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How love and faith can grow, even when one spouse stops believing

Published February 20, 2013 11:35 am

Relationships & religion • The family that stays together doesn't always pray together.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For years, Matt Duff was an über-Mormon.

At 17, he ran away from home and moved in with the only black LDS family in his New England town. Two weeks shy of his 18th birthday, he joined the Utah-based church. By 19, he was on a Mormon mission in Denver, and two years later he enrolled at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where he met his future wife, Kylee, a multigenerational Mormon with a winning smile and a guileless faith. The two married in the Salt Lake LDS Temple.

Eight years and three children later, Matt stopped believing.

"I suddenly didn't think faith was a virtue," he says. "I stopped thinking God would require me to have it."

Kylee was shocked and dismayed. The church-dominated future she had imagined for them vanished. He wanted to talk of his reasons; she wanted him to shut up about them.

"The first couple of weeks were hard," says Kylee Duff, cradling a fourth baby, born after the crisis. "We were both pushing the other one to do what we wanted."

Yet in the year since their religious conflict erupted, this Orem couple have done something remarkable: They continued to love each other.

Many other partners either split up or continue their holy wars. Often, the believer eventually follows the nonbelieving spouse out the church door.

In a 2012 nonscientific online survey of 600 LDS couples with at least one nonbeliever, Utahn Greg Rockwell found that, of respondents in which only one spouse had left the church, 26 percent reported that they had divorced, were divorcing or were separated. Forty percent said they were still together but experiencing marital tension.

"In other words," Rockwell writes in an email, "roughly two-thirds of respondents reported less-than-optimal marriage status post faith crisis."

There's a Facebook page, "Former Mormons with Believing Spouses," to help couples navigate these forks in the religious road.

Such statistics are not surprising, given the consequences these couples face, separately and together. The believer can lose status in the church community, moving from an insider position of respect and possible leadership to a person of pity and concern. The nonbeliever becomes an outsider, the subject of endless hand-wringing and proselytizing efforts. The believer may feel angry that the spouse has now changed the rules they were living by; the unbeliever could feel equally miffed at being deceived by religion in the first place. If they are parents, everything about their marriage and child-rearing will have to be renegotiated: Will their children be baptized? Will they still have daily prayers and scripture reading at home? How much information can the unbeliever share with the kids?

It's not easy to talk publicly or even privately about such problems in your relationship, especially in Mormon-dominated Utah. The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed more than a dozen people, but only a handful were willing to use their real names. Worried about reactions from family members, neighbors and co-workers who might judge, criticize or reject them, such people either seek comfort in private conversations or suffer in isolation.

In the past eight months, two of the LDS Church's official magazines carried articles about what to do "when Daddy doesn't believe." The one in the Friend aimed at children was based on a true story; the Ensign one for adults was written by "name withheld."

Here, then, is a valentine from those courageous folks willing to share how their love has been shaped and purified on the anvil of a faith crisis beyond any Hallmark emotions.

Sudden disbelief • Ardean Watts still remembers the February 1974 day when he stopped believing. It was an "aha" moment akin to a religious conversion, just in the other direction. He felt free, no longer having to "play the game," the 84-year-old Watts says now.

Watts, who was then on the general board of the LDS Church's Young Men's program, didn't feel angry or betrayed by the faith that he had loved and served his whole life. He just felt "permission to move on."

It took several months for him to articulate the change to his wife and a decade of church activity before he stopped attending services. All the while, Watts and his wife continued in their marriage and reared their eight children in the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We didn't want to give up each other and neither of us drew a line in the sand," says Watts, a pianist and conductor who spent decades as a professor of music at the University of Utah. "I had no desire to recruit people to how I was thinking."

He attended all church-related events with his family, but had to have "that long talk about why Dad wouldn't be there" when a child would enter a Mormon temple for missions or marriage.

The key principle, Watts says, "is to tread gently."

Such mutual respect is a common ingredient in all successful marriages, of course, but even more crucial for those couples whose faith moves in opposite directions.

NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty aired a series last year about faith crises, including a feature on a Methodist minister who became an atheist. Her husband retained his devotion to God and says he prays for her every night.

But, Hagerty reports, the husband "adores his wife and defends her right to disbelieve."

The country has "freedom of speech and freedom of thought," he told the reporter. "And God never forced anybody to believe, so who am I to step up?"

For many churches, a spouse's loss of faith may not pose a problem, but they worry about the children.

