A little over 6 years ago I sat down with my wife and explained my concerns about my LDS faith. About 3 years ago I stopped attending church with any regularity. Today I no longer consider myself a believing Mormon. Like Dason and others who have shared their stories here, it has been a rocky journey, full of study, soul searching, and heartache. As I explained to my wife, after a lifetime spent in church meetings, serving in callings, and surrounding myself with fellow saints, I simply didn’t know how NOT to be Mormon.
Perhaps my biggest fear going through my faith transition was how it would impact my relationships with loved ones who remained in the Church. Being raised in Southern Alberta in a strong LDS community, attending BYU, serving a mission, and being an active member all my life, most of my family and friends were Church members. Mormonism was a big part of who I was, and I didn't know how my LDS loved ones would react to my decision.
Naturally, reactions from my loved ones in the church varied; Some were defensive, some had the same concerns I had, some empathized but didn’t want to know details, and one immediately said she thought I was being deceived by Satan! I don’t judge any of them for their reactions -- relationships can be hard, and there are no “best practices” when dealing with a faith crisis. Recently, though, I came across two articles giving advice to Church members on how to treat loved ones who are going through a faith transition:
As one who left the Church, I found these articles positive and affirming. It is gratifying to see discussions like this happen in Church circles, and it shows that many members want to maintain healthy relationships with those who leave.
This post is written partially as a response to those member-directed articles. In leaving the Church, I have worked hard to maintain healthy relationships with my loved ones who stay. I have done some things right, and there are some things that I wish I had done differently. This post shares what I have learned about Maintaining Relationships with Loved Ones Who Choose to Stay.
1. Do Not Define Yourself or Others by Relationship to the Church
When you leave the Church, it can feel like an all-encompassing experience. Your identity as “Mormon” is stripped away, with nothing to replace it. Many who leave identify as “Exmormon” or “Post-Mormon,” or “Apostate.” While this helps to identify individuals with similar experiences who can offer support, it is important to remember that this isn’t your only identity. You are still you! You still have the same likes and dislikes and a broad array of interests. Do not define yourself by your relationship to the Church.
Why is this important in maintaining relationships with those in the Church? If you define yourself only by the fact that you are exmormon, that is how others will define you (they may see you this way regardless, but that is their problem, not yours). Have you ever been stuck in a social situation with a person who is OBSESSED with only one thing? Maybe they only want to talk about their favorite sport, or their hobby, or their Church calling. You try to change the subject, but they just cannot move on. People who define themselves by only one thing are BORING, and it’s hard to maintain a relationship with them. Be more than an exmormon.
By the same token, do not define Church members by their relationship to the Church. Your loved ones are still your loved ones. Your reasons for loving them haven’t changed just because they have chosen to stay in the Church. Do not let the Church come between you.
You may find, unfortunately, that some relationships you have were entirely based on the Church. It may be that, while you and Bro. Johnson got along great while planning the big summer activity, you don’t actually have anything in common outside of that. Or maybe your ministering Sister was a sympathetic ear, but she no longer comes around since you are no longer her assignment. Here you have the same choice that you have with any adult -- you can try to build a relationship, or you can move on.
2. Pick Your Battles
When I was going through my faith crisis, I wanted to share all the facts I found with loved ones. Partly because I wanted to know if I was interpreting information correctly, and partly in hopes that my loved ones would validate my conclusions. I also shared because of the uncertainty and fear of taking this journey alone, hoping that my loved ones would walk the hard road at my side. Often, however, my loved ones in the Church were not at all interested in knowing what I found. I was faced with the decision of when and how to discuss the issues that caused me to leave.
One of the things I often forget is that, even when everyone has access to the same information, not everyone sees the world in the same way. In the decision to leave the Church there are several competing values, such as loyalty, group cohesiveness, family, duty, family happiness, personal happiness, truth, etc. The difference between those who stay and those who leave may lie in how they prioritize these values. Although we may not know why our loved ones choose to stay in the Church, or even choose to remain uninformed about issues in the Church, we must respect their right to do so if we value our relationships.
I believe that as exmormons we have a responsibility to speak out against harmful doctrines and false information. If someone posts something untrue or damaging on social media, I have no problem publicly weighing-in. I consider that they have invited the conversation by their post. Personal, private conversations, however, require more discretion. While I am happy to discuss my beliefs with almost anyone, I try to consider the potential harm that might come from sharing unsolicited information with unprepared loved ones (admittedly, I struggle with this).
