Latter-day Saint Life

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

41963.jpg

I remember the first time I told someone out loud that my husband was inactive. I was sitting in the first meeting of a six-week marriage course taught during Sunday School in my ward. It had been six months or more since he’d last attended Church with me. His was a slow exit. He’d miss a week or two, claiming he felt ill, and when he did go, it was only ever for sacrament meeting. After a while, he just stopped going altogether, despite my gentle invitations to return.

I tried to ask him about it, but he would give a vague excuse and then redirect the conversation. His temple recommend lapsed. His last time in a church building was when I sang in choir. He came to watch and support me but then never came again.

It wasn’t until over a year after his last visit to church that he finally told me he didn’t want to “be Mormon” anymore. It caught me completely off guard: not only was my husband inactive but he was leaving the Church entirely.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember exactly when he told me that. I remember so many details about so many other related events, but that one—what seems like the biggest one—escapes me. All I remember was feeling . . . relieved. It felt like the first time in over two years that he’d been honest with me.

But apart from that, I had no idea what to do. My husband was leaving the Church. But he didn’t want to leave me.

Starting Over

So there we were. We had no idea where to start figuring out our situation. We didn’t even know at first whether or not we were going to stay together. But we both knew it was a decision that needed to be made carefully and not quickly.

From the start, I knew two things. First, I loved my husband. He is still sweet, kind, intelligent, and more. Second, I knew that I also loved the Lord, who tells us that “the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband” (D&C 74:1).

Despite how betrayed I felt and how important my faith is to me, I wanted to make it work if I could; I wanted to stay. Every couple has things to work through. I figured this was one of ours.

However, in many ways, it felt like I didn’t know this man I’d been married to for seven years. It felt like I almost needed to date him all over again so I could figure out who he was and where we were going if indeed we were going somewhere together.

I wish I could say it was easy. Or that I found some magic bullet by study and by faith that suddenly made everything okay. What I can say is that in my quest for insight and inspired answers, I’ve found many helpful stories and lots of advice that I believe can offer hope to others the way it has for me.

Concerning Intimacy and Trust

When my husband told me he was leaving the Church, it was like a rug getting pulled out from under me. I no longer understood him like I thought I had. I no longer knew the person he was. And I no longer knew what to expect from him or for us.

Much of the pain in mixed-faith marriages—indeed, in most troubled marriages—comes from unspoken and unfulfilled expectations. Psychology Today writer Dr. Rob Pascale put it this way:

“Exceedingly high expectations can be hard to satisfy, and if we don’t adjust what we expect from our marriage to reflect reality, we run the risk of being continually disappointed. Disappointment in turn can lead to demotivation about building the relationship further, but also to concerns as to whether marrying that person was the right decision.”

When it comes to happy marriages, he says, “Unrealistic marriages are the root of marital dissatisfaction.”

You have got to get on the same page, to rebuild love and trust. But how? When I got married, I expected to attend the temple with my husband often, maybe to serve a senior mission, or at least to live a life of Church service together. And my spouse changed the rules. That hurt, immensely. It caused unavoidable damage to the trust bank our relationship had built over months and years. It forced us to start over.

While a change in religious views is huge, it is still fundamental to make sure you feel safe talking to one another. Both of you are hurting—the believing spouse from “being abandoned” and the other from whatever event caused them to leave their faith behind. It’s likely you both are feeling very strong emotions and that you suddenly find you disagree on major issues you both care about deeply. If you aren’t careful, discussions can escalate quickly, leaving you both defensive, angry, and feeling misunderstood and alone.

Latter-day Saint therapist Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks shares:

“Some individuals may brush their feelings aside in the hopes of avoiding ‘stirring the pot,’ while others may become so overwhelmed with frustration, anger, or sadness that they lose control and have an emotional outburst. The truth is that neither of these approaches are effective in addressing or solving concerns in relationships” (“How to Be Heard Without Being Harsh”).

