By Adam Fisher and Mary Fisher
Or, right-click here to download the audio file: Sharing Vulnerability after a Change in Belief
In this life the heart is going to be injured.1
ROBERT FROST ONCE said that love is an “irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.”2 Psychologist Kent Hoffman added that love is also an “irresistible desire to desire irresistibly.”3 All of us want to be known and embraced, and to know and love another; this desire seems especially strong when it goes unmet. Even those who find regular fulfillment in their relationships know that “where love is concerned, disappointment is a partner of fulfillment, not an opposite.”4
One of the most disruptive events that can happen in the relationship of an orthodox Mormon couple is a faith crisis. Mormon couples marry with strong beliefs, based in Mormon teachings, about why their marriage matters. They envision themselves as progressing together along a path that will lead them to eternal life. This unified narrative gives them tools that motivate and help them to cope with hardship and maintain a strong commitment to each other. When a spouse undergoes a crisis of faith, it can destabilize this foundation and make the still-believing spouse feel as if the marriage is being pushed off the straight and narrow into the unknown. The spouse who is changing seems to be rejecting the very thing that brought them together and made their marriage viable.
The believing spouse will often feel angry, frightened, and betrayed. Even though the believing spouse may have sensed “something was up” all along, once the faith crisis is revealed, they may became emotionally flooded and find it difficult, if not impossible, to continue listening to the disenchanted spouse talk about their problems with the Church. Sometimes the believing spouse can feel so stuck and helpless that they will begin to launch critical attacks on the character of the questioning partner. The believing spouse may also fall into their own crisis of faith, or be worried about the possibility of doing so. If a believing spouse feels unable to connect in the marriage, they may seek consolation from other family members, friends, in-laws, or bishops—for better or for worse.
On the other hand, the spouse who is experiencing the change in belief may be apprehensive about openly sharing his or her thoughts and experiences. This partner may begin testing the other’s reactions with vague disclosures, perhaps trying out subtly critical comments about church that day. If the believing spouse is threatened by these disclosures, the questioning spouse may seek out other resources or people who seem more receptive or supportive, or they may retreat into painful isolation. In misguided but well-intentioned attempts to cope with this pain, the questioning partner may demonize or belittle the character of the believing spouse.
Interestingly, the spouse who is navigating the crisis of faith is likely experiencing feelings of betrayal much like those of the believing spouse, but in this case feeling that the Church has been unfaithful. As mentioned before, life-long Latter-day Saints often base much of their life’s purpose and values on the Church’s doctrines—and this is not an unreasonable approach to life. As children, we needed someone to act as a “secure base” from which we could set off to explore the world around us. We needed a “safe haven” to which we could return for comfort, for safety, and to share joy. We needed someone to be “bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.”5 These needs do not disappear in adulthood; in fact, romantic couples rely on each other in similar ways that children rely on their parents. For many, the Church is a major provider of the safe haven. If a Mormon discovers information that makes them feel that “the Church is not what it said it was,” the Church’s safe-haven status is suddenly called into question. They feel lied to. They plummet into grief. The newly destabilized Mormon loses not only the safe haven of the Church, but may lose connection with their family as well.
With both spouses in such an emotionally precarious place, feeling cut off from each other and without support, it is no wonder that their marriage undergoes remarkable distress.
If we find ourselves confronted with a sudden (or chronic) state of disconnection with our partner, many of our healthy patterns of curiosity and independence will disappear, and we will put our emotional energy into “fixing” the situation. If our first attempts don’t work and we become desperate, we’ll often react in one of two understandable and valid, yet potentially destructive, ways. We either “turn up the volume,” becoming more anxious, more talkative, more critical, and more demanding. Or we take the opposite path, “turning off” our most vital needs and feelings, trying to withdraw, shut down, or turn away.
We turn it up or turn it off.
If the members of a couple become mired in one of these states, they will create a vicious negative cycle that will take over the relationship. Therapist Sue Johnson calls these patterns “demon dialogues.”6 Although demon dialogues can be more complex for some, they typically fall into one of the following three patterns.
