to feel hurt.
If I have pain about his decision, it would not be because he’s choosing to get married in the temple. It would be because of what I am thinking about this circumstance.
This is good news for me! It means that if my son chooses to get married in the temple, I don’t have to feel bad. I have options.
Of course, I don’t get to decide where my son gets married and I don’t get to decide church policies. If I link my happiness with things outside my control, I become helpless.
There is another way. I could change my thinking. I could practice thinking My son should get married where he chooses to get married. The church should create policies for the church. And I have the power to decide who I want to be and how I want to feel in this situation.
It’s in my best interest to decide there isn’t anything the church can do that will get in the way of me loving my son when he gets married. I get my control back if I decide there isn’t anything anyone can do that will interfere with me being happy for my son as he lives the life he thinks is best for him.
If I want to feel positive emotions, I could choose to use the time of his wedding to think about all the ways I love my son. I could think of the beautiful grandchildren that may come into my life. I could think of how I might show love for my daughter-in-law and her family. And I could be ready with open arms and a big smile on my face when the bride and groom come outside.
The consequences of our thoughts
I know this feels like a stretch for many people who have left the church. I get it. It wasn’t long ago that I couldn’t imagine even wanting to change how I thought about the church.
What I want you to know is that none of this is about agreeing with church policies and none of this is about condoning behavior we consider harmful. It’s about taking back power over our feelings.
Although negative emotions aren’t dangerous and it’s advantageous to be willing to feel them, we also have the power to deliberately choose thoughts that lead to neutral or positive feelings.
This is a skill that takes time and practice. But just like repeatedly lifting weights can build muscles, thought work can create new neural pathways in our brains. We can empower ourselves by taking our focus off what anyone else “should” do and train our brain to focus on what’s in our control
We gain our power back when we ask ourselves, “Who do I want to be in this situation?”
We gain our power back when we choose to recognize that other people’s behavior doesn’t mean anything about us: it means something about them. Every. Single. Time.
We gain our power back when we see every event in life as an opportunity to love ourselves, love someone else, or both.
Believing the church or its members should be any different than they are is about as useful as banging our head against concrete. As Byron Katie suggests, when [we] argue with reality we lose, but only 100% of the time.
What the church and its members say and do in any given moment is the reality of that given moment. Thinking what’s happening shouldn’t be happening doesn’t change it; it just drains our energy.
It’s much more useful to think other people should be exactly as they are. Why? Because that’s how they are.
Then, we can move on to empowering questions like these:
What do I value?
How do I want to think about myself?
How do I want to show up around people who might judge me?
What do I want to create in my life?
What am I avoiding because I’m blaming rather than taking responsibility for my emotions?
Who do I want to love?
No one can answer these questions for us. This is our work. And doing this work will always align us with this simple truth: we are the only ones who can be us.
Worrying about what other people should or shouldn’t do only serves to distract us from ourselves.
To fully claim our lives, we must look inward. When we live in alignment with who we want to be, it’s so much easier to love everybody else.
My husband and I stopped attending church about 2 months after having a son leave on a mission. Our missionary son’s older brother was coming out of a painful depression and we learned he was suffering from religious trauma.
At that time, everything we were learning about the church was so painful. And knowing we couldn’t talk face-to-face with our missionary son for another 22 months seemed nearly unbearable.
The wait is over. On July 31, 2018 (the day this post was published) our missionary comes home!
At this point in time, I am so glad I had 22 months to process feelings. And I have learned a ton of skills that have improved my mental health and brought me peace. When he comes home now, I will be relaxed and grounded. I’m not worried about him and whether or not he will stay in the church. I will support him either way.
Here are some of the thoughts that have deliberately chosen to practice thinking in preparation for my son’s return:
- I trust my son to make the best decisions for him. I will support him and have his back in the decisions he makes.
- Nothing can go wrong because I have love covered. I will love me, I will love him, and I will love those he loves.
