Dealing with feelings of betrayal — when your spouse apostatizes

May 17, 2008
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I end up talking with people on this theme several times a year.

There are people who feel terribly betrayed. Especially when a spouse leaves the gospel. Apostatizes.

There are other situations in the same realm, that create the same emotions:

  • a mother whose only boy has died, and who can’t have any other children, and who feels betrayed that God has left her without sons;
  • a father whose wife has become an alcoholic and whose children are losing their way;
  • someone whose interaction with food has gone terribly wrong and who can’t stop gaining weight;
  • people recovering from disasters who feel that calamity should not have befallen them;
  • a kid who wants to serve a mission but who has developing mental illness issues that medication doesn’t quite resolve;
  • the list goes on.

But some how the strain of a spouse abandoning the gospel seems to strike people just as deeply sometimes, it seems a permanent unfaithfulness and abandonment, endangering children, the love of a couple and having a core sense of failure. It is a serious form of affliction for many.

Affliction, especially affliction that seems permanent or life altering, causes a number of emotions. A sense of loss, pain, hopelessness, bereavement and others. Bitterness and betrayal seem to be two of the hardest to deal with. In some situations (such as a spouse who has an attack of the “middle aged crazy” or who has been unfaithful) the emotion seems unavoidable.

Many people who have read my blog know that I’ve been reading 12-step literature in the hope that it would apply to grief. It does, a little, sometimes. I’ve written about that too.

But, and this is a big but, there is one area where there is a 12-step group that has feelings of betrayal and resentment down cold. That group is Al Anon. Al Anon is a group for people who have an alcoholic in the family (one of the sub-groups is for kids who have to deal with an alcoholic parent). They have a lot of literature. But, a constant theme, over and over again, is dealing with feelings of betrayal, resentment and the need to control someone else.

Yes, I’d advocate anyone with those emotions to seek counseling. But, you can read things (e.g. here on the official site, and an excellent collection of essays on-line here). No matter what is causing the feelings (and alcoholics often are unfaithful, mentally ill, betrayers — that is all part of the disease), they have an excellent tool set to help you while a professional gives you additional support.

No question, I value The Anatomy of Peace. But if you need more, there are books like One Day at a Time in Al-Anon (available for 12 cents or so used on Amazon and probably in your local library) that can help with the emotional states, to give you encouragement and hope in dealing with the pain, confusion and anguish.

That can help you find peace.

Because it is peace and patience that you need. In patience keep men their souls is a modern reading of a scripture verse that we need to remember. Love is long suffering, patient, kind, not manipulative. The response to the feeling of betrayal is not revenge, control, or anger. Those do not heal or help.

The response is to seek the spirit of God, to embrace the power of the love of Christ and to let charity do its work, much like God does with us.

Which is what I’ve attempted to tell people who ask me for my advice, from what I’ve observed with those I’ve seen going through the process.


Also cross posted in slightly different form at my personal blog — and yes, if you feel the sense of betrayal or anguish many spouses feel when their partner has abandoned the Church, this is exactly the sort of thing you can start looking at to cope.

My thanks to C. L. Hanson as well, for the pointer to Faces East a forum for people in this exact situation.

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20 Responses to Dealing with feelings of betrayal — when your spouse apostatizes

  1. May 18, 2008 at 7:22 am

    Great informative post Stephen. Thanks so much for sharing. I have favourited those links :-)

  2. Bruce Nielson
    May 18, 2008 at 7:29 am

    Thank you, Stephen, for your regular thoughtful posts.

  3. May 18, 2008 at 9:37 am

    “people recovering from disasters who feel that calamity should not have befallen them”

    A friend of mine just told me a story from his mission about a family whose business failed soon after they joined the church. They told him, “We joined the true church and this happened to us? It can’t be true.” They never came back after that.

  4. May 18, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Wow, nonbelief is on par with mental illness, alcoholism, and death?

    I don’t want to trivialize the feelings of people who see their dreams of an eternal family slipping away. And for people in this situation, I’d recommend checking out the Faces East forum for help and support. At the same time, I’ve seen this from the other side — loving parents and spouses who care about their families and are treated as shameful failures becuse they just don’t believe these doctrinal claims. Encouraging the other spouse to feel justified in thinking “if you don’t believe this doctrine you might as well be dead” surely does more harm than good.

  5. May 18, 2008 at 11:32 am

    C.L., it is the emotional state that various issues creates, not that I agree with them. Think for a moment (on the example “mother whose only boy has died, and who can’t have any other children, and who feels betrayed that God has left her without sons.”) I’ve had five girls and buried three of them. I’m not terribly connected to people who feel that only sons matter and that daughters are a waste of time and breath. I specifically used that example because one would not expect me to agree with it, yet anyone could agree that the person is in pain.

