Navigating and Strengthening a Mixed Faith Marriage, 2018 SLC Sunstone Symposium

On Saturday, July 28th, I shared the inspiring opportunity to co-present with my friends, Jana Spangler, a Wellness Coach, and with Sara Hughes-Zabawa, a licensed clinical social worker and professional therapist.  They are both affiliated with Symmetry Solutions, LLC.

https://www.symmetrysols.com/jana-spangler
https://www.symmetrysols.com/sara-hughes-zabawa

If you are interested, you can listen to the full session here:

I’d like to share several of the slides from our presentation along with some personal observations.

Slide05

It seemed like a meaningful percentage of the conversations in which I found myself participating last week at the 2018 SLC Sunstone Symposium dealt with the tender questions and struggles we experience with spouses, family, and friends when someone experiences a change of beliefs.

These experiences can often be very painful for both the person who loses belief and for the persons who remain with orthodox beliefs and practices.

Slide06
However, the truth is that we are all in mixed faith relationships.  Even when we find ourselves married to someone of our same faith tradition, we don’t actually hold exactly all the same beliefs and interpretations as our spouses.  Each individual has their own, deeply personal spiritual journey.

In Mormonism and in many other faith traditions, there often exists this sense or narrative that we will all have the same experiences and reach the same conclusions if we follow a particular formula or religious orthodoxy.  This narrative often discourages Differentiation.  The idea is often reinforced that Differentiation is wrong, that it is a source of contention, and if our own personal Differentiation and experiences don’t follow the same formula that is prescribed to us, there must be something wrong with us.

If everyone around us easily and frequently has “spiritual experiences” and we don’t, the narrative is that something must be wrong with us.  Maybe the messages are that we are not humble enough, or worthy enough, or faithful enough, or that others who frequently and easily have these transcendent, inspiring experiences might be more chosen, choice, or favored by God than us.

Alternatively, we may be the one who develops strong, individualized spiritual experiences, faith, and interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, and messages; and we might find ourselves programmed with the narratives that others might be less than us, not as worthy as us, and that we need to help them try harder and be more faithful because others should always have the same experiences as we do if they follow the correct path or formula, and if they are humble, God will reveal to them the same truths as us.

In Mormonism especially, we don’t seem to do Differentiation very well.  We often get married very young–long before our pre-frontal cortex of our brain is fully developed.  We participate in congregations with volunteer clergy.  We are culturally expected to all pretty much bear the same kinds of testimonies, share the same kinds of answers in Sunday classes and in Family Home Evenings, and we all are expected to teach the same information out of the same Correlated Church session manuals and General Conference Talks.

Perhaps this cultural phenomenon, with these narratives, formulas, and programmed messages; a Differentiation of beliefs, faith, habits, etc., can grow to become even more painful and alienating in Mormonism than say for example in a faith tradition where the members aren’t expected to share the same testimonies or as volunteers, teach the same lessons and messages.

Example of Differentiation:

If our neighbor is a Jehovah’s Witness and holds the beliefs and faith that God would not want us to celebrate holidays or birthdays, that level of Differentiation is usually not painful to us to observe.  We might even perceive beauty in the devotion of our neighbor–even though their devotion doesn’t match our own personal faith and beliefs.

However, if as a Mormon, holidays and birthdays are extremely important, family bonding and social experiences, and one of our loved ones experiences a change of beliefs and becomes a faithful Jehovah’s Witness, we can experience a significant amount of family distress and pain if we then perceive that our loved one suddenly decides they love the Jehovah’s Witness practice of not honoring our birthdays or family traditions for the holidays anymore.  Not only might a faithful Mormon perceive that their spouse has chosen put our family’s eternal and divine progression in jeopardy by rejecting LDS Mormonism, but they might also appear to us to possibly love their new faith more than they love us, and we might perceive that they prioritize their new beliefs over our sacred and bonding family traditions and connections by celebrating birthdays and holidays.

