What is it like to be on the gospel path with your spouse—attending church together, serving faithfully in your callings, and raising your children with the gospel as your guide—only to have them announce abruptly, or over time, that he or she no longer believes?
In recent months, I have interviewed individuals who have been there. And it’s incredibly challenging. For starters, there are often feelings of betrayal and heartache over the spouse’s rejection of temple covenants, and devastation at the lost dream of creating a gospel-centered home together. And then there are the painful day-to-day realities of how you’ll integrate prayer, church attendance, family home evening, scripture study, and gospel discussions into your home and family.
Despite the challenges, many who have been there and are striving to maintain their marriage say that there is a way to go forward. If you or someone you love is experiencing these challenges, here are some suggestions for navigating the road ahead:
Allow Yourself to Grieve
When we face trials, we sometimes push ourselves to be strong and stoic. But the heartache is there and needs to be attended to, or else all that held-back emotion may become a depressing, even destructive force in our lives. Prayerfully look for ways you can grieve without becoming consumed by it. Think about writing in your journal regularly, talking to trusted friends, or memorizing scriptures that bring solace. Allow yourself the tears and exercise an extra measure of compassion for yourself when you are feeling low.
Keep in mind that these feelings of grief may be reoccurring. One woman, whose husband left the Church many years ago, said “The grief still hits sometimes when he refuses to come hear a child’s sacrament meeting talk, or when I want to invite the missionaries over for dinner but have to negotiate with him first.”
Allow yourself to feel the grief when it comes, but then seek for the light and power that will dilute your heartache and allow you to make the most of your situation.
Nourish Your Testimony
When a spouse leaves their faith, there is no room for slacking when it comes to nourishing and strengthening your own testimony. Make your spiritual care a priority as never before. Are you reading and studying your scriptures on a daily basis, not just skimming them and checking it off? Are you making time for connecting with the Lord through prayer and meditation? Are you giving yourself the gift of a close study of general conference talks? You may find some talks especially helpful, such as “Is it Still Wonderful to You?” by Bishop Gérald Caussé, “Stay by the Tree” by Elder Kevin W. Pearson, and “Lord, I Believe” by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.
Make church and temple attendance non-negotiable. Attending the temple as often as possible has been a huge help for those I spoke with. “Regular temple attendance makes an enormous difference for me,” Marie, the mother of a large family, said, “It’s given me a greater sense of peace and strength.” Some say that it can be painful at first to attend the temple without a spouse, but the blessings will be plentiful when you persist. Attend to your own testimony and spiritual growth, and you will find reservoirs of strength and guidance from the Spirit that can make a powerful difference as you go forward.
Don’t Take Their Choices Personally
Sometimes when a spouse stops believing, the other spouse feels that it is somehow their fault. Maybe they didn’t have family home evening as regularly as they should have, or they missed family scripture studies, or failed to have family prayer every day. If you find yourself tallying all the ways you may have contributed to your spouse’s loss of faith, stop. Forgive yourself, seek the Lord’s forgiveness, and move on. You need all the energy and focus you can muster to navigate the road ahead. Allow your spouse their journey as you continue yours. You are not a failure because your spouse has left the Church. You are still someone who is part of a family in progress.
Communicate Clearly with Your Spouse
Speak with your spouse directly and with love about your situation. Talk about how you will go forward. Decide what you are willing to negotiate on—say attendance at some church activities, like ward dinners—and what you will not negotiate on—say Sabbath day church attendance. Thoughtfully, prayerfully figure out how much you can discuss the gospel with them and how much you will have to be more private in your worship, at least for now. One sister said that given how quickly any conversation about religion can turn negative, she does not talk about it with her husband right now: “There is a big hole of things we can’t talk about anymore, and while I’m sad about that, it’s the right thing for our marriage now.”
When it comes to kids, it is especially important to communicate as a couple about how you’ll handle religious differences with them. The believing spouses I spoke with appreciate spouses who respect the choice they made at marriage to raise their children in the Church. Many non-believing spouses respect that request, but others don’t. Some brothers or sisters have to deal with a spouse who once practiced the faith but now speaks negatively about the Church to their children. For the most part, parents in these circumstances strive to counteract any negative impact by faithfully practicing the faith with their children as much as possible and communicating with them about any concerns or questions they have.
Ask for Support
Though it sometimes it works to muscle our way through our challenges on our own, when a spouse leaves the Church, going it alone can be isolating. But you don’t have to do it alone. Of course Heavenly Father is there for you, but many around you can be as well. One sister said that it helped her tremendously to let her family, friends, and church family know what their family was going through. Her husband supported her in this invaluable outreach as she told others that she and her family needed their support and prayers. She spoke specifically with her children’s Primary teachers, youth leaders, and seminary teachers, telling them of her husband’s decision and asking them to be extra mindful of her children “People have been so kind, compassionate, and full of love in response,” she reports, “I am deeply grateful for the support we have experienced through our friends and family.”
Look for the Tender Mercies
When a spouse leaves the Church, it can be easy to focus on all that is going wrong—attending church alone, no longer having the priesthood in your home, etc.—but there can still be a lot to be thankful for. A sister from Europe said that she has been especially grateful for how the Lord has put people in her path who have shared the very counsel or guidance she has needed at times. An Arizonan sister expressed appreciation for the gaps the priesthood brethren in her ward have filled by giving her children blessings. Paul, a brother from the central United States, expressed great appreciation for the teaching callings he’s had over the years and how they’ve strengthened him spiritually. “The nice thing about a teaching calling,” Paul said, “is that you cannot slack off on your own study even if you want to.” And though none of these individuals have something they want desperately—a spouse who lives the gospel along with them—they find great consolation in recognizing other blessings in their lives, like their callings and ward families.
