“Why do you need to talk about ‘problems in the church’ with your spouse?”

Hellmut asked me to post this. It’s from a recent thread on FLAK, on the topic of marriage. I wrote:

I attribute my divorce squarely to the church. Simply because the church forbade us from talking about the one topic we needed to talk about (problems in the church). If a couple cannot talk about its problems then a marriage cannot survive.

Which led to the perfectly reasonable question,

Why do you need to talk about “problems in the church” with your spouse?

Or put another way, Why do fish need to talk about “problems in the water”?

DW married the church, not me, and I was becoming an irritation. It’s right there in the temple marriage ceremony – you make promises to the church, not the other person – they are just a vehicle to allow you to fulfill your church fantasies.

Our real problem is that, after seventeen years of reading church history (me) and seventeen years of attending Relief Society (DW) we had nothing in common. Except physically being at church. This may not be the case for everyone. The more you have in common, the greater the chance of saving your marriage.

Why didn’t I create some new ‘non-church’ foundations for the marriage? Because all the real estate was already bought by the church. Every area of DW’s life has “Property of Gordon B Hinckley” stamped on it: how to spend money, how to raise children, what movies to enjoy, how to spend weekends, what we do when we get up (very early, to teach seminary), what to do when we go to bed (pray then collapse exhausted, nothing else thank you), at meals, the words we use, the jokes we enjoy… there is no ‘non-church.’ Everything is church.

My being non-church basically meant I didn’t feature in DW’s mind, except as an annoyance and reminder of her biggest failure – marrying a man who couldn’t cut it where it mattered (i.e. regarding church). It’s worth mentioning that before joining the church (1 year before we met), DW was never interested in marriage. But the church’s picture of returned-missionary-and-temple-family was just too enticing for her. At the time I had no intention of ever leaving church, so this suited me just fine. Yes, it’s my own fault for lacking foresight. But I was young and she is beautiful…

At counselling, we were asked to remember times we loved each other. DW remembered all the times I was active at church. Those were the only times.

Why didn’t I just shut up and go through the motions at church? Because our local branch is very small, so being a back row NOM isn’t an option. Back in 1997 I wanted to shrink into the back rows of church. I could have been a NOM forever on the back rows. But instead they made me Branch President – despite my strongest protests and literally begging for release. It was the worst four years of my life, and even DW could see it was destroying me.

In hindsight perhaps we should have moved to a big ward where I could have faded into the background and remained a semi-active NOM, but there were economic reasons against this.

Without Mormonism we COULD have built a good marriage, despite our differences. None of our differences (outside the church) are insurmountable. Sometimes I catch glimpses of how we are really similar deep down, buried deep beneath those endless layers of Mormon silt. DW was once a new convert and a feisty rebel (that’s why I fell in love with her). Meanwhile, I’ve always been the kind of guy who can’t compromise on truth and does everything 110% (it’s the Aspergers) – whatever I set my heart to, I do it with passion. I think we could have made an exciting team, instead of the living death we became. My passion for The Truth complements her flexible humanity. But neither of those things can survive Mormonism.

DW is an intelligent woman. We could have talked this out. But the core issues were off topic.

It’s the classic case of the elephant in the living room, except this one was so big we couldn’t even see each other.

10 thoughts on ““Why do you need to talk about ‘problems in the church’ with your spouse?”

  1. I always think of a scene in the movie “The Story of Us” (1999) where the couple is in bed having a heated discussion. Later in the scene, both their parents appear in the same bed on either side chattering. It wasn’t a particularly good movie, but the image stuck with me. The idea that all of us have our own baggage and things we bring to the relationship.

    I don’t know why things work out the way they do. I don’t have any answers at all. I think your story is common. It’s not even unique to mormonism – I think lots of people/couples wake up one day and realize that they are a different person with different needs. What they thought they knew about themselves has changed. Their partner is left figuring out if they can adapt and work in the new framework. Some couples can make it through. Some are not able to. These kinds of situations can’t be reduced to platitudes or black and white thinking.

    My great grandmother is rumored to have said all that needed to happen for marriage is for fifty worthy (mormon) young men to line up facing fifty worthy young women. Personality didn’t matter – just church membership. What is interesting for me about this is that as faithful as she was, I’m not sure she married in the temple (I don’t think she did). Even my father (this is his grandmother), who is very LDS, admits that her philosphy is a flawed.

    Because marriage and relationships are so much more complicated than shared membership in a religion.

    Unfortunately, at times it doesn’t seem to me like this message is clear from LDS leadership. Sure, I’ve heard a lot about “waiting” to make certain about an eternal marriage. It would be nice if there was more room for couples to grow and change together – even when that change might be for one person to leave the church. With all the emphasis on missionary work, I don’t think that would/will ever be possible.

  2. Thanks for posting about your experience, Chris. Being a Mormon in Europe can be quite different than in the United States, especially than in the Mormon corridor.

    To many converts, the Church represented a utopian alternative to the mainstream. I am using the past tense because converts who remain active have pretty much become a thing of the past in Europe (although there are indications that the same trend exists delayed in the United States).

