Guest Post: A Dysfunctional Marriage

by Margaret OH

My husband and I have been listening to a marriage therapy course with the fabulous Jennifer Finlayson-Fife.  We have found that meeting with a marriage therapist every few years for a “check-up” is great for heading off potential problems and for gaining skills that strengthen our relationship.  At this moment in our lives we don’t have the time to physically meet with someone in an office, but Dr. Finlayson-Fife (my husband and I refer to her as JFF) has been an excellent fit for us and conveniently comes to our house via the internet while our children sleep.

One of the skills that JFF emphasizes is effective speaking and listening in conflict.  I consider myself pretty good at listening but have learned a lot from the class.  JFF lays out strategies for productive speaking: state the facts, give a personal interpretation, make a manageable request.  The listener also has a responsibility: to listen with honest self-examination while holding the valued relationship close in his/her heart.  Both roles require vulnerability and a commitment to the relationship.  In my experience both roles, if done right, are difficult to perform.  It takes a faith in the relationship to be that humble and exposed.

In one video of a case study of a couple acting out a conflict, JFF lays out basic grading for the listener: An F grade for denying that there’s a problem; D for acknowledging there’s a problem; C for acknowledging and apologizing; a B for acknowledging, apologizing, and committing to change.   An A grade is more difficult: it requires seeing oneself through the eyes of your partner and taking ownership of the problem.  It is not just saying, “You’re right, I’ll change”, it is saying, “You’re right.  I see that in myself and I don’t like that about myself.  I am trying to be different.”

I have often throughout my adult life felt like I was in a marriage with the Church.  I am devoted to it. I love it.  It is a complicated relationship but a commitment which I feel is worth sticking with.  The times I have felt most despairing of that marriage is when I feel like the Church loves me less than I love it or when the Church is telling me that it would love me more if I were different.  There have been times when the Church seems to value our relationship not at all. Those are painful, dark moments, when I wonder about our future together.

When the Church Public Affairs Department met with Mormon Women Stand (while refusing to even acknowledge other groups), it felt to me like a deliberate escalation of the conflict between Mormon feminists and the Church.  It felt like a denial of the importance of the relationship.  Mormon feminists are speaking.  They are stating facts, giving their interpretation, and asking for a variety of requests (some more manageable than others).  I have made myself vulnerable because I love this Church so much and I desperately want to preserve the relationship.  The response, in this case, was a resounding, “There isn’t a problem.”  That, to me, is a failure.  Failure to listen, failure to engage in dialogue.  Failure to hold the relationship close to the heart.

There have been slightly better statements recently.  In a private meeting with local leadership in my area, Elder Ballard recently said that the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency recognize that “some women feel marginalized” and they are pondering what can be done for those women.  But for me, this is still a D grade: there is an acknowledgement, but no ownership.  There is no vulnerability.  “Some women” are still different and separate.  There is an emotional barrier between the groups inherent in framing the conflict in these terms.

So what is there to do?  I have lots of mediation theory about creating a space for dialogue.  I think it’s worth sharing and I plan to post it here soon.  But today I am too tired to speak and too angry to listen.  I am despairing about whether I will ever be heard and valued.  In this case, I again return to JFF: if your spouse refuses to respond to a request for change and you want to preserve the relationship, you have to rely on boundaries.  My self-worth does not depend on Church leadership.  I cannot change them; they can change themselves and I can change myself.

That is what is getting me through this one hard day.  Tomorrow I will probably be able to once again feel hopeful that someday the Church will be willing to listen and say, “We see this and we don’t like this about ourselves.  We want to change.  We are committed to this relationship.”

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. Tell me to shut it, if what I say doesn’t resonate. What you have written is something I struggle with, too… That feeling of frustration with a one-way relationship. I’m only sharing some thoughts of mine. They aren’t meant to be universal answers.

    I find it much easier to understand that my relationship with the Church is NOT a two-way relationship. It can’t be. There are millions of members of the Church. You can have a relationship with local leaders, but not with the fifteen apostles. Even banding together in a small group of like-minded people doesn’t suddenly change that relationship.

    Yet, we do have a two way relationship with the head of the church: the Savior. He is the one with whom we need to develop our relationship of mutual trust. He can be everything to everyone in a way the church leadership cannot.

    As I have come to accept that, I find miracles happening. That won’t happen so long as I try to force a relationship with the church to be something it can never be.

    • This is a great thought. It certainly changes my perspective from one of, “I’ve given so much to this church; it’s so painful that it doesn’t love me for who I am” to one of, “I’ve given these sacrifices to Christ and he absolutely loves me for who I am.” That’s very helpful to me.

      However, the Church necessarily influences how people experience Christ, so I don’t think they can be kept totally separate. It’s not that I’m looking for validation from those 15 men particularly. It’s more like I’m looking at a relationship with the whole of the membership, the body of Christ.

      • The church does influence how we see Christ, undoubtedly. However, being aware that this places an unfair expectation helps us define and consciously change that influence.