Prayerfully Seek Counseling
If you feel that counseling could be beneficial, proceed with prayer and caution. A bishop’s counsel can be a tremendous comfort and help. One sister said that her bishop’s advice made all the difference when he counseled her to focus less on the problem of her spouse’s choices and more on what she could do to spiritually nourish herself: “Heeding his counsel has helped me to feel more hopeful for my situation and less despairing.”
A professional therapist could also help enormously with processing grief and improving couple communication. When seeking professional counseling, research potential therapists beforehand. A therapist may present themselves as unbiased, but sometimes researching a therapist’s biography or blog online may uncover a value system or perspective that might conflict significantly with your own. When meeting with the counselor for the first time, explain your situation and ask questions to make sure they are a good match for you. With the right help, you can gain some powerful tools to see you through the challenges ahead.
Appreciate Your Spouse’s Positive Qualities
Though your circumstances may tempt you to hyper-focus on your spouse’s negative qualities, give them and your marriage a break by remembering to look for the good. Maybe they are especially hard-working and a good provider. Maybe they are creative, resourceful, thrifty, or all three. Or maybe they know how to help others lighten up and have fun.
Whatever the case may be, let them know how much you appreciate their wonderful qualities and how those qualities bless you and others. Consider leaving a note on their pillow or the bathroom mirror—something that will make them smile when they see it. If you have children, be sure your kids know what you love about your spouse. Regardless of your spouse’s membership status, your children will thrive from hearing what you appreciate about their other parent.
Focus on What You Have in Common
While you no longer have some of the most important things in common with your spouse, much good can come from focusing on what you can still share—such as a love for your children or a desire to make a positive contribution in the world. One sister said that while her husband no longer joins the family to study the Book of Mormon, he will join them to study the New Testament. Another sister explains that she and her husband share a love of the mountains, so they love to spend time driving through them together. If you make a list of all the things you can still share and do together and start checking them off, you’ll make many positive memories that will bless the two of you.
Let Your Life Be Your Testimony
In some marriages, when a spouse leaves the Church, the believing spouse can continue to openly share their testimony and beliefs. But in others, such sharing is no longer possible. Whatever your situation, the most powerful testimony you can share is through your actions, or living what you believe. In your day-to-day life, seek to speak with kindness, exercise compassion with your spouse and children, and continue to serve others in your home, church, and community. As you strive to do this, don’t feel like you have to be perfect to set a good example. After all, one of the most important principles of the gospel is repentance. We all make mistakes. Allow yourself yours. The Lord is mindful of your efforts. He will take them and multiply them for your good and the good of those you love, including your spouse.
Embrace the Lessons and Growth
While few of us exclaim, “Bring the trials on—I’m ready for some lessons and growth!” we can gain much by embracing the lessons and growth when the trials do inevitably come. As I spoke with individuals who have been there, they shared a few of the benefits they’ve noticed through their trials: increased patience with their spouse and others, more compassion and tenderness for those who are struggling, knowledge that there is joy even in the midst of trials, and the greater realization that you cannot take your testimony for granted. Rachel, a mother of three, says that a video she watched years ago of an interview with President James E. Faust’s wife, Ruth, has helped her to embrace the lessons and growth opportunities. When asked by her daughter why she always worked so hard, Sister Faust responded, “I’m not getting to heaven on your father’s coattails.” “That has always stuck with me,” Rachel said, “and is now particularly appropriate.” By embracing the gifts that come from difficult times, you have the best chance of accessing the light and power you need for the journey ahead.
Balance Reality with Hope
Many who have experienced a spouse losing faith say that they never imagined their spouse leaving the Church and that it has been one of the hardest trials they could imagine. Some talk of how easy it can be to succumb to overwhelming grief and despair and how hard it is sometimes to think about the future, given that it no longer includes a shared concept of eternal marriage and progression.
In their heartache, they speak of feeling hopeless as they think of attending church and the temple alone along with the years ahead of striving to raise children in the gospel when their spouse wants no part in it. And yet, these same individuals seek to balance the sometimes harsh realities with hope.
One sister said, “It’s not over until it’s over. God can do wonderful miracles.” And while she is open to those miracles, she doesn’t spend every day expecting her spouse to come back. “Perhaps the greatest hope in such circumstances,” she suggests, “is the hope that the Lord will somehow make things right.” One of the best gifts you can give yourself is to stay open to the possibilities in this life and for the next.
Bitterness and other negative feelings can quickly take hold when a spouse abandons the faith. Nevertheless, there is a more powerful option—to consciously and actively choose to love them. One sister said that when she surrendered the urge to judge, she was free to love more fully. Ponder the question “How does the Savior see or feel about my spouse? What would he have me do to love him or her today?” You cannot go wrong by acting on the answers you receive.
And when open-hearted love still doesn’t come easily, consider this powerful Book of Mormon counsel: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ”(Moroni 7:48). What can you do to love your spouse more fully? What about forgiving them? Forgiveness and increased love may not come immediately, but with earnest, prayerful effort, they will. And when that love and forgiveness does come, it will lighten your burden tremendously as you continue to navigate your marriage and faith.
Debra Sansing Woods is the author of Mothering with Spiritual Power: Book of Mormon Inspirations for Raising a Righteous Family, available at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com. Read more from her at debrawoods.com.