Similar pain from Differentiation can result from a spouse deciding that Mormonism isn’t what it represents itself to be anymore.  They might decide to remove the symbols of their Temple covenants when those symbols (undergarments) result in too much cognitive dissonance and pain because they perceive the temple as a false betrayal or a representation of something completely different than their active believing spouse believes and experiences.  So, the one spouse who loses belief experiences pain and desires actions to reduce the dissonance and pain by ceasing to wear their temple undergarments.  The non-believing spouse may deeply need the still active believing spouse to prioritize their marriage over their temple sealing and what the temple now signifies to the non-believing spouse.  They need confidence in the love and emotional intimacy from the active believing spouse that they won’t be dropped and set aside due to their change in beliefs.  And, the still active believing spouse can perceive the removal of those symbols as rejecting their eternal marriage and the covenants they still perceive as being with both the believing spouse and with God.  The active believing spouse might experience fear that the change in beliefs or behaviors might result in the non-believing spouse eventually “removing” themselves from the marital relationship and be “tossed aside” just like the symbols of the temple sealing and covenants.

Slide07

Slide08

This Differentiation, when it reaches certain levels–which might vary depending upon the couple and depending on the context of when it happens with that couple–can be extremely painful.

For both spouses, there is often a sense of Fear, which can manifest in Anger or a loss of interpersonal intimacy and connection.  Will my spouse still love me?  Will my spouse abandon me because our beliefs and spiritual practices have Differentiated?

There can be a sense of Betrayal on both sides.

The spouse who loses belief often senses intense betrayal from the Church and its leaders.  There can be a sense of personal self-betrayal because the person feels like they silenced their inner voice that alerted them to problems in the Church in the past, or they silenced past internal dissonance about things in the Church that didn’t make sense to them, or maybe they applied critical thinking to all other areas of their lives, except for their faith tradition.  The sense of self-betrayal can be strong.

The spouse who retains active belief often senses intense betrayal from the spouse who loses belief because that spouse essentially, unilaterally “changed the contract”, changed the understanding, changed what were mutual goals, and leaves mutually shared spiritual and religious practices intimacy upon which the marriage was founded and was nourished.  Sometimes, it is really hard for the active believing spouse to accept that the spouse with lost beliefs didn’t choose their Faith Crisis.

(People don’t simply choose to experience a Faith Crisis.)

There can be Shame on both sides, and there is very often a deep Grieving process for both spouses–which often necessitates traversing and periodically revisiting the non-linear Stages of Grief.

Slide09

A Differentiation of faith and belief can often result in a personal Identity and mutual Relationship Crisis, with many difficult and tender questions to ask, ponder, and process.

Slide10

Often, when we find ourselves Grieving, and in particular when we traverse the Anger and Depression Stages of Grief (revisiting them from time to time because the process is not linear) we can have a tendency to deeply wound our spouses.

We want our spouse to be there for us when we are in pain and when we are grieving because they are “our person.”  However, sometimes the wounding that can occur can “burn ground” in our relationships and intimacy that can be subsequently really difficult to reclaim and to re-build trust and a sense of mutual emotional and spiritual safety.

So, we often need to cultivate and periodically renegotiate healthy Boundaries.

For example, early on in my Faith Crisis turned Transition, in one conversation my active believing wife shared with me something like:

“I know that you are hurting and in pain.  I know that you really need places to vent about and process this information about these topics.  However, that cannot be with me because we too often risk wounding each other with these conversations.  So, I need you to go find people, communities, and support elsewhere to be able to vent, express anger and betrayal, and to heal.  I need that when we are together, you can be fully with me and fully present with me.  I trust you and that this experience is really painful and sincerely difficult for you.  There is nothing more that I want for you than for you to have peace in your life, but I need this boundary for our relationship to be safe and healthy.”

That Boundary was not about controlling or manipulating me.  It was about creating a safe place for each other to express and be present with each other without wounding each other or introducing Anger or Depression regarding the weeds of the difficult topics of my Faith Crisis.  (No venting about the discovery that Lorenzo Snow as a 57 year old married as a plural wife, a 15 year old girl and had multiple children with her.)

