When a Spouse Loses the Faith

One of Robert Kirby’s greatest newspaper articles tells the story of his friend Boone. Boone it seems, lost his faith–if only temporarily. At the very least, Boone was having some very serious doubts about the Church. His wife was, naturally, deeply troubled. She was so troubled in fact, that she was threatening divorce.

Mormonism complicates marriage because of our moral absolutes. For example, Glen Lambert, a marriage therapist, mentioned during a session of Sunstone that he’d met with a couple who was struggling. The husband had seen an R rated movie, and his wife was thoroughly appalled. He points out that because she was dealing and viewing the world with moral absolutes, there was no room for the compromise or negotiation that is so essential to marriage. What he had done was wrong, period. There could be no discussion, there could be no understanding — at least, no understanding beyond he had sinned.

How might couples navigate this tricky road, especially when faced with the loss of faith? If there’s one “moral absolute” in Mormonism, it’s that the Church is God’s kingdom and being a part of it is a pretty important step to the Celestial kingdom.

For my part, I see both sides of this issue. For the one who loses faith, or questions, it’s an impossible situation. As Kirby mentions, you can lie to your spouse or be honest with yourself. Believe me, as one who’s been there, no one wants to question their faith. It isn’t fun and it isn’t done deliberately, or to be an apostate. On top of such a difficult dilemma, the one person who is supposed to be supportive, is supposed to understand, is perhaps the one most troubled by this lack of faith.

On the other side of the coin, the believing spouse is thoroughly convinced that their husband/wife is jeopardizing their families eternal togetherness. They married this person in the temple, made very serious promises and covenants with them, and now they’re backing out. Friends might not know how to act around you if your spouse left the Church. Your spouse might start drinking alcohol; they might stop wearing garments. Soon enough, the person you’re living with doesn’t resemble the person you married.

Is divorce too extreme in such a scenario? Should spouses be understanding of another’s doubts and perhaps even a total loss of faith? Is there anyway to compromise or negotiate what seems like opposite ends of the spectrum?

Comments

  1. D. Fletcher says:

    “When single, there are fewer complications. “

    The idea that my choices are less complicated and involved than others who are married… is central to the reason that I have left the Church. The Church isn’t for me. It is for married people (in the middle class, presumably) who are raising children. All others…better watch out.

    A Bishop once told me that I have been “married” to the Church, in the sense of respecting the vows I took in the Endowment. If this is true, then my divorce has been as messy and painful as any real marital breakup.

  2. (just click on the words “this link” in the prior comment…)

  3. Aaron — I gave you instructions on how to do it yourself. See this link.

  4. Ann: I agree with you. I have no quarrel with this distinction. I simply one to point out that theologically matters are not nearly as neat as Dave suggests.

  5. BCC is all about tangents, D. I’m glad to have a good discussion, no matter what the title of the thread. I’m sure some BCC’er will put up a new post if they find this new line of discussion distracting.

  6. D. Fletcher says:

    By the way, my Bishop said he would send the Home Teachers.

    Guess who my Home Teacher is?

    Steve Evans

    Oh, I’m really screwed.

    :)

  7. D. Fletcher says:

    Christina, and everyone,

    Long, long ago, I recognized that I wanted to remain at Church, though highly doubtful of many of the central emphases being taught (particularly pertaining to Joseph Smith’s additions, The Book of Mormon, etc.). As I have said, I feel a very deep, very profound connection there, both to the Saints, and to the Savior and his principles. I have said to many questioners over the years, “these are my people. Why would I turn my back on my people? If I’m to be Christian, I might as well stay at the LDS Church with my people, despite some misgivings, and some social problems unique to me.”

    Part of the maturing of a Christian life includes the giving of service. Parents naturally give service to children who can’t fend for themselves, and this leads the parents into maturity (and the children). But what about someone who isn’t parenting? How can I find that same quality of profound adulthood?

    I determined that my lack of social graces, coupled with doubts about the truthfulness of many doctrines, made me ill-equipped to do many of the normal callings providing service, like teaching Priesthood or Sunday School. Since I’m not married, I would never be asked to be a counselor, or heaven forbid, Scoutmaster.

