Working Through Different Beliefs in a Marriage

I firmly believe that the experiences we have in this life are not only for our personal growth, but also give us an opportunity to connect with and help others who might find themselves in similar circumstances. Bonnie H. Cordon touched on this in the April 2020 General Conference. She said, “…we can be filled with the light of our Savior. However, that light is not meant for you and me alone.” I find the light of the Savior as I recognize the lessons and blessings while I navigate tricky situations in my life. And while I am definitely grateful for the knowledge I gain, I am also well aware that the Lord expects me to use that knowledge to help point others to the Savior.

But what do you do when your experience and lessons learned are woven together tightly with someone else’s? And what if you don’t end up on the same page as you’re navigating those experiences? There is also the challenge of not telling someone else’s story. All of these challenges can make it difficult to know how to share your story while also being respectful of the other person’s path.

This applies in so many situations we may find ourselves in. But, one situation that is extra challenging is speaking about spouses with different beliefs, especially when it comes to spiritual beliefs. While there is the occasional couple who speaks up and is okay sharing both sides, it is way more common for suffering in silence to occur. It is so hard to talk about the struggles of navigating a marriage and parenting children when one spouse is a church going believer and the other feels compelled to follow a different path. 

Unless you have walked this road, the challenges cannot possibly be understood in their entirety. This is different than watching a child or other family member or friend walk away from doctrinal belief. And this is not a challenge unique to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have Christian friends married to Atheists. I know a Muslim friend who is married to a Jehovah’s Witness. Each of these come with their own challenges. My spouse and I were both raised members of The Church of Jesus Christ and have both spent time not participating in the church. A few years ago, I made the decision to fully immerse myself in the church again. My spouse has chosen not to.

While there are many challenges that have arisen, I currently find myself in a space where my beliefs no longer put me at odds with my marriage. It has taken years of personal struggle to get here, but I have come to learn that it is completely possible to have a happy, thriving marriage and family when your religious beliefs do not necessarily line up. There are so many lessons I have learned and I could share numerous experiences that helped me get to where I’m at now. But, I’d like to focus on the three that have been the most challenging for me.

First, parenting children in a way that doesn’t divide. One of the main struggles for me has been having the sole responsibility to teach my kids about spiritual things fall on my shoulders. It is hard getting myself and three children out the door each Sunday to attend meetings. It is hard sitting in the chapel with my three kids and trying to keep them somewhat engaged and calm. It is hard always being the one to round them up to have family prayer and scripture study. It is difficult knowing the best way to approach their questions about why Mom and Dad don’t practice the same things. I don’t have all the answers to their questions and sometimes it would be really nice to be able to pass the buck. I don’t always have the patience to calmly deal with my youngest’s outbursts while the sacrament is being passed. My mental and emotional capacity is limited and if snacks are what help us get through Sunday meetings, then my kids will have snacks and coloring books and toys when others might frown upon such things. Trying to help my kids understand that although Dad’s priorities are not on learning from the scriptures or working on spiritual goals, I still think it’s important for them.

But, here’s one of the awesome things that has come out of parenting in our situation. My true gifts lay in teaching things of a spiritual nature and being nurturing. My husband is awesome at teaching our kids life skills and getting on their level to play with them. Our skill sets compliment each other nicely. We each have an opportunity to parent and teach our children things that we are passionate about. I am free to focus on the things I want to be a top priority in my parenting because he focuses on the things that are a top priority to him. They are not at odds with each other!

Have we had to make compromises along the way? Yes, of course! I say no to a lot of non-essential church things. We don’t attend all the activities or extra meetings. Instead, we typically spend that time together as a family. My husband helps with getting the kids to and from meetings when I need to be there early in order to fulfill my calling. He attended when both of my oldest two made the choice to be baptized. He has supported me when I have had the opportunity to speak by either showing up to sit with the kids while I sit on the stand or he has cleared his schedule to be home so I can do what I do best. On the flip side, I also have to adjust. Oftentimes his only day to not work is Sunday. And while I would prefer to spend Sundays resting, sometimes we take advantage of the fact that Dad is home! We also agreed that if one of the kids wants to choose to not participate at church, they are allowed to make that choice without any pressure from me.

