Is Faith Transition a Choice?

When mixed-faith couples come to me and we start digging into the issues that often come up in their marriage, one of the themes that shows up over and over again is the question of “choice." Did the partner who is experiencing doubt choose to doubt? And what does this belief about “choice” mean for the future of their marriage?

When framing this question I think it is useful to start with the goal in mind. For most of my clients, the goal is to repair the rift that faith changes has created in their relationship, to increase in love and understanding for each other, and to feel connection and intimacy with their partner.

The question of “choice” often comes up in the midst of the discomfort and even resentments that arrive when a couple feels like the other person is “choosing” to make them miserable. The believer may feel that the transitioner is choosing to doubt, while the transitioner may feel that the believer is choosing to remain ignorant.

I can honestly say I have never had a client demand that their partner change their beliefs (in either direction) to fix the relationship. At the same time most of my clients on some level really do wish that their partner would change (just this one little thing) so they could be on the same page. (It was so much easier when they were on the same page!)

This is where the question of “choice” comes in. If a partner is choosing to doubt, couldn’t they choose to believe again? If a partner is choosing to believe, couldn’t they choose to stop? While I feel strongly that seeing our choices clearly and taking responsibility for them is an important part of a purposeful life, there really are some things we can’t choose. Take food preference for instance, we can choose to eat certain foods even if we don’t enjoy them, but we can’t to choose to genuinely enjoy something we find gross. If we eat the food enough times we may lose our disgust, but to come to a place of genuine enjoyment . . . it might happen, but we can’t make it happen.

I have worked with hundreds of people who have experienced changes in their faith, and I have worked with hundreds of their family members who are distressed by these changes. When we explore the question of choice, “Did you choose to doubt”, “Did you choose to believe”, people rarely identify with that description of the process. Believers often identify with “always just believing” or “opening up to belief” and then feeling as though belief is something they receive from an outside source. Those who experience faith changes often identify with struggling to believe, wanting or hoping to believe, or sometimes just not believing and feeling strange when everyone around them did. They also identify with an “outside source." For some it feels like the sources are facts that are too compelling to deny, or for some it feels like they are called to a different type of faith journey.

Ultimately the question of “choice” is one that philosophers, scientists, and psychologists have been (and will be) debating for hundreds of years and one I can not answer definitely. But if we circle back to our ultimate goal, to nurture connection with the people we love, it seems most useful to ask, “does my belief that my partner is choosing to doubt/believe create connection between us, or does it create distance between us?”

In a way this question is about blame. When both partners feel the other wants them to change it feels like “If you would just believe you could fix this, this pain is your fault” or “If you would just look at the facts you could fix this, this pain is your fault." Our partner isn’t actually saying that, - (usually) (at least not explicitly) - but that is how it feels. So, ultimately the framework of choice creates a feeling of blame and distance when our goal is love and connection.

Just as each of us longs to be accepted and loved unconditionally, flaws and shadows and all, we want to love unconditionally as well. To even love the quirky hard parts of children and friends and parents. We have all experienced the type of love that asks us to “change” in order to be enough, to be worthy, to be lovable, and it doesn’t feel good. It feels like “I’ll love you if/when . . .” and that is conditional love, love that feels distant and unstable.

So to summarize: 1. Most of us don’t feel like we are “choosing” faith or doubt, 2. The framework of choice creates a sense of blame, and 3. Our ultimate goal is connection and love.

Some ideas for moving away from the choice/blame construct:

  1. Allow yourself to grieve the things you have lost. The loss of shared faith is painful for both sides, and our stance is often to try and fix painful things, and this is something that can’t be fixed (unless we buy into the idea that we or our loved one is broken, which feels yucky, creates distance not connection). The only thing to do with painful things that can’t be fixed is to allow a lot of space to grieve, for yourself and for your loved ones.

  2. Examine the myths that sameness equals intimacy, or that intimacy is comfortable. Real intimacy is about learning to accept and even love the differences. Real intimacy, sharing our truest self with someone can be terrifying, but letting all the walls down is the only way to feel deeply seen and heard.

  3. When the desire to blame someone rises up in you, pay attention. Ask this blaming part of you why it’s here, generally speaking, you have an unmet need or an unhealed wound that you are trying to “fix”. Blaming your loved ones isn’t going to fix it, but maybe there are other things you can do to address this need or heal this wound.

Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC has a masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Idaho State University, primarily working with issues of relational health, faith transitions and journeys, women's issues and sexuality. She is the founder of the popular Feminist Mormon Housewives website and support group.

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