    But music! I could do it. I could lead the choir, and play the piano and organ, and write new songs as prayers and testimonies. I enjoy the hymns very much (well, most of them) and I could give to them energy and freshness — the very essence of my innermost soul. This is what I have tried to do for 25 years.

    Music is the only gift I have for the Savior and for the community of my Ward and Stake. I think it’s a worthy-enough gift, but this week the Stake rejected my gift of music.

    This is probably the wrong place for this, but I am using these forums as religious therapy, so I may as well go all the way.

    I was asked to be the organist for this Jubilee concert and fireside, which will take place at Radio City Music Hall on June 12, the night before the temple dedication. President Hinckley will preside. I was asked to be the organist partly because it’s a good choice, and partly because I’m in Local 802, the musician’s union here in NY. I was asked to do it by Claudia Bushman, who is in charge of the event (which is for teenagers).

    Last week, the counselor in the Stake Presidency called me to say that I couldn’t be the organist in this event at all, because I do not have (or seek) a Temple Recommend. This rejection of my free gift of service nearly cut me in two. I calmly agreed, and then wrote an email to my leaders, quietly stating that I would not attend again.

    I’m quite certain if I had a therapist, they would tell me, FORBID me, to go to this Church ever again, though my viewpoint has softened since last Monday. I am taking a break, and then we’ll reconsider in the fall.

    Sorry to have gotten this thread off on the tangent — perhaps Steve can start another blog about this.

  8. D,

    Why did you email your leaders? Why didn’t you just tell the counsellor while you were talking to him?

  9. Mardelll says:

    D,
    Your organ playing never goes unnoticed, Kaimi and I use to talk about the hymns during sacrament meeting. That is the one thing that I really miss since moving to the Bronx. Kaimi’s organ playing is not really that great.
    Now in our ward in the Bronx your playing would go unnoticed they think Kaimi is a great organist.

  10. D. Fletcher, I have some thoughts on being middle-aged, childless and never married in the Church. (In addition, I have a fourth burden to carry, I’m female). I’ve decided that through my activity, I am helping to build a stronger ward, stake and church organization, which, in turn, will help the gathering of Israel. I know it’s a macro approach and isn’t really motivating on Sunday mornings at 8 a.m., but it’s helped me find a purpose in traditional Church activity.

    I too have taken a sabbatical from Church attendance and stayed in touch through the correspondence course (Ensign, Church News). But now I’m determined to teach all the young, barely married law school students how to accept and include diversity in the Ward organization.

    I will miss your organ accompaniments. They were the most religious experiences of my church attendance.

  11. D.,
    I’m not in a position to say “I understand” – I am a woman who happened to marry in the timeframe I wanted and while I have my doubts, I am an active member of the church. But my dear husband had a horrific first marriage, from which he exited after about 8 months, and he had several rocky years trying to understand how he could fit into the marriage-centric church. (did I just “out” Manahi?). So, perhaps I have some context for saying I believe there exist real problems with the way the church is organized socially, and these unnecessarily alienate so many people.

    On the other hand, there are ways in which I feel totally excluded in the church (not to compare to you, as I don’t know what your concerns are), and part of the answer in my life is that I think this church belongs as much to me as to others, even when the church presents itself/is presented as if it doesn’t, and i’m not ready to give up trying to make the church picture include people like me. It’s almost an angry stance within the church, resistant to the external social patterning.

  12. Kristine says:

    D.–I have an idea. Let’s you and me start our own church: Bach cantata every week for prelude, then some hymns, a prayer, a piece or two each for every century after, say, the 16th, and then finish up with something Romantic or neo-R.–Faure the first Sunday of the month, Durufle the second (I guess we’d need to exhume him and get him to compose a few more things!), Brahms the third Sunday, and fourth and fifth Sundays for new stuff and minor figures.

    Whaddya think?

  13. Dave wrote: “Granted, some Mormons lose faith in the Church. But the Church is just an earthly institution. To direct faith at object or an institution rather than God is a form of idolatry. So, properly speaking, no one should have faith in the Church or in its leaders, only in God.”

