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Keeping marriage strong after a spouse leaves religion

By Teri Harman, Contributor | Posted - May. 12, 2011 at 3:00 p.m.

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Two young people brought together by commonalities, religion at the top of the list, fall in love. With like minds and hearts they are ready to face life together. A marriage is born. Time moves forward. But sometimes along the way, one spouse changes his or her mind, leaves the religion or joins another while the other stays faithful. Is the marriage over? Or can the couple make it work despite this divergence?

"I thought my marriage was over. I didn't know how to move forward. Our whole marriage was based on religion, on being Mormon. I couldn't imagine a life where my husband didn't go to church," said one Utah woman (who prefers to remain anonymous) about her initial reaction to her husband's decision to break away from the LDS Church. "For me, everything shifted. I didn't know what to do," she added.

I thought my marriage was over. I didn't know how to move forward.

–Utah wife

Religion provides a foundation, a set direction in life. A common religion gives couples a path to follow, a frame of reference to make decisions. In an ideal world, there would never be a divergence or dispute, but that is not always the reality. Some of these marriages end in divorce, the religious differences too difficult to overcome. But what of the couples who stay together? How do they make their marriages strong despite religious differences?

The difficulties and roadblocks facing a couple in this situation are numerous and complex, mainly because religion is irrevocably tied to culture.

Esther Perel, an interfaith marital therapist, referring to Jewish-Christian marriages, once wrote in New York Magazine: "The difference isn't just between Moses and Christ. You're dealing with issues of money, sex, education, child-rearing practices, food, family relationships, styles of emotional expressiveness, issues of autonomy — all of these are culturally embedded."

When religion dictates so many aspects of life from moral attitudes to holiday celebrations, the logical conclusion is that a marriage of two different religious opinions cannot function efficiently, especially after years of living a certain way before the change. It is possible to make a marriage function despite religious differences, but both partners must recognize the problems and be willing to work hard.

"I finally realized I was being selfish and closed-minded," explained the local woman. "It was a personal decision for him, not an attack on me or our relationship. God gave us all agency, and I needed to respect his." She continued, "My 'a-ha' moment was when I realized I love this man, more than anything, and that he is a wonderful father, husband and person. There was no reason for his decision to leave the church to destroy our family."

The following four strategies can help a couple keep their marriage strong after one partner makes the decision to leave the previously practiced religion.

1. Commit to the marriage

The first priority, when any problem arises in a marriage, is to commit. The couple's relationship and family are the most important thing. Put aside differences and acknowledge the sacredness of the love that exists. Remember all the positive reasons the marriage worked in the first place and can still work in the future. Choose to love. When marriage is viewed as something sacred, something consecrated, it will be easier for the relationship to grow deeper and stronger.

Elder Lynn G. Robbins taught members of the LDS Church this important principle in an article in the Ensign magazine, a publication of the LDS Church, titled "Agency and Love in Marriage." He said, "Too many believe that love is a condition, a feeling that involves 100 percent of the heart, something that happens to you. They disassociate love from the mind and, therefore, from agency. In commanding us to love, the Lord refers to something much deeper than romance — a love that is the most profound form of loyalty. He is teaching us that love is something more than feelings of the heart; it is also a covenant we keep with soul and mind."

2. Learn good communication skills

Good, strong communication skills are the key to any successful marriage but will be essential to wade through religious differences. Keep communication positive. Do not attack or blame. Express concerns with love and tenderness. And most importantly, talk often. Make it a priority to discuss everything and anything, both partners having equal talk time.

"We talk constantly," the local woman said about how she and her husband communicate. "We can deal with anything as long as we sit down and discuss it together."

3. Respect each other's religious differences

The Rev. Tom Chulak, a Unitarian-Universalist minister, said, "... unity within diversity adds a richness and beauty to marriage and to life."

No one likes to be criticized or attacked for their beliefs. Realize that religious decisions are incredibly emotional and personal. Husbands and wives can respect each other by putting themselves in the other's shoes. Take the time to think and talk about why there are differing opinions. Lastly, never deliver an ultimatum such as, "You must attend church or else." This will only cause a rift. Ultimatums are often a knee-jerk, immature response to problems. Be mature. Work together.

4. Compromise and find commonalities

Every marriage is made of two different people coming together, two unique halves trying to make a whole. There will always be a need to compromise. Working together to find the best way to navigate religious differences is vital to cohesiveness. Decide together the best way to talk to and teach children, to respect the differences, to handle family traditions and, most importantly, problems that arise.

The local woman gives this advice to couples facing this difficult problem, "It's hard; I won't lie, but I love my husband, he loves me and we love our children. Any obstacle is worth overcoming to keep our family together. My religion is still important to me and always will be, but my family is even more important. I choose to keep both through hard work. That is my best advice: If you want to stay together, make a conscious decision to love and work hard all the time."

Elder Robbins said in the same Ensign article, "Because love is as much a verb as it is a noun, the phrase “I love you” is much more a promise of behavior and commitment than it is an expression of feeling."

In a world constantly eager for the easy way out, any difference can be a reason for divorce. Husbands and wives that band together despite their religious differences and honor the love and attributes that brought them together in the first place can stay strong and defeat the odds.

Teri Harman writes from home amid the chaos of three young children. Visit her blog at

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