Part-Mormon couples

December 7, 2004 | 27 comments
By

Married, but only one of the partners is Mormon. In the “mission field” such part-Mormon couples are numerous, probably more than in area’s where Mormons have lived for generations. Sociologists study this phenomenon among various affiliations. “Religious intermarriage”, “religious homogamy / heterogamy”, “interchurch / interfaith marriages” are some of the key words of this academic field of study.

Peculiar to Mormonism, and to a few other actively proselyting religions, is the fact that the breach can suddenly occur during marriage, when only one of the partners gets converted. Partners who marry with differing religious convictions already in place are conscious of the situation beforehand and can negotiate mutual understanding and habits, though it will remain a challenge. But a conversion during marriage is unexpected, can be felt by the other partner like a betrayal, a violation of the union and its underlying agreements.

In the international Church the problem is compounded by other factors. In countries where only one major, national religion is the norm, where “conversion” to another is unheard of, and where Mormonism is viewed as a tiny, aberrant cult, becoming a Mormon places the marriage partner in an even more thorny position. In case of marital tensions, the blame will easily be placed on “that sect”. Worse, in case of a divorce and the attribution of custody of children, the argument that the Mormon partner “forces the children into a cult” is reason for a judge to rule in favor of the other partner – even if all other facts prove he or she is the unfit parent. An abusive, adulterous parent is preferred above a devout Mormon. I have seen several of such cases in Europe.

As a priesthood leader in the mission field, I spent more time on such instances than on any others. The tensions and conflicts start already at the level of investigation of the Church, when one of the partners gains a strong testimony and the other rejects the message. Just the other day, my wife got a call from Jenny, who for many years has eagerly been waiting to be baptized, but has held back from taking the step because of her husband. She is still torn between her spiritual yearning and her sense of duty towards family unity – also a Church commandment. Interestingly, I have seen as many cases where the husband had the testimony, and the wife not.

Five years ago I helped a graduate student in sociology of the Catholic University of Louvain obtain permission to interview Mormon partners in such relations. I was confident he would do a respectful job, as his thesis was under the supervision of Prof. Karel Dobbelaere, a long-time friend of the Church. Thanks to two cooperating branch presidents and his own willingness to attend Church and participate in the life of the branches, Tom Vanhove was able to conduct private and thorough interviews with six Mormons (four women, two men). Each of them lived in a situation where his or her partner was not a member.

The anonymous interviews and the conclusions make fascinating but often painful reading. Each case is very different, showing the multiple variations on the theme. It can go from a mutually tolerant partnership, with negotiated tensions, to extremes where the Mormon partner has to hide anything pertaining to the Church, hardly able to attend a meeting, and constantly harassed for his or her beliefs. Tithing, Word of Wisdom, raising the children, home and visiting teaching, meetings and conferences, temple attendance, and more, create a wide variety of challenges.

Not all is negative: some of the interviewees speak also of rewards – the moral obligation to be the example in the family, the mutual training of tolerance and respect, the growing ability of children to cope with diversity already in the microcosm of their family.

But overshadowing it all is the rift between their reality and the family-oriented doctrines and programs of the Church. The solitary Mormon partner is keenly aware of that rupture. Perhaps even more than a single Mormon who is able to cope without daily family conflicts?

Of course, this post is also a heartfelt tribute to all those Saints, who, in such situations, keep true to the faith, in spite of – and perhaps also thanks to – their challenges.

What experiences can we share, what advice can we give? Any Mormon sociologists who have studied the issues?

Tags: ,

27 Responses to Part-Mormon couples

  1. [...] he limited and limiting work of gardening. It’s a hard thing, as Wilfried noted in a recent comment, for a missionary to be able to say “no” to another o [...]

  2. Chris O'Keefe on December 7, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    My mission president actually instituted a policy (in a US mission) where we couldn’t teach individual members of a family. Only whole families. Part member baptisms were a pretty common source of baptisms for us, and many of the missionaries in the mission (myself included) struggled with the policy. I was a ZL, so I felt like I pretty much had to suck it up and support the president, though it was discussed in leadership meetings. The president hoped to bring whole families into the gospel together, to avoid the kinds of tensions mentioned in this post. As missionaries, we didn’t like it very much, though, as it really restricted who we could teach and baptize.

