Tips for Mixed-Faith Marriages: Avoid Unilateral Decisions
The second tip I give is to avoid unilateral decisions. How?
a. This gets tricky... because pretty much since we hit our "terrible twos" development stage, we resist being told what to do by other human beings. Our independence meters go off... our own needs and desires take center stage as things that should be met... and we're in a constant power struggle with something or someone from that point on. Lovely, right?
At the same time (Yes/And), we want to be in meaningful relationships. Our very lives and emotional wellbeing depend on them. Ironically, this aspect of our own self-care requires the ability to empathize and see as valid other people's needs and concerns too. This creates what I call the "Me vs. We Internal Conflict" that we're ongoingly having to manage. Just understanding that we're all consistently in this state of being is helpful for both self and partner compassion. Taking time to notice and be mindful of when you find yourself in this conflicting space is also helpful as far as self and partner awareness. "How do you typically manage this space?" is a question I would want to know (some tend to self-acquiesce while others prioritize self-advocacy).
b) Marriage in of itself is a contract where two individuals come together with similar goals and outlooks for a journey headed in relatively the same direction. So, many of the expectations are of "teamwork", "partnership," "being on the same page," "merging into one," even going as far as describing yourselves as "soulmates." But the reality is that you still have two separate, distinct individuals in the room. And in our current marriage-centric relational climate, speaking up for individual needs can be seen as "selfish," "self-serving," "inconsiderate", and even "harmful." We don't do super well at allowing individuals to have matters of privacy or tolerating our differences of opinion since these things are posited as potentially threatening, relational wedges. Most of the issues in my office as a marriage therapist have to do with negotiations that at some basic level are trying to decipher some version of "When do my needs/wants/desires trump your needs and vice versa?" As the biblical proverb teaches... there are many situations where you can't just cut the baby in half. Therefore, dealing with your "tug-of-war" scenarios in a way where both "partnership" and "self actualization" are prioritized and balanced is going to be important. This is at the heart of developing differentiation skills--which simply is about tolerating difference while still staying connected. Good, qualified marriage therapy is effective at helping with this.
c) I often say that adults do not want to be married to a parent, a teacher or a missionary. These dynamics will bring out the terrible-twos in you more quickly than anything else -- mainly because it pulls you away from an egalitarian position with one another. Not to mention, it's just not sexy. Therefore, I avoid the “asking for permission” language like the plague. We want to negotiate and collaborate. Negotiating may include statements like, "I'm considering changing this particular marker and I'm wanting your feedback on what that would be like for you." "I don't know that I can continue to engage in this behavior. It's having this negative impact on me. And I know you may have some strong feelings about this so I'm coming to you before I do anything different." "I'm wondering how I can be supportive of you when and if I decide to....?" "Is there a way we can compromise on this particular issue so that certain aspects stay the same and others honor more where I'm currently at?" And on the receiving end: "I'm concerned that what you're considering might be a deal breaker for our marriage. It's not that I want to put down an ultimatum to control your behavior... I honestly don't think that will work for me even though I can see that it's important for you." "I'm comfortable with you wanting to try that." "Since I'm uncomfortable with this new direction you're wanting to take, would you be willing to give me a few months just to adjust to the thought of it before we actually do anything about it.“ "Can we try it the way you're hoping for but for a trial period. So I don't have to feel like it's such a final decision?" "Since we are going to lean in your direction on this topic, can we lean in my direction on this other theme?" These are all negotiations... which is different than "No, I forbid you to...." or "Yes, I give you permission to..."
d) Secrecy is in of itself a unilateral decision. I know it can be very difficult to be honest with a partner where it feels like you have to choose between your own personal authenticity or the potential dissolution of your marriage. So I understand why secrecy is so common. And I'm never judgmental about it. In fact, there are cases where the ethics are so complex... that secrecy may be the safest, best option at a given time. Especially in our culture, where we have not helped people develop skills to be able to manage faith transitions effectively and collaboratively. At the same time, it still is what it is: a unilateral decision.
e) Consider the concept I call "cyclical safety." Meaning, when I come out and tell you something difficult, you're probably going to have a certain level of reaction I'm uncomfortable with. At the same time, can I stay engaged, instead of quickly retreating, when more difficult emotions are being shared? So... it's not just "are you a safe place for me to come confide in you?” It's also "am I safe place for you to be able to respond to that which I'm confiding?" For those of us who want honesty to be present in our relationships... a good question to be asking is "What am I doing to make sure there exists enough safety in the environment between us for honesty to flourish? Am I helping on this front or detracting from it?" Repair attempts can be very useful to this end as well ("I'm sorry I reacted the way I did at the time you were trying to share something with me. I'm not going to lie... this is really difficult for me to listen to. And I still want to listen because you matter and what you're thinking/experiencing matters.")
f) Consider the concept of "systemic authenticity." I usually joke that there is nothing "authentic" about my changing poopie diapers. So why did I change thousands of them over the course of the last 20 years? Because there was something very authentic about my being a parent. Is there room to see "authenticity" from your system's perspective? For example, the Mormon husband who keeps his garments on because he knows the meaning it holds for his wife and he's comfortable reframing that to mean love & commitment in his own head space? Or, the wife who twice a month goes on a nature walk with her husband and kids because even though she'd rather be in church, she understands that honoring her husband's spirituality and him as a spiritual leader in the home is also important for the wellbeing of their family unit? I could go on and on with examples. I encourage people to put their decision making on "religious markers" on a measuring scale. If wearing religious garb is triggering and causes me to have panic attacks, then that's a 10 on my discomfort scale. Maybe that's something where my personal authenticity needs to trump my systemic authenticity. If adjusting to food/beverage choices is annoying, maybe that's a 4 on my discomfort scale and I can offer systemic authenticity instead of personal.
g) Just like in sex... avoid coercion, exploitation, and manipulation to get your way. If your anxiety is so high in regards to your spouse's personal journey that you use these types of methods to appease your own discomfort and tension, it's a really good idea to get professional help. This requires critical thinking skills. Many times we don't want to or don't know how to recognize that these are ways we are engaging in our relationship.
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."