Interfaith: Experiencing the Freedom of Dating a Non-Mormon

By Amelia

Ten years ago, I was living in London where my friends and I often engaged in long, provocative discussions that sometimes lasted all night. One night we had a long talk about whether we would marry men who were not Mormon. And I stated my willingness to do so. I had absolute trust in my loving Father-God that somehow it would work out that people who had the kind of marriage I wanted to have—a trusting, loving, deeply committed companionate marriage—would not be separated in the eternities.

Since that conversation in London, I’ve dated three men who are not members of the church. I’d been friends with the first—J(1)—for a couple of years before our relationship became romantic. In many ways our relationship was very good, but we both knew it couldn’t last more than a few months for a variety of reasons. Although we had several intense conversations about our different religious beliefs, our relationship ended for much more pragmatic reasons. Knowing the relationship would be short-lived, J(1) didn’t make an issue of religion at the time. But when I asked him two years later whether he would consider dating someone with religious beliefs as strong as my own, he said simply ‘No.’ I’m not sure how we would have navigated that tension had the relationship been more open-ended.

The second one—J(2)—I met online. We spent hours IMing until it felt like I knew him far better than I actually did. J(2) identified himself as agnostic on his profile. He didn’t want to have children. We’d talked about both of those things while chatting and we both felt like it was worth meeting in spite of those differences. We had a wonderful first date and dated for about ten weeks. But our differences in religious belief were problematic from the beginning. Eventually I realized that, almost every time I saw him, J(2) would manipulate me into justifying my belief in God. He claimed to not “believe” anything himself unless he could prove it—that “belief” was indicative of an inability or unwillingness to examine life and deal with its hard realities. And he wanted me to have the same standard—to only believe what was demonstrable. So if I believed in God, I must be able to demonstrate God’s existence. As you can imagine, the relationship soured.

In the immediate aftermath of that relationship, I lost some of my willingness to date non-Mormon men. For the first time, I had been forced to face some of the problems that could arise when dating a non-Mormon. And they had been insurmountable in that relationship. Given J(2)’s apparent commitment to either completely understanding my belief himself or convincing me of its error, there seemed no way to navigate our differences of belief. Having been deeply hurt, I associated that hurt with the problems arising from religious difference and resolved that, for my own sake, I shouldn’t pursue relationships with non-Mormon men.

Since my relationship with J(2) ended, my immediate rejection of dating more non-Mormon men has tempered. With time I realized that the real problem was not the simple fact of our different religious beliefs, but rather J(2)’s inability or unwillingness to accept that we believed differently. I recognized that the heart of the matter was each partner’s willingness to accept the other’s beliefs without either 1. having to understand perfectly those beliefs oneself; or 2. trying to change the other’s beliefs. So by last year, I had returned to a point much closer to the ideal I had espoused as an admittedly very idealistic 22-year-old engaged in an abstract conversation about a very difficult reality while sitting in a London flat.

Last fall I had another long conversation with a friend about dating and marrying a non-Mormon. When my friend asked me if I would consider dating and marrying someone who didn’t share my faith, I told her I would. My only qualification: that he accept my belief. Not that he accept my belief as his own; just that he accept that I believe what I believe without feeling compelled to change it or to make me justify it.

Only a few weeks later, J(wh) asked me out. I’d met him nearly a year earlier at Jana’s home for a day-after-Thanksgiving anti-consumerism party. He says I completely ignored him there, despite his best efforts to engage me in conversation (I don’t remember ignoring him, but I must say it’s possible; I’m not always the best at socializing with strangers). We encountered each other occasionally when he came to our Mormon studies group. He sat next to me when I attended Quaker meeting with Jana and her family (J(wh) is Quaker). We commented on each other’s blogs occasionally. And last fall, pricked by something I’d written on my blog, he asked me out. By email, because he didn’t have my number.

Now, I have a pretty standard policy of saying yes to just about any man who asks me out. He’d have to creep me out for me to say no. Either that or be involved in another relationship (no sister-girlfriend status for me, thank you very much). And when it’s a man as interesting and intelligent as I knew J(wh) to be, I definitely say yes. So I surprised him a bit by calling him back and saying that yes—I’d love to get dinner with him on a “casual date.”