    If you are living isolated as a Mormon, it can be pretty hard to figure out how to deal with the ‘gray’ aspects of life.

  3. Hellmut – yes I think you’re right, being outside the US has a big impact. The church, like the doctrine, always looks best from a distance.

    aerin – good points. The frustrating thing is that the church does say good things about waiting and making sure, and dating lots of people first, but the subliminal message is much louder: “righteousness is all that matters.” Also, especially for a woman living outside the US, your great grandmother’s advice is true by default: for an active member (especially a woman) they may only get one chance to marry. Case in point: in our branch we just had an active returned missionary move in. The first marriagable age young man for about a hundred years I think. Last night my family were talking matchmaking for my daughters – and only half in jest.

  4. profxm:

    In all politeness, I would have say that I think that your conclusion is an unwarranted generalization. I know of several couples where one decided that the church was not for them and it did not destroy their relationship. The real question is if the experience related here can be labeled as a typical experience of your typical Mormon couple.

    I am not a psychologist, nor do I claim to be one; however, I suspect that there are greater underlying issues in this relationship than Mormonism. I don’t mean that in a perjorative or condescending way. I wonder why the church is so important to Tolworthy’s wife? Why does Tolworthy feel reluctant to share his feelings regarding the church? Is he reluctant to share his feelings about non-religious issues? If the relationship is worth saving, I think one would have to find the answers to these and other questions. Mormonism is probably a factor, but I believe it is being made the convenient scrapgoat.

  5. > I wonder why the church is so important to Tolworthy’s wife?

    Close friendships that were formed before she met me. Nothing inappropriate, but VERY strong friendships. PM me if you want the details.

    > Why does Tolworthy feel reluctant to share his feelings regarding the church?

    Because every time I’ve tried, it made the relationship worse. The friendships I mentioned mean she can never leave the church (unless those friends left, and trust me – that is HIGHLY unlikely). Her life is based on the church, so if I undermine the church I undermine her.

    >Is he reluctant to share his feelings about non-religious issues?

    Are any issues non-religious?

    >Mormonism is probably a factor, but I believe it is being made the convenient scapegoat.

    In one sense that’s true. It would be easy to construct an explanation for our divorce wherein the church is largely irrelevant. Such an explanation would be superficially very attractive, but I don’t have the time to debunk it here.

  6. From one former Branch President to another, great post.

    It’s not only in marriage that these conflicts arise.

    After my first semester at BYU I returned to my small-town ward in the Ozarks and, of course, was promptly scheduled to speak at Sacrament Meeting in order to bring everybody up-to-speed on what I was learning out there at the Lord’s University.

    Unfortunately, I was pretty much the same self-centered egghead then as I am now, and I let slip that I’d enjoyed the company of fellow honor students at the Maeser Building, and that having found so many fellow “flowering intellectuals” at BYU, it made me eager to return, all my homesickness for down-home BBQ and all-you-can-eat buffets aside.

    As luck would have it, the next speaker had been blessed with certain extemporaneous speaking skills, and he proceeded to equate “flowering intellectuals” with “blooming idiots” …

    As I happened to be sitting in the overflow (cultural hall) seating with my family, the entire ward craned their necks around to gauge my response to the “blooming idiots” remark. Among those who sought my gaze were my parents.

    For a moment, I wondered if Dad would stand up and defend his dork son. Of course, that didn’t happen.

    I was 14 then. I went on to serve a mission, mostly because my folks had mostly been great parents, and I didn’t want to disappoint. But on that day, they disappointed me, and if I’ve never held it against them, I’ve also vowed I’ll never put my own children in such a position where they feel that the opprobrium of the group trumps our family loyalty.

    If and when such a day or such a challenge should arrive, this misfit won’t be shrugging his shoulders and expecting his 14-year-old to grin and bear whatever humiliation grown men might opt to dish out … I’ll be standing up.

  7. Mormons go to great lengths to get married in the temple. I emigrated. Many others are marrying the only member of the opposite sex that happens to be available.

    In a free society, where religion is a matter of conscience, religion is a weak foundation for marriage.

    In the Mormon case, tension over religion become exacerbated by a culture that has surrendered faith to claims of knowledge. It is a lot easier to accommodate different opinions about religion if we acknowledge uncertainties.

  8. dpc, I don’t think that is at all an “an unwarranted generalization.” Does the religion discourage members from marrying non-members? Does the religious discourage members from spending time around “bad influences”, which would include family members who leave? Am I not remembering this advice? Or will a quote from the Ensign actually help? This is from March 2007:

    “My husband stopped going to church a few years after we were married. And as our three children grew older, they began wanting to stay home with their father on Sundays and do whatever he was doing. One Sunday when our daughters were 12 and 10 and our son was 5, they decided a football game on television was more appealing to them than going to church.”

    Even though the father is spending time with the kids, he’s described here as a bad father because he is keeping the kids from church. Which comes first? Church or family?

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