FAQ: "I no longer believe in Mormonism, but my spouse is still devout, and it is causing serious problems in our marriage.   What can I do?"

By RICHARD PACKHAM

          The following is a recent post on the Exmormon e-mail list and is typical of many e-mails that I receive:

I was born and raised in a Mormon family.   I went to church, went on a mission, and married in the temple.   I even graduated from BYU.   For some time, I had been struggling, mostly privately, with my faith.   Finally, about two years ago, I finally openly admitted that I [no longer believe]. ... My wife, still a firm Mormon, has tried to be supportive and understanding.   In turn I have tried to do the same for her.   [But recently] I stopped attending [church meetings].   I have never, however, prevented her continued participation in any way.

Regardless of this, it is becoming harder and harder for my wife to accept my situation.   I feel she is pulling further away from me each day.   She feels we no longer have anything of any real importance (read: spirituality) in common.   I fear someday, she may decide it is too much for her, and she will ask for a divorce.

I don't want that to happen, but I'm not sure what I can do about it.   Though she tries to hold out hope that I will one day return to the church, I do not currently believe this will ever happen.
          For some Mormon couples, one spouse's shared doubts bring out similar doubts in the other partner, and they eventually leave the church together.   For others, one partner's realization that the church is not true means the ultimate end of the marriage.   My own marriage ended in my being divorced by my devoutly Mormon wife when she realized I could never return to being a believer.

          I am not a trained counselor, but I can make some observations based on my own experience and what I have observed.   I have responded to most of such e-mail requests for advice along the following lines:

          Although it should be obvious, I think it needs to be said:   if the basis of the marriage is (was) the common religious belief, then the marriage will have difficulty surviving one spouse's change (or loss) of faith.   A marriage which was based more broadly is more likely to survive.   Unfortunately, a couple may believe that their marriage was broad-based, but the shock of a spouse's apostasy may show that, in fact, it was not.

          But even a marriage based more broadly will be in danger.   My marriage is an example.   My (ex-)wife and I, although we married young (I was 20, she was 18), were truly in love.   We had known each other and dated for over four years.   We had similar tastes in music and entertainment, similar views about finances, politics, children, in-laws, food, sex, - all those areas where differing views could cause trouble for a young couple.   We had a good marriage and a generally happy one.   And, although we were both good Mormons and from good Mormon families, and were regular church-goers, we were not fanatical about it.   For instance, we did not think the only acceptable reading was the scriptures or the church publications; we enjoyed non-Mormon friends; we had a relatively uninhibited sexual relationship.

          When I began to read and think about the problems of Mormonism, it was my honest intention to do so only to enable myself to defend it against my non-Mormon friends.   I did not share my research with my wife, perhaps not wanting to risk endangering her testimony.   I think I assumed that my own testimony was strong enough to be in no danger.   Nor did I tell her what I was doing, for fear that she would be unduly worried about the risks to MY testimony, or scold me for reading "anti-Mormon" material, even though it was for proper purposes.

          This was probably a mistake.   I should have told her what I was doing, and discussed it with her from the beginning.   Whether it would have ultimately made any difference, I can't know, but I think it would have made my apostasy less of a shock for her.

          So, my first piece of advice would be:   let the spouse know what you're doing, and why you're doing it.   To the extent the spouse values honesty and honest questioning, it will have to help.   Andrew Neilson, an exmormon in this situation commented, " Do not let the lines of communication go down.   When I talk to my wife about sticky topics that involve us, I have found it most effective to hold her close to me while talking.   It helps to keep things calm, and a loving embrace goes a long way to reassure someone."

          I also made the mistake of failing to reassure my wife that my loss of faith in Mormonism did not mean that I was going to become a fundamentally different person.   I was too quick to try a glass of wine, and that frightened her.   She perhaps felt that it was Mormonism that had made me into a good, hardworking, loyal, honest man.   Since I no longer had the gospel to tell me to be all those good things, she probably feared (as the church claims) that as an apostate I would become a whore-mongering, drunken, dishonest wastrel.   She did not express these fears in so many words, and I was not astute enough to read her mind.   But, looking back, I am convinced they loomed large in her mind.

          So, my second piece of advice would be:   do everything you possibly can to reassure your spouse that your change in beliefs does not affect your love, your basic goodness, your attitudes toward your fellow-man, or your attitudes toward your Mormon friends and family.   Whether it is possible to do so will depend on the individuals, of course.

          The Mormon spouse at this point will probably demand some external evidence of this, in the form of concessions, such as promises of:   1) church attendance; 2) tithing payment; 3) no discussion of religion with children; 4) strict Word of Wisdom observance; 5) wearing of garments; 6) maintaining a secrecy about the apostasy from extended family; etc.   The new apostate may be tempted to agree to more concessions, in order to appease the angry and fearful Saint, than is wise - more, even, than the apostate will be able with good conscience to keep over the long haul.   When the apostate later realizes that too much has been conceded, and tries to renegotiate, it will then only be further evidence to the Mormon spouse that the apostate cannot be trusted to keep promises, and is on the slippery slope to perdition.

