When Your Spouse Leaves the Church: How to Strengthen Your Marriage Without Weakening Your Faith

Concerning Communication

Communication is a pillar of strong relationships. It may seem trite, but it is true. I loved seeing this advice in a September 2017 Ensign article about “Living the Gospel Alone in Your Family.” Author Megan Armknecht writes:

“Gospel principles strengthen every family, no matter the situation. This includes families in which not all are members of the Church—what we sometimes call ‘part-member families.’ Although Latter-day Saints in such families face unique challenges, striving for love, communication, and respect in their families can help them strengthen their testimonies, build friendships, and bring peace into their homes. . . . [E]ffective communication can strengthen part-member families.”

In fact, healthy marriages are not those that do not have conflict; rather, they are those that know how to repair conflict. Best-selling author and writer for The New York Times Alain de Botton explained this in a 2016 opinion piece:

“The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently—the person who is good at disagreement” (“Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person”).

A great step in increasing your communication, even while disagreeing, is first to work on your ability to express how you feel. “Name it to tame it” is the helpful rhyme that many mental health professionals use. Increasing emotional vocabulary increases your capacity for emotional intimacy. Consider the difference: “You’re always making assumptions about me and it makes me so angry!” versus, “I feel resentful when you assume things about my opinions. It makes me wonder who you think I am.”

Changing the tone from the catchall “angry” to a much more precise “resentful” makes for a much clearer distinction. In this example, it seems as though the anger is less about the assumption and more about an emotion that the anger is masking: anxiety about how one is perceived by a beloved spouse.

An important point to remember when working on recognizing your emotions and labeling them is not to judge them. “Emotions are simply information,” says Dr. Hanks in her book The Assertiveness Guide for Women. “You don’t have to label them as inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’.” It can be tempting for us to think, “I shouldn’t be angry; anger is a bad emotion I shouldn’t feel. It’s a sin to be angry.” Not so. Jesus himself experienced anger when He saw the money changers in the temple. You are going through a very emotional, very difficult experience. You get to feel the way you feel without needing to justify it. Your emotions are simply telling you information—what worries you, what is important to you, what makes you anxious. What you do with that information is where progress is made—along with how you share it.

Concerning Blame

Another easy trap to fall prey to in situations like this occurs when either party seeks to find the root cause of the issues the couple is experiencing. You can quickly fall into a blame game that escalates into name-calling, faultfinding, and other unproductive behaviors. Focusing on how it happened is looking backward into something that cannot be changed. Instead, look around in awareness. Work with what you have. Focus especially on building common ground.

One way to do this is to perform a “couple’s values inventory.” (For instructions on how to do this, see the next page.) I was nervous trying this for the first time because I felt like I had no earthly idea what my husband cared about anymore and worried about what he would answer. It was instructive to learn those things he considered important—and those I hadn’t considered when making my own list. He included things like “adventure” and “fun” in his list, two things I definitely wanted to add to mine! In our home, we display this beloved President Hinckley quote, which I read almost daily: “In all of living have much fun and laughter. Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured.” How could I have missed such an important piece of our lives together—something we both value highly?

In fact, another couple that performed this inventory with us mentioned how the transitioning spouse put down “spirituality” as a value when the believing Latter-day Saint forgot it. It just goes to show that you probably still have more in common than you think, and there’s room to build on that common ground.

Concerning Family and Friends

Most couples don’t exist in a void—eventually, you will want to share with others who care about you. How soon, and how much, is up to you. It’s best to come up with a plan as a couple, but sometimes that doesn’t—or can’t—happen.

In our case, my sister-in-law leaned in to whisper and ask me if my husband could help confirm her soon-to-be-baptized son. When I quietly replied, “No, he’s not worthy to,” I realized that I needed to make sure our circle of friends knew the transition we were going through so we could avoid uncomfortable situations for my husband or anyone else.

Here’s where I misstepped: I posted a message on social media. Originally, I had elected to not share it with my husband to “avoid potential future awkwardness,” as I wrote in the post. Unknowingly, though, I betrayed his trust by “outing” him, perhaps before he was ready. While it was a relief to me to know that our friends knew about the change, and many offered me messages of support, my husband was left alone. You can see how this was not ideal. It would have been far better for me to explain to my husband later about his sister’s question and together we could have come up with a solution. Sometimes, in trying to protect the ones we love, we accidentally end up hurting them more.

Some pain, however, will be far less accidental. Your friends and family may question your spouse or even attack them about their change in faith. Faithful spouses need to defend their partner without necessarily agreeing with their actions. Conversely, the believing spouse may be asked why they choose to stay with someone who no longer is a member of the Church. Stand your ground. Protect your partnership. Fighting for your partner and their beliefs builds trust, and therefore intimacy, so if you want your marriage to work, you need to make sure you are still supportive of and loyal to each other, even when others around you are not.

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