Instead, she suggests:

“When approaching a conversation that has the potential for conflict or criticism, use the softened startup technique. This is much what it sounds like—start a difficult conversation gradually, without blame or interrogation, and softly begin to approach the topic. This does not mean that you’re ‘beating around the bush;’ it just means that you’re being wise in how you address a concern in a way that doesn’t put the other person on the defensive.”

If despite your best effort, your partner still ends up feeling threatened and the conversation starts escalating, it’s often best to agree to take a break and come back after your fight-or-flight response has had a chance to cool off. Getting angry can be just as destructive to the trust between spouses as shutting down is.

Establishing or re-establishing intimacy relies on your ability to communicate.

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.

Concerning Raising Children

This is usually a major pain point—even the biggest pain point—for couples experiencing this transition. It can be one thing to support a spouse who leaves a shared faith, but it’s another entirely when your children start to follow.

For this situation, there are no easy answers. However, it’s important to start by focusing on the principles already discussed in this article. Trying to navigate challenges on such a personal and charged subject simply won’t work if you and your spouse haven’t laid the groundwork to have open, candid, respectful, and intimate talks. Otherwise, your attempts will likely end in fighting rather than constructive solutions.

A couple we met with shared how they handled the split: both respectfully shared their two perspectives with their children. It could be as simple as stating, “This is where I find peace, and this is where Daddy finds peace.”

It can, especially to a believer, feel like it is the end of the world when a family member leaves, particularly a child. The feelings of inadequacy, betrayal, and failure are tough to combat, but they can become manageable with faith. Happy, healthy, good-hearted children are still something to celebrate. While the uncertainty of their eternal life may eat at you, you can have faith. Be still. Know that He is God.

Going Forward with Faith

It took me a long time to write this article. It came in fits and starts. I went through many different drafts and versions of ways I could present my story and the advice I’ve been given. I felt angry. I felt alone. I felt hopeful. I felt scared. I felt so many things, and still feel so many things. There are times when it’s all I can do to get through the day, when I frantically repeat to myself, “It’s okay. You’re okay. It’s going to be okay.”

This is not an easy journey. And it is certainly not for everyone. If you elect to live in a split-faith marriage—especially when you started out on the same page—it will be one of the most difficult things you ever do. When living the gospel in your family alone, Armknecht concludes, “It is vital to obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit to know how to handle individual situations and continue in faith.” Every situation is as unique as the people in it.

While pondering my personal circumstances and searching for such promptings, I found comfort in the 11th Article of Faith—because I do claim the privilege of worshipping almighty God according to the dictates of my own conscience. I also allow all other men, including my husband, the same privilege, letting him worship how, where, and what he may.

Doctrine and Covenants 121 caught my eye during that same study session, specifically verses 7 and 8: “Peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high.”

I plan to endure this well. In fact, I almost feel empowered facing the life in front of me. It wasn’t a course I would have chosen, but in this change, I see opportunity. I see how I can grow. I see how this can ultimately make me more accepting, loving, patient, kind, compassionate, empathetic, and so much more like Christ. I can’t know for sure what the future holds, but right now, it doesn’t scare me. It’s going to be okay. I can do this. We can do this.

What Do You Value? How to Conduct a Couple’s Values Inventory

It may seem like you don’t know the person you’re married to anymore, but it’s likely that your spouse is still more familiar than you think. One way to spark conversation and connect with your significant other is to conduct a couple’s values inventory. Before starting, make sure you understand that values are not goals, nor are they a destination. Rather, values provide direction and motivation. One good example of this distinction is that “temple marriage” is not necessarily a value; “commitment,” “fidelity,” and “family” are the values that underlie the wish for a temple marriage. Other examples of values are things like “spirituality,” “connection,” “integrity,” or “respect.”Once you feel prepared, follow these directions:

1. Each spouse needs a sheet of paper and a pencil.

2. Write as many of the values you hold that you can think of without looking at your spouse’s paper.

3. Once you both feel finished, compare your lists; circle any values you both wrote and add any values from your spouse’s list that you like.

4. Compare your completed lists—and remember to focus on the similarities.

Lead image from Shutterstock
Share
Stay in the loop!
Enter your email to receive updates on our LDS Living content