1. Pursue-Withdraw: One partner turns it up and the other turns it off. This continues in a self-reinforcing manner and the feelings of both partners can escalate out of control.
2. Blame-Blame: Both partners turn it up, with neither backing down nor moving away.
3. Withdraw-Withdraw: This pattern can make it appear as though tranquility has returned to the relationship, but it is actually an ominous sign. It means that one spouse has “burned out” and stopped making any attempts to connect.
These patterns can often take over not only our relationship, but our free will—the “collective agency”7 of the demon dialogue dictating how each partner behaves when they interact with the other. These patterns also create noise in the relationship that blocks underlying emotional needs. Any important needs get hidden by endless arguments about church attendance, tithing, or parenting—drowning out what each partner desperately needs: to be loved, to be chosen, to be seen, to be held.
Though one of the sources of stability in the relationship—the Church—has been disrupted, there is still one potential strength that a couple can call upon, something that they still both value, something that can help them meet their most important emotional needs. Their marriage.
In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent is the bigger, stronger, and wiser person. In a healthy marital relationship, when one partner is distressed or needy the other can naturally step in and act as the safe haven. But when both partners are overwhelmed (as is often the case when one of them questions their faith) then the marriage itself must step into the role of “bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.” But this kind of arrangement requires a lot of work from both partners.
The Messages that Get Lost
Two major barriers stand in the way of a couple successfully navigating a faith crisis. The first is what Sue Johnson calls “raw spots.” Have you ever noticed unexpected shifts in tone suddenly cropping up in a conversation between loved ones? Does one person’s reaction seem out of proportion to what seemed to be a simple question? The surprising magnitude of such a response won’t make sense unless you look into that person’s past. These raw spots often originate in our early years when we were learning from the older people around us how to “be” in relationships—for example, which actions, emotions, and words were allowed. Perhaps we learned that admitting we need closeness and comfort from another was unacceptable or “weak.” Perhaps humor was readily accepted, but not shame, anger, or sorrow. Perhaps your vulnerability was sometimes used to exploit you. Perhaps you learned to do the same to others. So when you or your spouse becomes suddenly very agitated without any apparent reason, it’s likely that you have rubbed up against feelings and fears rooted deeply in early relationship training.
If we can identify and respect our partner’s raw spots, we can realize that our spouses are not necessarily reacting to the topic of conversation, but to a perceived threat to their need to feel valued, to feel like a good partner—the need to know that the change in belief is not a change in love, or, on the other hand, that continued belief is not a personal rejection.
The second barrier involves “miscuing” or hiding our vulnerable feelings beneath an armored façade. For example, a believing spouse, Chan, recalled feeling frightened and horribly alone when her husband, David, started openly questioning their shared faith. “But I wouldn’t show him that. I couldn’t,” she said. Instead of sharing her vulnerable feelings with him, Chan would “aggressively” bear her testimony for hours at a time. David said he “just couldn’t talk to her” during these times, that he felt “pummeled,” “defeated,” and “like there was no room for me.” Though David longed to find closeness and comfort with Chan, he would “lash out” by citing article after article about polygamy, or disparage “believers” as irrational.
Spouses often obscure tender feelings with anger, criticism, intellectualization, testimony bearing, or sarcasm. While they long for closeness, understanding, and comfort, they instead push further away from each other. “I had no idea she felt so alone; she didn’t show it,” David said. “All I saw was a wall.”
When couples are able to recognize and slow down the demon dialogues and access their underlying needs and feelings, they are then in a position to make a risky, but profitable, move: sharing their vulnerabilities with each other. If the destructive patterns have been going on for too long, one or both partners may perceive this kind of sharing to be dangerous (“Be vulnerable? Are you kidding?”) or inadequate (“This won’t fix anything.”), or they may be exhausted and feel there isn’t anything left to share. But vulnerability is the essence of love. Think back to an earlier time in your marriage relationship when you were so close to your partner that you almost seemed to be the same person. You were both intensely vulnerable to each other at the time.
