Do’s and Don’ts When Coming Out to Your Spouse as an Unorthodox or Non-Believer

On June 23, 2018 I put out a request for friends and listeners to share their respective “Do’s and Don’ts” when coming out to their spouse/family as an unorthodox Mormons, or as non-believing Mormons.  Here is a compilation of the responses offered here, here, here, and here.

Don’ts

  • Don’t conceal or hold back your true feelings for an extended period of time.  Don’t avoid talking about it, bottling up your fear, anxiety, and anger year after year.  Living in the closet is suffocating, and will eventually become toxic for you, and will make you very angry and unhealthy.  Also, the longer you wait to discuss things with them, the further you will grow apart, and the more difficult it will be to salvage the relationship.
  • Don’t wait until you are forced to discuss by circumstance.
  • Don’t do anything to betray your spouse’s confidence/trust.  Don’t secretly stop paying tithing, stop wearing your garments, or start drinking alcohol without discussing these choices first with your spouse.  You losing your faith is enough of a shock.  Don’t complicate it more by being deceptive.  Your spouse will need to feel safe and trusting in you before she/he will be willing to consider your perspective.
  • Don’t assume the worst (like they’re going to leave you), and thus go into the conversation already on the defense.
  • Don’t rush to complicate the shock/transition by making big behavioral changes early in the process (e.g., drinking alcohol, experimenting with drugs, pushing extra-marital sexual exploration).  Changes in belief are significant enough.  Try to minimize any changes in behavior that will feel threatening.
  • Don’t challenge, fight or argue with them.
  • Don’t play the “enlightened” or “smarter than” card.  Don’t treat your partner like they are stupid.
  • Don’t try and convince them their belief is wrong. They will (or won’t) figure it out for themselves in time.
  • Don’t try to de-convert them.
  • Don’t pressure them.  Don’t be pushy, especially when you feel resistance.
  • Don’t attack the church – come at it as being about YOU, not about the church.
  • Don’t verbally vomit everything you learned in front of your [spouse] and in front of whatever kids are listening at the time.  If you do, panic and defensiveness can arise and their minds will most likely not be open and receptive.  Don’t drop one giant truth bomb.  Don’t bore or overpower them with so much information.
  • If at all possible, try not to tell others before you tell your spouse.  You want to avoid at all costs triggering in them a sense that you have been dishonest, or that they have been betrayed.  Don’t seek solace/comfort in extra-marital relationships that could ultimately undermine your marriage.
  • Don’t expect them to be where you are in your transition.
  • Don’t expect them to magically see what you see too. From a listener: “I was more of a TBM than my husband. I thought that if anyone was going to leave the church, it would have been him. So I was frustrated that he still believed, even after hearing my information.”
  • Don’t think that you immediately have to take your name off the records of the church. This is a tough one for those of us who think black and white. It’s ok to wait until your spouse is more ready. Waiting to remove my name saved my marriage, along with a lot of couples therapy.
  • Don’t write it in a letter and leave it in the night stand. 😏
  • Do not take responsibility for someone else’s feelings or reactions – that is on them
  • Don’t use shocking words like “pedophile,” “cult,” “brainwashed,” “sexual predator,” or “con man” during the conversations.  Try to avoid laughing at or mocking things that are sacred to them (e.g. the temple).  This behavior is emotionally triggering, and can often lead to the “backfire effect.”
  • Don’t assume that it won’t be that big of a deal when you say you’ve made the final decision to leave. I had been very open with my wife about the fact that I basically no longer believed any truth claims about Mormonism and that I had a half of a pinky toe in the church. So in my mind I was moving an inch, but in my wife’s mind it was a huge shift when it became “final” and I was no longer trying to “resolve my doubts.” I wasn’t prepared for that to be such a traumatic and emotional thing for my wife. She handled it quite well, but I could’ve presented it much better.
  • Do not assume that this crisis will worsen or end your marriage. It hasn’t always been easy. We have had some rough moments (many), but we have a much deeper love and commitment than we ever did when I was TBM.
  • Don’t blame yourself.
  • Don’t make any promises you can’t keep, such as, “I will always go to church” or “I won’t ever stop wearing garments.”
  • Don’t assume that everything that is wrong in your relationship is caused by religious differences. It is easy to imagine that everything would be okay, if only he or she just stopped the whole church thing. Really, you are still different people regardless of beliefs, and marriage is often difficult even in the best of circumstances. If your spouse joined you, or you joined them, you might still argue about whose job is whose or what color to paint the living room. Keep building and working on those non-religious issues.
  • Don’t come out as gay and as a non believer on the same day 
  • Don’t expect every marriage to survive a faith crisis.  Some marriages won’t – and that’s ok too.  Some couples find that once they no longer share the same religious beliefs, there is not enough shared interest to continue the relationship.  I (personally) would never end a marriage without first consulting a coach or therapist who specializes in mixed-faith marriage work (especially if children are involved), but sometimes divorce is the best option for all parties involved.