          Sometimes the demands made by the Mormon spouse will be in the form of an ultimatum:   "I will leave you if you ..."   Ultimatums are a tool used by manipulators, and are accepted only by those willing to be manipulated.   Ultimatums have nothing to do with love, and cannot be the basis of a successful relationship of any kind.

          So, my third piece of advice is: be careful of writing any compromise agreement in stone, and do not promise more than you can deliver.   Here is where a neutral third party would probably be invaluable.   Be certain, however, that the third party is in fact neutral:   a marriage counselor at LDS Social Services, for example, might not be the ideal choice, or even an independent marriage counselor whom the couple know because he is a member of their ward. (See the comments by Ken Clark below for suggestions on getting the most benefit from professional counseling.)

          I suspect that many such compromises as a modus vivendi do not prevent the marriage from deteriorating as day-to-day living emphasizes the many subtle but larger-looming differences in the way the couple lives.   Both spouses probably feel cheated:   this is not what either one of them had looked forward to in marriage:   The Mormon looked forward to (and was promised!) a good, temple-going, celestial-kingdom-bound eternal mate; the exmormon looked forward to a mate who would be a companion in every sense of the word in this life, who would listen to concerns, who would sympathize, who would always be "on my side" against the rest of the world.   How could not the disappointment sour the attitudes of both?

          The irony is that the newly arisen differences in religion make these two people - who are supposed to be trusting partners - suspicious and fearful of each other at the very time in their lives when mutual love and trust are most needed.   The Mormon, of course, cannot help but feel that the apostate has violated that trust.   And somehow, the apostate must restore that trust if the marriage is to be saved.   But can trust really be restored, once it is lost?   I would guess that the feelings of the Mormon spouse are much like those of someone whose spouse has been found to be sexually unfaithful.

          So I think the bottom line is: with love and trust, a couple can maintain a good relationship after the apostasy of one.   But that very statement is perhaps tautological.

          If from the very beginning the doubting spouse shares the questioning and searching, and shares it in such a way that the non-doubting spouse does not feel threatened, many problems in the relationship can perhaps be avoided.   That is, if it can be a search, together, for the answers to troublesome questions that the one spouse "needs help" with, there will be more chance of marriage survival than if the doubter is trying to convert the other to conclusions that have already been reached.

          Sometimes a frank confession that one has doubts about the church can produce a pleasant surprise.   One Mormon, who had spent his lifetime as an LDS institute instructor, finally confessed to his Mormon wife that he was having serious doubts about the church.   She replied that she hadn't believed it for years, but had said nothing because she knew of the problems it would cause him.   They left the church together.

Another point of view, from a never-Mormon husband:

          Don't try to unconvert her, Plant seeds of thought, but support her in her belief as much as you want her to support you in your unbelief. ...Talk! talk, talk, talk. Remember why you are in love, and emphasize all you have had in common other than church. ... Don't be TOO eager to share your findings with your wife. Your unbelief is a major threat to her and is probably very scary to her. Eternal Families is a vicious club to beat people into line, especially women. That threat will keep her in line since ANY outcome (Mormon church not true, you leaving) breaks up her Eternal Family. Which women seem to really dig.
          It's a bitter irony, isn't it, that a church whose motto is "Families Are Forever" has broken up so many families...

          It surprises me that Mormon spouses are sometimes so quick to throw out the spouse who realizes that it is no longer possible to believe it.   And sometimes even with the advice of the bishop.

          But Paul said (I Cor 7:12ff; see also D&C 74:1-7):

... If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.
13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.
14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
15 But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart.   A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such [cases]: but God hath called us to peace.
16 For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save [thy] husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save [thy] wife?

          Several people in this situation have recommended the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman, ISBN 0752837265.   I have not read it, but I pass the recommendation on, for what it's worth.

          Another book recommended by several people is Too Good To Leave, Too Bad to Stay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help You Decide Whether to Stay In or Get Out of Your Relationship, by Mira Kirshenbaum, ISBN: 0718141776.   It is a step-by-step workbook to analyze your relationship and decide if it can be salvaged.

          A symposium by several couples who have been through this experience, with suggestions about how to avoid divorce, is reported in Sunstone Magazine, November 2006 issue, pp 21ff, online here.

          A short article "Making Marriage Work for Ex-Mormon/Mormon Couples" by Robert Baumgardner, M.A., MFT, is here (.PDF format).

          See also this discussion thread at the Recovery From Mormonism forum: "Staying Married: How I Made It Work With a Believing Husband".


Suggestions About Marriage Counseling

By Ken W. Clark
Former licensed counselor

(Ken is a former Mormon with a career in education, much of it in the Church Education System.   This originally appeared as a post on the Exmormon e-mail list.   Although addressed to a husband, similar suggestions would apply to a wife.   Used here by permission)

          Be patient and don't expect miracles unless you are going to perform them yourself.   It takes time to unravel difficult issues accompanied by a lot of emotion--like tangled fishing line.