If someone tells me that they wouldn’t want to know if the Church isn’t true, I try to believe them. If someone tells me that there is nothing that would convince them that the Church isn’t true, I try to believe them. If someone tells me that even if the Church wasn’t true, it wouldn’t change anything for them, I try to believe them. I can see very little to be gained from sharing my reasons for leaving with those who do not truly want to understand, and who aren’t ready or willing to act on that knowledge.
If loved ones in the Church want to understand why you left, of course you should discuss your reasons, but only what you are comfortable discussing. You do not need to defend your decision to them, and you do not need them to agree with you.
3. Set Boundaries
As someone who has now spent a fair bit of time in the “Exmo” community, I think this topic is one of the most important. It is not uncommon in the same day to see a post from a former Mormon describing how hurt she was not to be invited to her niece’s baptism and just a few posts further down seeing another former Mormon hurt because her family invited her to sit in the temple waiting room while a cousin was sealed. Fair or not, as the person who has made a change, it is up to you to decide how you would like to be included in religious activities and then to clearly communicate those preferences. Our loved ones in the Church are not mind readers.
Honestly, this is something that I’m still figuring out. I’ve leaned towards the side of wanting to be invited to most events (though Temple trips, obviously, are out). If I want to go, I go. If I don’t want to go, I say thank you for the invitation and I decline. My loved ones, thus far, have been understanding and I have never felt pressured into doing something that I didn’t want to do. I feel very fortunate in this, as I know from reading stories from other exmormons that this isn’t always the case.
4. Find Support
Going through my faith crisis, I wanted friends who could empathize with my anger, frustration, sadness, etc. with the Church. However, many of my LDS friends were simply not able to provide that empathy. It was tempting to be frustrated with them, but I realized that their inability to empathize was not a reflection on me or our friendship. They were just in a different place. Fortunately, I found communities of support, including online communities, who were able to empathize with my faith journey (if you’re interested, you can contact Dason for more information).
You are not responsible for how others feel about you leaving the Church, and you do not need their permission. However, you should realize that your loved ones need empathy as well, which you might not be able to provide. My wife is still a believing member, and as you can imagine my faith journey has been difficult on her. She has found support in a FB group called Believing Mormons with Doubting Spouses. Because I love my wife, I am glad that she has found people who can better empathize with her feelings about my leaving.
5. Be Gracious
Being gracious means, primarily, that we assume the best intentions in others. While it is possible that your mother-in-law meant to shame you by offering you a sweater to cover your porn shoulders (gasp!), she may have just thought you were cold. Don’t look for opportunities to be offended.
Being gracious also means that you make a reasonable effort to make others comfortable. I recently attended my 20-year High School reunion. It was held in a pub in Lethbridge, and there were quite a few of my friends, both Mormon and non-Mormon. In a social situation like that, if I was among coworkers or non-Mormons, I would usually order an alcoholic drink. However, I had some good LDS friends there who, although they may know of my disaffection, have only ever known me as a sober Mormon boy. I decided not to drink. This is not because I am ashamed that I left the Church, but it is a way of showing respect for my LDS friends and helping them feel comfortable. I didn’t want my drinking to be a distraction to them in what was an enjoyable night. This is the same respect I would try to show anybody. If I was dining with orthodox Jews, I would avoid ordering pork -- my LDS loved ones deserve the same respect.
This same principle can be applied to other social situations such as attire when attending Church functions, or selecting topics of conversation during gatherings. If you have questions about what would make your friends uncomfortable, it may be okay to ask them.
Leaving the Church is hard, and many things change in our lives. Ironically, the time when we most need the support of our loved ones is the time that those relationships feel most at risk. Looking back after six years, I can happily say that most of my relationships with loved ones are still intact -- both in and out of the Church. Things aren’t perfect. I’m sure that there are things that my loved ones in Church would like to say to me about my leaving, and there are certainly things that I wish I could share with them. And one day, maybe when I’ve been out of the Church much longer, we will have those conversations. For now, however, I will do my best to not let my relationship with the Church (past or present), define my relationship with people. I will prioritize individuals over indoctrination, and hope that they will do the same with me.