More on Marriage

I think John’s prior post on “the spouse problem” deserves another go-round, since it raised more interesting issues than one thread could address. The unusually personal responses in the comments suggest that mixing faith and marriage, which looks easy on paper, is often something of a challenge in Mormon marriage. I’ll note as well that mixing faith and singleness in The Family Church has its own challenges, but that topic deserves a separate post. Here are some concepts I came up with reflecting on the prior post and comments:

Compromises. Most agree one of the secrets of a successful marriage is a mutual willingness to compromise. That works for some issues, such as what to rent for the Friday night movie. But when it comes to “gospel issues,” compromise often feels like failure to at least one party (see John’s original comments on moral absolutes). Tithing or church attendance, for example, are issues on which most active Mormons would view any compromise as an unacceptable moral compromise rather than a “win-win” marriage compromise. Compromise, after all, has two opposing meanings: in negotiations, compromise is generally desirable and productive; in morality, compromise is generally equated with a moral lapse or sin.

I Am Third. For those of you under 30, the quote comes from a football player whose motto was God is first, my friends are second, and I am third. But marriage is different–no spouse wants to be third on the list; even second feels like a snub. “The Church is first, my children are second, my spouse is third” won’t work. Neither will “My job is first, golf is second, my spouse is third.” Third just won’t do.

Mismatched Devotion. One spouse “losing faith,” as discussed in John’s prior post, is the most visible example of mismatched devotion to the Church between spouses, but it is not the only case. What if a super-devoted spouse insists on going to the temple every Friday night, whereas partner is a once-per-monther or less? What if one partner dreams of a senior-couple mission but the other just isn’t there emotionally or spiritually? I think the challenge of divergent levels of devotion crops up in a variety of LDS contexts.

I don’t want to sound pessimistic–this isn’t a marital doom and gloom post. Most couples find a way to muddle through their differences, even deep and personal ones. Hopefully reflecting on the subject makes the “muddling through process” easier and more likely to succeed.


  1. “But I think some people want to show off how faithful they are, so they let it be known that the Church is more important than their spouse.”

    YES! That’s precisely what happened in this marriage class we’ve been asked to attend — everybody (but me and Sumer seemingly), ranked things as God, church, self, etc. and it drove me nuts. Was it some form of spiritual brownnosing?? I was very confused, and it made me wonder what life would be like if people really did put God/church before their spouses. Strange to think about.

  2. Am I wrong in my priorities? Frankly, God & Sumer don’t conflict very much, so it’s not a real issue — but I want to see what other people think.

  3. BTW, Glen Lambert, a marriage therapist, tells the story of sitting in his ward and listening to a man recount how he asked his wife to marry him. “The Church comes first in my life, will you come second?” Ah, how romantic.

    When I heard that, I knew if I was faced with the hypothetical situation of having to choose between my wife and the Church, that would be the easiest decision I’ve ever made. Not that it wouldn’t be a painful, unwelcome experience, but the decision would be easy. My wife wins, hands down. (This is provided that she isn’t the one forcing the ultimatum – “leave the Church or I’ll divorce you” or something akin to it. Then we’d have some discussing to do.)

    I simply can’t fathom a God who would punish someone for sticking by their spouse, provided their spouse isn’t abusive or just a really horrible person.

  4. Clark, what if the shoe was on the other foot? What if the spouse just wanted out of the church, and didn’t want anything else to change? That is, you would be able to continue to worship as you see fit, and she just wanted the same privilege. Would that be a deal breaker for maintaining the marriage?

    In my experience/observation of the disaffected Mormon underground, the disaffected spouse rarely demands that the believing spouse leave, too. But I know of many people whose marriages have been stretched to the breaking point by spouses who would not stay in the marriage unless the unbelieving spouse at least played the part.

  5. Great, great comments, Dave! I think you’ve really hit upon many of the marriage dilemmas Mormons face. The good news is that most Mormon marriages are just fine (from what I’ve heard from marriage therapists). They do find the way to negotiate through these issues. Mormons, overall, have good marriages. Surprise – they even have good sex lives. There generally isn’t any more conflict over sex in Mormon marriages as there is in any other marriage, if I remember correctly.

    The bad news is, often times people feel like their marriage may be worse off than it is because they are presented with seemingly perfect marriages in the Ensign, in Church meetings, etc. They don’t realize that most everyone else in the Church is doing what they’re doing – negotiating and working through their differences.

    This is what my wife and I have had to do, and it’s been a great challenge at times. I remain the only active member in my family. I grew up where a superbowl sunday party was a given and going out to eat on the Sabbath was a great bonding time as a family. People around me drank alcohol, and R rated movies were just movies, not moral dilemmas. My wife grew up in an opposite environment. Sunday was for quiet family time, writing in journals, reading the scriptures, etc. I don’t think they’ve ever spent a dime on a Sunday. They carefully plan on Saturday just so they can have a nice Sunday. No matter how hard my mom tried, she’d always forget something for Sunday dinner (if we weren’t going out) and she’d have to go to the store and get it :) No one in her family’s ever seen an R rated movie. Ever.

    Our first conflict came over whether we were going to serve alcohol at our reception. I wanted to as a gesture to my side of the family – her mother nearly had a heart attack. We ended up not doing it after a lengthy, but positive, conversation. We’ve had many since then.

