Americans in general and Latter-day Saints in particular hold some cultural ideas about marriage that tend to leave most of us, at some point, with the feeling that somehow we are falling short or that there is something really wrong with our relationship (thanks, Disney). Add to that our social media culture and our LDS Sunday culture where we tend to see filtered, polished presentations of others and the stage is set for fantasies about life and marriage to abound. The truth of life is far less polished and sexy. The truth is that all marriages have one thing in common – all who enter into this blessed union happen to be humans in all of their flawed glory. Rather than expecting our lives together to be blissful Norman Rockwell paintings, it is far more rational to be in awe that bonds of love can be powerful enough to motivate us to tie ourselves for life (or eternity!) to another flawed human, meanwhile exposing them to all of our flaws in the hopes that they won’t really mind and in horror when they actually notice.
I want to take a look at a few of the fantasies that plague marriages in our society in general and that particularly tend to show up in special ways when a marriage becomes mixed-faith. As I work with mixed-faith couples, I find that one or more of these are often unconscious assumptions that underlie surface tension.
Fantasy #1- Marriage should be easier than this
Humans are complex. With two notable exceptions, we have not grown up in the Garden of Eden. By the time we marry, life has typically knocked us around a little bit. We have preferences, expectations, wounds, and identities to protect. When life inevitably brings us pain, we naturally and swiftly self-protect and it takes intention and effort to put down our defenses enough to remember that we really do care for our loved ones. Yet we expect our loved ones to be able to love us unconditionally despite their wounds and wrestles. It’s a right mess. It takes work to learn to live fulfilling lives and to accept our own humanity let alone another person’s. This shouldn’t be a surprise, yet it usually is.
Fantasy #2- My spouse shouldn’t change
Or our marriage shouldn’t change. Or agreements we’ve made shouldn’t change. You’ve probably heard the saying that the only constant in life is change. It’s true. The acclaimed psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel has said that most of us will have 2-3 marriages in our lives and some of us will have it with the same person. World views and perspectives change throughout our lives. It’s hard for believing church members to understand that those who experience faith shift didn’t choose to see things differently. Life and growth invited them to see things differently.
Fantasy #3 – My spouse should change
We don’t choose or control our world view. In ‘The Righteous Mind,’ Jonathan Haight states that our world view is largely unconscious and that our rational minds function largely as press secretaries, defending that world view. While you can share insights and discoveries with your spouse (and I don’t recommend you do so without their express invitation), you cannot control the way they interpret them. Those who transition in faith often feel that everyone they love should transition with them and should see newfound ideas the same way they do. Their world view will dictate that – not their open-mindedness, their compassion, their intelligence, or their love for you.
Fantasy #4 – We have to believe the same things to be happy in marriage
The research tells us that marital bliss over the long term is far more tied to common values than to common beliefs. And I have yet to meet a person in faith transition who has had a complete change in core values. Beliefs can be seen as concrete expression of deeper values and ideals, most of which remain similar in mixed-faith marriages. We just tend to dwell on the beliefs which are typically far easier to see than digging deeper to the values that are driving or upholding our beliefs.
Once we start to see these fantasies for what they are, we open up the possibility of acceptance of what is. And once we do that, it is more possible to offer our spouse the gift of loving them exactly how they are and to build a life together based on grace, acceptance, humility, and love.
How have these fantasies shown up in your marriage? What other fantasies have you found get in the way in your marriage?
Jana Spangler, IPC
Jana specializes in mentoring those who are going through faith transitions or wanting to work on spiritual journeys. After going through a difficult faith transition herself, she is dedicated to using the tools she has gained through her study to help others find fulfilling spirituality in their lives and relationships.