Our first few dates all ended with us sitting in his car, in a campus parking garage, talking—talking for two or three or four hours at a time. It was the talking like that in a boring old parking garage that hooked me on that first date. And in those conversations Mormonism came up several times. I remember having similar conversations on at least two or three occasions about things like the Mormon modesty dress code or the Word of Wisdom being means of social control. And I worried that J(wh) was doing something very similar to what J(2) had done—constructing the same argument over and over, asking me to make sense of something he found nonsensical in the name of wanting to understand but really in order to force me to change that thinking.

I almost didn’t make it to date four. I knew I couldn’t handle the pain of falling for another wonderful man who couldn’t accept my religious beliefs. And that seemed the direction I was headed. I canceled our fourth date on the rather flimsy excuse of not feeling well. Fortunately I have a conscience that made me feel bad for doing so, so I proposed an alternate date for a few days later. But even as I did, I contemplated canceling that one, too.

When I went on that fourth date, I thought it would likely be the end of our dating. Late that night when we sat in a UCI parking garage talking, we made another foray into the familiar territory of Mormon practices being a form of social control. And my heart sunk a bit. Because I’d had so much fun with J(wh) and I wanted it to work. But I knew I couldn’t always be fighting the same challenge over and over. And then he surprised me by saying he felt like I was arguing with someone who wasn’t there. That he didn’t want to have that conversation with me. That my belief didn’t bother him. And suggested that maybe I was the one forcing the conversation. Then we talked about other things. And he put his arm around my shoulders for the first time, and I rested my head on his shoulder, and I knew there would be a fifth date.

During the six months I’ve been dating J(wh), I’ve been happy. Not everything has been easy. I still struggle with my schooling. I still deal with deep feelings of inadequacy. And J(wh) and I have had some difficult conversations about what our religious differences mean—in our present and in any possible future. We’re not talking about marrying each other in concrete terms, but we’ve talked about the possibility. Those conversations naturally include how we would navigate our differing religious beliefs were we married, especially if we have children. We haven’t resolved anything as far as details are concerned. But I know one thing: if our relationship continues as it’s begun, I want to marry J(wh). And I have no doubt that together we can handle any challenge our differing religious backgrounds and beliefs may pose.

Why am I telling you all of this? A few days ago one of our readers emailed asking if we had any posts about interfaith relationships or marriage and Caroline (who was among the first confidants I talked to about dating J(wh)) asked if I would be willing to write about the topic. I resisted at first. It seemed like I was being asked to justify dating someone who is not Mormon—to explain why it’s okay. And I’m not comfortable doing that. First because the whole exercise of justification seems to imply something wrong with such a relationship. And I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with my relationship with J(wh) or, by extension, anything inherently wrong with interfaith relationships in the abstract. My experience has helped me understand that each relationship succeeds or fails based on the realities of that particular relationship, not based on generalities. Certainly some generalizations can be made. Maybe it’s often true that differing religious beliefs cause relationship tension and therefore relationship failure. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think a relationship succeeds or fails because of the specific dynamics between two people and whether they deal charitably with each other.

Which leads me to my second reason for feeling uncomfortable justifying interfaith relationships: my peace in my current relationship is so very personal that I would never suggest that anyone else could find the same exact peace or that there’s some formulaic explanation for why it’s “okay” to date or marry someone who is not Mormon. To a large extent, that peace has everything to do with my own peculiar relationship with the Mormon church. I actively participate in the church. I have two callings. I attend weekly (though I occasionally miss church to attend Quaker meeting with J(wh)). I think of myself as a believing Mormon—one who accepts and embraces the gospel of Jesus Christ. That gospel has thoroughly informed my understanding of the world and how I try to live in it. But that same understanding shaped by Christ’s gospel often conflicts with what I hear taught at church and see practiced by Mormons. The church’s past practices regarding blacks and its current practices regarding women deeply trouble me. My ideas about equity, social justice, gender, politics, and marriage, among other things, generally oppose “typical” Mormon ideas on those matters. All of which has resulted in not insignificant cognitive dissonance as I’ve tried to navigate my life. My relationships with J(1) and J(2) left me feeling like I had to defend my belief in and practice of Mormonism. Dating Mormon men has often left me feeling like I had to defend my differences of opinion with mainstream Mormonism. With J(wh) I have found acceptance of both my belief in and practice of Mormonism and my differences of opinion with Mormonism. The result is an incredible freedom to simply, and happily, be myself.