  3. Charles on December 7, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    I cannot provide the details of some studies I have heard of regarding interfaith marriages. I know I’ve heard this out of the church as well as in the church from general conference or leadership talks. That is that couples who marry knowing their differences will have unique challenges. One of the most serious ones as I see it is the raising of children. Children are very keen on their surroundings. For one parent to express faith over anothers faith will certainly confuse the issue. The studies I have heard of indicate that children from such interfaith marriages have a higher chance of being inactive in any religion than those raised in families without religion.

    This has been an expressed concern from church leaders that young men and women set solid goals on who they will date or choose as a companion. This of course would only be good counsel when this is an option. In cases where the conversion comes after marriage it can be quite different.

    On a personal note to anyone that reads regularly here or just happens to come across it. I am extremely grateful to the men and women that are of other faiths but strongly support their spouse who is LDS. The LDS church demands much of us in our time and tithing. I’ve known many part member families and am always moved by the support some people give their spouse even though they do not share their faith. In some cases conversions have followed, in others they have not. But I am certain that their marriage is stronger for that support.

  4. Susan Malmrose on December 7, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    I am a convert to the church, and my husband was raised in it. However about two years after we were married, he went inactive, and remained inactive for about 6 years. He still believed in the gospel but wasn’t willing to live it, basically, and I was left to take our 3 kids to church on my own.

    I don’t think I would’ve developed the incredibly strong testimony I have today without that experience.

    When I first discovered the Internet, my husband was still inactive, and I started an online support group/email list for part member/inactive families called Sanctify (which I am no longer involved in and I’m not sure if it even still exists). I called it that because of this scripture:

    1 Cor 7: 14
    For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife,
    and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband:
    else were your children unclean;
    but now are they holy.

    I’ve known many with inactive or non-member spouses, and most of those I’ve known have faith that eventually their spouse will join (or return to) the church. I knew it would happen in my own case, with no doubt whatsoever.

  5. John Mansfield on December 7, 2004 at 3:26 pm

    There is a variation of this problem that I have encountered at least four times. An inactive member marries outside the Church. The non-member spouse wants to know more about her husband’s or his wife’s religion and becomes converted in the process. The inactive spouse then finds himself or herself married to an active Church member and isn’t comfortable with the change. In the four cases I am thinking of, divorce followed.

  6. Ethesis (Stephen M) on December 7, 2004 at 3:27 pm

    A very touching post.

  7. Kevin Barney on December 7, 2004 at 3:36 pm

    A variant of this is deconversion, where a couple are both active members, but one spouse for whatever reasons loses his or her faith and leaves the Church. That has it’s own difficult set of challenges.

  8. Jason on December 7, 2004 at 3:41 pm

    As a product of one of these homes … hmmm (now I have to think really) ….

    My Dad has always been the member and my Mom wasn’t/isn’t. My brothers and I were the product of missionaries working with the part-member families with kids over-the-age but not baptized. We were all baptized the same day and I was the only one that was 8. As far as I initially knew, everyone got baptized with all their siblings together. A lot of things like Family Home Evening were foreign to me in practice although I heard such things mentioned and even attended/had a few along my way. Granted, I clued in more as I got older ….

    I could probably ramble in several different directions, but I’d like to comment and what I think is the best and worst that I got out of that dynamic … ???

    Best – I feel that I can recognize people for who they are and not by status in the Church. Granted … that took me a while, but after enough time growing up with the demarcation (member or non-member) on a daily basis, I realized how little use it really did me in dealing with people. I remember realizing how wonderful my grandma was ‘despite being a Methodist’ as she supported and respected my missionary activity.