- I chose to leave the church and it was the best decision for me. I own that decision. Even if other people aren’t ok with it, I’m ok with it and that’s enough.
- I can attend his homecoming at church and love everyone there. Loving people who see the world differently than I do increases my capacity to love.
I am ready for my son to come home so that I can love him. I accept him wherever he’s at. He gets to decide how he feels about me and any decisions I make. I’m not worried about it because there isn’t anything he can do, say, feel, or think that will change my love for him one bit.
I get to feel all that love! I am so ready for him to come back and I’m ready to give him a hug!
There’s nothing easy about moving away from a community that’s been part of your identity.
How do you tell people you love that you no longer share their beliefs? There is no LDS Sunday School lesson titled How to leave the fold while maintaining fabulous relationships with believing family and friends! (That would be a lesson worth attending!)
There is no one right way to tell others about a change in faith. You get to decide when you are ready, who you want to tell, and how you share it. Here are some ideas to consider.
When you’re not ready to talk
You may be afraid of being asked questions you aren’t ready to answer. If so, you are not alone. Here are some examples of responses you could use if you are ever caught off guard:
- Thank you for being concerned about me. It’s nice of you to notice I haven’t been to church. I have a lot of my mind that I’m not ready to talk about. How have you been?
- You’re right. I haven’t been to church lately. Don’t worry — no one’s offended me and I’m doing great.
- Thank you for stopping by. I know you care but I’m not up for visitors.
- It’s really hard for me to know what to say. The nicest thing you could do for me right now is not asking me questions. I just need some time.
- That’s a good question. At this point, I don’t have an answer for you.
- I have a lot of anxiety when I think about church. I’d rather not discuss it.
- There are some things I’m working through. I’ll let you know if I want to talk about it.
When you’re ready to let others know
You may want to talk to some people in person or on the phone. When I did that, I said something like this:
I have something I want to tell you that still isn’t easy for me to talk about. Since you are important to me, I want to be upfront with you –OR- I wanted you to hear it from me.
What I want you to know is that I no longer see the church the way I used to. I’m not attending anymore, but I love you just as much as ever.
I know the church is important to you and I’m not expecting you to be any different. In our relationship, you always get to be you. You can still talk about the church or whatever you want just like you always have; please don’t feel you have to censor yourself for my sake.
I know my leaving may be confusing to you. I certainly never expected to be in the place I am now. I’m open to questions if you want to ask and it’s ok with me if you don’t. What’s important to me is that I’m honest with you and you know you can always talk to me.
All of the conversations I had in this way went far better than I imagined. Even though some were sad about my decision not to go to church, they were happy that I took the time to tell them.
For me, letting friends know about my inactive status brought me relief as well as a new-found confidence. I knew I was living my values and being the friend I wanted to be.
When you want to tell many people at once
You may also want to use social media or write a letter. I never wrote a public Facebook post about my change in beliefs, but some people find that’s the easiest way for them.
About a year after we stopped attending church, my husband and I decided to write a group email to the family and friends we hadn’t seen in a while.
The following is the exact letter we wrote:
To our dear friends and family,
We have something that is difficult for us to share and may be difficult for you to hear. However, we believe it best if this news comes directly from us.
We no longer believe the truth claims of the LDS church and are no longer attending.
If you are confused or saddened by this news, we don’t blame you. There was a time when we felt the same way about those who stepped away from the church. Honestly, before last year, we couldn’t even imagine being in the place we are now.
If you want to understand more, read on. If you don’t want to hear more, we understand.
[A while] ago, [our oldest son] came across some information that led him to lose his testimony. He plummeted into a severe depression, unsure how to talk to us or anyone else about these things. Fortunately, he was amazingly brave and opened up to us. We began looking for answers to his questions so he could make sense of and find peace with what he had read. This search led us to the Gospel topic essays on the official LDS website.