  6. I appreciate what you’re saying, clark. And I absolutely agree with you that if we’re talking about a spouse demanding the abandonment of the Church, then we’re into very different territory.

    I guess I just don’t understand why people even make the comparison in the first place. Why go around announcing that God is more important than your spouse, or that the Church is first, spouse is second? (I’m not saying you’re arguing we do that – I’m just saying I’ve seen others do this.) It seems like it only serves to hurt people. And I’m at a loss as to see why someone would do it other than to show off what a great Mormon they are.

  7. I don’t think you’re wrong in your priorities at all, Steve. And your point is right – spouses and God don’t exactly need to conflict. But I think some people want to show off how faithful they are, so they let it be known that the Church is more important than their spouse.

    This leads to one of the great dilemmas in the Church, IMO. Equating God and Church as the same thing. I said above that if I was faced with a hypothetical situation where I had to choose between my Church membership and my wife, Emily would win hands down.

    God is NOT the Church. The Church is important, yes. But it is merely a vessel that delivers the word of God and offers ordinances. That’s nothing to sneeze at, I know. But it still isn’t God. If I say my spouse is more important than the Church, I’m saying she’s more important than an earthly institution. I’m not saying she’s more important than God.

    When people start equating the Church with God, then I think problems come into play in marriages. The question then comes up: what constitutes activity in “The Church?” Is it just attendance? Is it reading scriptures? Is it not drinking Coke? Is it going to BYU? Is it keeping temple covenants? My point is, the Church has so much cultural baggage attached to it that it makes it difficult for many members to distinguish between that baggage and the divine Church institution. So they start judging their spouse over cultural issues that aren’t really a part of the Church institution (R rated movies, for example).

  8. I think most would say God ought to come first. And it is pretty common in Utah County for women to expect perspective spouses to say that.

  9. I think that sometimes circumstances are important in approaches. My wife puts the kids first and I encourage it. Every other woman in her family puts husband first in a way I consider pathological.

    Putting our kids first includes making sure that God is important to them, probably the single morst important thing, and spending time and energy on them.

    But where I work they often refer to my wife and kids as the Stepford family. Non-traditional Stepfords, of course (after all, my wife turned down jewelry for Mother’s Day and asked for a 12″ laser guided saw instead) …

    And I couldn’t be more pleased with my family. Not to mention, whenever my Mother-in-law has a quibble with something my wife is doing I can always take care of it by saying “but I asked her to do that” and suddenly it is ok with her.

    Anyway, this could really be a thread about ritual exclamations

    * my spouse is my best friend
    * sister “x” the dearly departed, was a good woman, she always gave used clothing to beggers, but she always cut off the buttoms first (a common eulogy you can read for the generation that passed, though it always brought to mind freezing beggers trying to hold tattered clothes togehter, it was supposed to show both charity and thrift)
    * God first, church second, me third, spouse irritated

    You know the collection, in every time and place, as you make your proper prostrations, to the gods of the marketplace.

  10. It’s interesting since many of the famous pioneer stories are about men or women who even gave up their spouses due to the spouse’s opposition to the church. While I know it is a somewhat acontextual reading, the old scripture about leaving family in the NT seems pertinent as well.

    I think that while God and the church aren’t the same thing, that they are intertwined. To give up your spouse or your membership is, to me, to place your spouse above God – unless there are very specific situations. But of course to me, were my spouse to demand I give up my membership then that would truly indicate some serious marriage problems anyway.

  11. Perhaps one key to successful compromise on faith issues within a marriage is to focus on the positive.

    Your spouse isn’t a a full tithe-payer. However, he just did the majority of the work on a $15,000 addition to the house, increasing its value by almost 50%, making it much more liveable, and saving thousands of dollars in the process.

    He has an occasional beer on weekend, or starts the morning with a trip to Tim Horton’s for coffee and a cheese danish. But he also gives the kids a bath every night, reads them a story, and tucks them in.

    She doesn’t believe, but she sits next to you every Sunday morning for sacrament meeting because “church as a family” is important to her, too.

    How happy a person will be with the above circumstances is largely a function of which half of the description s/he focuses on.

    Invert one of the statements above and it seems almost silly. “Yeah, he’s an active engaged father, who never misses a ballgame or violin recital, but he’s not a full tithe-payer.”

    If we focus on what’s missing in our partners, we can always find plenty of things to be dissatisfied with.

  12. Regarding “I am Third”: where should the spouse be — first or second? If second, what’s first?

    For the record, Sumer comes first, in my book.

  13. Sam, I share your view that a linear prioritizing is largely useless. Perhaps we say “make God #1” just because otherwise we’d tend to make him #5 or whatever.

  14. Steve,
    I think part of the “God before spouse” thing is aspirational (note that I’m not arguing for _church_ before spouse). I can’t tell you why, at least not this late at night, but I feel like God should be my first priority.

    That said, He’s usually not. I spend a lot more time talking to Jamie, doing stuff with her, thinking about her, serving her, etc., than I do serving God (unless you say that serving Jamie is serving the Lord, which has a good BoM back-up, but I’m ignoring that). God plays a (significant) background role in my life, but I feel like that role should somehow be more pronounced. Jamie plays a huge foreground role in my life, and I also feel like her role should be more pronounced.

    That said, I’m not convinced that a 1-2-3 ranking is at all valuable–I tend to be more holistic in my prioritizing. Should I be more linear?

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