Left the Church? 25 Things Not to Say to a Believing Loved One (& what to say instead)

We’re grateful that Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks has shared this followup with us, cross-posted to drjuliehanks.com.

canstockphoto9791318A week and a half ago I published a guest post here titled 25 things NOT to say to a loved one leaving the faith (and what to say instead). The post sparked some great discussion among commenters on the blog and on social media.

Some of the critiques or concerns about the article echoed themes similar to the following reader comments:

That doesn’t mean harsh judgment should be harshly given but we shouldn’t tenderly love people out of the church either. All you need is love isn’t our mantra without understanding that true love can’t be divorced from commandments and covenants. The list of that 25 ideas is flawed if it doesn’t come with the expectation that ultimately any movement away from the Lord is a tragic mistake.

I was not in an emotional state to start saying anything on the “what to say” list for the first 3 years after he (my husband) left the church. This is a much deeper, personal, more human conversation than one can have on social media so I’ll thank you for the lists for what they are, continue to learn more about myself and my husband, and live by the age old advice “if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.”

Many of the concerns came from individuals whose spouse had left the Church. I want to validate the intense pain and betrayal that is felt when a spouse or other intimate family member leaves the church. Conversations about this situation and many others cannot be reduced to a simple list, of course. My aim in creating the lists was to spark interactions about these difficult conversations, and to give people a place to start. These lists are by no means the end of conversations with adult loved ones about their choices to leave the Church or to continue believing and participating.

Loved ones who leave the Church end up doing the very things they accuse their believing loved ones of doing — judging them and belittling their choices. Trying to convince a believer that your conclusions about the Church are right is the same version of believing member trying to help you “see the light.”

The feelings and needs of believing members of the Church are equally valid and important as the feelings and needs of those who leave the Church.

Leaving the Church is not a reason to dishonor or dismiss the things that your loved one still holds dear. Based on clinical and personal experiences, those who leave often want to share their truth to help others and to seek support. If the feelings of betrayal, anger, and sadness one feels after leaving the Church are left unchecked and they can damage relationships with believing loved ones.

If you are leaving or have left the Church and want to preserve your relationships, remember to respect the agency, emotions, and faith of your believing family members.

Here are 25 things NOT to say to believing loved ones after you leave the Church (even if you believe it’s true)*:
1) You’re being lied to.
2) I just don’t know how you still believe.
3) You HAVE to read the CES letter.
4) How can you still go to a Church given what’s said in the Church essays?
5) How can you justify belonging to a corrupted organization?
6) I used to think the way you do. Now I see things clearly.
7) When are you going to start thinking for yourself?
8) Do you know how much the General Authorities get paid?
9) Did you hear about the recently leaked videos?
10) I left because I didn’t want my kids to be brainwashed.
11) I feel so sorry for you.
12) How can you stay in such a sexist organization?
13) What you’re saying is a logical fallacy.
14) Jesus wouldn’t want anything to do with the Church today.
15) If you knew what I knew about Joseph Smith…
16) I can’t respect you if you believe in the Church.
17) You’re complicit in every hurtful thing the Church does.
18) Do you know where all of your tithing goes?
19) Believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, etc.
20) How can you keep your name on the rolls of an evil institution that hurts so many people?
21) Think of how many people the Church could have helped instead of investing so much in real estate.
22) If you really loved me, you’d listen to all of my concerns.
23) I can’t see how someone as smart as you can be fooled by such crazy beliefs.
24) You believe in the Church because it’s easier than questioning and studying.
25) Religion is the opiate of the masses.