So instead of trying to justify or explain why I think it’s okay to be in a relationship with someone who is not Mormon, I’ve shared my experience. I don’t think about dating J(wh) in terms of whether or not it’s “okay.” I am beautifully happy with him. And he is beautifully happy with me. And I believe with utter conviction that anything this good is blessed by God. I can honestly say that I have not had one single moment of worry about what will come in the next life if I were to marry J(wh). Because I trust God and his infinite goodness. Because I believe he wants me to be happy now, in this life, rather than wanting me to suffer in the name of an abstract ideal. Because I believe he cares more about how I live each daily moment of my life than about whether I check everything off the list. I can’t fully articulate my trust in God’s grace and love. I can only say that I believe in a loving, graceful, good God and that belief fills me with trust that he will honor the kind of relationship J(wh) and I currently have and would continue to develop. I offer this not as an assertion that everyone should feel similarly; I offer it only as my own deeply personal experience—an experience which reverberates with a peace and joy I have rarely felt in my life.

Amelia

Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She's a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She's passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

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20 Responses

  1. Jana says:

    Amelia, thanks so much for sharing this. I’ll have to admit that I was quite concerned when I heard that you two were dating, but then when I first saw you together as a couple I realized that I’d never seen either of you happier.

    So best of luck to you and JW–wherever this journey make take you two. 🙂

  2. Deborah says:

    As the other x2 blogger in an interfaith relationship, I really appreciate your nuanced thoughts on this. Merging faith traditions has its obvious and less obvious challenges but — as a perceptive bishopric member once said when I turned to him for dating counsel after hearing from a series of concerned ward members one Sunday — “at the end of the day, it’s about two people trying to make it work. That’s what a marriage is, day in an day out. Look who he is. Carefully. Look at who you are. Look at what you are together. Look at the soul. And take these observations to God in prayer.”

    If I were to retitle this post, I might say simply: “Experiencing the Freedom a Finding Kindred Soul.” I’ll chime in more later, but so nice to hear that (for now or forever) you have found something worth celebrating . . . .

  3. Keri Brooks says:

    Thank you for this post. Your honesty about both the negative and positive experiences you’ve had is helpful. I’m glad you’ve found a happy relationship.

  4. Seraphine says:

    Thank-you for sharing this.

  5. amelia says:

    Jana: your initial concern doesn’t surprise me. i admit to a great deal of initial concern myself. 🙂 and thank you for your good wishes–it means so much to me to have them.

    Deborah: thanks for sharing your bishopric member’s perceptive counsel. one of the things that regularly surprises me is that we fail to recognize that there could be tension because of differences of religious belief in a marriage between two mormons, too. which is why dating and marriage ultimately have to be about the people involved and their very personal compatibility and shared values, not simply about shared traditions or formal belief systems.

  6. Caroline says:

    Amy, I love this post. Thank you so much for writing this.

    Like you mention, there can be tension in Mormon-Mormon marriages too when it comes to religious practice or what to teach children. I’m in one of those marriages. Mike and I say we have an interfaith Mormon marriage since our approaches are so different.

    It would be nice if we were on the same page a bit more in some ways, but I adore who he is and all the good that is inside of him. We stretch each other, and we see the noble ideals in each other, even if we come to different conclusions.
    Amy, I love that last paragraph you wrote. This sentence particularly resonated with me. “Because I believe he wants me to be happy now, in this life, rather than wanting me to suffer in the name of an abstract ideal.”

  7. Kaimi says:

    A whole post, and nary a lowercase sentence in sight. You really are turning over a new leaf, aren’t you? 😛

    I liked your post. It sounds like you’re in a good place right now, and that’s all that any of us can hope for.

    p.s. Is this the same J(wh) who regularly comments at Pilgrimgirl? I always enjoy his comments — he seems like a good guy.

