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.