    Worst – The ability to rationalize away certain aspects/commandments. In a way, I’m still adjusting to ‘how much church I can take’ (despite surviving my mission, BYU etc.) My dad had his own bouts with inactivity and accomodations were made to keep peace in the family at times. If the gas tank was empty, we’d fill it up on Sunday. If concessions were made to ‘keep the peace’, all I knew was ‘hey, we’re going on a trip to Gettysburg today instead of Church … cool!’ But, I guess I can’t use that excuse anymore, eh? ;)

    It’s interesting to see the difference between my wife on things such as ‘traditions’, family reunions, family closeness/contact and the like. My wife may gasp at certain comments made while my family is visiting and comment on it later while it’s very matter of fact to me. At other times, I’m the only one who doesn’t know the rules of this game that everyone plays in hers. It’s odd … but I guess in a way, I’m the non-member of the two of us … although we’re both members. My friends tend to be all over and moreso non-members, while hers are mainly in the church (where she feels comfortable with them).

    Funny to think about that now … of course, if I come back to this/think about it more, I may have a different take on it.

  9. danithew on December 7, 2004 at 3:46 pm

    In our ward boundaries, two couples were recently receiving discussions. In both cases the wife was interested and the husband was less-than-interested. No baptisms have resulted but it’s a really good question that’s being asked here.

  10. zippy on December 7, 2004 at 4:18 pm

    I’m married to a non-LDS man. Thing is I married him at a time when I was inactive. He had investigated the chrch at one time but sort of tripped into some of the missinformation that is circulating out in the world. I found myself defending this faith of mine that I hadn’t been involved in for ten+ years. Eventually I began to dig more for answers because I knew they were out there. As odd as it sounds I found myself wanting more and more. After eight years of marriage I’m still going to church and I take our two kids and everything is fine. I’m sad that it took this relationship to make me look at what I had. My husband is not interested in joining the church but he does accompany me and the kids to some of the church social events and he’ll take in a meeting every now and then. I’m not sure I blame him for his current position on the LDS church. He had a step-father that was very abusive to his entire family who was an inactive LDS member. Then he was married to a women who joined the church and then cheated on him with his brother who was himself a new convert to the church. I find this all a little problematic. I hope that I can help him overcome the pain that all these people have caused in his life. One thing I am grateful for is that I found my way back. Some of us have it easy and some of us don’t. I do believe that someday he will have a change of heart. Sooner would be better than later but I think timing has much to do with these things.

  11. Mathew on December 7, 2004 at 5:43 pm

    The NYT has an interesting article on non-Jews seeking Jewish mates through J-Date (a Jewish singles site (as any East Coast law school grad knows)). Not exactly the same thing as you are discussing here, but close enough to merit mention.

  12. Charles on December 7, 2004 at 5:43 pm

    Zippy,

    One of the challenges we face as members is that we are all held up to some standard when people recognize us as members. We are often subconsciously judged. Unfortunately, active and inactive members alike are still just human. I know it can be difficult with all the information available on line and negative experiences with members. I’m sorry the ordeal was hard but grateful that it helped you focus on what you were missing in life.

    As I said earlier, I’m grateful for people like your husband, while he may not share your faith he at least supports you in it. I’ve seen too many people that drag their spouse to thier church or out to sunday brunch with the family and won’t allow for church visitors or other interactons.

  13. Mathew on December 7, 2004 at 5:44 pm

    The NYT article I mention above can be found here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/05/fashion/05DATE.html

    Apologies for the confusion.

  14. Ann on December 7, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    As Mr. Barney points out, member couples who become part-member couples because one person no longer believes are also a thorny problem. In my observation, among these couples, the ones who have it hardest are the ones who feel they have to “pretend” to believe to keep the peace at home. They feel that their marriages would be severely threatened by being honest about their evolving beliefs.

    The unbelieving spouse sometimes feels that their believing companion is more interested in appearances and roles – “I married an honorable priesthood holder in the temple and by golly that’s what you’re going to be!” – than in the real human being they are sharing a life with. Recent talks by Jeffrey R. Holland and Neal Maxwell emphasize that anything less than complete belief is not acceptable, which marginalizes the unbelieving spouse in the LDS community. Some of these people despair at a marriage that cannot be based on honesty if it is to continue, in a community that tells them they have nothing to offer if they don’t play the game.