    If you’ve read any of the links I’ve posted to, none of them encourage the thinking “you might as well be dead” and my whole discussion is about how that isn’t the way to think. I would agree that that sort of thinking does harm and not good.

    But I would hope that you would agree with me when I state:

    Because it is peace and patience that you need. In patience keep men their souls is a modern reading of a scripture verse that we need to remember. Love is long suffering, patient, kind, not manipulative. The response to the feeling of betrayal is not revenge, control, or anger. Those do not heal or help.

  6. Dano
    May 18, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    The church has some wonderful Addiction Recovery materials and group meetings. A link to their 12 step guide can be found here.

    Their manual and program can help those struggling through various addictions as well as those that live with them.

  7. May 18, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    I should also add my thanks to C.L. for the link to Faces East, which I had not heard of before. That is a keeper.

    Thanks!

  8. May 19, 2008 at 1:42 am

    I understand how believing members would feel. If I leave the church, I am rejecting the Mormon church. To you, the Mormon church is everything you believe in and your reality, so in essence, I am rejecting what you believe in.

    However, try to see it from their point of view and don’t try to see it as a betrayal. Just realize that not everyone interprets everything the same and that some people simply can not accept certain doctrinal issues.

    People leave the church for various reasons. Some leave because they were offended by members. Some leave because they don’t want to pay tithing. Some leave because they want to smoke or drink or party. However, some people leave strictly for doctrinal reasons.

    I do not believe that I am any smarter than any of the members of the church, I just see things differently. That is all. You don’t have to get too worked up about it and realize that life goes on.

    Ever since I have apostatized, I have felt an inner peace within me. In the church, I always felt inept and that I would never be good enough, especially on my mission. Now, I can live with myself and realize that I am just a natural being and don’t have to compare myself with this impossible unrealistic being. It works for me, and if not for my wife, I probably would leave the church. However, this does not mean that the church has no benefit or that this is the answer for everyone. The church might work for a lot of people, but it simply doesn’t work for me.

  9. Tanya Sue
    May 19, 2008 at 11:52 am

    Great thoughts. I have always wondered why people in the church as a whole have such a hard time loving those who leave. Sometimes I think the response makes things worse. I left a little over a year ago. And for the first year I really thought about going back on a regular basis. But the experience I had with members of the church left me realizing that not knowing what I wanted to do was simply not ok. There was so many assumptions were quite difficult. People just couldn’t understand that I could no longer carry my doubts of the gospel in addition to the other heavy loads I had to carry. After 9 straight years (starting at age 24) of a living hell and finding that I simply could not do it all.

    If more people were willing to have that love and patience I know I would be more likley to give it another shot once my other burdens ease up. I would be willing to give trying despite my doubts another chance. The problem is that most people I have encountered cannot take the patience part.

    I know that people I am close to feel betrayed that I left. The flip-side is that I felt betrayed when I found out certain aspects of church history or docterines. I also felt betrayed that so many people chalked up my leaving to weakness or sin.

    I think all parties feel betrayed when someone leaves. Both the people who leave, and those who stay and want the other party to stay.

  10. Ray
    May 19, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    “Now, I can live with myself and realize that I am just a natural being and don’t have to compare myself with this impossible unrealistic being.”

    Zelph, I think this is the reason that concerns me the most, NOT because I think it is “invalid” in any way whatsoever for people to feel that way, but because I see it as the result of a fundamental lack of Gospel understanding on the part of those who make others feel like they DO need to compare themselves with an impossible standard. Fwiw, I believe STRONGLY that if members in general understood that comparison to be an abomination and, instead, really understood the journey toward perfection as an empowering, exciting process – then these common feelings of inadequacy would disappear for many, and they would struggle MUCH less in the Church.

    I personally don’t have the problem you describe for one reason – I was taught growing up that my best was good enough, as long as that best was focused on becoming a better person. It’s the heart of what I heard Pres. Hinckley say over and over and over again – that we just need to be consistently getting a little better.

    That might not help those whose feelings are so ingrained that they are next to impossible to change, but I sure hope the trend in the Church to understand and teach grace (the version that is tied to repentance as a positive process) better and more fully continues.

  11. May 19, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Ray, perhaps my experience is based on my parents in particular. Maybe it is 99% psychological. However, as a member of the church, I was always looking to be touched by the spirit, I fasted prayed, did everything I was supposed to do, went on a mission and got married in the temple. However, all I felt was a feeling that I would never be good enough or worthy enough.

    Now, I have questioned the very existence of God, or if Jesus was even a real person, or just some made up fairy tale.