        There is no way that every individual in the Church …or even in leadership…will live up to their covenants to serve Christ. Holding a group accountable for the actions of some of its members, particularly when that group is fairly open as the Church is, will harm you more than it harms then.

  2. […] One of the skills that JFF emphasizes is effective speaking and listening in conflict. I consider myself pretty good at listening but have learned a lot from the class. JFF lays out strategies for productive speaking: state the facts, give a personal interpretation, make a manageable request. The listener also has a responsibility: to listen with honest self-examination while holding the valued relationship close in his/her heart. Both roles require vulnerability and a commitment to the relationship. In my experience both roles, if done right, are difficult to perform. It takes a faith …read more […]

  3. Last month I sat in my car, listening to the song, “Say Something.” I had always just changed the station because it didn’t talk to me. That day, though, I had been thinking about the church and the lack of communication about things that were important to me (It was right before General Conference). I ended up sobbing, wrapped in the truth of the pain I was feeling.

    “Say something, I’m giving up on you/I’m sorry that I couldn’t get to you/Anywhere I would have followed you/Say something, I’m giving up on you.”

    It was cleansing and hard. I would give anything to have real communication in this relationship I have with the church, but I fear that some days I am giving up.

  4. One of the things I remember from all those years of Seminary is that in all the Bible metaphors that refer to the bridegroom and his bride, the Church is the bride of Christ.

    The Church is not my spouse, she is Jesus’s.

    I think most of us who have hit middle adulthood have had the experience of having a friend or family member, maybe even an older brother, who has married someone we don’t particularly get along with. Maybe we don’t even like them that much and interacting with them at family gatherings is awkward. But we can try to see their good qualities in support of the friend or family member whom we love very much.

    • I love this idea of the church as a sister-in-law. My local unit is the sister-in-law I love and can hang out with comfortably. Luckily, that other, sometimes obnoxious sister-in-law with the crazy politics and insane gender ideas lives farther away and I only have to directly engage 2 or 3 times a year. If only faraway SIL wasn’t always telling me and my local SIL how to run things.

    • I’m not sure that the OT metaphor precludes one of the individual and the Church. In fact, it was pondering the tumultuous lovers’ quarrels between YHWH and the Israelites that sparked some of these ideas for me.

      I can understand how the extended family member metaphor could be useful for you but for me, I just can’t have that much distance between me and the Church. It is not a sister-in-law I can mostly avoid seeing except for holidays. It is intertwined with my identity. And I’m not just talking doctrine–the culture, the people, the rituals, all of that is so much a part of who I am and I what I do every day that marriage is the only relationship that feels appropriately intimate and crucial enough to serve as a metaphor for me.

      • This is true for me as well. I’m not going to disclose anything about the temple ceremony that I’m not supposed to, but when my spouse and I married in the temple, the church became a third party in our marriage. In fact, because we made all of our covenants to the church and none to each other, it feels like our marriage is a polygamous union with the church acting as the husband and my spouse and I both acting as sister-wives. Having gone through a faith transition while my wife remains true believing, I’ve found out how difficult it is to get the church out of our marriage and have it be just the two of us.

  5. You have so succinctly and eloquently captured why this week was so difficult for many women–even for those of us with no official connection to OW.

    JFF’s grading breakdown is so helpful. I remember years ago reading an article evaluating how the way couples fight is tied to the couple’s longevity. Therapists observed how couples whose relationships ultimately ended became less emotional and less engaged over time. They stopped defending their individual perspectives and were instead resigned to a state of permanent misunderstanding. Couples who stayed together got hurt when they argued because there was so much love there and ultimately believed in reconciliation and mutual understanding. To me the pain so many Mormon women are feeling after last week reflects the depth of their connection to the Church. What hurts me is feeling like the Church is saying it will only work on its relationship with a certain kind of woman, and if you’re not like her, than this relationship isn’t for you. That’s certainly a direction the Church has every right to go, but such unrequited love feels smaller than the gospel I believe in.

    • Thanks, Aimee. Your words give me some hope, in that if I’m so upset by this argument then I must still have faith in the relationship. I will worry more when I become passive and resigned. 🙂

      And you captured exactly how I’m feeling: that the Church only values “well-behaved” women. That’s a painful and lonely place to be.

  6. This:

    “My self-worth does not depend on Church leadership”

    (or, may I add, the church itself or even its members).

    This is brilliant. And your analysis is a great metaphor. Thank you so much for being willing to express it here in the space.

  7. Margaret, this is such a fantastic post. I love the framework JFF gave you on how to communicate in a healthy way with a partner. And I totally understand your disappointment in the church this last week. It was, I agree, a massive failure. What a lost opportunity.