"You don't get to control your spouse, to decide whether or not he's going to Mass or how he's going to spend Sunday morning, but you do make joint decisions about your children, " the Rev. Bob Bussen tells Catholic couples in Cedar City. "If a couple marries in the church and promises to raise kids in it, that doesn't mean they have to remain Catholic, but they don't have a right to mess with their children's identity."

Pastor Paul Robie of South Mountain Community Church, a nondenominational Christian church in Draper, agrees.

"I would never counsel divorce," Robie says. "If an unbelieving spousing wants out of the marriage, I say, 'Let him.' But if he wants to stay in, we say, 'Absolutely, stay in.' "

Not allowing the believing party to continue rearing the children as Christians, as they agreed to do at the child's "dedication ceremony," would, he says, be wrong.

It is breaking a vow.

Mormon pressures • It may be harder for Mormon couples to adopt such a laissez-faire approach. The church community expects so much involvement — tithing, service, attendance, baptism at age 8, priesthood at age 12, missions for young men, temple marriage — and so much unequivocal belief in core doctrines.

LDS teachings even extend such commitments into the hereafter, making the breakup of an "eternal marriage" a cosmic failure.

Many former members assert that Mormon leaders pushed their believing spouse to divorce them, and while that may be true in individual cases, it is far from church policy.

"No priesthood officer is to counsel a person whom to marry. Nor should he counsel a person to divorce his or her spouse," says the church's Handbook for LDS leaders. "Those decisions must originate and remain with the individual."

Whether couples stay together or part ways, they likely will experience the various stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, according to John Dehlin, a Mormon activist who is studying marriage and family therapy at Utah State University. "There's no clean way to get through this marital mess."

The first key to rebuilding a relationship after what often feels, to the believer, like a "traumatic betrayal," he says, is to focus on what you still share.

"Whether believers or unbelievers, most people still want to raise good kids and hold onto basic moral and ethical standards," Dehlin says. "If you can take off your church glasses and put on your glasses of humanity, you'll see you still have that same partner. He is just tweaking how he approaches these questions now."

The second key is empathy. "You do the work to understand your partner's position so well that you validate it, even though you might wish it was different," he says. "That is a huge gift to the relationship."

Digging in, with both sides lobbing verbal missiles, "is destructive." Dehlin suggests a healthier approach: "What if the believing mother took the father's side?"

In the Ensign piece, the author writes that one encompassing thought came as the prayerful response to her husband's disbelief: "Just love him!"

That directive, she writes, "has strengthened our marriage in profound ways. While my husband still lacks sure knowledge that God lives, from my perspective our marriage has become closer to heaven."

Surprisingly, other believing spouses feel the same way.

"At first I was really praying, 'Please let him come back,' " Kylee Duff says. "But I got the answer back — that's not what he needs right now."

Matt is doing "what he feels is right. I wouldn't want him coming to church if he felt it was wrong," she says. "He is still a caring husband and father."

God, Kylee believes, will reward her husband for that.

Black, white and gray • During most of their decades-long marriage, Myndee Garrett threatened her husband, Randy, with divorce if he strayed from Mormonism. She came from a strict LDS family and always felt guilty about their initial seesawing church activity. She blamed Randy, whose family was much looser about such things.

For 14 years or so, the Herriman couple reared their eight children in the faith and seemed to have weathered the worst.

In April, Myndee was the one who wanted out. She discovered troubling aspects of Mormon history and stopped believing. To her amazement, Randy did not want to leave her — or the church.

"It blew my mind that he was so accepting of me," she says. "He's not black and white in his beliefs and never has been."

Though shocked by Myndee's apostasy, Randy never gave divorce a thought. They had their ninth child after she lost her faith. He went without her to their eldest son's temple wedding and most Sundays goes to church services alone.

Salt Lake City marriage and family therapist Marybeth Raynes says such marriages can work — even after a crisis — if the partners have two things: an underlying friendship and a profound respect that grows as people mature.

"If spouses become more polarized over religion, they are not learning the deeper values of that faith, any faith — kindness, love unfailingly, fairness, compassion," Raynes says. "Those become actual, practical ways in which you function in your life."

That's how Randy Garrett sees it, too.

"Religion is a portion of who you are; it's not everything," he says. "Myndee's an amazing wife and mother who does such a great job with the kids and is just a great person. We have a big, noisy, loving family."

Things, he says, have a way of working out — here and in heaven.

pstack@sltrib.com