Believing we could trust this information, we carefully read each essay. However, the more we read, the more questions we had. We read all the footnotes, original documents, and books referenced in these essays. What we discovered was surprising, confusing, disheartening, and ultimately devastating.
The amount of historical evidence which conflicts with or contradicts our understanding of LDS doctrine and history was too significant to ignore. More consequential was that the new narratives presented in the church essays do not line up with the spiritual experiences we have had.
We saw a pervasive pattern, from the beginning of the church up through the present, that led us to determine that the church was not the trustworthy source of information we had believed it to be. We realized that the church has been using the very same tactics of which it has long accused so many “anti-Mormon” voices.
For the sake of our sanity and integrity, we needed to step away.
We know this is confusing to many people because—according to the church—people like us are not supposed to lose our testimonies. We studied scriptures, said prayers, magnified our callings, attended the temple, paid tithing, and were actively giving all we had.
Losing our testimonies has been both a terrible and beautiful experience. There is more we could say, but unless you have walked this path, what we would share wouldn’t make much sense. Much of what we are telling you now wouldn’t have made sense to us a couple of years ago either.
It’s ok if you don’t understand or don’t even want to understand.
However, we do very much hope that you will stay in touch. We love hearing from you. We care about you as much as we always have.
If you have questions for us, we are completely open to talking about anything. If you know someone who has left the church and you are having a hard time understanding the situation, we may be a good resource for you.
If you don’t have questions, that’s OK, too.
We are in a good place.
We send our love!
Michael and Claudine
P.S. Many of you will want to know about [our missionary son.]…He knows we are no longer attending church and that we 100% support his decision to be on a mission. We will continue to respect his future decisions — no matter what they are. As you all know, [he] is a fabulous kid and we trust him to make the decisions that are best for him.
The responses from our email
The most common response (by far) was silence. We sent the email out to over 80 people and got about 16 responses back. One response was simply a crying emoji, but the other responses sent messages of love; a few people asked questions. Here are some excerpts:
“I really appreciate hearing about your decision from you. It means a lot. I respect it and expect we’ll continue to be friends. I believe our friendship was never really based on our religious beliefs.”
“…May you find peace in the path that you have chosen and know that this doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
“Thank you for your honesty. That must have been a difficult choice. That does not change my opinion, respect, or love for you and your whole family. You are always in our hearts.”
“I haven’t been a believing Mormon for more than twenty years…I took my name off the church records about four years ago and have felt SO FREE since then.” [This was news to us!]
“I was just thinking about you both and wondering how you were. This update is not what I expected, but as you know, I’ve had questions of my own about the church over the years…I’m not one to cast stones as I think we need to find our own truth.”
“I have my views on things and I admire anyone who is brave enough to follow the dictates of their own conscience…I am not dismayed, but I am intrigued. I would very much like to know what documents you researched and what questions they raised in your minds, and what conclusions you came to. I have known a few others, family, and friends who have gone through a similar process you describe, but I have never learned any specifics from them.”
“Thank you for the email. I thought it very considerate of you to let us know of this change directly instead of waiting for it to filter its way through the grapevine to us. And yes, confused and saddened would be a decent characterization of our feelings. Naturally, this has raised some questions on my end, and I would very much like to understand better where you are and how you got there.” [This response was followed by a list of questions.]
We welcomed and savored every message of acceptance we received.
We also understood that many probably had no idea what to say. But maybe someday, they will. Because we always want to keep the door open, we wrote an additional letter to friends and family on this website. [This letter gives no details about why we left and describes what we’d like people to know about us now.]
As you think about what to say to friends and family, my suggestion to you is to focus less on what they will think of you (which isn’t in your control) and more about how you want to show up with them.
What kind of friend or family member do you want to be? If someone is important to you, how will you let them know? What do you value and how will you live those values in your relationships?
These are the questions that are worth taking time to think about. Getting to know yourself is a crucial part of a healthy faith transition and a key to maintaining healthy relationships.