I recently read an incredible blog post titled Deciding to love: making it through your spouses faith transition. I found the author’s words refreshing and constructive. Contrary to many other posts I have read by other authors, this author was not condescending towards those who have gone through a faith transition. I found her advice constructive and poignant.
In this post, I’d like to write a similar set of advice for the one whose spouse has chosen to remain firm in their faith. Often, I have found myself so myopically focused on my transition and the difficulties I have, that I don’t always think about how difficult it is for my wife. I don’t know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet this is a common problem where one spouse leaves the church and the other stays.
This is certainly not a comprehensive list, nor is it a road map for a successful marriage. I don’t think you can do any such thing in a single blog post. Each marriage is unique and incredibly complicated. What works for one marriage may not work for another. Nor do I want to imply that I have this all figured out, or that I am successful in following this advice. Rather, these are things I have found helpful, or things I have seen help others that I would like to emulate. Hopefully, as I write this post, I will better understand what I need to do to strengthen my marriage in the midst of the difficulties that accompany a faith transition of one spouse.
I’ll start with the four points the author shared, then add some of my own.
1. Make a decision about whether you still want to be married.
Really, where else should you start? If you’re going to put in the work to preserve and strengthen your marriage, you’d better decide you really want it. This is a scary thing to think about. With it can come the questions of whether you made the right decision to get married in the first place? Or, why did you choose to love your spouse and do you still love those things about them? If you have children, how would a change in that marital relationship affect them? If you do want things to change, what do you want them to change to? If you still want to be married, does that marriage still look the same or are there significant differences you’ll need to work out? Can you handle the thought that your spouse may still judge you for your changing belief? Can you resist the urge to judge your spouse for continuing to believe? How do we have conversations about faith without insulting the other if our views are so different? How do you feel like you’ve been heard, and how do you help your spouse to feel like s/he has been heard? There are a million more questions to wade through and it is difficult to work through these questions if you aren’t sure you want the end result.
The decision you arrive at is your own decision, and one only you can make. Others will judge that decision, but it isn’t their life to live. Only you can decide what is best for your life and what will make you happiest.
2. Recognize that it’s going to be hard, and that’s okay.
This is probably not very surprising. Think about how hard your faith crisis/transition has been. Now, realize that it is equally difficult for your spouse. Just as you realized many things you believed are not what they seem, your change in beliefs makes you appear to not be what you seemed to be. Perhaps it really does change you to a completely different person. For me, there are some changes but the core of who I am is the same. In either case, there are differences that your spouse is going to have a hard time dealing with. Sometimes, you’ll just have to say this is hard and it sucks, but we are more important than this (whatever issue “this” is).
3. Find new things to have in common.
If you’re like my wife and me, the church, religion, and God were all core to the foundation of your marriage. I never would have started dating my wife if she wasn’t LDS, nor would I have married her. It isn’t that not being LDS would have made her inferior in any way, I was just so focused on getting married in the temple and I wasn’t going to jeopardize that by risking falling in love with someone who couldn’t go there. I also wanted someone whose beliefs matched mine. (Ummm, wow! I’m now what I didn’t want…)
So, how do we recover from losing that part of our foundation? Just like a house, you have to add supports to where things have been weakened and rebuild the damaged part of the foundation. Find things you can do together that you both enjoy. Start dating each other again. Find out what they like to do. Ok, you’ve been married for years, you already know what they like, right? Wrong. Sure you know some things, but I bet there are things you don’t know. Do some activities your spouse enjoys that you don’t particularly enjoy. Admit it, you did this while you were dating. Take them to do something you enjoy even if they aren’t wild about it. The important part is to spend time together and understand why they enjoy something, and for them to understand why you enjoy whatever it is you enjoy. Try something neither of you have ever tried before – you might find something you both enjoy.
4. Own your story.
One of the things we discovered during my faith transition is that people are curious (perhaps nosy is more correct). Friends, family, ward members have all asked my wife about me. They are afraid to talk directly to me. She has had to be a middleman (middlewoman?) and it is exhausting. We discussed this and decided the best response she could give to any question is, “Ask him”. She often has to repeat this several times before they get the hint, but it helps relieve some of the burden of constantly telling my story.
Another aspect of this is it isn’t her responsibility to save me. She can’t make any decision for me with regards to what I believe or if I’ll go back to church (in spite of comments made to her – “be strong. If he comes back, it will be because of you”). Nobody needs that pressure or responsibility. Let your spouse know you don’t expect her/him to have the answers. You respect her/his opinions and views, but your faith is your own responsibility. Own it.
My own additional advice
1. Figure out how to do church related things
Notice I said “figure out”? That’s because I haven’t figured out how to do this, yet. I still have raw emotions with regards to the church. For example, a few weeks ago, there was a celebration dinner for a friend who graduated college that was held at the church. It surprised me, but I had strong anxiety about just walking in the doors of the church building. I knew it was a bunch of friends, there wasn’t going to be any gospel discussions, and nobody was judging me. The anxiety wasn’t rational, but it was there nonetheless. So, like I said, figure it out. (If you have any ideas, share them in the comments section!) The church is still a big part of your spouse’s life and not being able to share that with you is difficult and affects their ability to feel intimately connected to you.
2. Learn how to listen
I’m a listener. I can sit silently for hours while my wife talks, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that. However, I’m also an engineer and spend all day fixing things. It is hard for me to listen without trying to figure out ways to fix whatever is wrong. Many times I just need to listen and validate what my wife is thinking, and trying to fix it will just cause more problems. I’m still working on this one…
3. Marriage Counseling
Find a good therapist who will help you and your spouse learn to communicate better. It can be difficult to find a good therapist, and one that meshes with you and your spouse’s personalities, but when you find a good one it can make a big difference.
So, what advice do you have? Am I way off base with anything I’ve said? Let me know in the comments section.