Do’s

  • Do be brave.
  • Do tell them early if you can.
  • Do pick a good time to talk about things.  Birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, Father’s/Mother’s Day, etc. may (or may not) be the best time.
  • Do stay calm and collected.  Do be gentle.  Do be kind to each other.  Do show love, empathy, and compassion.
  • Do be direct but measured.
  • If you feel it necessary, do consider coming clean in small and steady increments over a few months.
  • Do start with telling your spouse how much you value them and your relationship and reassure them of your continued dedication to the marriage and family before talking about any of your issues in detail.  Do affirm the value of your marriage and friendship.  Make sure they know that the marriage and children come first, before any other external consideration.
  • Do focus primarily on sharing your feelings of sadness, hurt, disappointment, and betrayal  Anger is a healthy and natural emotion, but avoid acting and communicating from a place of anger.  Anger is usually a secondary emotion – meaning that it is usually an outgrowth of feeling sad, hurt, or betrayed.  You will get much further with your spouse if you speak and act from a place of sadness and hurt than you will from a place of anger.  You will also get much further communicating from a place of emotion (vs. facts/evidence).
  • Do be vulnerable.  If it is authentic for you, frame your departure and loss of faith as the hardest thing that has ever happened to you.  I found that it disrupts the typical response from a believing family member if they have to think that your departure was something that happened to you and not something that you did, because one elicits condemnation from them and the other elicits sympathy.  If it’s authentic to you, consider words like, “My faith has been taken from me and it has been the hardest thing I have ever felt to have it taken away.”
  • Do keep it simple and let them know it your individual conclusion, and that you will respect their personal faith.
  • Do invite them to hear your reasons rather than shout out facts.
  • Do be aware of the stages of grief and that you will go through them – recognizing what stage you are in. Take your time to process the stages.  Your spouse is also going through change with your paradigm shift and likely experiencing the stages of grief too compounded with what they’ve been taught to believe about “forever families”, apostates, how they will be treated by the ward…lots for them to process.
  • Do stay positive and loving to your spouse, despite their continued belief in the church. Love them, show support and empathy.
  • Do be patient.  As hard as it is, often it does get better with time.
  • Do present the information you have discovered and ask them what they think and how they feel about it, preferably before telling them what you think about the information.
  • Do consider using a Socratic dialectic approach.  Consider discussing through questions like, “Can you help me to understand why Joseph would have married other men’s wives?”
  • Do consider spreading the information out over the course of about a year, dropping little hints or nuggets of information along the way (did you know this or that?).  When I finally was able to say that I no longer believed, It made it easier to talk about.
  • Do give them space to process and move at their own pace.
  • When you are speaking with your spouse about emotional things, do focus on sharing and validating each others’ feelings (over trying to reach agreement on various issues).  Learn to validate and accept (which doesn’t mean agree) the opinions of your spouse. Apply the same technique to all other relationships.
  • Do learn to think in color (vs. black and white). It’s a beautiful world out there, and learning to think in color can only help every relationship you have.
  • Do recognize that it’s going to be hard, and that’s okay.
  • Do find new things to have in common.  During the transition we focused on what we loved about each other and our little family. Our differences in religious beliefs were (almost) never a point of contention.
  • Do look for new things that you can do together to fill the hole that the church left. Find new TV shows, go on walks, work on house projects together, anything…
  • Do learn how to listen.
  • Do seek marriage counseling/therapy/coaching from an expert in faith crises/mixed faith marriages.
  • Do seek individual counseling/therapy/coaching for individual support/perspective.
  • Do remember that you once believed as they did, and that you needed time to process everything.  Remember that this new reality is shocking and earth-shattering to them as well.   Give your partner/family time to mourn the loss.
  • Do realize that you are the one who changed – not them.  This will likely require extra empathy and patience on your part.
  • Do consider remaining active or semi-active in church if you can, and try as much as you can to continue following the main LDS commandments (e.g., Word of Wisdom, Law of Chastity, wearing garments, allowing your partner to continue paying tithing).  This time can allow your partner to adjust to the significant change without too much disruption.
  • Do reassure your spouse that you love them, and that you are not “going anywhere,” and that your feelings for them have not changed (if such reassurances are authentic).
  • Do consider (if it makes sense) sending an email first (to minimize initial conflict from shock), followed by a face-to-face discussion.
  • Do have conversations and not lectures.
  • Do support them in continuing to live their faith, and to teach your kids their faith (if you have kids).  In time, you will need the freedom to share with the children your own beliefs and/or non-beliefs as well.  But this will take time.
  • Try to view your spouse’s activity in the church as a passionate hobby. Think of your hobbies and how your spouse supports you in those. Try to do the same for them.
  • Do treat them as you would be treated.  If you want them to support your path, you must begin by supporting theirs.
  • Do take it slow, focus on your connection outside of the church, be honest, be sensitive, be willing to compromise.
  • Do try to use official, bonafide LDS sources. No “anti-Mormon” stuff, like so-called “science”, “historians”.  Do use the Gospel Topics Essays. For my spouse, it was a safe church approved resource. We read them and discussed them together, which opened the discussion to things I learned from Mormon Stories Podcast and from the CES letter.
  • Do be forgiving/patient with yourself.  There’s no perfect way to handle this, and you will make mistakes.  Don’t beat yourself up.
  • Do agree to not involve external parties such as your bishop, stake president, HT, parents, family, etc. This is a private matter between you and your spouse. If you need a third party to help navigate, agree it will be a trained professional.
  • Do be willing to compromise.  For example, trade going to church one week for a drive up the canyon the next week.
  • Do feel free to refer them to materials to read/study.  As much as possible, let them go on their own journey of discovery.  Do not feel like you need to be the source of their information/learning.  That could backfire (unless you have a very trusting friendship/relationship).
  • Do stand your ground.   Do own your story.  Give them space to feel how they feel and ask them to do the same for you. Let them know you won’t be bringing it up again and it won’t be discussed unless they bring it up.
  • Do try to frame this experience as a journey that you will take and overcome together.
  • Make it clear that you love them for who they are and not for what they believe and ask if they can do the same.
  • Try to be the best spouse you can. It’s hard for a spouse to be mad when you do nice things for them. To your spouse, feelings equate to truth. If they have good feelings towards you and your relationship, then they are much more likely to realize that you aren’t the problem.
  • Do find mixed-faith community/friendships to connect with as a couple.  This can help to normalize your situation, and can provide useful tips and tricks, as well as emotional support.
  • Do consider ending the current conversation and scheduling a follow-up if you notice any of the following: 1) raising voices, 2) either of you using words such as “never” and “always”, or otherwise speaking in absolutes, 3) either are feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.
  • Do find healthy ways to cope with the anxiety and distress of a mixed-faith marriage transition.
  • Do lovingly enforce boundaries that are important to your health and well-being, and respect their boundaries as well.
  • Do find healthy things (meditation, exercise, mindfulness) to fill the empty spot that will be in your life and heart where the church once was.
  • Do turn up the dial on things that make you an objectively better spouse, which is pretty easy to do when you don’t have a calling or evenings occupied by church-related activities. Things like do something out of the ordinary for your spouse, clean the house, let them have a break from the kids, tell them you support them in their choice to believe as they wish (no matter how much you disagree with it), etc. It makes having an unbelieving spouse a lot easier when everything else they do seems to be getting better, especially when they are probably assuming it’s going to all get worse.