    There is almost no place to serve in the church if you just want to show up on Sundays and take communion with a group of friendly Christians, but don’t believe in “onlytrueness” or the Restoration, or accept the Book of Mormon as a scripture (unless, of course, you play the piano). Every single meeting you attend is just a reminder that you don’t belong, and that you’ve failed your partner in the thing that matters most to them.

    If these people do share their feelings with their spouse, they can be marginalized at home, excluded from taking part in the spiritual life of their children, or pushed into “playing along” for the sake of appearances.

    That missionary work ENCOURAGES these kinds of problems by baptizing one spouse without the other is a real problem, IMO. Potential converts and their spouses simply can’t know the demands that will be placed on them and their relationship after baptism. The spouse is diminished to “potential convert” status in the eyes of the members, and the new member feels like a failure if s/he can’t bring the spouse to “see the light.” Respect for the other’s choices can decline. The marriage partnership is weakened.

    People get to make their own choices, of course. But I think the church’s response to such situations ought to be wariness, and a long “trial membership” by the potential convert.

  15. Adam Greenwood on December 7, 2004 at 6:08 pm

    One of the two people that got baptized during my mission (yay, Spain!) was the wife of a construction worker. He was pretty disgruntled about her getting baptized but something about the baptism himself set him off. He swore and, from what I hear, beat her pretty badly that night. Again, from what I hear, she only has the most furtive contacts with the saints now. I wrote to her once, but haven’t since. It seemed too risky.

    I admit that we saw that something like this might happen when she started getting interested in the church, but we just didn’t think it was our place to turn her away. I hope we did the right thing.

  16. Hanna on December 7, 2004 at 6:37 pm

    My mother joined the church when I was 8. My father was then and still is now an atheist. At the time, I wanted to be baptized too, but my reasons had more to do with handsome missionaries, free books (I was a voracious reader), and the delicious treats offered at the Family Home Evenings held by our Mormon neighbors. My father asked me to wait until I knew more about the church before I was baptized. I went to church only sporadically until my teenage years, when I developed a true desire to know more, took the missionary discussions, and was baptized as a “convert” with my father’s full blessing, because I was able to demonstrate that this was MY choice, and something I was well-versed about.

    As a result, despite periods when my mother has been somewhat inactive, I avoided much of the confusion of the teenage years by staying close to the church and what I knew to be right. I believe my testimony is stronger because of my part-member family.

    Of course, I am lucky in that my father, while he does not believe in any form of God, is nevertheless a very moral man who can appreciate a church that encourages his daughter not to drink, take drugs, lie, steal, etc., and has been more than willing to drive me to seminary early in the mornings, ask me about what I have learned in church or Institute (I am now in university), attended Church potlucks, gone camping with the Scouts, etc.

    Would I prefer it if my father had/would join the church? Absolutely. But would I prefer it if the missionaries had refused baptism, membership in the church, and all the attendant blessings to my mother, and later, to me, simply because my father (and siblings) were not also being baptised? I think the answer’s obvious.

  17. peep on December 7, 2004 at 8:14 pm

    i am one of those spouses that has lost their testimony of the church after getting married.

    although i was never what one could consider a “peter priesthood,” i believed in the church and had reached all of the important mormon milestones (mission, temple, byu, etc.) and went into the marriage fully expecting to be an active mormon and raise my children as such.

    not too long ago i completely lost my testimony of the literalness of most of mormonism’s truth claims, and felt that i had to tell my wife. it’s been an interesting experience and i’m glad that she’s been so understanding. it was tough at first, because it was like i dropped a bomb on her. she was upset because we had been married in the temple, and felt like i was denying a very important part of why we were together. but fortunately she loves me more than the idea of being married to a perfect mormon, and is trying to be understanding and willing to work w/ my new worldview. currently she is not interested in exploring my reasons for disbelief, and that is fine, altough it bothers me a little. if the roles were reversed i would definitely want to know what had ruined my wife’s testimony.