The main thing, however, has been to always speak kindly of each other. Even when one of us is frustrated with choices the other is making, we have an understanding that we speak highly of the other to our children. If the kids have questions about “why doesn’t dad do church stuff with us?”, I direct the kids to him. I don’t answer for him and we have always been open and honest with the kids that it’s okay to believe differently than people you love. Just like we were not all made to look the same, it’s equally okay for us to not believe the same.

Second, not putting church ahead of the spouse. This is another area I have struggled greatly with. In our early years of being married, I experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance that made it difficult for me to separate church and my marriage. This is one aspect that I think is unique to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Our culture is so family oriented and it feels incredibly awkward to show up to church and other events solo. One of the things that really has bothered me are the ‘You’re so strong’ comments or the ‘He’ll come around’ comments. They are well meaning and might even be true, but by making those comments, people are unknowingly insinuating that my spouse has made the wrong choice or that my family will be happy when we are all on the same page. In a previous post, I talked about how the Lord speaks to each of us in our own language and in the timing that is right for each individual person. I firmly believe that applies to each person in a marriage. My path is not the same as my husband’s. Just like the experiences I have had are what led me back to the church, solidified my testimony and my faith in Jesus Christ, my husband’s experiences have shaped his thoughts, beliefs and actions. Acknowledging this has helped relieve me from the bitterness I felt for many years. He doesn’t not attend church to spite me, he’s simply living his own human experience. 

There are many times where I would love to attend a fireside, conference or ward activity. But, I already spend so much time involved in church meetings because of my calling and because of the different things my children are involved with, I have to say No to things. If I didn’t, I would never have time for my spouse. Now I know some will think, ‘Heavenly Father should always be first.’ Well, Heavenly Father and church are not the same, my friends. And the more time I spend communing with my Heavenly Father, the more certain I am that He wants me to choose time with my spouse over a non-essential meeting or activity. In fact, putting my spouse first has strengthened my ability to hear the whisperings of the Spirit.

The third thing I’ll touch on is focusing on the things that matter. In Sister Cordon’s talk ‘That They May See’, she discusses the story of Christ and the woman at the well. She says, “He met the woman where she was and started by talking about something familiar and common.” I spent many years focusing on all the things I didn’t have in common with my husband, and essentially forgetting the six years we were friends and dating prior to getting married. This was not his fault, this was all me. I let myself mistakenly believe that all my frustrations in life were because he didn’t want to go to church with me. Completely ignoring the fact that trials are part of life and that relationships are hard no matter what. We are two imperfect people who chose to do their best to love each other through the learning process. 

In reality, we would both choose hiking in the mountains over relaxing at the beach. Both of us prefer to be at home over a party. We talk frequently about how we can best help our children work through anxiety. Together, we committed to becoming a debt free family. Neither of us wants to live through an ice cold Michigan winter ever again. We want our children to be productive, contributing members of society. He asks me about the books I’m reading and I help him decide which trees to plant in the yard. 

Although the path gets a little windy and cluttered with twigs sometimes, we are generally walking the same direction. I am certain that the Lord has helped me to arrive here. As Sister Cordon taught, “The Holy Ghost will prompt us to know what to say and do. Such attempts may require us to step out of our comfort zone, but we can be assured that the Lord will help our light shine.”

If you find yourself in a similar situation, I promise you that you’re not alone. It may feel that way at times, but the Lord knows you. He knows your spouse. He knows exactly what experiences each of you, individually, needs in order to fulfill your unique purpose and to learn the lessons that will help you continue to grow. You need those experiences to build a stronger marriage. If you are the parent, child, friend, or leader of someone in this situation, “follow the example of Jesus Christ and be compassionately aware of those around” you (Cordon, That They May See). Don’t make assumptions and there is no need to comment on things that don’t involve you. My life motto, and it applies here, has become Just Love.

I know there are many of you reading this who are walking through your own tricky situation. Perhaps you don’t feel you can share your thoughts or feelings, I get that and maybe it’s not right for you to share. No matter what your circumstances are, I hope you can take comfort in one of my favorite verses of scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants,

“…treasure up these words in thy heart. Be faithful and diligent in keeping the commandments of God, and I will encircle thee in the arms of my love.” (D&C 6:20)