  12. May 20, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    Zelph, that is really too bad. I hope you find a better peace.

  13. May 20, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Which reminds me, I’m going to post next on the difference between being religious, being emotional, and spirituality — three different things that should not be mistaken for each other. Emotional experiences or religious observances will not suffice to serve for the Spirit.

  14. Ray
    May 20, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    Zelph, somehow I missed #11. I also pray that you find peace – in whatever form it takes.

  15. Thomas Parkin
    May 21, 2008 at 3:08 am

    Zelph,

    What you wrote triggered some things, and makes me feel like unloading a bit.

    I do well to remember that we are in a church where a leader once advised us to chain someone’s arms to a bedpost rather than countenance them masturbating. When we say that the church hasn’t been perfect – it really, really hasn’t been perfect. The doctrines have always been there – waiting in the collective unconscious of the church, as Neal Maxwell once said – but they haven’t always been foregrounded in ways that would have been helpful to so many of us. I also think that with perfectly good intensions, and even some inspiration, folks made statements that, while true strictly speaking in and of themselves, have completely failed to make space for the mercy, long-suffering and liberal nature of God – and also failed to take into account the moral ambiguity and difficulty that we find in a fallen world, where our very own nature works against us. Yes – we need to be striving to keep the commandments – but it is also not required that we run faster than we have strength. I think that many of us have felt that the compnaionship of the Spirit was something that we earned – I mean, you know, if we took a sideways glance at the wine section as we walked through the store that might be cause to lose the Holy Ghost. That we sanctify ourselves for the Spirit rather understaning that ultimately we are sanctified BY the Spirit.

    For me, it played out like this. I didn’t go on a mission, I kept hidden that I had no interest in it whatsoever – because I loved my parents, and especially my mother, who put so much stock in me going. Also, since every worthy young man of course desires to go, to confess that it had no place in me meant that I was terribly flawed. I was UNworthy. It was a real dilemna for me. I solved it, literally, by getting my girlfriend pregnant and getting married. That was how drastic it was in my poor addled head. I couldn’t bring myself to simply say, “I don’t want to go” or “I don’t have a testimony of the kind that makes me want to go.” In other words, the space that I’d grown up in made it very very difficult for me to tell the truth. I see now that unwittingly a whole culture, and my parents, with nothing but good intentions, had been exercising unrigheous dominion on me. It shouldn’t be hard to admit – it is the nature and disposition of virtually everyone, why not us, as well.

    Anyway – after getting married – I was still only 20, I decided to find out if I should take the church seriously. I will cut that short by simply saying that it lead to a period of intense activity between the ages of 20 and 25. I did indeed have the Spirit, and had spirtual experiences of what I saw as an exceptional nature. My marriage, however, was very very difficult. This is a public forum, and my ex-wife is still in the church, and is sometimes a friend of mine, and so I won’t go into that too much. And, obviously, there is everything that I brought negative to the relationship – which, over the years, I’ve come to see as a lot. But, she had had a very difficult childhood – about as bad as I was able to imagine at that time. (I’ve since heard worse.) I see and know now that she was trying very hard with what she knew and had, but most of what she had was hurt. I really hate the fact that I, against what I imagined could come from me, brought more pain into her life. I went in basically beleiving that if you were kind, everything would work out. And I also believed that if I was 100%, that the Lord would soften her heart, and make things easier for me, bless me for the righteous desires of my heart. (I’ve come to understand that you can’t manipulate a person by your own attempts at righteousness, and that it is wrong to try.) And so I went hard to work. I was as 100% as you can get: home teaching, tithing, temple, everything. This is what we are taught: obedience = blessings. And I was blessed for that, looking back – but not in the ways I expected, or that I saw at the time. Instead of getting easier, my marriage got harder and harder. Everything got harder. And the tenision between what I thought would happen and what did happen ground and ground at me, and there were constant emotional assaults, till one night sitting in the dark I found myself considering suicide, and thinking of it as a good idea – and that scared me pretty good, and lead to a series of decisions that culminated in divorce. It is strange that I haven’t really thought about this in a long time – and how fresh some of the feelings are for me. Was I commiting sins? Yes, I see now, though I have barely recognized it, that by this time I had begun to commit sins taht would later intensify. I didn’t really know how to offer up my broken heart to God. I understood little about grace, in part because, while the doctrines were there and I had been taught them, the much stronger emphasis had been on following the carnal law and conforming outwardly to certain norms. I didn’t really understand that I should offer my heart, I didn’t understand what the Lord wanted me to be, what it was that I was meant to sacrifice.