My wife and I have subsequently renegotiated healthy boundaries as needed.  I have boundaries that I need her not to cross because I perceive those actions as harmful to our relationship and to our children, and she likewise has boundaries for me not to cross for her to feel confident and safe in our relationship.

Slide11

Often, the most mutually wounding conversations occur in emotionally charged situations, when one or both of us are in pain.  As a result, there is value in having specific times where the difficult, painful subjects are off-limits.  Maybe it is a date night, or a camping trip or something, where it is a “pain-free zone.”  Likewise, we need to set aside time to address difficult conversations when we are more likely to be able to address things in a non-emotionally charged, less stressful setting.

Slide12

It is important to understand that Validating someone’s experience is not the same as agreeing with or sustaining someone’s experience.

A person in pain or stress often, more than anything else, needs someone to mourn with and comfort them in their loss, without correcting or trying to fix them.

For example, when an active believing spouse expresses the pain and grief of the loss of their past ideal of an eternal marriage, senior missions, etc., a non-believing spouse can sincerely and with genuine interest, validate how painful that experience is for their active believing spouse, without needing to defend themselves, justify or explain the reasons why their beliefs have changed on these subjects.

Likewise, it is okay, and even vital for an active believing spouse to validate the pain and sense of betrayal from the perceived harms experienced by the Church or by Mormonism for the spouse who has lost belief.  This doesn’t mean the active believing spouse agrees with or holds the same conclusions.  It is just validation of experience.  The active believing spouse doesn’t need to defend the Church or Mormonism, or to try to minimize or explain away the sense of pain and betrayal sincerely experienced by the spouse who loses belief.

It is so incredibly important to spend time discussing the Commonalities that remain instead of focusing on the Differentiation and conflicts.  Usually, the majority of all the core foundational values a person had before a change of belief still stay the same–family, integrity, service, love, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

Slide13

Each spouse needs to spend time and increase their personal capacity for self-care and improvement.  There are many practices, habits, and resources the can help.

 

Slide14

One of the best pieces of advice that I received from Support Groups early on was to double and triple down on my expressions of attentive, unselfish, undemanded Emotional Intimacy in my active believing wife’s Primary Love Languages so that she could feel completely confident in my love for her–even as I was leaving orthodoxy.  My wife needed to be able to distinguish our marital relationship as being completely separate from our temple sealing as I lost belief and left orthodoxy.

5lovelanguages.com

It is not uncommon in Mormonism for members to conflate Temple Marriage and Temple Sealing to be the same, inseparable thing.  So, when one spouse loses belief, it can often feel like the non-believing spouse is not only leaving the Church, but leaving the Marriage too.

Slide15

When the Differentiation from a change of belief and faith occurs, the byproducts often include a loss of Spiritual and Religious Practice Intimacy in the marriage.

It is extremely important to attentively work together as spouses to nourish and re-kindle Spiritual Intimacy when a hole in the relationship develops due to a change of faith and belief of one of the spouses.

For my wife and I, we have increased our capacity for shared Spiritual Intimacy through service to others–essentially practicing the teachings attributed to Jesus in Matthew 25:34-40.

So, above you will see picture of a circa 1950s mobile home that is falling apart, with plumbing and insulation problems, etc., where a woman in her 60s lives with her 25 year old disabled daughter.  I used to be that family’s High Priest Group Leader–years ago.  Today, the husband is now in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s disease, and only the woman and her daughter live in the home.

So, outside of the bounds of the Church, my wife and I have created a fundraising effort to raise money to buy a replacement trailer home for this woman and her daughter.  We have raised more than $26,000.  It was a sacred, spiritual experience for my wife and I to share to develop this project and to offer it to this woman and her daughter.

It has given me opportunities to re-engage with my LDS friends in a healthy and meaningful way.  We have raised funds from both LDS and non-LDS members.  One of our key sources–the person who has found the replacement trailer home because it is his business–is not LDS.  We have engaged the woman’s Ward for physical labor and help with the move, staging the move, cleaning up the lot in preparation, etc.