    I think I’ve gone through something of a mourning period over the last several years, realizing how little the church (Church leaders) cares to acknowledge or accommodate my feelings and desires, and those of other feminist Mormon women. Because of that I’ve emotionally pulled back from it a bit — which is sad, but I don’t see another option when it can’t give me what I need and I need to protect myself. I’m trying to cultivate more of an anthropological attitude, one that one of my Mormon feminist mentors espoused. She would go to church, hear disturbing things, and say, “How interesting. What does this reveal about this culture, this system, etc.?” Retreating to more of an analytic frame of mind is a coping mechanism for me — yet I still at times feel a lot of that hurt you describe.

  8. I really like this framing, Margaret.

    “I am despairing about whether I will ever be heard and valued. In this case, I again return to JFF: if your spouse refuses to respond to a request for change and you want to preserve the relationship, you have to rely on boundaries. My self-worth does not depend on Church leadership. I cannot change them; they can change themselves and I can change myself.”

    This sounds like an utterly reasonable conclusion to me. The Church asks for everything, as though it were itself God, but it’s dysfunctional. I think setting boundaries seems like definitely the way to go. Personally, it’s been my experience that I’m much happier now that I no longer consider myself obligated to do everything I’m told to do at church. I take what I like and leave the rest behind.

    • I also really respond to the notion of setting boundaries. In some ways I think church leadership understands that the violate this principle of strong relationships. I’ve seen the occasional lip service to things like the idea that members should not be going to their bishops to ask for guidance on everyday mundanities, etc. On the other hand, they have set up obedience tests on things as insignificant as how many earrings one wears so it’s difficult to excuse them from trying to obliterate all boundaries between the church and its members so fully as to require that members also have no boundaries where the church is concerned.

      Of course, how do you establish boundaries if you want to be a fully participating member of the church? It reserves the right to ask about anything and everything it deems proper, from your belief in God to your underwear-wearing habits. Boundaries can be established, but doing so has to involve a certain amount of giving yourself permission to give the answer the bishop (or other leader) expects all the while knowing that you do not mean by that answer what he thinks you mean and believing that doing so is not lying. E.g., you have to be willing to say, “yes, I am a full tithe payer” or “yes, I do wear my garments” knowing what the party line interpretation of that is, even if you know that you mean “I pay what I feel is right and proper for me to pay, therefore I am a full tithe payer” or “I wear my garments in the circumstances in which I deem it appropriate to do so.” Any way. That’s a tough balancing act for someone who has been raised so deeply immersed in Mormonism’s culture of conformity.

    • These comments help show how “boundaries” and “Church” can mean different things to different people. I was intending to write about emotional boundaries, about not letting the Public Affairs Dept does affect my spiritual life. For me, issues like tithing and garments are commandments of God and are entirely unrelated to how I feel about what Church leaders have done. And while I believe in an individual’s and family’s need to sometimes decline an assignment (which is a kind of boundary), I also really believe in the miracle of a consecrated life and the covenant of sacrifice.

      • Interesting that I read it in a way you didn’t intend! I guess this just goes to show how I can’t read anything without reading my own experience into it. Sorry about the tangent! 🙂

      • Ziff, I’m sorry if I was rude or abrupt. I had a rough morning with my kids and dashed that comment off without thinking about it. I really am glad that you’ve found a way to let Mormonism work for you. Giving me different ideas on how to do that in my own life is, for me, what Exponent is all about.

      • Oh, no problem at all, Margaret. You didn’t come across as rude or abrupt at all! I was just genuinely laughing at myself for having read my experience into your suggestion when you were actually suggesting something different. 🙂

  9. Although I am a little late to the party, this framework has been a part of my thoughts for the past few days. Interacting with a friend online, I realized that he doesn’t seem to take in what I write. I’ve been in plenty of IRL conversations where I can tell that the other person is not listening to me, but merely formulating their response. As I was trying to figure out why I was so frustrated with this particular friend, it came to me that he wasn’t listening. And it’s really difficult to have a conversation when the other person’s response is a simple, “No, because …” At that point, I ended the conversation.

    At some point in the near future, I plan to have a conversation with him, in person, and let him know why I ended the conversation. If he listens, I will elaborate that the best way to converse with me is to share the responsibility of listening with me. We’ll see. An F is still an improvement on a D. A C would be a miracle.

  10. I think the question of boundaries would make a great future “dysfunctional marriage” post. For example, though I can see why certain aspects of the temple are hard for many of my Mormon feminist friends, they haven’t been hard for me. I used to think that I was just somehow protected from that hurt by a merciful God, and in a way, I suppose I am.

    I think I’m protected because I am armed with the belief that some of these aspects are men’s (and I’m afraid I do mean only men–unless there’s evidence that women have had input in the design of the temple ceremonies) misguided attempts to find meaningful ways to draw closer to God and that because of our belief in continuing revelation, we will all continue to grow and the ceremonies will continue to change.

    So, I have drawn boundaries, in a way, when I pray and study to decide what is worth the hurt, what I may be able to shelve, and what I feel ok about dismissing, which in a way, is how I work on things with my marriage to my spouse as well.

  11. This is so engaging, Caroline. I love the examples. And it’s a great way of thinking about things. 🙂

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