3 things I'd like to tell people whose spouse (or loved one) has a change of faith

Three years ago, my dear and wonderful husband let me know he no longer believed in the teachings of the LDS Church. It's the church I was raised in, that he and his mom joined when he was young, and the vehicle to God we both committed to in our marriage vows. It wasn't a complete surprise - both Porter and I have long discussed things we didn't love about the Church and some of the more questionable aspects of Church history and doctrine. For me, these discussions were part of a well-rounded look at faith. I believe strongly in questioning and disbelieve strongly in the perfection of church leaders, history and doctrine. For Porter, though, who sees the world in much starker black and white than I do, the cracks and imperfections all added up to a pretty dramatic change in belief system. Dramatic for him because he believed it for so long with such fervor. Dramatic for me because, well, I never expected to be married to someone who was not a practicing Mormon.

There was a while where the whole thing felt very sad to me. I had a lot of fears about what this meant for me and my future children, and sadly, I admit, what people would think about me and him and our future family. Feeling the way I feel now (spoiler alert: life is still good, my marriage is great, and my eternity isn't screwed), I feel a little bit silly admitting that I cried when he stopped wearing garments, started having occasional coffee breath, and couldn't attend my brother's temple wedding. I like to say I got automatically to A-OK, but it took a bit of time to mourn certain aspects of life that were going to be different now. It has taken a while for us to get into a groove about how we talk about the things that are important to us. And now I'm feeling ready to talk about it in a more public (read:internet) way.

So, here are a few things I've picked up over the last few years that I wish I could have heard all at once, for anyone going through something similar.

1. Your life is not over. Your marriage is not over. Your eternity is not screwed. 

This is the one thing I wish I could shout from the rooftops and into the hearts of anyone whose spouse goes through a faith transition. I also sometimes want to shout it at other people when I'm feeling defensive.

A month or so after the first round of conversations Porter and I had untangling his change, a woman in my ward gave a talk in church and mentioned her 'adamantly ex-Mormon husband.' I caught her in the hallway later and, as casually as I could (because casual was the only way I could do it at that point), I told her I liked her talk, and oh, by the way, my husband doesn't think the church is true anymore and how do you deal? She's the first person who I have ever met (or at least noticed) who didn't treat a non-member or non-practicing spouse as something entirely devastating, nor something to be afraid of.

She shrugged and smiled (and not in a benevolently sympathetic way that makes you feel like you're being pitied. That's the WORST.) and said 'You know, it's honestly not that big of a deal. I mean, I'd love to go ski with him on Sundays because I like to ski, but it really doesn't change all that much about our marriage.'


There's a narrative around people who 'leave' the church that they are bound to go 'off the deep end' and that it's 'so terribly sad' for the person who chooses to stay. I get that. I've thought it. Here's the facts: the person you married is still the person you married and if love was there before, it's likely still there now. And yes, there are conflicts that come up when two people disagree, especially on things as fundamental as faith (and double especially when that faith is as all life-encompassing as being Mormon is). But marriage is, by definition and by covenant, a commitment to one another. Conflict and compromise are part of the deal. And honestly, 95% of the time, churchy things do not come up.

How to deal with those 5% of life where two majorly differing world views makes decision-making difficult?

2. Respect Breeds Respect

We have a tendency in the Church to feel a hard-earned sense of moral superiority when it comes to leading life right. Most Mormons I know (myself included), have clocked a lot of hours on knees in prayer, searching for guidance from God as well as at church, in fellow church-members' homes, in service, etc. We aren't willy-nilly about our beliefs and that can feel a little bit like we deserve to sit up on a high horse in either self-righteousness or, as is often the case for people whose spouses change their faith, anger or betrayal. The way we talk about our faith is peppered with strong words like KNOW and TRUTH and AGENCY. We don't realize we do this, I think (I hope), but even when we are trying to be understanding that someone else may have the gall (or lack of discipline/faith/respect/pick your derisive explanation of choice) to come to different conclusions about what they use their agency to know to be true, it is often cloaked in a sweetly smug, 'Oh, you'll figure it out eventually. I had doubts once too. And if you don't get the answer I got, just keep trying. You'll agree with me eventually...'

This is not OK.

