This post is part of the series Supporting Your Marriage When Your Spouse Changes or Loses Their Faith
I met Jessica in a meeting of a group I’m in called Interfaitful Moms of Iowa City** Jessica ALWAYS has the best comments. One week we were discussing the TED talk “The Danger of the Single Story” and Jessica told us about how her husband stopped going to church with her many years ago. She said she realizes many people could look at her and pity her situation. Then she said, “I reject the idea that my story is something to be pitied!”
I loved that. Jessica is strong, humble and wise. Jessica’s post is divided into two parts. Part one (this one) is her story and part two will be her advice.
**note: This group is AWESOME! It includes women of all different religions (although Jessica and I are both Mormons- we belong to different congregations so we didn’t know each other). We meet twice a month and discuss all sorts of interesting topics- you should start one in your town!
Talking to each other was the start of our relationship. To this day, the activity we most enjoy doing together is talking. I think the reason we were supposed to be apart for three months of our engagement was to solidify our ability to talk about anything and everything, to work through problems that cropped up. To learn to stop and take a breather when things got tense and return to the conversation later after we’d had time to think about what was actually important to us and how to help the other understand how we felt about it. It was also a time for me to learn that my husband would support me in doing what I thought was right. I don’t think he thought it was essential I go home that summer, but he knew I felt strongly about it, he didn’t have conflicting feelings that were as strong, and so he supported me in my decision.
Fast forward a few years and a few apartments, we’d both graduated with our Bachelor’s degrees and were still at BYU while my husband worked on his Master’s. I was a stay-at-home mom of our two kids, doing some babysitting on the side. Besides work and school for my husband, we were both busy with our church callings – my husband in the bishopric and I was in the Stake Relief Society presidency. My daughter used to play pretend by putting on some dress shoes, packing some stuff in a bag, and “go to a meeting.”
During that same time, my parents announced their separation and impending divorce just a few months later. That rocked my world much more than my husband not coming to church did. I could excuse that as a side effect of depression, but I would never have believed that my very Mormon, very strict, black and white parents would get a divorce. That just didn’t happen to my family. I felt as if I lost both my parents. I’d never been close to my dad, communicating with him mostly through my mom, and my mom had to go to work. I had always called her during the day when both of us were at home, busy with house and kids, and now she wasn’t available anymore. I was angry at my dad and hurt that he had chosen, as I saw it, to break up our eternal family. As I dealt with that heartbreak and loss, I slowly began to expand my ideas on family and eternal marriage and what it involved.
The healing from my parents’ divorce has been a years long process, but one thing that helped me along the way was having to prepare a talk for church on “The Proclamation on the Family.” I remember feeling dismayed when I was assigned that topic. The last thing I wanted to talk about was what an ideal family should look like. As I worked on the talk, I came away with the feeling to “prepare for the ideal and let the Lord take care of the rest.” That’s been my motto ever since. It’s helped me to set aside so many of the worries and “shoulds”, “what if’s” and “if only’s” in my marriage. I can only control myself, my actions and my relationship with God; everything else just needs to be turned over to Him and He promises us it will work out. I don’t mean to make it sound like a magic wand for those still in the trenches of a faith transition. It’s taken years to have confidence in that promise.
By the time we’d been married 8 years, my husband hadn’t been coming to church at all for at least a year. At first it was very hard, partly because of the logistics of attending church by myself with my young children. I remember one Sunday in particular. I was very pregnant with baby #4. Child #3 was an active 2 1⁄2 year old. That day, he sidled out of the pew and took off down the aisle out into the hallway and then ran out of the building as I waddled after him. I left church in tears that day thinking that it was just too hard; I couldn’t do it by myself. As I thought about what that would mean, I realized I couldn’t make that choice for my kids. I knew that the chance of them choosing to become Mormon if they weren’t raised in that faith was slim. I didn’t want to be the one taking that choice away from them.
Over time, I learned to manage. I tried to do a little bit here and a little bit there in terms of gospel teaching at home, but mostly felt as if I had an easy excuse not to worry about it. The kids were little, I had an inactive husband, I was doing my best. I felt like I didn’t quite belong, but I also patted myself on the back for being so strong as to come by myself. Life felt normal enough that I was surprised when a woman at church asked me how I was doing because she’d just realized that my husband didn’t come to church anymore. I told her I was fine and she exclaimed, “No you’re not!” I went home feeling defensive and kind of flabbergasted by that reaction. Who was she to say how I felt? And why wouldn’t I be fine? My husband wasn’t coming to church, yes, but we had a really great marriage, he was a good dad, we loved each other. I’d seen from my parents’ marriage that I was much better off in a happy marriage with a supportive spouse than in an unhappy, but “typical”, Mormon marriage. I also remembered the time I spent helping my husband’s cousin who’d been paralyzed in a car accident from the chest down. When she returned to college, I spent a semester helping her once or twice a week with her nighttime preparations. I asked her, “How do you manage it? How do you deal with becoming totally reliant on the help of others?” She said, “Well, how do you manage being married and having a child? You just do it, because that’s what life is.” That stuck with me; such a practical way of looking at life. We all have tough situations; you deal with it and go forward.
At the same time, I was called to be Primary president of our new ward. That calling was the most stressful blessing I’ve ever had, but suddenly I was too busy on a Sunday to worry about whether or not my husband was at church with me. I didn’t need to worry about my place in the ward. I was “Sister Brown, the Primary President” not “Sister Brown, the woman with the inactive husband”. In Primary, I was also weekly teaching and bearing testimony to children, including my own, about the importance of reading scriptures, praying, having family home evening, and developing a testimony of Christ. I realized that if the gospel was going to be in my home, I was going to have to be the one to do it. I also discovered that if you don’t marginalize yourself, then others won’t marginalize you. If you choose to be a central part of your congregation, people won’t see you as a person on the outside.
To give you a sense of the things I’ve learned in my journey to find peace, I want to share some excerpts from a talk I gave in church a few years ago. The assigned topic was “A Gospel-centered Home”.
“Through the process of trying to take ownership of the gospel teaching in my home, I’ve had a lot of successes and failures. I’ve had to learn not to compare myself to others; partly because of our non- traditional Mormon family, but also because my personality and my children’s personalities are different from other families. There is no one right way or magic formula for having a gospel-centered home. You can look around at other people for ideas and inspiration, but you have to decide for yourself what’s right for you and your situation. Decide what the standard is in your home and don’t worry about what anyone else is or is not doing.
Let your family members and people around you see your faults. It’s okay for your children to see your process of finding ways to bring the gospel into your home… It’s amazing how freeing it is to have the ability to not be perfect in front of others. Showing others that living the gospel is a process that doesn’t require perfection can allow them to try to improve as well, without the fear of failure. But the most important aspect of being freed from the fear of failure is letting people know that they will not be judged for their differences. It is easier to measure ourselves against other people and either feel as if we’ll never measure up and therefore we don’t need to try, or that we’re so much better than everyone around us we don’t need to improve. It’s much harder to decide what you need to work on in your own home with yourself and your family and not worry about what anyone else is doing.
As the years have passed and my faith has grown, going to church has become easy. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in church and realized that I wasn’t at church for my kids anymore, I was there for me. I don’t know exactly when that transition happened; it was a quiet growth as I served at church and grew in my belief and trust in God. We’ve seen faith transitions in other couples that have ended in divorce, which is always a sad thing. Our marriage is working for us; maybe because we’re lucky, maybe because our motto is, “The secret to a happy marriage is low expectations,” but that’s a discussion for another day! We still look like a pretty typical Mormon family; the only difference is that my husband doesn’t come with us to church.