    With all due respect, I think that there are any number of things wrong with this statement.

    1. Clearly we place faith in the sense of trust, belief, love, etc. in lots of things other than God. Furthermore, I don’t think that idolatry consists in putting faith in something other than God. Strictly speaking, it is used in the OT (where most of the discussion of the term occurs) to refer to the worship of other Gods.

    2. For most Mormons the Church is more than simply an earthly institution and that belief does not reflect some sort of niave mistake on their part. Once you have concepts like priesthood authority, the restoration of the Kingdom of God, prophetic authority, and divine direction, I don’t think you can argue with a straight face anymore that the Church is “just an earthly institution.” Now obviously, one can reject these doctrines out of hand. But doing so requires the rejection of what have historically been non-trivial Mormon teachings. Equally obvious, one can acknowledge that while the Church is not JUST an earthly institution, it clearly IS an earthly institution. Understanding the place of the divine in a fallible institution filled with fallible people is a challenge. Suggesting, however, that the entire problem is simply some idolatrous category mistake, however, doesn’t strike me as especially helpful.

  14. Divorce is among the weightiest and most personal of issues. I have not personally experienced divorce but my parents were separated for a couple of years (when I was a high-schooler) and observing them through this process and experiencing it as a son was an unusual process. I’m glad that they were able to put it all back together (though I opposed the reconciliation when it first started). But I know sometimes others simply have to go through the entire process and make it final.

    A “divorce from the church” is a pretty weighty decision as well. I would think that it would have similar emotional/mental/spiritual ramifications as the voluntary decision to end a marriage.

    This post and its comments are dealing with some really meaty issues is all I have to say.

  15. Hey Mr. D,

    We recently got the spiel about how we have to strictly go to the ward that is our geographic boundaries. However, we really badly need a ward organist — and I’m guessing we could get the stake to make an exception. :) But I’m getting the impression you’re not in our area. Sigh.

    Trust me D. … church members needs your services AND the perspective you’ve gained from having your feelings hurt. You will have a sensitivity and depth of experience that can be used to teach others a lot. I hope you won’t stay away too long.

  16. D. Fletcher says:

    I doubt I could get the decision “reversed.” I have already spoken at length to Dave Checketts, who’s practically royalty — he got the Radio City Music Hall for the Church.

    But then, I wouldn’t want the decision reversed, for a couple of reasons. The girl who has been asked to do the organ in my place is a convert on unsteady ground with the Church, and she could easily be hurt as much as I was. Had they originally asked her to do it, I would have been pleased for her opportunity.

    The second reason is that this debacle has given me a new sense of self-awareness and purpose. I have been hugely wishy-washy in my belief and motivation. This event has triggered self-analysis, and perhaps even a new level of faith. I believe in Jesus Christ, and the power of this belief is energizing. I’m happy to report this testimony here on this blog, and anywhere that will receive it.

    The decision was wrong for many reasons, but the main one is that the Church should welcome sinners to come to the Prophet, and be healed and reborn. The Church should not be setting boundaries for worshippers. No one should be having a meeting to discuss my worthiness to play the organ.

    Unless I’m really bad at it, which is certainly a possible conclusion.

    I’m not sorry I made this so public. I need to show some commitment to my ideas, and if I didn’t make these public declarations, I’d be as miserably alone as always, and die a broken man, however virtuous.

  17. I experienced an experience about six years ago that really challenged my faith. My testimony regarding the gospel was irrelevant; it was my testimony of God’s existence that was being questioned. I felt abandoned and had serious doubts He existed.

    Mary stuck with me through it all. She was encouraging and helped me where she could. Ultimately, the ability to get out of my seriously depressed state was rested only with me.

    In all honesty, I do not believe Mary would ever have contemplated divorce had it come down to it. I am very fortunate to have found her.

  18. D. Fletcher says:

    I guess what I meant about sympathy, is that I chose not to attend. I wasn’t pushed out.

