This is true if you are married, whether you know it or not, whether you admit it or not. Every human’s beliefs are unique to that human. The idea that two spouses are “on the same page” is illusory. (Apologies to those who are not married, but that title was too good to pass up–this also applies to any two people, though. Sameness of belief is not possible.)

Imagine for a moment that you and your spouse (or friend or family member) are both TBMs or “True Believing Mormons.” You both have a temple recommend. You attend church and the temple. You pay tithing. You watch General Conference. You raise your kids to believe in the church and see it as important. You accept callings and invitations to speak. You both think you are on the same page. You’re not.

Or imagine, conversely, that you and your spouse (or other) are nuanced believers. You don’t accept everything. You participate, but are also critical of things you see that are harmful, sexist, homophobic, racist, or transphobic. You discuss your observations openly with each other, and you both have a similar level of belief. You teach your kids healthy skepticism of some of the things they are hearing from seminary teachers or youth leaders that don’t jibe with your values. You may feel like you are on the same page, but the reality is that despite your open communication you are not. Not really.

Even if you believe the same things, you believe those things to different degrees. You may define those things you believe differently. Your experience with those beliefs are also unique to you. And your orientation toward any belief you hold could be positive, negative or apathetic, but it will differ from how others feel about that belief, even if they also believe it.

Defining Belief

Do you even know how you define what you believe? For example, what is a “prophet”? Is it a church leader? One who prophesies? Who speaks directly with God? Anyone who has and remembers a meaningful dream? Something else? Are you a prophet, as is foretold in the book of Joel? When Brigham Young said he wasn’t one, was that authoritative? Is it “one who warns” as modern church leaders have claimed in General Conference? The Church, like many institutions, often redefines words to suit its purposes. Have you noticed when someone says “The world defines X as Y, but (smugly) we know…” this is redefining words.

Regardless of how others define beliefs, when we are talking about concepts, we all individually define them differently, and often not well at all, even to ourselves. It’s hard to know what we mean by terms like faith, love, charity, God, priesthood, gender and other terms. Most of us hold our beliefs internally, in our own head, without trying to articulate them. They just are. We may assume everyone who claims a similar belief defines it the same way we do, but it’s highly unlikely. Many disputes are simply because we are using terms differently. It’s unusual for people to interrogate their own beliefs to try to define them. Defining your beliefs is incredibly difficult.

This doesn’t only apply to church concepts, obviously. Things like capitalism, education, health care, parenting, and myriad other things are all concepts with definitional ambiguity.

Quantity of Belief

How much do you believe the things you believe? How strong are those beliefs? Is it a hunch or instinct? Do you have deep knowledge on the subject? Are you relying on a trusted “expert”? It’s really hard to know how much you believe something until those beliefs are tested. My son had a seminary teacher who claimed that Mormons don’t believe in evolution, that the idea was wrong. When my son pressed her on it, her “belief” boiled down to a distaste for the idea that she was descended from monkeys, a distaste monkeys probably shared, and a belief that only atheists believed in evolution. She didn’t actually understand what evolution was, nor did she understand the Church’s position on it (it’s taught at BYU, after all). Her assertion of beliefs was just dogma, her own regurgitation of something she thought was from an authoritative source without understanding it or questioning whether she even knew what the authority figure was talking about. Her belief was, in this case, blind trust in an unreliable authority source, not an actual personal conviction about the topic of evolution.

Some church doctrines are simply more important to some people than they are to others. A former colleague of mine had a father-in-law who was a Stake President. His father-in-law’s personal measure for success was how many people in the stake had a garden. It was his only priority. I darkly joked that he must have already solved all the “big” problems like sexual violence and judgmentalism, and this was now what he was working on. But the reality is that he really really believed in gardens, and while I’m not anti-garden, it seems trivial to me when compared with the soul improvement that comes from eradicating racism and homophobia or creating more respect for women. I support the idea of having a garden, kind of, or at least I don’t oppose it (I do have some rosemary bushes), but I don’t think it’s a soul-saving priority. I admire people who have gardens, but I don’t see it as vital to one’s eternal salvation. He was convinced it was.