My LDS friends view our project as “Ministering.”  My sense is that if we define “Ministering” as doing Matthew 25:34-40 things in both literal and in figurative senses, then I am all in–even as a non-member of the LDS Church.

Now, as a side note, a non-believer might refer to our shared “spiritual experiences” as the Elevation Emotion:

“Elevation is an emotion elicited by witnessing virtuous acts of remarkable moral goodness. It is experienced as a distinct feeling of warmth and expansion that is accompanied by appreciation and affection for the individual whose exceptional conduct is being observed. Elevation motivates those who experience it to open up to, affiliate with, and assist others. Elevation makes an individual feel lifted up and optimistic about humanity.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elevation_(emotion)

And, maybe that is all it is…Elevation Emotion is something that we experience by our evolutionary design as human beings because we evolved as tribes, families, and communities.  We needed these experiences that increased our dispositions for tolerance and charity to survive and evolve.

And, so what if it is just shared Evaluation Emotion?  I love the experience either way–whether it is God, or spiritual interconnectedness, or simply a dopamine release and chemical reactions related to the Elevation Emotion.

Regardless, I believe that we need to nourish these experiences in our relationships and our lives.

For some couples, they may experience shared spiritual intimacy in art, music, nature, liturgy, or with other activities.

Whatever those activities might be, I believe that we need to nourish and strengthen mixed faith marriages with healthy, shared spiritual intimacy.

Slide16

I personally love Brene Brown’s definition of Spirituality.

Slide17

When we find ourselves in Differentiation, sometimes we have a sense that we need to push our spouse to see things the way that we do.

However, the natural reaction to a “push” is a “push back.”

Instead, consider the imagery of offering someone your hand.  It gives the other person a choice as to whether to take your hand, or if they aren’t comfortable or in a place where they are ready to take your hand, they can exercise that choice.

In Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages book, he shares how a healthier model of communication is for us to express our needs and desires as “requests” rather than “demands,”

I can request, “I’d really like it if you would hold me tonight for a little while before we fall asleep” (if my Primary Love Language is Physical Touch).  This is quite different that a demand my spouse does something for me.

We can make requests and honor our spouse’s choice to respond, and we can trust that our spouse still loves us, even if he/she isn’t in a place to accept that request at the current time.

Slide18

Imagine that as a family, you are traveling uncharted waters in a canoe.  The spouse in the front of the canoe sees an alligator in the water, and she stands up in the boat and starts waiving her hands, yelling and screaming at the danger that is in the water.  Imagine that the spouse in the back of the canoe doesn’t see the alligator, but all he can see is that his wife is standing up at the front, screaming and waving, rocking the canoe, risking capsizing the canoe which could throw the entire family into the waters, risking drowning the entire family.  The natural reaction for the spouse in the back of the canoe is to not listen patently to his wife screaming and tipping the canoe back and forth, but instead to retrench and hunker down in the back of the canoe to try to stabilize it in order to protect the family.

With this allegory, imagine applying it to the wife encountering disturbing information or Church practices that she perceives places the entire family in harm’s way.  Whereas, the husband can’t even begin to see or listen to his wife’s concerns because he is concerned that she risks figuratively “drowning” the entire family with a loss of faith and belief.

To facilitate healthy conversations and relationships, the person in the front needs to be able to find ways to express him or herself without as many painful, emotionally charged and loaded words, without signifiant projection and accusations; and the person in the back needs to slow down a little bit and instead of retrenching, seek to understand the pain and concern of the spouse who is expressing a sense of pain, betrayal, or distress.

Slide19

These are some fantastic resources.

Slide20

Please feel free to contact any of us.

The Question and Answer portion of our Session included some very tender and painful conversations.  However, I feel like our shared conversations helped attendees feel validated and to gain ideas of how to nourish and strengthen their mixed faith relationships.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post 🙂

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