    I own my decision. Many of the emails I’ve received have counseled me (such a Mormon phrase) to return to Church as soon as possible, to forgive and forget.

    But I don’t think most people realize how deep this really goes. My leaders recognized my doubts, and they confronted me, and manipulated me to make my choice, and to feel bad about it.

    So, now I’m seeking a little guidance about how to proceed. There is much I love about the Gospel, mostly pertaining to Jesus and His principles. Do I just study this on my own, seek another faith, or swallow my pride and go back into the fray?

  19. I think one of the prime purposes of marriage is to help us consider how our actions affect not only ourselves, but others. I’m pretty sure (correct me if I’m wrong, Ann) that Ann, for example, put much more thought into her decision because of her marriage than she would otherwise have done. And I think that’s a good thing, though difficult. And then children can complicate things even further…

    Perhaps there is value in relatively conservative approach to major decisions.

  20. I think spiritual crises could be better handled. We are so scared in this church – and I’ve never lived in Utah!

    If we didn’t draw a line in the sand between “believers” and “unbelievers” we might have more active members in the church. Isn’t the point of faith that no one has knowledge of that in which we must have faith? I think if we had fewer General Authorities and ward members proclaiming their knowledge of all things spiritual, we might do better at feeling like we can accept the range of faith that exists among us.

    What happened to “Lord, I believe, help though my unbelief?”

  21. I wonder, do we — missionary-oriented church that we are — think that members of other faiths should apply the same thinking? Sometimes it appears that we don’t.

    I’ve heard a number of testimonies, Ensign stories, etc, along the lines of “When I joined the church, my family said they would never speak to me again. But I had to join. I felt the Spirit, and I knew it was true.” This kind of assertion is almost always met with support and encouragement.

    On the other hand, if someone wants to leave the church, we say “Consider the effect it will have on your family.”

    A double standard? Probably. Natural? Yes, probably.

  22. I’m no psychologist, DF, not even an armchair psychologist, but I think sympathy is part of the “solution.” I put that in brackets because your situation isn’t one for which a “solution” can be given. Can’t fight city hall or stake executives. It’s not like you can submit a written appeal and get the decision reversed.

    Instead, what you need is a perspective or point of view or attitude that will help you feel in control as one making your own informed and well-intentioned choices (from the constrained choice set you are faced with now) rather than like someone getting jerked around by external events or your own emotions. I think sympathy and support helps you do that.

    My suggestion–go enjoy the music from the cheap seats. Living well is the best therapy. I think you’ll get a lot of wacky ideas on boards–some useful, but many inclined to stir up emotions rather than see through them.

  23. D. Fletcher says:

    If it’s OK, I’ll probably copy some of my posts here on to another board.

    I’m not really looking for sympathy, you know, but perhaps some smart solutions to my…predicament.

  24. D. Fletcher says:

    Interesting post.

    Although I’m not married, I have just this week become “disaffected” with the Church into which I was born. I have stopped attending, for an unknown period of time.

    I live on both sides of the coin, as it were. I am both honest with myself, and quite tormented about this choice I’ve made.

    More later.

  25. It gets worse — my companion is Kevin Stanley!!

    D., we’re going to have a great time.

  26. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that endowment used to contemplate a lyrical component in some sense. It seems a natural fit — in a way, it’s already an Everyman.

    D., you know that we’re planning not to let you go so easily; Sumer and I have begun hatching schemes already. “You want to meet for brunch? At Lincoln Center? OK!”

  27. It’s my belief that a great deal of the dilemma John poses, i.e, “you can lie to your spouse or be honest with yourself,” is not as cut-and-dried as it’s made out to be.

    First, in matters of faith, our level of belief ebbs and flows like the tides according to current circumstance and efforts. So being honest with ourselves about our level of faith is not an easy task. I’m led to believe that for some, declaring a loss of faith is not in fact “being honest,” but a form of giving up on difficulties and an easy way out. Be that as it may — others may/will disagree.

