Interfaith: Experiencing the Freedom of Dating a Non-Mormon
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.