When I start working with couples who find themselves in a “mixed-faith” marriage… I find that the initial panic/discomfort/annoyance/anger (whatever emotion best fits your description)… usually has to do with some basic fear about “our contract” being changed.
Things I typically hear from the spouse who is not transitioning or doing less of a transition: “I didn’t sign up for this.” “I thought we had our goals and parenting style set… now I have no idea what to expect from you.” “You keep changing the rules.” “I’m only having to face this because of changes you’re experiencing. It’s not fair.” “I don’t want our children’s testimonies negatively impacted.” “How could you have done this to us?”
Things I typically hear from the transitioner: “I never meant to hurt you or our family.” “I can’t help what I feel” “I can’t believe you’re not willing to talk about this with me or look into the things I’ve been reading/listening.” “I feel so betrayed by everything I knew and now you’re turning against me too.” “I’m just supposed to stay silent with my own kids about my own beliefs?” “It feels like you’re choosing the church over me.”
Although any of us who signed up for a potentially 50 to 70 year journey with one other individual as a monogamous mate (assuming relatively good health and no divorce) should have been realistically prepared that the “contract” was going to change regardless… not many things bring this reality sharper into focus than a faith transition of one or both of the spouses within Mormonism. In the context of a Mormon “lifestyle” where there are lots of “markers” and expectations that affect day-to-day life (not to mention implications for those who believe in eternal perspectives) one can imagine why this would be so. Things such as the wearing of garments, paying tithing, daily scripture study or prayer practice, what is taught in Family Home Evening, word of wisdom concerns such as the drinking of coffee or alcohol, church attendance, acceptance of callings, sexual education of children, and so forth… are all now under scrutiny. It’s very understandable why both spouses would feel overwhelmed at so many questions, new negotiations, and facing new expectations of what their lives are going to look like. T
I will give you four tips that have to do with this often painful, initial stage in my next four upcoming blog posts...
The first tip I give is to slow down and find your common ground. How?
a. Fear is a primary emotion that gets masked by the secondary ones (anger being one of the main culprits). It’s hard to see your spouse as “afraid” when they are acting “angry.” Be willing to see your partner from the perspective of what they are afraid of.
b. Even though your feelings may not currently agree with me, faith transitions are not emergencies. You have a lot of time to figure things out. Take all the time you need. Faith transitions affect identity on many different levels... with many tasks ahead… so we want to give ourselves the time to percolate and not make rash decisions. There is no need to make lifestyle changes in the first few months of a faith transition… especially if you’re the type of transitioner who waited a long time to clue your spouse into the idea that things were changing in the first place. Your spouse needs time to adjust and make sense of your new positions and stances.
c. Although you are a team and a partnership, spiritual journeys are highly personal. Like the biblical proverb of the 10 virgins implies… even if we want to… we can’t “share” our beliefs. We can discuss and influence one another… but ultimately… spirituality is a personal journey. Faith transitions are not things people “do” on purpose…. Just like conversions are not things people “do” on purpose. They both happen… both sides of this coin matter… and both of you deserve respect and honor for your individual thoughts, feelings, experience and meaning-making from those experiences.
d. Find your common ground. I start off all couples with the homework assignment of doing a “values exercise.” This is where independently of each other you write down everything you can think of that you currently “believe in” or value. Your testimony per se. These can include Mormon specific things (i.e. I believe in the restoration of the priesthood), they can include general religious values (i.e. I believe in a God), they can include relational values that many religions tout (i.e I believe in the golden rule) and they can include more secular things (i.e. I believe in the importance of education or honesty or recycling). Then come together and share your lists with one another… Figure out what you have in common. It’s very typical that, because of fear, couples experiencing faith transition will focus on the differences that cause anxiety (we are wired this way because it’s how we can survive imminent danger). This exercise will help you focus on the many ways you still find yourselves aligned and a place to focus many of your current decisions until you have the time and energy to navigate new ways forward.
Please comment, share your own experiences in regards to these types of tips and feel free to ask me questions or give me feedback.
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST has been in practice as a mental health professional for over 20 years, primarily working with issues of relational health, faith transitions and journeys, and sexuality. She writes a blog called "The Mormon Therapist," and hosts the podcasts "Mormon Mental Health," and "Mormon Sex Info." She also produces "Sex Talk with Natasha."