My Interfaith Marriage: Reflections, Five Years In
This week, I got an e-mail from an Exponent reader who wanted to hear more about my interfaith marriage, as she is currently dating someone of a different faith. Last weekend, I went out for coffee (okay, hot chocolate) with a member who is 32, single, and wondering if she should open up the dating pool. “What’s it like being married to a non-member?” she asked. A couple of weeks prior, I heard from an old friend who — as an interfaith newlywed — is feeling some anguish over finding her identity in the church. And that’s just this month.
I understand this desire to reach out. When I started dating my (now) husband, I fled to the Exponent II retreat begging for stories, for insights, for people to talk to. I knew there were interfaith marriages out there, but I hadn’t seen any up-close-and-personal, and it felt like I was leaving the well-lit path and lighting out into an unknown wilderness. However, I recently celebrated my five-year anniversary, and I’m happy to report that I’m happy.
I thought I’d use this post to share a few thoughts I’ve had about the religious dynamic of my marriage, five years in. And to share a few links that might add to this discussion. Links first:
- Jana Riess in Sunstone: Strengthening a Part-Member Marriage?
- Exponent Classic: Married to a “NM”
- Me-From-Four-Years-Ago: Interfaith Families
- From Mormon Matters: I’m Okay, You’re Okay
I can unequivocally say that marriage (for me) has been better than courtship. I have had many LDS women friends express the opposite; a whirlwind romance, a spiritual confirmation, a temple marriage — and then the difficult adjustment to early married life. My “difficult adjustment stage” came before the “I do’s.” We dated for three years before he proposed . . . partly because the interfaith aspect gave me no small amount of stress. It wasn’t what I had planned for my life — (and there was the whole fear-of-disappointing-the-parents thing!). I don’t know that there was ever of moment of knowing that I “should” marry this guy. But I did have some strong spiritual promptings BEFORE we started dating that helped me decide to give him a chance. So how did I decide? After years of dating, we really loved each other. Sometimes answers to prayers aren’t claps of inspiration but the ability to look back and recognize where the journey has brought you.
Being in a part-member marriage does lead to certain challenges at the church-participation level. My husband doesn’t attend unless I’m speaking. Just not his thing. One effect is that our social life is largely based outside the LDS-circle because I’m not a “couple” at church, and LDS couples tend to socialize with one another. Also, I find that three hours away every Sunday (really four with travel time) is a lot of time away from my husband on a weekend. Since being released from the primary presidency a year ago, I often leave after sacrament meeting. This does take me away from Relief Society, unfortunately (oh, if only we could have a 2-hour block!). We will likely move soon, and in my new ward I am considering letting the powers-that-be know that (in terms of callings) I will be an “every other week” full-block participant. That feels, right now, like it would be a good way to integrate myself into the ward while still preserving the option of Sunday morning family time. I am open to this dynamic changing through the years.
I still have the occasional well-meaning member who assumes that my marriage must be a “trial” . . . something to mourn at some level. “Doesn’t it make you sad that he isn’t Mormon?” is the most common question. When I am with LDS women I don’t know well, I am quick to preemptively “talk him up” — and let people know that he has no interest in converting and I AM TOTALLY OKAY WITH THAT. Mostly, people are respectful and busy with their own lives and just grateful if you show up and help out. Here’s the only real advice I’m going to offer to those contemplating interfaith marriage: Would you be okay if your spouse never again (or once) set foot inside an LDS chapel? Marriage is complicated enough without entering it with the hope/expectation that your spouse will have a profound change of heart someday.
We have gotten better at talking about spirituality through the years — this relationship has caused me to think about what I mean by terms such as prayer, prompting, grace, Christian, testimony . . . to take them out of “church speak” and talk about them in a way that makes sense to him and us. And that has helped me grow spiritually, I think. Also, because he has no expectations about what I should believe, I have had the space to explore my spirituality without threatening his. This has been both challenging and liberating; I have had to own my spiritual journey. I have also come to value his perspective on hope, intuition, and hero’s journeys — three concepts that influence his sense of spirituality — and learned that, minus the “details,” we have a remarkably similar belief system.
Pre-marriage, one of the best pieces of counsel I received came from a counselor in my single’s ward bishopric (the husband of an amazing Exponent II editor). After a tearful chat one day, he said, “At the end of the day, every marriage is about two people trying to make it work.” Somehow, that stripped down a lot of the labels I was putting on matters. Through the years I’ve come to realize how many LDS marriages are their own form of interfaith marriage — because of differing levels/styles of belief or because one spouse stops believing.
In fact, the first time I found myself in the position of “sharing my interfaith story” came when I was engaged and serving in a Young Women’s presidency. One night, in between planning New Beginnings and a service activity, the YW president told me that her husband no longer had a testimony and wanted to leave the church. That very morning, her mother had urged her to leave him and “come home” — especially since they didn’t have children yet; “start over” so that she could have the future she deserved. “But I love *him,*” she told me. “I really really wish he still believed, but he’s not someone I can exchange for a new model. He’s my best friend.” I saw her anguish and realized that my interfaith marriage would look different than hers in many ways, because I did not enter it with the expectation that he would be a Mormon. Rather, I had to struggle with that change in my expectations during our courtship. I had planned on marrying a Mormon; I fell in love with a man who wasn’t. This woman was feeling a “bait and switch.” Here are a few links that might offer perspective (and company) to those who find themselves in similar situations:
- Jesswhy: Crisis in Marriage (when one spouse in an LDS couple changes his/her beliefs)
- Jana: “And I Hit Him Across the Other Cheek Too”
- This week at Segullah: A discussion on how to respond when a spouse leaves the church
That’s long enough for now. Onto discussion:
- If you are in an interfaith relationship (or one that has evolved through the years to become an mixed-faith relationship), what insights would you add?
- How have your closest relationships (romantic or otherwise) influenced your spiritual journey?
- I am happy to share more of my journey in upcoming posts — what questions do you have or what topics would you want me to introduce for discussion?