    Around this time I fell in love with the wife of a friend of mine – a woman who is still a friend to this day, who I care about a great deal, although for everyone’s good we don’t see each other often. (I’m still friends with her husband, too, I’m happy to say. He’s a very good guy, rather unlike me in many respects.) Again, this is a public forum, and this is something I could write hundreds of pages about. But I wanted to write it, because it certainly was a contributing factor in everything that happened. Again, I can hardly find fault. No one’s deepest intensions were evil. But faults were there, we are fallen people. There is a lot that happened, some of it seems almost cliche at this distance. I had a run in with a bishop who accused me, claiming that if I hadn’t committed certain sins I wouldn’t find myself in the situation I was in. He was right that I had committed some sins – though nothing like what I would later do – but the specific things he accused me of are things that, then and now, are not a part of my nature. I recall that he became very angry, red in the face and shouting, and I remember thinking to myself “this is the voice of the church speaking to you.” I could hardly believe it. I expected that I would get healing, and I was getting more grief. Again this is a public forum, and I should add that this man and I came to understand each other a little bit, admitted his own mistake in the incidient, and in many ways behaved very helpfully in some things that followed. And, beyond that, he is a person that I really like.

    It is so easy to take all the conflicting factors and sum them up in one statment. I want to say, after the divorce it was simply easier to not go to church. And that is probably the biggest thing that contributed to me leaving. But, I was beginning to commit serious sins, and wanted to commit some others. Anyway, I quit going. I felt immensely free of several years of tension, and that first year away from the church was one of the happiest of my life. I never denied the spiritual expereinces that had happened to me in my early 20s, and I kept them in my heart, and would think about them from time to time, with more than a littel confusion. But I no longer sought for more. After a number of years, I saw some other things that I didn’t imagine I would – and I myself became, not a very good person, not really trying to be. (Because, in spite of everything, I always have thought of myself as a basically good person it is tough to reconcile myself to some way that I became, things that I did, pain that I caused. One lesson is how difficult it is to become aware of the shadowy side of one’s own nature.)

    I did, of course, eventually come back to the church. In many ways, things I’m going through now mirror some of those earlier difficulties. I’ve been 100%, I’ve made a genuine good faith effort, and yet I haven’t been blessed with all the things I thought I would be. But, I’ve learned that what the Lord wants for me is something quite different from the pictures I’ve painted, and that have been painted for me. Do I feel free, oh yes.

    This is what I wanted to write. It was triggered by this: “I fasted prayed, did everything I was supposed to do, went on a mission and got married in the temple.” Because I know that you can make a really truly good faith effort at righteousness, and still not get what you think is in store for you. Also, I think many, maybe even most, active members of the church don’t recognize the Spirit working in thier lives. What I know is that it is possible to be keeping the commandments, and be really trying, and still not find the thing that you need to find. Because sometimes there is a fatal flaw, a thing that we need to see that we just aren’t seeing. That is one reason why the Lord is so patient with us. Even Jesus learned. In His last moment he had the Spirit withdrawn from Him, and He couldn’t understand why. But then He did understand, and it was finished. It may be, Zelph, that you will have a particular set of insights that you can use to bless many people. Just don’t think the journey is over when you’re only half way through.

    much love to you mah brutha!

    ~

  16. CarlosJC
    May 21, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Stephen,

    One thing that’s missing here is the added pressure from ward members when one’s marriage or family doesn’t meet the ideal -they immediately ask ‘what did you do wrong for your spouse to cheat’ or ‘there wasn’t enough discipline at home if the kids go astray’ and on and on it goes….

    (True that ‘revenge, control, or anger’ is not the way to find peace after betrayal & problems at home. But today I believe it’s cathartic most times, of depression when one gets even, but then one has to repent later!)

    Thomas Parkin, Have you returned to your ex? or remarried? (I enjoyed your comments :) )

  17. Ray
    May 22, 2008 at 7:33 am

    Carlos, That’s an incredibly broad statement. I know there are insensitive members who are judgmental and might say such things, but the vast majority of those I have known in my lifetime aren’t like that.

    Having said that, I think issues like this (nosy, jedgmental people in general – NOT just Mormons) are exacerbated in close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone and it’s all too easy to take sides. Hence, this is more of an issue in rural areas than in the cities – in wards that are 4 blocks squared – in congregations where there is a dominant family of 12 adult kids who all live in the same town and populate every organizational presidency – etc.

  18. CarlosJC
    May 22, 2008 at 11:21 am

    “are exacerbated in close-knit communities”

    Very true. Very true.

    Its just that all the wards that I’ve been in over the years, all in cities, end up as those ‘rural’ type one you describe here since they become close-knit over time.

  19. November 9, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points about how to relationships work.