  8. amelia says:

    caroline: i have always assumed god wants me to be happy. it’s just that in the past, that assumption necessarily implied that he would therefore give me exactly what i thought he prescribed in order to achieve happiness. and one of those things was certainly marrying a nice mormon man in the temple and having babies. the thing that has changed is my willingness to find happiness where it lies, rather than imagining it must come in preconceived shapes and sizes.

    Kaimi: I’ll capitalize. Just for you. 🙂 Yes, this J(wh) is the same J(wh) who comments at pilgrimsteps. He’s good friends with Jana and John. And he is a good guy. The best, in fact.

  9. Mudphud says:

    I’d rather be married to a non-Mormon than an Orthodox Mormon any day of the week.

    Jack Mormons or respectful non-Mormons are ideal.

  10. J(wh) says:

    As a non-member, I think that the unhealthy attention paid to the afterlife seems to make problems with interfaith relationships a self-fulfilling prophecy. Relationships can have tricky issues that have to do with -this- life. Worrying about the next one seems … silly.

    But then again, my views are shaped by my Quaker upbringing. When someone tells me that God requires ceremony, ritual, and hierarchy, I scratch my head, shrug my shoulders, and keep on keeping on.

  11. Chrystabel says:

    Amelia,

    I don’t often comment on this blog but I read it all of the time. This is a beautiful and thoughtful post.

    Nine years ago I took the plunge and married someone outside the faith. Me, an R.M. who vowed NEVER to date a non-member! But you know the old cliche…

    When we were first married no one could understand my decision. I felt I needed to justify it. But for me it wasn’t about “member” or “non-member”-it was about my husband and how we fit together as a couple. I had prayed about the decision and the Lord wasn’t against it at all. I was told that if I was personally righteous all would work out the way it should.

    It might be a bit platonistic of me-but he is my other half. We are “something special” together and we knew it even then. I couldn’t pass up a chance to marry him. I love him so much.

    Love. People say love isn’t enough but, at least in my experience, it is. We have had fierce debates about the gospel and the afterlife. When I first met him he thought the church was a cult and I was a naive child. I also had a few conceits and problems of my own; it took a few years for me to stop projecting my own insecurities onto him and become humble to learn from his spirituality.

    Recently he joined the church and we were sealed with our five children in the temple. He made this choice of his own volition without any pressure from me. It was not expected and I am still a little amazed when I think about it. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I had always hoped a bit for this to happen…but the time when it did happen I felt very secure in our relationship and knew I loved him for who he was and not what he could become.

    A friend asked me once: “If you knew from the beginning that your husband would never have joined the church would you have still married him?”

    I told her yes.

  12. Deborah says:

    Chrystabel: I loved reading your response. Absent the part about my husband joining the church, I could have written most of those paragraphs — including the initial feeling like I had to justify my relationship — and the resulting insecurity of merging my family life and my church life. Thanks for sharing your story.

    J(wh): My husband is similarly baffled by the focus on ceremony. I have found that, in a long-term interfaith relationship, the Mormon half either decides 1) God is just and merciful — thank goodness for our belief in posthumous rituals or 2) God is just and merciful and will work it out in the end — maybe these rituals are less important than our commitment. Either way, it comes down to trusting that God is Love.

  13. amelia says:

    chrystabel: thanks so much for sharing your experience. your comment about projecting your insecurities onto your husband really struck me. i don’t know if “insecurities” is the right word or not, but i’ve certainly done some projecting about religion. i mentioned J(wh) commenting that it felt like I was the one forcing the conversations in which we argued about mormonism being a version of social control. And i’ve done something similar in several other conversations–projecting my own issues and struggles with the church onto him and then arguing with him as if the problem weren’t actually my own. I’m not entirely sure why I do it. It usually happens at moments when some catalyst has sparked my issues with the church. Maybe it’s some twisted coping mechanism for doubting my own faith tradition and admiring J(wh)’s. What reassures me that this kind of encounter won’t end up being a real problem is that both J(wh) and I are honest and blunt enough to say what we think and see happening in the conversation. And there’s so much acceptance without judgment.