    i have to admit that had i come to the same conclusions about the church while single i would have most likely quietly drifted into inactivity. but with a wife and baby this wasn’t really an option. i have committed to attending church w/ her for as long as she wants me to, but have also told her that i will not feign belief, and will be very upfront w/ bishops and others about my beliefs. however, there are a lot of issues that i know will come up in the future. will i want my children to be baptized? what will i teach them about the church, or in other words, how upfront will i be w/ them regarding my disbelief? how will we deal w/ issues like tithing? will i grow uncomfortable attending and want to quit going to church altogether? how will we deal w/ our extended families? i’m not sure how these issues will work themselves out, but i believe that i inevitably will have to deal w/ them.

    there are a lot of people like myself out there, and many have fared much worse than i have, w/ a good number of divorces. like another poster said, there is little room in the church for those who don’t believe in the literalness of it all. and there is a lot of pressure for people to conform to the mormon idea of perfect families.

    i guess the main point i want to make is that people’s beliefs can change after marriage, and often it can be ugly. if this happens to anyone reading this please be supportive and realize that although your spouse may have different beliefs now, that they likely still love you very much and want to make your marriage work.

  18. Ivan Wolfe on December 7, 2004 at 8:44 pm

    It’s a hard decision.

    On my mission, we had a lady who was very, very, very interested in the church. Her husband was not, and told us we were not welcome in his household. His wife, in order to keep harmony with the husband, requested we not contact her until she contacts us (hoping her husband migh soften up).

    We mentioned this incident to our mission president, and he declared that the husband didn’t matter. We should contact the wife and teach her when the husband wasn’t home (since he was a truck driver, this could often be for weeks at a time).

    My companion and I declined to do so, and this made our president somewhat upset. He read us scriptures about leaving your family for the gospel if that was what was required. I responded with Joseph Smith’s statement about how we should acquire the persmission of the head of the household before we could preach therein. Our mission president told me that this lady’s salvation might be on my head if I failed to convert her.

    I said I’d pray about it. After doing so, my comp and I decided that we should not try and contact her, especially since she had requested we not do so.

    It’s a hard decision when a young missionary, especially with a mission president concerned more with sheer numbers of baptisms than anything else. (It didn’t help when an Apostle came out and told our president we didn’t have enough baptisms. But I digress – that’s another topic for another thread).

  19. Wilfried on December 7, 2004 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you, my friends, Mormon or non-Mormon or ex-Mormon spouses, for sharing your feelings and for your candor. There are valuable lessons to be drawn from what each of you said. It is important that we learn about the struggles you describe, whether you are active or semi-active or non-active, in whatever religious affiliation or non-religious ideology. The ability to cope with diversity, respectfully, is something that requires a lot of emotional maturity. We need to hear about your experiences to help us educate ourselves.

    Ivan, I take my hat off to missionaries who did what you and your companion did. Over the years I also witnessed a few cases where young missionaries were wiser than a mission president eager to get the numbers. I understand things have somewhat changed these past few years and that much more concern is given to other factors than statistics. What year were you on your mission?

  20. gunner on December 7, 2004 at 10:13 pm

    A problem I see is the churches desire for everyone to be a missionary and spread the.gospel. I know of one lady who is so hyped about converting her husband that the main stress in the family is caused by her. Sometimes one member is enough, even if it is not a priesthood holder.

    If from the start they understand that they each have a seperate faith and that the other should not be forced through guilt to change then there is a lot of hope.

  21. Charlene on December 8, 2004 at 1:49 am

    I have to comment on this topic that is so close to my heart. Four years after marrying in the temple (and serving 2 1/2 yrs as a missionary) dh left the church. It has been a long and difficult journey to find peace and balance with this. There are a lot of social attitudes among church members (like Ann mentions–the spouse is marginalized, the wife feels guilt for not getting him to “see the light”) that have made this even more difficult.

