Tips for Mixed-Faith Marriages: You Both Have a Right to Parent your Child(ren) Part 1
The third tip I offer is:
You both have a right to parent your children through and after a faith transition. How?
a. Educate yourself and get professional help when needed. Although marriage is ideally focused on teamwork and partnership, nothing can bring out the claws faster than issues that trigger our inner mama or papa bear instincts. Feeling upset, defensive and protective when in conflict with your partner in regards to your kids is a fairly normal phenomenon. But “normal” doesn’t necessarily mean "okay" or beneficial. Unfortunately the statistics show that parenting disputes play a major role in many divorces. Ironically, most of us still have to find ways to co-parent post-divorce. So it’s in our best interest, and definitely our children’s best interests to figure some of this stuff out while we are still married and even if we do decide to divorce. Kids do better when there is less conflict within the parental unit… and that doesn’t change with marital status. Our kids need us to figure out how to self-regulate.
b) Have self and partner compassion. When you’re in a mixed-faith marriage, the parenting setting is going to initially be more difficult to navigate. You are going to have to face discussions and decisions that many of your peers are not having. Many religions offer family-friendly structures that as long as you “fit the mold” you can just plug into and follow the community timeline. From Sunday school, to adolescent ministry programs, to guidelines about dating and sexual behavior, to preparation for marital and family life… parents who are both believers can feel very supported by their church structure in helping them raise their kids. In families where there is a faith transition for one parent, the believer usually feels profound grief and concern that this structure may no longer serve as a safety net for their family. And the transitioner can feel profound grief and fear that their kids will be unfairly influenced by a system that now undermines their authority and “worthiness” status. This is really hard for both of you. It's okay to just sit with that reality for a minute.
c) Understand where privilege lies. Within a church community system, privilege is experienced by the believing spouse. The way that church systems talk about doubters and disbelievers is generally not positive. We undermine parental authority by treating inactive or non-believing parents as "less than." Often there is language or disciplinary actions around the concept of “worthiness.” Children can be encouraged to become "missionaries" to their doubting parents or being a “good influence” which can engender disrespect or disappointment from the child. I encourage parents in mixed-faith families to figure out a united front with their church community so that they create clear boundaries that will not allow for the transitioning parent to be disrespected in front of the children. Depending on where you live geographically, privilege can be experienced in the overall community by the transitioning spouse. Religious folks may be dismissed as “brainwashed,” non-educated or naive. It is just as important to defend your believing spouse and set appropriate boundaries if they are facing parental undermining by friends, family members, community members, etc.
d) Apply the golden rule. Do not expect your spouse to stay silent about their beliefs or ideas in any way that you would not want to be silenced yourself. Although the transitioner is “changing the contract” and we do want to go about changes slowly, transparently and age-appropriately, it is not sustainable to keep either parent from teaching their truth and bringing their authentic selves to the relationship with their children. To expect anything different is a form of emotional abuse. Unfortunately I see this often on both sides of the faith transition dance… where transitioners are told they can’t talk to their kids about their new beliefs… or believers are told they can’t teach their kids their doctrinal understandings. Whether we like it or not we are usually parenting with another person involved. And unless abuse or other forms of criminality are part of the equation, “not liking your partner’s ideas” is not going to cut it as a reason to keep them from parenting your children.
Stay tuned in a few weeks for part 2.
In the meantime, this tip and many others are included in the book called One Family, Two Views: How to Fortify your Mixed-Faith Mormon Marriage.
Although this book is geared towards Mormon families, any couple going through a faith transition would find the general principles helpful.
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."