Married, but only one of the partners is Mormon. In the “mission field” such part-Mormon couples are numerous, probably more than in area’s where Mormons have lived for generations. Sociologists study this phenomenon among various affiliations. “Religious intermarriage”, “religious homogamy / heterogamy”, “interchurch / interfaith marriages” are some of the key words of this academic field of study.
Peculiar to Mormonism, and to a few other actively proselyting religions, is the fact that the breach can suddenly occur during marriage, when only one of the partners gets converted. Partners who marry with differing religious convictions already in place are conscious of the situation beforehand and can negotiate mutual understanding and habits, though it will remain a challenge. But a conversion during marriage is unexpected, can be felt by the other partner like a betrayal, a violation of the union and its underlying agreements.
In the international Church the problem is compounded by other factors. In countries where only one major, national religion is the norm, where “conversion” to another is unheard of, and where Mormonism is viewed as a tiny, aberrant cult, becoming a Mormon places the marriage partner in an even more thorny position. In case of marital tensions, the blame will easily be placed on “that sect”. Worse, in case of a divorce and the attribution of custody of children, the argument that the Mormon partner “forces the children into a cult” is reason for a judge to rule in favor of the other partner – even if all other facts prove he or she is the unfit parent. An abusive, adulterous parent is preferred above a devout Mormon. I have seen several of such cases in Europe.
As a priesthood leader in the mission field, I spent more time on such instances than on any others. The tensions and conflicts start already at the level of investigation of the Church, when one of the partners gains a strong testimony and the other rejects the message. Just the other day, my wife got a call from Jenny, who for many years has eagerly been waiting to be baptized, but has held back from taking the step because of her husband. She is still torn between her spiritual yearning and her sense of duty towards family unity – also a Church commandment. Interestingly, I have seen as many cases where the husband had the testimony, and the wife not.
Five years ago I helped a graduate student in sociology of the Catholic University of Louvain obtain permission to interview Mormon partners in such relations. I was confident he would do a respectful job, as his thesis was under the supervision of Prof. Karel Dobbelaere, a long-time friend of the Church. Thanks to two cooperating branch presidents and his own willingness to attend Church and participate in the life of the branches, Tom Vanhove was able to conduct private and thorough interviews with six Mormons (four women, two men). Each of them lived in a situation where his or her partner was not a member.
The anonymous interviews and the conclusions make fascinating but often painful reading. Each case is very different, showing the multiple variations on the theme. It can go from a mutually tolerant partnership, with negotiated tensions, to extremes where the Mormon partner has to hide anything pertaining to the Church, hardly able to attend a meeting, and constantly harassed for his or her beliefs. Tithing, Word of Wisdom, raising the children, home and visiting teaching, meetings and conferences, temple attendance, and more, create a wide variety of challenges.
Not all is negative: some of the interviewees speak also of rewards – the moral obligation to be the example in the family, the mutual training of tolerance and respect, the growing ability of children to cope with diversity already in the microcosm of their family.
But overshadowing it all is the rift between their reality and the family-oriented doctrines and programs of the Church. The solitary Mormon partner is keenly aware of that rupture. Perhaps even more than a single Mormon who is able to cope without daily family conflicts?
Of course, this post is also a heartfelt tribute to all those Saints, who, in such situations, keep true to the faith, in spite of – and perhaps also thanks to – their challenges.
What experiences can we share, what advice can we give? Any Mormon sociologists who have studied the issues?