If you truly believe in agency and faith and what the Plan of Salvation teaches about the importance of one's personal journey, you should double super extra support that your spouse is on a journey. And no, you don't get to call it something temporary just to make yourself feel better. Maybe your spouse will indeed change their mind somewhere down the line, but making your love contingent on their maybe someday return to your once shared beliefs is condescending to your spouse and honestly, negates what you say you believe about agency and the plan of salvation. I'm not crazy about the term inactive for this reason. I also choose to not say that my husband 'left the Church.' He hasn't left, his relationship with it is just different now.

I am very fortunate to be married to a person who fully supports me in my desire to be 100% still super duper Mormon. He comes with me to church often enough, encourages me in my callings and supports parenting a Mormon baby. Maybe he would do these things regardless of my behavior, because he is wonderful and supportive by nature, but I feel fairly certain that if I tried to shame him into church activity, argued until he broke, or treated him like he was an immoral piece of garbage for coming to different conclusions than me, he would not be quite so gracious.

There was a time when Porter was actually pretty angry with the Church. It's a common thing for people who believe something so fiercely to feel a potent mix of being let down and betrayed by the God and institution that meant so much to them. NOTE: These are valid feelings, even if you disagree with them. And it's important that your spouse knows that you are there with them, no matter what. If you are with them - and I mean with them in the truest, most empathetic sense - they will be with you on the things that matter to you. Respect them and they will respect you.

Again, doesn't mean there isn't conflict. We've had our tousles with subjects all sorts of things, to name a few: tithing, church attendance on vacation, and whether or not I'm OK having a coffee maker in the house (it was a firm no for a long time, it just weirded me out. I'm OK with it now, but Porter still hasn't gotten one).

*Important to note: this is a work in progress for both of us

3. You are not alone. There is a place for you.

One of the most frustrating things I encounter is this idea that families and people who don't fit the usual configuration are somehow less-than. No one overtly says this, of course. Quite the opposite, there are a BILLION quotes and comments about how the gospel is for everyone and we shouldn't be measuring success against the stable couple with beautiful, faithful children. But we do this, of course. Everyone does somewhere in their lives. We are hard-wired to want to fit in and terrified at our very core of being different. I came from that family- the family whose kids all grew up singing in the choir and got married in the temple. My parents go on temple dates. We all get really into our callings (usually we're teachers because, you know, we're all great speakers and have such a wise understanding of the gospel...).

So it was a big shock for me to realize that was not going to be my family. And for a while I felt very self-conscious about it. Until I started looking around to see how many people also aren't that family. I'll tell you what, it's most families. Here's the rub, though, no one talks about it. During the first few months I was processing all this stuff, I was serving in Young Women's with a woman whose husband was in a very similar place and we NEVER talked about it. In the three wards I've been in since then, I have an unconscious habit of counting all the people who attend church alone, or who have different configurations of some kind. It's more than half of the ward, always. But NO ONE TALKS ABOUT IT.

So this blog post is part of trying to change that. I spent a year hoping no one would notice my usually absent husband, then a year talking about my non-practicing husband in a vague way that I'm sure most people didn't catch, and now finally, I realize that I am part of the problem if I don't talk about it. The way you talk about it matters, too. The woman I talked with who shrugged and smiled about her adamantly ex-Mormon husband was an inspiration to me. Like her, I'm not interested in soft-eyed pity from church members who feel inspired by my 'sticking with him.' Quite the opposite. I don't want pity (who does, really?). I don't want my husband to be on the ward project list (he wants that even less). I want them to see how wonderful a husband and father and human being he is. I want people who feel different to feel okay in their differences. And I want to be able to participate in my church community as I am - no secrets, no shame, just reality. So far I have that. A note to any of you Faith Changers out there reading this, most Mormons genuinely do want you to feel comfortable around them, don't want you to feel judged or excluded. Most people, I've found, just don't know how to act or what to say to convey the fact that where you're at spiritually doesn't impact your ability to participate/not participate in church services and activities to whatever degree you want. And in the face of not knowing, most people just don't say or do anything. It can look the same as judgment/exclusion, but I promise, it isn't (usually :) ).

If anyone out there in internetland is going through something like this and wants to talk about it with me, I'm happy to. I won't pat your leg or tell you they will come around, but I'll listen and tell you it's OK. It's not going to be OK someday (when they come back, when you divorce and remarry someone more stalwart, when you also inevitably also choose to leave). It already is OK. You might just not know it yet.