          I used to do a lot of that kind of therapy and I wanted to give you a few thoughts, which may be worth what you're paying for them (nothing).   Hopefully a good counselor will help you understand the following:

          1. It isn't the "issues" you argue about that are the biggest problem in your marriage.   It's your "approach" to managing or resolving those issues that cause problems.   One couple argues about something as silly as the toothpaste tube and it can cause a gigantic fight.   Another couple faces the same issue and it dissolves into nothing because they have a way to manage it using humor or some other method.   Most couples fight about similar things, but some manage those conflicts better than others.   Learning how to manage conflicts over money, sex, in-laws, religion, social life, etc. are pretty common skills, basic to most relationships.   Some manage them well; while others struggle.   Some choose tools such as name-calling, sarcasm and impatience; others choose healthier tools such as understanding, empathy and patience.

          2. Don't worry as much about trying to reach "agreement" on the issues.   Seek instead to reach true "understanding" of the other's point of view.   Our partners deserve as much respect for their views as you expect for yours.   Many couples disagree on a whole host of issues, and always will; but they don't waste energy disrespecting the other because they differ.   Instead they find themselves laughing at how often they see things completely opposite.   Being different can be a strength; it means that you complement each other very well--their strengths make up for your weaknesses and visa versa.

          3. Avoid taking a morally superior position, assuming that your spouse is really dumb because she's still in the church and you are the one who sees things as they really are.   My wife wanted us to exit Mormonism a lot earlier than I did.   But she loved me enough to let me work through my issues in my own way and in my own good time.   She's a saint!!   I owe her everything for her patience and understanding.   She separated from activity in the church much earlier than me but I didn't pretend that she was less worthy than me because of that.   There was mutual respect instead of fighting.   She didn't treat me like an idiot because I was a little slower at making my move out of the FIRM.   I worked for them.   She understood that it would be much scarier for me.   It may be scary for your wife when you criticize her or the church.   It takes a lot of patience and understanding on your part, but it means a lot to the one receiving it.   I know.

          4. Love will be something you demonstrate through extra effort to please your spouse, not some feeling that you get when you think about them.   Love is a verb.   Do more.   Sort the laundry, do the laundry, fold your clothes, iron your clothes, cook, clean the house without being asked; help--in a way that pleases your spouse.   Make it a habit you'll continue the rest of your life.   The workload is usually disproportionate for women, especially if they work outside the home.   Statistics indicate that women who work outside the home, also continue to carry the greater burden of domestic duties, without a lot of support from male spouses.   (I know, I know, there are some excellent male spouses who do great in this area.   Statistics however are measures of central tendency that show averages and not the cases that seem to be at odds with the average.)

          5. Don't attempt to make the church look stupid in your sessions with the counselor.   Just be open and honest at avoid a lot of "attitude" when referring to the church.   It makes the therapistís job more difficult if you're a smart Alec.   You can express sincere disagreement without being a sarcastic smartass.   Be sincere and it helps the therapist sort through the real issues.   It will become apparent to a heads-up mental health professional that there are some requirements in Mormonism that are not all that healthy -- most of it stemming from the idea that "when the prophet speaks the thinking has been done;" and "the prophet will never lead the church astray."

          6. Be ready to learn that some of your own approaches to marital conflict may need to change.   You may have to discard of a few bad habits and become a much better listener, and work at becoming a much more empathic and understanding person.

          7. Hopefully you will be asked to look at "you" instead of fixing your spouse, so you can straighten her out.   She will be asked to work on herself, and it will interfere if you keep telling her what you think she should fix, instead of focusing on the junk in your own backyard.   Worry about what you can change about yourself to be a better spouse; let her worry about what she needs to work on.

          8. Dr. John Gottman (University of Washington) would tell you that some of the real danger signals you should watch out for are (when you get accustomed in looking for flaws in yourself to work on instead of your spouse):  

(1) Criticism.   Itís not healthy.   It targets the other person as the problem instead of the issue youíre trying to resolve;
(2) Contempt.   Itís a huge danger signal because it means youíre assuming that youíre morally superior no matter what the conflict is about;
(3) Refusal to accept responsibility by deflecting all criticism back at your spouse; and
(4) Stonewalling--shutting down completely and refusing to take an active and constructive role in resolving conflict; walking away and refusing to help resolve issues because you feel trapped, defeated, disgusted, etc.

          These are a few tips that make marriage counseling sessions more productive.


For a place to discuss problems arising from being married to a believing Mormon, you can go here (anonymously, if you wish):

Mormon Spouse - Discussion Board


Comments?   Questions?  (Please, no preaching, testimonies, or hate mail!)   To send a comment or ask a question, click here.

©  2005 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included

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