Here are 25 things TO say to a believing loved one:
1) I love you.
2) We can believe different things and still be close.
3) I trust you to do what is best for you.
4) I want you to be happy.
5) What can I do to support you right now?
6) I know you don’t take your religious commitments lightly.
7) I respect your integrity and your strength.
8) You will always have a place here, no matter what.
9) I can’t imagine how hard this has been for you.
10) Tell me more about your journey (and then really listen).
11) I’d love to continue to pray with the family.
12) You have legitimate reasons for staying active in the Church.
13) The world needs more people like you.
14) If anyone asks me about your belief in the Church, I’ll tell him or her to talk to you directly.
15) Your relationship with the Church has nothing to do with our relationship.
16) My love for you is constant and unconditional.
17) Even though I don’t believe in the Church, I believe you when you say you do know it’s true.
18) You’re a good parent, son, daughter, etc.
19) You’re a good person.
20) I’m not worried about you.
21) We all have our own unique paths.
22) Agency is an amazing gift.
23) I don’t understand why you stay, but I want to understand.
24) I don’t know what to say.
25) I am here for you.
You’ll notice that this is almost an identical list to the list of what TO say to a loved one leaving the Church. That is because we all want the same kind of love and respect, connection and compassion even though our spiritual and/or religious beliefs differ.

*Thanks to Dr. Kristy Money from MormonJourneys.org for help compiling this list.
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, LCSW is the owner/director of Wasatch Family Therapy, a popular blogger, an online mental health influencer, a local and national media contributor. Dr. Hanks’ new book The Assertiveness Guide For Women (download a free chapter) helps women find and use their authentic voices to improve their lives and relationships. Julie and her husband are the parents of four children. Visit DrJulieHanks.com for more tips on facing life’s challenges and to schedule coaching sessions. For therapy services in Utah visit WasatchFamilyTherapy.com. Connect on social media with @DrJulieHanks.

Comments

  1. 26. Go Cougars

  2. anonymous says:

    “…if it doesn’t come with the expectation that ultimately any movement away from the Lord is a tragic mistake.”

    I find statements like this rather offensive. I haven’t moved away from the Lord; I’ve come closer to the Lord as I’ve moved along my personal journey. God made us “in all [our] varieties.” Is it any wonder, given how different we are, that what we need to draw closer to Him and grow spiritually can look very different depending on the person? We seek out our own salvation with fear and trembling. For you, that means staying in the Church. For me, that’s slowly taking me out of it.

  3. Thanks, Julie (and Kristy) for these lists. I have spoken with so many people over the years who have undergone heart-wrenching and difficult, emotional journeys away from the church that it has become easier and easier to vilify the fervent, non-doubting Latter-day Saints who are stereotyped as often refusing to empathize or trust or practice propriety toward their loved ones who leave. This list is an excellent reminder that empathy needs to work both ways, and that there is pain and loss and feelings of betrayal experienced by those who stay who watch their loved ones leave, too. I love your emphasis on mutual respect and trust, and the erasure of judgment or of knowing what is best for the other person. “We can believe different things and still be close” is a beautiful sentiment, and a mantra that could go far in repairing relationships that have been bruised or disrupted by a person’s faith transition. I love these lists.

  4. Manuel Villalobos says:

    What you are proposing (correct me if I am wrong) is avoiding any approach that could result in a scenario where the two differing sides have to experience confrontation.

    While I agree using confrontational statements to communicate to loved ones every time a related subject arises is not productive or conducing of healthy relationships, I think going to the other extreme and avoiding confrontations at all costs is also a mistake.

    This is probably a factor that plays into people leaving an LDS community: not being able to express anything that could point to dissonance. Not being able to speak openly about concerns. The greater goal always being avoiding confrontation or uncomfortable yet sometimes very necessary conversations. Not being able to share openly and honestly what the crux of the concern is. I find this type of environment highly dysfunctional, oppressive even.

    I don’t know about relationships between loved ones in other families or in other cultures. Relationships between loved ones the way I was raised allow for confrontation of differing points of view. This is the only way a resolution of how to respect each other can be reached.

    I am sorry, but in general, I think your proposed approach is more damaging than nourishing to actual functional relationships between loved ones. It will probably create more distance, more tension, more frustration and more resentment, even if both will be smiling and pretending there is nothing further to discuss than to be “respectful” of each other.

    Your approach seems to me to be better suited to those with more distant relationships, like coworkers or neighbors. Loved ones? No.

