This post is part of the series Supporting Your Marriage When Your Spouse Changes or Loses Their Faith
I introduced Jessica in Part One of this piece here. Jessica tells the story of her and her husband in Part One and gives her advice to other couples who may be going through the same thing below in Part Two.
If you are the one making the transition, go as slowly as you can, while remaining true to yourself. The “rip the band-aid off and get it over with” approach can be very jarring for your spouse. My husband’s transition away from our shared Mormon (LDS) faith took place over many years. That slow transition made things much easier for us to navigate this change. In the Mormon faith, there are a lot of cultural markers tied into the doctrine of the religion. Giving up those markers is often painful for the believing spouse because it’s visible evidence of the changes in thought and belief. Some of the slow transition in my husband’s faith happened naturally, but he was also kind enough to deliberately make some of those changes slowly and carefully so that I had time to adjust to the new norm. In return, when he told me that certain rules didn’t make sense for him to abide by, based on his unbelief, then I tried to gracefully accept that, in spite of any sadness I felt at another visible step away from our shared beliefs.
Be willing to support your spouse in pursuing the things that are important to them. You will undoubtedly need to have some conversations about the differing commitments that you may now have. You’ll have to figure out how to balance your time together and apart, but you don’t need to feel as if your family is threatened just because your spouse chooses to spend their time in a way that you don’t feel is valuable. My husband looks at my church involvement as equivalent to active membership in a community service club, like being in the PTA or Rotary Club. My husband may not value my church service, but he doesn’t feel that it threatens our family, just as I don’t feel threatened when he plays racquetball three times a week. If it’s something that helps your spouse to grow as an individual, why push back on it just because you don’t believe in it? In addition, don’t be a martyr for your faith. Acknowledge that it’s your choice to remain true to your beliefs, regardless of your spouse’s choices. No one is forcing you to do this alone, it’s just a side effect of you choosing to stay with your beliefs in spite of your spouse’s change.
Your relationship with God is your own; it’s not tied to the faith of a spouse. A Christian marriage is often diagrammed as a triangle with God at the apex and husband and wife at opposite corners. The leg of the triangle connecting my husband to God may no longer be there, but my connection isn’t severed (and, I don’t mention it to him, but I still perceive my husband as connected to God through me). Sure, it’s nice to be together at church with your spouse and have someone else to help teach your children the doctrines that are important to you, but your salvation is not at stake because of your spouse’s unbelief. According to general Mormon belief, my eternal marriage with my husband is broken because of his unbelief. That belief is often the cause for much of the angst for the believing spouse. I’ve chosen to have faith that heaven will be a place where I am happy, no matter how it turns out with my spouse. Why fret and worry over the “what ifs” when the only thing I have control over is my progression as an individual and my relationship with God? I’d rather spend my time working on improving that than on bemoaning my husband’s choices. Personally, I believe that the Atonement of Christ can work miracles, either in this life or the next, and it’s possible that my husband will change at some point. If not, and I live up to my own covenants, I am promised happiness, whatever the form it may take.
Change might be uncomfortable, but the growth that results can be pretty good. Because my husband knew it was important to me, he has supported me in raising our children as Mormons. I make every effort to explain the “why” to our kids, talking about the principles behind the standards/rules of our religion. Together, we frame our family expectations not only in church terms, but also in a “this helps us to be better people” way. I can’t just stop at “because we’re supposed to” when teaching my children about how we live our religion. This means I have to be solid in my own reasons for living the way I do. My children know I have a firm belief in the truths of our religion; they know I’m not at church just because “that’s what our family does.” I’m hoping that this also means my kids will have a better foundation for following their faith when they leave home. At the very least, they will be good people no matter their path and they know that I won’t cast them out because they chose differently. If they leave the Mormon faith, there’s less chance of them throwing all our teachings aside because our family’s standards are not tied solely to religion. I am much more accepting of others than I was at the beginning of this journey. I am more confident in my faith and in myself.
To deal with the nuts and bolts of our differing beliefs, we talk a lot and compromise a lot. When my husband wanted to stop paying tithing, we agreed that I would continue to pay tithing on half of his income because we’re equal partners in our home even though I’m a SAHM. I consider myself a full- tithe payer because I pay a full tithe on “my” earnings. I want to put restrictions on the type of media my children are exposed to. Although my husband’s definition of inappropriate probably wouldn’t be as strict as mine, he agrees with me and so he watches the movies and TV shows I don’t approve of while we’re at church. Yes, I know that’s pretty ironic, but I appreciate that he’s respectful of our standards and it’s a time he can be sure we won’t be around to be bothered by it. When our family sits down for dinner, my husband decided that he wasn’t going to wait for a blessing on the food before eating because he didn’t think prayers were necessary. When I pointed out that it looks rude for him to start eating before everyone is all ready, then he was okay with waiting until after the prayer to start eating with everyone else.
My husband, who now self-describes as an atheist, hasn’t been to church for over 10 years other than Mother’s Day or when our kids have a special event at church. We may not be in the same place faith- wise anymore, but we agree that a good marriage is worth fighting for. Life is not perfect, but we’re happy, and that makes all the difference.