This story is part of our Mixed-Faith Marriage series, exploring the journeys and insights of active Latter-day Saint women married to men who are not members of the Church or who have left the Church. Each story is a generous and vulnerable offering. We ask that comments be sensitive and nonjudgmental toward any woman’s choices or beliefs.
By Jennifer Barnhart, Washington state, USA
This story is about me—which feels odd because whenever I have written it before I’ve made it about my husband. We met at BYU, fell madly in love and were married in the Oakland Temple. We finished school, moved to Washington State, and started a busy life with children, callings, careers, and life. We have been a good match. I always credit his kindness and consideration and encouragement. He is steady; I am more like popcorn, exploding in every direction.
Our daughters grew up and left home. My husband served in responsible callings, such as High Priest Group Leader and Stake Clerk. We hadn’t attended church together for years because of his stake callings.
One day on vacation, he smiled. I realized that it had been months or years since I remembered him smiling. I was shocked to find out that my formerly happy husband was deeply depressed. He started seeing doctors and therapists, started taking medication, nothing helped. He also prayed, read scriptures, attended all his meetings and worked even harder to find answers. He dreaded Sundays because he would go to church with so many questions and there were no answers. He couldn’t wait for Monday to roll around so he could get back to work. He became tense, anxious and angry. He didn’t renew his temple recommend and was released from his stake calling, although he accepted a calling in the High Priest Group. I covered for him with his family, with my family, and at church. I covered for him by making it easy for him to avoid anything regarding church that he wasn’t comfortable with. He didn’t want to participate at church the way he had in the past.
In the meantime, my father passed away and I decided that I needed therapy to help me with my grief. My husband continued to be depressed and we went to therapy together. We visited an LDS therapist. I don’t know what the two of them talked about during their sessions, but after a few weeks the therapist suggested to me that I might want to consider what it would mean for me if my husband were to leave the Church. It had never entered my mind. A few weeks later we had a couple’s session where we talked about the Church. She suggested to me that it was perfectly acceptable for me to cover for him while he was deciding what he wanted to do, but once he decided he needed to “own” it. I wasn’t sure how that would look. I was really used to jumping in to “rescue” him when any topic or event came up that might make him uncomfortable. I thought that we would just continue that way.
Three years ago, the bishop extended the call to me to be Relief Society President, which I accepted. About four months later, my husband stopped attending church. It felt traumatic for me. Attending church alone I felt vulnerable, I felt conspicuous. I was up in front conducting, teaching, and speaking and I felt like everyone was looking at me. But truthfully nobody seemed to notice. No one at church said anything to me. I had been covering for him for such a long time and now I was covering for myself. Even though I felt hurt and wounded, I didn’t know how to ask for kindness or compassion from my fellow ward members and I don’t think they knew how to respond either. Over time it became obvious that people did notice, they just had nothing to say. It was a painful time.
There have been a few sisters who have been kind and sympathetic and let me sit with them in sacrament meeting and hold their babies. One or two men have asked me to let my husband know that they are thinking about him. But for the most part our friends and the people that we have served alongside have been silent. I guess that they don’t know what to say or how to respond. If he had been loud, angry, offended, lazy, or obviously sinning, he would have fit the stereotype that we have been taught at church. Since he was quiet, kind, and still made regular home teaching visits (without a gospel message), people are baffled. He was back to his old self. He is happier outside the Church, and many of our church friends cannot conceive of this.
Among our extended family there was shock and disbelief, then acceptance and love. In our immediate family, several members left the Church for various other reasons within a similar time frame. We all love and respect each other’s choices. As a faithful member of the Church, I am in the minority when we have family gatherings, but we pray over meals and I am glad for that.
He and I love each other in a less busy, more intentional way. He does not have meetings or callings. I do. He is supportive, but it’s my thing. We have had to work out how to connect in new ways. We take turns planning date night. We serve meals to the homeless with another local church. We are connecting with people inside and outside the Church.
I serve as Relief Society President, read and study the gospel. I practice being grateful for all my blessings. I attend the temple as often as I can, which is usually weekly. I have found an amazing group of friends that I can have gospel conversations with. We connect online. I get to take care of me and I have asked God to take care of the rest of my family. This is how God planned earth life—we each get to use our agency.
I am changed, and I like how I’ve changed. At church, the first year was so painful. It’s less so with time. Some weeks I am shocked by how unconscious some members are of the feelings of those who are not following the traditional family path at church. And then I am less shocked because I used to be just like them. I feel that I am more compassionate than I used to be. I am slower to judge, I am learning to trust in the Savior and the Atonement. At home, we are building the celestial relationship that comes from deep love and understanding and putting each other before ourselves. How we treat each other, finding common interests and a deep love for each other, brings so much joy to my life.
This is good—not what I planned for my life, but in some ways better.