  5. The point is to not preach or have a demeaning attitude towards the spirituality or intellect of the person who chose differently. If the person honestly wants to know how you reached your conclusion, then by all means share specifics, but you can do that without subtly (or not so subtly) demeaning the intelligence of the person who came to a different conclusion.

  6. @Manuel
    The one huge problem with mutual respect arising from differing opinions comes when one person’s views belittles or erases the experience of the other person. Instead of building respect, this destroys it, and leaves the relationship more strained than if the conversation never took place. This is all too common between active, orthodox lds and those who leave the church. This is the behavior these two articles are targeting.

    Last time, many claimed that those who leave the church are abandoning their covenants and distancing themselves from god. I claim that these people are making an assumption that is not only not necessarily true, but also makes light of a potentially sacred journey that the other has undertaken. If you wish others to respect your beliefs and spiritual experiences, you need to respect the same in others, whether or not you understand them. In the church, we put on a pedestal those who give up their families and former lives to follow god. Many of those who leave the church are doing the exact same thing.

  7. Manuel, many of the suggestions above are conversation initiators (“Tell me more about your journey (and then really listen),” “I don’t understand why you stay, but I want to understand,” “What can I do to support you right now?”). This advice, from my reading, does not avoid confrontation—it guides confrontation for a healthy, constructive discussion and interaction between disagreeing parties.

    Perhaps you could give us examples of what kinds advice or conversation jumpstarts would be more open and healthy, from your perspective?

  8. A Happy Hubby says:

    @Manuel

    I think I hear what you are saying, but what I generally see happening is that when the believer / no-longer believer start conversing they often do it in a way that damages the relationship. I would say that at a high level we need to focus first on making sure the relationship is solid, then SOME of the confrontation. I see relationships getting ruined before any real exchange of understanding occurs. I will point to one of the items.

    23) I don’t understand why you stay, but I want to understand.

    If that was a part of the normal response from a believer when a friend/spouse/family member expresses doubt or disbelief, it does give an opening for some some conversations focusing on understanding instead of converting (or de-converting).

    I really like the last paragraph about how the “do say” list is basically the same for both believers and non-believers. I think this situation could use some humility on both sides. It seems like the summary at the top of the article is, “But the LDS church IS the TRUE church PERIOD”. To summarize it even more, they are saying “I AM RIGHT – PERIOD”. The “angry ex-mo” is often essentially saying the same thing. That will get the conversation nowhere.

    I saw a posting last night where someone had stated they no longer believed in the church and they described that they had extensively read historical books put out by the church. An (alleged) Bishop commented, “I have seen this over and over. Read those books or even those essays and you are out of the church. So I am not going to read any of that stuff – period.” I really wanted to ask the “bishop” what he would say to someone never a member of the church that said, “Several of my friends have been reading that Book of Mormon then they end up joining that Mormon church. So I am not going to read that book – period.” To me they are saying THE EXACT SAME THING. They both have closed their mind. If God is powerful enough to touch someone’s heart when they read the Book of Mormon, then God is powerful enough to touch someone’s heart and let them know they are reading something that is wrong. Or maybe my view of God is just WAY different than others.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Discussion is fine if both parties genuinely want it and if it’s pursued gently, but if one opens with “You’re a deluded Morgbot, why can’t you see it’s all a cult?”, that’s hardly conducive to a productive conversation. Folks on both sides of this line are going to tend to approach any such conversation very defensively with the shields up. If one cannot approach such a conversation with a sense of genuine empathy for the point of view of the other person, it’s just going to end up being hurtful.

  10. At the end of the day I think it boils down to this: Thinking I’m right about something comes with an inherent, inextricable feeling of superiority. It is *extremely difficult to believe one is correct about something, but then allow the necessary humility, curiosity, generosity, receptivity, open-mind and open-heart prerequisite to unconditionally love another. (I think it’s no surprise we’ve heard GC talks seeking to dispel the notion of ‘unconditional love’ – one cannot get there if one is certain about being right, especially regarding church dogma and dictum.)