    Yet, in the end, this has been a good thing for me. It has compelled me to shed some of my “Mormonish judgmentalism”, to see my husband as a child of God, as He sees him, not as an elder or an inactive or whatever other label we so often use. It has shown me how to untangle the issues of gospel/church from marriage/relationship. It has forced me to look more closely at my own belief–why I believe, how I can best express that belief, how that belief strengthens me, my marriage and my family. My marriage, now disentangled from church expectations, is stronger. And my belief, now disentangled from a girlish fantasy of a “happily-ever-after eternal marriage”, is stronger.

    I am saddened when I hear about marriages that are threatened or weakened by a spouse’s difference in belief. The Gospel should strengthen and enhance our relationships, not harm them. If it a difference of belief threatens a marriage, then what are we doing wrong?

  22. Rob Briggs on December 8, 2004 at 2:37 am

    Peep, thanks for posting. You may feel ExMo betrayal but you didn’t allow ExMo hatred to seep into the tone of your post. .I for one appreciate it. Wishing you well,

    Charlene: Wow. I’m very impressed by your description of your “maturation” process.

    Best to both of you,

  23. Ivan Wolfe on December 8, 2004 at 12:39 pm

    Wilifred -

    I was on my mission from ’93 – ’95.

    (of course, that doesn’t tell the half of it. The real answer of “where and when did you serve” takes, for me, several paragraphs to answer, since it was a bizarre and convoluted two years).

  24. Russ on December 8, 2004 at 1:44 pm

    Thank you for the original article and for all your comments. I am one of the deconversion types, a mid-40s guy who went on a mission and married in the temple, only to find myself desperately wanting completely out. My wife actually went so far a few weeks ago to want a divorce over the issue; later, when she could be more rational, there were two other serious issues that were at the core of her desire, but for which she claimed that my “deteriorating attitude toward the church” was the primary reason.

    Things came to a head on a Saturday morning when we had slept in and were finally rested enough to talk like adults, and at the point where I tried to explain that my lifelong church experience has caused me pain, I actually felt pain, and I was overcome with great heaving sobs reflecting that pain. I had no idea that I was even capable of feeling that much emotion. And this was not just an act to get her to change her mind — it was a true feeling, much as those who are totally committed to the church (for whatever reason) believe in the burning in the bosom. This was true heartburning in my bosom.

    As for my own personal stance, I still attend sacrament meeting with my wife, but only because I am the organist and she is the director. We do well together, and if that keeps her satisfied, I am OK with that. But I leave immediately after. While there, I do not partake of the sacrament, and I have removed my garments. (Nearly 2 yrs now on the sacrament and over a year on the garments.) But I wonder about the long-term issues, such as when my children start to marry in the temple. One son is already home from a mission, my youngest son has about 1.5 yrs until he becomes deacon age. I do not wish to participate in those things, especially not if it means becoming a recommend holder only to participate in the marriage. I don’t see any benefit in doing that, and especially since I would have to lie about some things, which I will not do.

    Interestingly, my wife isn’t really that into church herself, and freely admits that she sits on the fence and doesn’t think she has enough whatever to make a firm choice either way. As long as she tolerates my for my unbelief, I will tolerate her for her lack of motivation to move either way.

  25. Janey on December 8, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    http://www.newordermormon.org has a discussion board for people who find they don’t believe all the Mormon doctrine, but retain some level of Church activity for family or social reasons. There is a lot of discussion over on that site about how to handle issues with the spouse and kids during a “deconversion.”

  26. David on December 8, 2004 at 4:04 pm

    My life has both experiences. I was raised in a Part Member family to a woman who was dedicated to getting me to church. My father was the target of conversion, but stood firmly against contact with the church. I became quite the believer as a youth. I assume my mother had problems at a family oriented church, but to my knowledge, never was marginalized as a member.

    I served a mission and married in the temple. Then I had a change of heart. Now I face problems similar to what Ann and peep mentioned.

    Anytime one of the members of a marriage has a change in their religious views, the marriage faces a challenge. The key is for both partners to understand the other without trying to judge.

  27. Adam Greenwood on December 9, 2004 at 5:03 pm

    Thanks, Charlene.
    We all hope husbands and wives don’t lose the faith. But if they do, lets have your attitude.