But rebuilding that vulnerability takes effort. As Sue Johnson points out, some amount of safety must exist in a relationship for vulnerable sharing to occur. Achieving some safety may be an overwhelming task at first; you may find that the only place you can start is sharing the simple fact that you’re frightened to talk. Once a good pattern has been established, spouses can start taking turns discussing their fears and what they most need from the other. Chan was able to share with David her fear that he no longer respected her. “How can you stay married to someone you don’t respect?” she asked. David confided in Chan his fear of being an inadequate husband now that he had “lost my eternal place with her.” Couples who can initiate positive patterns of vulnerability and connection are significantly better equipped to engage in the challenging discussions about faith transition and what it means to their marriage.
While we do not recommend sharing vulnerability in cases where one or both partners have decided to end the marriage, recognizing the patterns of conflict and being aware of each other’s raw spots can help separating or divorcing couples continue to relate in a more cooperative manner.
Even when a couple has made the commitment to recognize their demon dialogues and each other’s raw spots, accessing underlying feelings can be risky or even impossible in some cases without help from a trained professional. A therapist can act as the “bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind” other for the couple until the relationship has sufficiently healed. We recommend finding a therapist who can respect both partners’ value systems. The therapist also needs to have the training and knowledge to redirect and choreograph a new dance of healing and connection in the relationship. We recommend finding a therapist who is trained in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT),8 or another effective method of couple’s therapy.
One of the main benefits of having a stable marital relationship is that spouses can provide each other with the secure base we wrote about earlier, imparting the courage and emotional energy to be curious and independent. Spouses do not need to listen to all the same podcasts or read the same books, or even agree with each other. Neither member of a couple has to change their level of personal “orthodoxy” in order to make their marriage healthy. Rather, they can find ways to be creative and flexible within each of their belief systems.9 What is most crucial is that each partner know that they matter to the other.
When we are feeling scared or overwhelmed, we do not necessarily need our partner to solve the problem, rather, we need them to be emotionally present. This can be a challenge, especially for partners who usually feel competent in problem solving. In addition to the importance of connection during times of stress and fear, Kent Hoffman notes that delight is an important aspect in creating a secure relationship. We need to experience our partner’s delight in us.10 Watch a child’s face as they return from play to show mom or dad what they have discovered. The parent’s ability to share in the child’s delight is key. We never outgrow the need for our loved ones to delight in us.
Happy, successful marriages do experience conflict; in fact, nearly 70% of problems in a marriage will never be resolved.11 Even when both partners are committed to solving problems, miscommunication is likely to occur around 91% of the time, according to marital researcher John Gottman.12 However, couples that find ways to be vulnerable together—to share their fears and their hurts—can heal together despite the challenges. “It is not easy,” says David. “Sometimes it’s unbelievably painful,” remarks Chan. “But I know we’re in it together.”
1. Robert Hass, Now and Then: The Poet’s Choice Columns 1997-2000 (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2008), 23.
2. Sidney Cox, A Swinger of Birches (Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2011).
3. Kent Hoffman, “Thirst: Attachment, Procedural Memory, and Sacred Practice in Everyday Life,” November 2011.
4. Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2008).
5. Glenn Cooper, Kent Hoffman, & Bert Powell, Circle of Security Parenting Training, circleofsecurity.net.
6. Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008).
7. Albert Bandura, “Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective,” Annual Review of Psychology 52: 1–26.
8. For more information on emotionally focused couple therapy, or to find a potential therapist, see www.iceeft.com.
9. Kenneth I. Pargament, The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice (New York: Guilford Press, 2001). See also Eviatar Zerubavel, The Fine Line (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
10 Cooper, Hoffman, & Powell, Circle of Security.
12. John Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000).
13. John Gottman and Nan Silver, What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012).