    It’s almost a requirement that our beliefs themselves be called into question before we can listen to each other. Can we shed our better-than, self-righteous stance without at least considering we might be wrong? I don’t know any other way, but that scares a lot of people.

  11. A Happy Hubby says:

    Exactly right Kevin. When you are “attacked” both believer and non-believer react to protect themselves. I think BOTH parties need to come at it (as hard as it is for both sides) not coming to CONVINCE the other, but UNDERSTAND (maybe not ALL the details) of the other. For most people once they feel they are understood, they are more open to accept “well we see things different, but I still like/love you.”

  12. Charles Taylor talks about Closed vs. Open belief systems. Some atheists have a Closed belief system and so do some religionists. Having an open system is part of being humble, and if you aren’t humble, you aren’t going to have relationships with people that can weather the storms of disagreement. I don’t think confrontation about beliefs and values is ever very useful. Nobody comes away convinced, just defensive and pissed off. But good relationships involve humility and curiosity and open-mindedness to the possibility that you are wrong. If we approach these conversations with curiosity and empathy, we’ll find that we can actually relate to people even if we come to different conclusions. I’ve enjoyed Dr. Hanks’ series.

  13. Manuel – Another challenge that happens to families and couples is church talk. At church, over the pulpit, statements are made, sometimes very incorrect statements. The believer is put in a bind or accepts a judgement statement as fact and uses it in the relationship with the changed family member. And it’s not always direct and with words. It’s with looks, and subtle things.

    My spouse left. His choice was like a tidal wave. He was filled with so much hurt and I was the down spout for all of it. And I had no tools, 10 years ago, to work with. No leaders, no friends, nothing. The world was black and white. He and I hurt each other a lot in the process. We had no words, or reference points. We talked, bellowed, ached, and hurt. Both lists would have been helpful for both of us.

  14. Manuel Villalobos says:

    Most responses to my comment seem to echo that being disrespectful or belittling to your discussion counterpart is non conducive to a healthy relationship. I never suggested being disrespectful, I acknowledge confrontational situations can very easily lead to such attitudes. Stop telling me that insulting others or belittling others is not healthy. I know that.

    Having said that, difficult subjects can be discussed and in my very personal opinion, should be discussed if the relationship is to actually reach a position of true mutual respect between the differing parties.

    Here are some examples of the What Not to Say list that could lead to a more productive conversation than the vague ” am here for you,” or “tell me more about your journey.” (please note: some examples)

    While some are not salvageable as they make unfair assumptions, others contain issues that could be important to have laid on the table in order for a loved one to truly understand one’s point of view.

    1) You’re being lied to.
    Option: There are things the church teaches I have come to a conclusion are not true.

    2) I just don’t know how you still believe.
    Option: I have difficulty believing in the church after things I have learned. You know those things too. I don’t understand how you dismiss them to still believe. To me, they are very important and I can’t approach faith the same way you do.

    3) You HAVE to read the CES letter.
    Option: There is what I consider reliable information regarding the church that is not contained within the confines of what the church teaches and/or publishes. You won’t be able to understand my approach if you deny yourself the things I have learned through external sources. You don’t have to believe them, but it will be easier to understand me if we are on the same page on the existing information regarding the issues I am concerned.

    4) How can you still go to a Church given what’s said in the Church essays?
    Option: Information found in the new Church essays make it difficult for me to believe anymore. On the other hand, you seem to me to be unaffected by them. I don’t understand that.

    6) I used to think the way you do. Now I see things clearly.
    Option: I used to think and feel the way you do. However, I have learned things that have caused me to see things differently and to feel differently about the church.

    7) When are you going to start thinking for yourself?
    Option: Church leaders have stated that when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done. I am deeply concerned about this approach and from my point of view, the church has not done enough to clarify such stance.