A great summary:

  • “As the believing spouse, use neutral language/words. Use “I feel” statements. Don’t attack their beliefs. Don’t say, “The Church Lied to me and is Lead by false prophets.” Even if you feel that way, saying that to a believer will get you no where. Also any changes should be talked about first, don’t hide things from them, that will only make things worse. Even if they don’t like it or don’t agree with it, like alcohols, smoking, coffee, tattoos etc. Being open is the best, it might hurt at first but far less than finding out second hand or months after. And quoting John Dehlin, “don’t verbally vomit on them”.

Comments 1

  1. Amen a THOUSAND times to this do’s and don’t’s list, John. Thank you to the contributors and for compiling this list. As a therapist who works with a lot of exmos and mixed-faith relationships, I would also say that I’ve seen that the health of each relationship prior to the faith change makes a big difference in how faith crisis impacts the relationship. If you already know how to use positive communication patterns during conflict, have healthy boundaries, and feel safe with each other, the experience has the potential to go a lot more smoothly. Particularly in my couple’s work, we must go back and address these issues (which usually were pre-existing) long before there is enough sense of trust or safety to discuss the reasons for the faith change. This can be difficult for the person in crisis as they are longing to be heard, understood and know they are still fully acceptable to their loved one.

    The other issue I see is that often people are experiencing the shock of the faith crisis/change and making many of the mistakes listed above before ever coming across the invaluable advice such as what you’ve outlined here. However, love, patience, communication and allowing others to move at their own spiritual pace can often improve the damage that may have occurred.

    A fantastic article and one I will continually refer my clients to. Thank you!!

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