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Leaving Home, Leaving Church: Why Leaving Mormonism is Like Divorce

By Bill Dobbs

I was a convert to the Mormon Church, and within it spent many years of happy memory among loving people. Because of Mormonism I have met human beings who were more gracious, generous, and kind than I could have imagined.

I have been enriched by the opportunity to serve and be served. I have been inspired by a theology that taught, “freedom, intelligence, knowledge and love as the great values.” I can never forget these good things.

As the years passed, however, I was dismayed by church authorities condemning intellectuals and historians who openly discussed troubling issues in church history and practice. They made urgent calls for obedience and conformity, reflected in repeated statements by my local leaders in sacrament meetings. Ward members seemed more afraid to express honest thoughts and feelings, and church meetings felt oppressive. This violated the freedom, intelligence, and love I prized.

I discovered that threatening and abusive actions condoned by authorities, including violence, were not unusual in Mormon history. I could not believe that the plural marriage so zealously practiced and preached by the nineteenth century Mormon prophets was required by God.

I stopped participating in church, and could no longer identify myself as Mormon. I resigned about four years ago. I found grief on the road leading from the spiritual home and people I loved, but I also found an empowering sense of freedom that gives me zest for the future.

As Joseph Smith himself once said, “It feels so good not to be trammeled.”

During the time I was becoming disenchanted with the Mormon Church my seventeen year marriage was also unraveling. I had four daughters, and deeply loved my wife and children. Then I experienced a divorce which shattered my security and turned my world upside down. I struggled to keep my self-esteem, my emotional balance, and some semblance of order in my crumbling family. As my children nearly went to pieces, so did I. These challenges tested me to the core.

In reflecting on these events, I have been struck by similarities in the challenging tasks of leaving a marriage and leaving the LDS Church. Participation in Mormon community, like marriage, affords nurture, support, and belonging. The committed LDS believer labors with church “brothers and sisters” in an environment of intimacy and sacrifice. The disillusionment, emptiness, and sense of betrayal one feels when leaving a beloved religious community parallels the bitter experience of losing love in divorce.

While I struggled to survive as a single parent, grief and loneliness nearly overwhelmed me. Fortunately my in-laws stayed warm towards me, but my familiar activities and my circle of friends dropped away. When friends and family become alienated, familiar roles disappear. New skills and new sources of personal support are essential. As time passed and crisis finally turned back into routine, I gained my balance in the roles of single parent and single man. I experienced pain, but gained strength. With increasing perspective I felt confidence my life, and compassion for my ex-wife.

Losing a religion can be as life changing as losing a love. When our spouse is gone, anger and grief shock us with their power, whether or not we sought the divorce. Leaving the LDS Church is not as intense, but perhaps inflicts an even more long lasting sense of social dislocation, as family, friends, and community reject our new beliefs and identity. Work, social gatherings, and family activities constantly draw us back into Mormon attitudes and rituals, as we also try to cope with guilt, shame, and loneliness, and build new habits for an independent life. We feel spiritually unworthy when we can no longer believe, as we feel unlovable when we have lost love. We become angry at the ecclesiastical system that has conditioned loved ones to fear, pity, or reject us.

This rejection reactivates our childhood fear of abandonment. We wonder if we will ever find love or faith again. Whether your loss is marital or religious you have lost your future, and you no longer know the meaning of your past. Your transition will not be complete until you discover a new interpretation of your past, and a new purpose for your future.

As you move on, life poses you new questions. Will your disillusionment bring embitterment, or enlightenment? Can you let go of your ex, and develop functional ways of relating to each other that minimize stress and harm? What hopes, what ideals, will now guide your life?

Those who divorce have more ready models of successful transition easily at hand. They readily encounter divorced people who have survived. They can get sympathetic advice from divorced friends. They may establish relationships to meet needs their spouse could not. They can readily find advice books, and support groups both before and after they separate.

Until recently, few men and women moving out of Mormonism could readily find understanding friends or helpful support groups. We had few, if any, healthy public models of leaving Mormonism. Even inactive Mormons cannot conceive of leaving the church. Mormons have little concept of what it means to be an ex-Mormon. The most prominent scriptural model is Korihor, the lying and dying anti-Christ from the Book of Mormon. That is neither helpful nor realistic.

We seekers cannot be reduced to such comic book stereotypes. We need new and healthy models of what it means to leave the LDS Church. We need help from others who have already experienced this loss to find our way through territory that we do not know. The growth of ex-Mormon internet community and establishment of support groups are therefore important developments. Before we even know what we want, we benefit from the example, support, and thoughts of others with experience. Their insights are reassuring. They help us to feel better about ourselves. Even though we feel uncomfortable with Mormonism, most of us will not comfortably fit into another religion.

As in divorce, however, it may not be a good idea to jump into another relationship. We may only be running away from ourselves when we do that. Recovering well means allowing yourself to experience feelings without self-censorship.

You should not join a group that pressures you to stifle your honest reactions. Do not wear the straitjacket of any ideology. Reflective thinking, stepping back from the feelings of shame, guilt, anger, etc., is also mandatory. Integrating the lessons of your past into a new and more personally authentic way of thinking, feeling, and living may take years to accomplish.

Support from open minded and sympathetic members of another church may help, but not at the expense of lying to yourself. You can learn much about yourself by facing your fears squarely. You will find courage you did not know you had.


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