    8) Do you know how much the General Authorities get paid?
    Option: Perhaps I never gave this much thought, but I was under the impression church leaders were paid a modest stipend for their church service. I myself gave this information to investigators during my mission. I have learned they may actually get paid quite more than what I expected, and it is something that bothers me.

    10) I left because I didn’t want my kids to be brainwashed.
    Option: I see some attitudes among LDS children that I strongly disagree with. My perception is that these attitudes are the direct result from church teachings, church culture, or church restrictions about what information my children should be exposed to. I left because I want to avoid these attitudes in my children and I want them to have available those things I perceive LDS children don’t.

    11) I feel so sorry for you.
    Option: I have to confess it upsets me that you can’t see where I come from when it comes to me leaving the church.

    One of the suggestions in the list I am most concerned about is “I am worried about you” not being able to be expressed, while the acceptable counterpart “I am not worried about you” is. Excuse me? If a believing loved one is genuinely worried about a person leaving the church, and vice versa, if a person leaving the church is genuinely worried about the approach of a believing loved one, why in heaven can they not express each other so? We are not allowed to express we are worried, for whatever perception we have of the other person? I am sorry, but this approach is definitely non conducive of resolution. This is denial, damaging denial.

    I am a convert to the church. It cause great distress to one particular family member when I joined. It wasn’t until she explained to me that she felt worried, and what that worry consisted of, that we could clarify many things and our relationship mended.

    I stand by my position.

  15. I love both of the lists Julie. Thank you for lending your expertise to this subject.
    I thought about making this comment on the first list, but decided to just take in other comments instead. Now that both have been posted my comment seems more relevant.
    I am the child of parents who were married in the temple and then one of them left the church later. 40 years later they are still married and happy. I think that can be a pretty difficult accomplishment. In all that time I have never once heard the parent who stayed instruct, belittle, or preach to the parent who left about their salvation or about how they lost their way. I have never once heard the parent who left instruct, belittle, or educate the parent who stayed about being brainwashed, unintelligent, or naive. Both of my parents are highly intelligent, analytical, rational, and deeply moral individuals who came to different conclusions and they respect each others decision.
    Now, to Manuel’s point, does that mean they never discuss religion or spirituality? Of course they discuss it! They raised 5 kids together. Some of whom are active and some are not. My younger sister who left the church at 16 regularly expresses gratitude that her parents, unlike many of her friends parents, have tried to understand her and love her no matter her decision. My parent who stayed has often asked important questions that have encouraged her to delve deeply into her beliefs and then that parent has accepted that her adult daughter has made the best choice she knows how. When I decided to put in my mission papers, my parent who left the church discussed all of the possible advantages and disadvantages of my choice with me and then fully supported my decision to proceed. It is not impossible to honor what you believe while respecting that your loved ones may believe differently. It is difficult and takes mounds of humility.

  16. Navigating a change in one’s beliefs or activity in the Church is definitely a two-way street. I think it’s worth noting, however, that at times I’ve observed believing loved ones to take serious issue with being told “We all have our own unique paths.” I guess that’s where maintaining civility respecting their agency becomes the best option.

  17. My comment cross posted with Manuel’s and I just wanted to address his latest comment. I definitely think that all of the things you listed can be brought up with the right attitude. Context and attitude matter (which I’m sure you already know). Saying those things with the attitude that you are “saving” your loved one from evil or that you are bringing them out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of truth probably isn’t good for the relationship. Saying those things in an attempt to create better understanding between two people I definitely think can lead to a healthier relationship if both parties can trust that the other is making the best choice they can. I also think it depends on the person. I can discuss just about anything with either of my parents without harming the relationship. But there was a bit of a mantra in my family that there were certain things you never told Grandma! She had a very closed belief system and it was better for our relationship to not discuss the details of religion. (She once locked my brother in law in the car and told him she wouldn’t let him out until he promised to take my sister to the temple. She also told a different sister that her attitude would turn her husband gay. She wouldn’t speak to me for a few days after I called a book she was reading about a family in the pre-existence “fiction” and not “historical fiction.”) On the whole she was a lovely woman who cared about people, but part of having healthy relationships is setting up boundaries and those boundaries are going to be different in every relationship.