    your story also got me thinking about the hope for a partner to join the church. the only time my parents and I had a rather heated conversation about my dating J(wh), they repeatedly reminded me that I couldn’t count on him joining the church. And I often wonder how many others look at our relationship and think I’m hoping that will happen. I’m not. I suppose that if he decided to join the church, I would be happy. But I don’t feeling anything that I would call hope in that direction. And that absence of hope is actually one of the things that makes our relationship so good. I love him for who and what he is, not for what I hope he will become. I’m fairly confident that he will never join the church. Like you, having that knowledge has no affect on my commitment to our relationship.

  14. Mudphud says:

    Here is my rationalization of my own form of Mormon (dis)belief, which may be only partly relevant. I’m mostly just expressing my opinion about religious labels and why they don’t matter too much.

    My family has always been unusual about Mormonism. My parents insisted on all the kids attending BYU and serving a mission, but they have always leaned on the side of doubt, criticism, and disbelief when it comes to the Church organization and even doctrinal issues.

    In my opinion, the difference between Mormons and non-Mormons is often just a label.

    Mormons come in all shapes and sizes, just like Quakers and everyone else under the sun. It’s just that Mormon variation is usually hidden inside a very Mormon-looking shell.

    Perhaps the major difference is that Mormons indoctrinate their kids uniformly and expect uniform appearance and behavior. A Mormon kid in Tokyo is going to learn the same things as a Mormon kid in Salt Lake. The Mormon product is very predictable. I’m not saying this is good or bad–but it is a major difference between Mormonism and most other religions.

    Another issue with Mormonism as a culture is that there isn’t much freedom of speech (except on the internet). But there are ways of coping with that problem (blogs).

    I think the choice of whether to be labeled “Mormon” or not depends on a person’s willingness to attend Mormon Church. I love being a Mormon. Even though I intellectually disagree with a lot of what I hear at Mormon Church, I genuinely admire the Mormon product. I enjoy my own inner struggle between conforming and dissenting. I doubt if I’d choose Mormonism if I hadn’t been born into it. And I would never blame someone for not choosing Mormonism, because Mormonism is dang weird. We have our own underwear, for pete’s sake. But that’s also part of the fun, I suppose.

    Mormon meetings can be boring as heck, so I always bring additional non-religious reading material, and I try to socialize. My mom always taught me that smart people don’t ever get bored because they always find a way to make things interesting.

    Also, in some ways it’s more fun to belong to a Church where you only agree with a portion of what’s said over the pulpit. It makes for entertaining discussions at home after Church.

    I guess my point is that if someone doesn’t want to be 100% Mormon, he/she always has the option of being 2% or 20% Mormon. The label is optional.

  15. Rachel says:

    amelia…thank you! i’m the reader that was looking for more people in a similar siutation as mine. i hope you didn’t feel you had to justify your relationship because of my inquiry. sorry if you did.

    i’ve been in an interfaith relationship for the past year. it’s been wonderful!! i can’t imagine finding someone better suited for me than him. i feel like i can talk more openly with him about religion and spiritual matters than any other person i’ve dated.

    i too never questioned what would happy to us after this life b/c God is loving and i trust in him. i feel very blessed.

    i just discovered this site a few months ago and finally feel i’ve found a group of LDS women that i can relate to. thanks to all of you!!

  16. Kirsten says:

    Amelia,
    Thank you for a truly thought-provoking, insightful post. I am not in an inter-faith marriage, but what I might classify as an “inter-Mormon” marriage. My husband and I feel differently about various doctrines and traditions at times. Fortunately we agree on most things so any arguments are limited.
    I think the heart and soul of the person you are with means more than any religious affiliation. The “Mormon” label doesn’t not guarantee a loving, satisfying relationship.
    I also appreciated your comments about your relationship with the Church. I, too, am active and participate fully, but find that there are times when the “Handbook” seems to clash with what Charity might demand. Issues about gender, social justice, equity, etc. are ones I pray to find answers for. And until I do, I choose to believe in a God who loves each of us and wants the best for us here on earth and in the life to come.