    Second, for some couples, being honest with the spouse is just another way of putting selfish wants ahead of the good of the couple. For example, the husband that is bored in Church may decide to be ‘honest’ with his spouse by declaring a loss of faith, while what’s really underlying the loss of faith is a selfish want to be at home watching Meet the Press or whatever. Particularly in this context, we need to evaluate whether our approaches to honesty are out of a genuine concern for the truth and for our spouses, rather than a sneaky way to get what we want.

    Kaimi, your double-standard is a tough one, but I have known some people that were counseled prior to coming into the Church to consider the effect it would have on their families. It’s not done often enough IMHO.

  28. Its your new home teacher here. So in the interests of checking the “I did my home teaching” box this month, here goes. (I am of course completely kidding.)

    Dave wrote: “It’s not like you can submit a written appeal and get the decision reversed.” I actually disagree with this. I think that you can. There are plenty of examples.

    I donÂ’t really know all the details, and am a little reluctant to comment on the correctness of the stakes decision. Maybe the leaders made the correct decision, I donÂ’t know. But I will say that it definitely feels wrong, at least to me. I think some letters to individuals above the stake level might be useful. The local authorities do make mistakes, sometimes serious mistakes, and the hierarchy has made corrections in some cases, when pursued. A small example (probably not small to those involved): years ago a stake in Provo went so far as to hold excommunication court on an individual for his participation as a leader of the Communist Party USA in the area. That was the only reason- political belief. The general authorities overtuned the stakeÂ’s clearly wrong decision. They went so far as to issue a formal apology to the man, who died a member in full standing.

    We are always told not to question or criticize leaders in the church. This makes for a difficult situation. I do think that we should be able to get confirmation on a decision or action by leaders that feels wrong. I donÂ’t think that this is a trivial matter. It is about information, and you deserve to know the extent to which the action of the stake really represents the stand of The Church, or just local individualsÂ’ feelings.

  29. John, as I reread my earlier comments, I think I was probably a little blunt. Sorry, hot button issue I guess.

    Ann, quite a story. Glad your marriage pulled through.

    DF, quite a story. Time off is good for perspective. When single, there are fewer complications. Summer’s almost here–good timing.

    Lyle, quite a story, sorry things didn’t work out. I don’t regard a change in religious convictions as “sin,” by the way, just the exercise of one’s agency. And the question of just what one agrees to when entering marriage gets rather messy when religion becomes an issue rather than a shared conviction.

    Kim, quite a story. Glad you pulled through. A lot of spouses have a hard time standing by partners who take a journey through the dark valley–and she blogs too!

  30. Losing faith in the unique faith claims of the LDS church is not the same as losing faith in God. Many LDS don’t seem to see it that way, though.

  31. My sympathy, DF–seems like you got shafted here. Why don’t you write President Hinckley a letter sharing your grief? I’m serious–he ought to know what people are doing in his name. Since the New York bloggers seem to know all the parties involved, this California blogger will not comment further on specifics (although I am sorely tempted to do so).

    It seems like temple recommends have undergone what one might call “mission creep.” Once upon a time they regulated entry into temples; they seem to have become all-purpose devices for social regulation within the Church. Interesting.

  32. On the one hand, “unconditional love” seems to require that the faithful spouse (Dave, I think the point, in context, was that of being faithful to the initial covenants/promises made) to continue loving unconditional; regardless of the sins of the lapsed spouse.

    On the other hand, being “true to oneself” is fine and dandy; unless you have already agreed to a “merger” with another person via marriage. In which case…seems pretty non-heavenly selfish.

    In my case…the only way I could show my former spouse that I loved her uncondtionally was to give her the divorce that she asked for.

  33. D. Fletcher says:

    Peggy,

    Thank you so much for your kind words. I often wondered if people even heard me at all (at the organ).

    I have left the Church in a huff, surprising myself (I always thought I was low-maintenance kind of guy). Though many people think I’m simply angered and annoyed at my leaders (I am) the real reasons for the split are deeper, and have much more history.

    But there is still much to love, notably, a real feeling for Jesus that I find curiously stale at other Christian sects. I love thinking about Jesus, and singing about him. I love using music to abstractly bear my testimony.