  18. To Manuel’s point, cultural differences are an interesting, important question here. I don’t know what Manuel’s cultural background is. I come from the dominant Mormon subculture of the Mountain West. My ancestors were mostly English and Scandinavian. They were big on the Protestant work ethic and keeping your nose to the grindstone. Once you make a commitment, you stick to it, don’t complain, and don’t even talk much about it. Just do it. And don’t rock the boat. In this subculture, there is not much room for personal confrontation, even when confrontation might be a healthy response. So we do passive-aggressive stuff very well. In this subculture, the items on Julie’s don’t lists are marvelously hostile and destructive.

    Now, there are other cultures in which people learn how to fight without alienating each other. For such people, stormy disagreement with family and friends can be productive, because different assumptions are at work regarding the meaning of arguments. Maybe Manuel is speaking from the perspective of one of those cultures? If so, then his observations suggest that lists of do’s and don’ts might vary for different people. At least we need to be explicit about underlying assumptions in the way we speak to those we love.

  19. I wish everyone in the church had a family like yours EBK.

    Manuel: I agree that passive-aggression is far too common in LDS culture. If politeness reigns, we’ll lose honesty and true caring.

    I think the problem isn’t ‘what’ we say, it’s ‘how’ we say it (or if we want to go deep, it’s ‘who we are’ – the way we are being – when we say it). Saying “I’m worried about you” condescendingly hurts relationships. Saying the same thing filled with perfect love can heal. That’s the unmeasurable, ineffable ‘something’ about human interaction we don’t have adequate language to describe.

    I still think the overall message of the OP stands. Being too quick to assume I know what is right or best for someone else is at the heart of the problem, imo.

  20. The person with the most awareness bears the most responsibility for how the relationship goes. That’s a helpful framing for any discussion about fraught relationships, IMO, because it reminds you to act like you have the most awareness.

  21. People thinking they have the most awareness are part of the problem. The world would be much better if we all thought, “I am not the teacher. I am not the healer. I am not the fixer. I am just as needy as others. I am just as sinful, just as fallible, just as human, just as worthy, just as lovable” It’s the comparison and judgment that causes fraught relationships.

  22. A Happy Hubby says:

    Thanks for the clarification Manuel. I think I did read in too much into your first comment.

    I will say that in addition to the “its not just what we say but how we say it” comment, that many professionals say that most communication isn’t verbal. I think most people are very aware of even when the “how” is done good, that they pickup where the speaker is coming from. I know I try to approach my fully believing wife only after deep in my heart that “I am OK with you being where you are at and I am not going to change that.” I do think she would pickup if I was softballing “gentle” questions that felt like I was leading her on.

  23. stephencranney says:

    Just to add that I can think of very few cases where the “I don’t see how you can believe” line is appropriate. Most often that line is used as a rhetorical device and is a subtle form of gaslighting, or trying to convince somebody that their perception is crazy. Yes, there are plenty of occasions where I don’t see where people are coming from (politically, metaphysically, ethically, etc.) but that’s just a natural result of cognitive diversity. Usually the person saying that isn’t saying “I don’t see where you’re coming from, help me see where you’re coming from,” and is implying “your belief is completely nuts,” so it might have the veneer of respectability but it’s kind of insulting.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Manuel, what I was reacting to in your first comment was the value of “confrontation.” I suspect we’re just giving that word somewhat different nuances.

  25. “Thinking I’m right about something comes with an inherent, inextricable feeling of superiority.”

    Oh, I love this. Both because it’s what I struggle with when sitting through church meetings full of testimonies of rightness (that come off as superior). And because my gut reaction to such meetings is to sink into my own rightness/superiority.

    And of course, that describes most political posts on the internet as well.

  26. N. W. Clerk says:

    “26. Go Cougars”

    No. Not as long as the ROC keeps behaving in the Marriott Center the way that Trump behaves on Twitter.

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