  17. catBonny says:

    Amy:

    What you said about the peace you have being so personal that you wouldn’t want to try to suggest anyone finds the same peace completely resonates with me, and it something I actually struggle with quite a bit in my onw relationship. As a formerly devout pentecostal Christian who was struggling with my belief when I started dating someone with Quaker leanings, I find that some of my choices in my relationship are highly criticized by those who are from the background that I formerly ascribed to. I recently told a friend of mine that I have complete peace with my situation and with D and My beliefs and our choices as a couple, and that she cannot accept that peace without making a judgment makes me feel like there is a disconnect between us. But I guess you are right, that it’s not really something you can ask someone else to understand or experience, it’s just something that you know is right and good. I really enjoyed reading this and relating to interfaith dating even if I am not coming from a Mormon perspective ont he matter, I feel like I can understand is quite well.

  18. amelia says:

    Mudphud: I really enjoyed reading your take on being Mormon. I’m with you on the label being beside the point. I don’t know if I communicated this very well, but when I say “I suppose” I would be happy if J(wh) joined the church what I mean is that I really don’t care. It’s just entirely beside the point. And some of what you say explains why I feel that way.

    Rachel: I hope the post and all the interesting responses were helpful. And no–your request didn’t make it feel like I had to justify my relationship. I think it’s the larger Mormon cultural context that often leads us to feel like we have to justify any deviation from the norm. Which is a huge problem, but certainly not one of your making. It sounds like you’re happy and at peace in your relationship. And I, for one, believe that when we find love that makes us happy and brings peace and joy into our lives, we should hold onto it and never let it go. Glad you enjoy our online community here. Come back often–we’d love to hear more from you.

    Kirsten: You make such an important point–that just sharing membership in the Mormon church doesn’t mean you won’t have some of the problems that we usually associate with more traditional interfaith relationships. At the end of the day, everyone is going to think about God and spirituality and morality differently, whether they belong to the same faith tradition or not. Ultimately we all have to navigate those problems.

    Bonny: I completely understand the experience you shared. I’ve been very lucky in that my family and closest friends have been very accepting of my relationship with J(wh). But some of them certainly don’t understand how it is that I can feel the peace I do in it. And I try to remember that I can’t really ask them to understand, even though I can and do ask them to accept my relationship and my right to know for myself what is right for me. I’m lucky that I grew up in a family in which our parents respect our right to make such decisions and taught us to respect that right in others. I hope your friend can at least accept your choices, even if perhaps she never really understands them.

  19. Vern says:

    I come from a long lineage of mothers who are members and fathers who are not. Having grown up in this type of a situation, I can honestly say that I did not want this for my children. I love my father dearly and he a good man, but we never held family home evening or had scripture study or prayed as a family because it was simply too awkward around him. He never kept us from going to church but I wouldn’t say that he was supportive either.

    So I chose to marry a member of the church. Let me add that I am probably not your typical member–I’m liberal, lived outside the US for most of my life, have a master’s degree, want to go back to work, have “only” three children, etc. But I think that marriage is hard work and why add more challenges by choosing a mate who is of a different religion?

    I’m not judging anyone, but I thought my perspective–as the child in a part-member family–might be helpful. Not to mention that the statistics show that if one parent is not a member, chances are the children will not join the church either. And I definitely want my children with me forever!

  20. NotAMormon says:

    Wow… great article. As a non-Mormon attending a college that is mostly made up of Mormons it’s really nice to hear that relationship with that kind of religious differences can last so long as six months (or beyond?) without falling apart due to arguments over that kind of thing, or unwanted conversion attempts from either side.

    Maybe I’ll actually be able to gather up the courage to actually ask out one of the really nice Mormon girls I’ve been getting to know this year at school… well, okay, probably not just yet, I think I’d still be too nervous to pull it off, especially since I only asked for a girl’s phone number for the first time just days ago. XD

    But maybe at least it’ll help to know that it’s not completely hopeless, especially if I manage to find someone who’s not quite the “typical” religious girl!

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