    I will have to find a new way to provide this sustenance.

  34. So, John, did you mean to describe my life for the last three years in your post.

    I was a devout, faithful LDS when my husband and I met and married. A convert, “milk before meat,” in my life, meant “milk, period.” I married a man with a large collection of Dialogues and Sunstones. My journey from Devout Believer to Friendly Apostate has been a traumatic one. My best friend, best listener, and greatest support through this difficult, painful journey has been my husband.

    Several years ago, I was railing about a particular church practice that made me really angry. He asked me if I would mind keeping my problems to myself. I burst into tears and asked him, “Who else can I talk to about this? Who else can I trust? You’re my best friend. If I can’t talk to you about it, I’ll have to do this all alone.” He has been there for me ever since.

    What we both have, even though he is still a steadfast believer and I am not, is hope. We well remember the blessings promised to us when we were married. I meant those when I made them, and so did he. We don’t know what eternity has in store for us. But we both expect that it will all work out, maybe in a way that neither of us expect.

    Life comes with no guarantees. Nobody gets married with the idea that they will get divorced; nobody ought to get married with the idea that the other person will never change in any way. Loss of faith is a change, but so are chronic illness, unemployment, and even the birth of children. Some changes are life-changing. Loss of faith is one of those.

    My circumstance may be unusual, because even though I don’t believe, I am respectful. I participate in church to the extent that I’m comfortable, and I haven’t taken up pole-dancing or recreational drug use as my new hobbies. Some people, when they leave the church, are very angry, and some go a bit nuts. It would require a very patient spouse to deal with that sort of behavior. I am fortunate to have that kind of spouse.

    Readers, feel free to browse the archives at the URL I’ve linked in my signature. We talk a lot about negotiating this tricky ground.

  35. Aaron Brown says:

    Speaking of tangents, WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO PUT UP MY PICTURE, Steve!!!???

    Aaron B

  36. D. Fletcher says:

    That’s it, Kristine!

    The Church of Jesus Christ of All Music All The Time.

    P.S. I know you were joking, but there’s something about music…it acts as a conduit.

    Just this week, when I toured the new New York Temple, I thought that what is missing is music (I know the movie has music, but that isn’t what I mean).

    How about writing music to the Endowment Ceremony, like a Mass?

  37. There are degrees of being “honest with yourself.” I cope very well by not letting the church control my life. I am able to continue my participation by putting church on the periphery. This is actually how (IMO) most non-Mormon believers handle church, unless they are evangelicals or in the ministry.

    There are some good things about the LDS Church. Chief among them is that is where my husband goes, and I choose to go with him.

    It was really painful getting to this point, and it took a couple of years. Painful things happen in life, though, and the only way out is through.

  38. Well, I object to the implicit suggestion in the title that when a Mormon’s religious convictions change it is necessarily a case of “losing faith,” if the object of that faith is God. Unless you intend to dismiss the faith of Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and everyone else as some kind of phony fraud, I think you need to come up with a different way to frame your comment.

    Granted, some Mormons lose faith in the Church. But the Church is just an earthly institution. To direct faith at object or an institution rather than God is a form of idolatry. So, properly speaking, no one should have faith in the Church or in its leaders, only in God.

    I think the marital tension that can arise in the scenario you describe is one of the negative consequences of the Mormon idea of group or family salvation, which flies in the face of Biblical injunction (at least since Ezekiel) that each will be judged of God individually for their own works.

  39. While I certainly understand a lot of the feelings here, I think I take exception Dave to your assertion that the church is just an earthly institution. Certainly it is an institution run by fallible mortals. But I don’t think it just an earthly institution. And I suspect that is why, on these issues, there will be a divide.

    At the same time just as there are people married to non-members (I dated several seriously and thought about marrying one) even so with a spouse who leaves the church there can always be the hope that they will return. By living the gospel, living in the spirit, you may be able to bring them back into the fold.

  40. Wow, John. Lots of very good questions. I can’t claim to have the answers to them.

    Choosing between spouse and church — not a choice I would want to make.

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