Belief & Experience

When I was in the MTC, there was a somewhat cute elder who took a shine to me and would chat me up in devotionals and on the quad. He was obsessed with some scriptures he found in the Book of Mormon that were about priesthood being some kind of order. He shared this newfound insight with me as we waited for some guest speaker to show up, and he was just brimming with enthusiasm for these scriptural references he found that showed how important the priesthood was. I honestly was stumped. I didn’t get it. At all. Nothing he was showing me sounded like anything to me. It just felt like he was pulling some random phrases out and claiming that they meant something huge, but what that was I couldn’t tell you. I had no experience with holding the priesthood or with it being a special order (basically every Mormon man I had ever known had it, including the ones who spit into the sacrament cups or got drunk with their friends the night before blessing the sacrament). I really just didn’t have his personal experiences that would lead me to be enthusiastic or even interested in what he was so thrilled to have found.

Chris Kimball’s book talks quite strongly about the different experiences men and women have in the church, and those differences, while vast, are largely invisible to the other sex, even to those who practice gender equality in their personal and professional lives, even those with many friends of the other sex whom they esteem and value. One difference Chris didn’t mention in his chapter on church discipline was that women, as non-priesthood holders, can be excommunicated by a bishop, not a stake president. That detail just didn’t make it into the book, and maybe just wasn’t on the radar. I don’t think it’s a big omission, but as a woman, I noticed it. Most men might not have. [1] **SEE CORRECTION BELOW

Another friend was sharing a story about the Elders Quorum in his ward being told by the Relief Society President that they were being assigned to provide food and child care for a women’s event. They were given specific instructions including the menu and timing of the event. He was outraged. As he shared this story, we women immediately thought he was telling a gender-bending satircal story to make a feminist point. However, as it turned out, he was unaware that his story was something every Mormon woman in the discussion had encountered firsthand many times in our tenure in the church, something so unremarkable that the majority of women just do as they are told and commiserate with other women rather than being labelled difficult, uppity, or murmurers.

A Sunday School lesson that assumes everyone in the room is heterosexual won’t phase those who are, but will be received by someone who is not as exclusionary, as making their feelings and experiences invalid or invisible, casting them as an outsider. Scriptures that refer to men sometimes mean mankind, including women, and sometimes just mean men. Men don’t have to wonder which ones include them, but women do. In another chapter of Chris’s book, black church members who were grieving in the wake of church shootings targeting black congregations felt anticipatory relief that the bishop wanted to address everyone, only to find that he wanted to share his recent trip to Idaho; no mention was made of the murder of black churchgoers or the grief in the black community. Our church is a church made for white cishetero men; if you aren’t that, some part of your church experience is inevitably going to feel like Lucy with the football.

Belief Orientation

You and I might both believe that polygamy is an eternal principle, but I might dread it, and you might look forward to it. That’s sharing a belief, but having a different orientation to that belief. We all believe some things that we don’t like, that we wish weren’t so, but we believe nonetheless. You can believe that the Church is true, and wish that it weren’t. You can believe that the Church isn’t true, and wish that it were. You can disbelieve in priesthood blessings, but wish they worked. All of these are examples of ways in which you and another person (or your spouse) can “believe” the same thing, but feel completely differently about it.

Your belief may be on the same page, but you may not like that page while your spouse may love it.

Belief in Time

So often, marriages in the church fall apart because one spouse loses faith or trust in the institution and the other spouse, who still trusts and loves the church, feels that it’s a betrayal of the marriage promise they made decades earlier. Any change is seen as a threat, an infidelity. But people change. Part of being human is that we have life experiences and those experiences change our perspectives. As those perspectives change, we doubt things we didn’t used to doubt, we understand things we didn’t before, and we let go of childish, simplistic beliefs that no longer serve us. As a child, I used to believe that if I counted to ten before the traffic light changed, my wish would come true. I don’t believe that anymore. As a child, I used to believe that if I cheated on Fast Sunday, I was going to hell if I didn’t repent. I don’t believe that anymore.

Whether we like it or not, people will change. That’s not being inconsistent or being a flip-flopper. That’s growing up. Requiring someone to stop their own personal growth and progress isn’t love; it’s abuse.

  • Have you seen these types of differences in your beliefs and someone else’s?
  • How do you navigate these differences in your relationships?


[1] UPDATE: The Church’s new procedures for excommunication membership withdrawal have rendered this inequity a relic of the past! So, yay for progress I guess because now any endowed woman is also subject to Stake President oversight in membership withdrawal procedures, just like the men. h/t to Chris for enlightening me! Why it irked me that women were previously under the bishop’s purview only goes back to a long string of “girl push-up” rules that are designed to make everything for women lower stakes and easier: missions not being compulsory, lowering the age for women to 19 but then immediately lowering the men’s age to include 18 year olds, women not having any priesthood authority, the “women’s meeting including 8 year old children, etc.