Reflections on My Spiritually Heterogamous Marriage

Reflections on My Spiritually Heterogamous Marriage November 26, 2012

Heterogamy:  refers to a marriage between two individuals that differ in a certain criterion.

Homogamy:  a marriage or union between partners that match according to that criterion.  (wikipedia)


I grew up in a home managed by my Mormon mother and my Catholic step-father.  While I have said before that this has given me a more nuanced Mormonism, I was nonetheless battered by a palpable sense of conflict in the home, primarily over matters religious.  Not that this is anything unusual.  Religion is an important agent of socialization.  Family values, traditions, morals, discourses, rhythms, schedules, aspirations, beliefs, and futures can be heavily predicated on religious orientation.  Thus, when there are two competing belief systems some couples struggle to arrive at a workable, smooth and harmonious family system that feels solid and reliable.


Naturally the recommendation from many faith traditions is religious homogamy or the pair-bonding of two people with the same religious orientation.  Research indicates that there is a tremendous benefit in religious homogamy.   According to Call & Heaton (1997)  religious homogamy enhances emotional bonding and intimacy (Robinson 1994); couples feel a greater commitment to their marriage particularly if marriage is emphasized in their faith tradition (Larson & Goltz 1989);  gender-based division of labour increases dependency and therefore marriage stability (Heaton & Cornwall 1989), while prohibitions on non-marital sex and adultery are effective barriers to infidelity.    Heaton and Call conclude from their study that church attendance is a good predictor of marital stability where “similar levels of church activity for both spouses result in a lower risk of divorce.” (p. 391)


So it would seem that actually showing up at church together is at least one pillar that sits under marriage lending it some valuable strength.  But what about  cases where couples are denominationally homogamous, but spiritually  heterogamous?


In more mature religions where the divisions and schisms have already occurred there are ways of talking about our intra-religious differences.  A language has already largely captured this divide.  One spouse would be reform, and the other would be orthodox.  Or perhaps one would be progressive and the other conservative.    In these cases couples have the benefit of a discourse to back them up and to help them articulate and manage their theological discrepancies.  But in Mormonism we are still grasping in the dark for a way to talk about this space with lucidity.  A recent LDS Living article about marital differences still talked about levels of religiosity, as opposed to the quality of religiosity.


In other words in marriages there sometimes occurs a divide,  between couples, both who are committed to the same general principles.  They both show up, they both serve, they are both worthy, and both have abiding testimonies.  But these couples include  one who is dedicated to the refinement and expression of a system of personal rights and wrongs, and the other to the articulation of a social system of rights and wrongs.  One is located more proximately and relates to the conduct of the self and imagines that if everyone behaved as well as they did then social evils would come to an end. The other imagines a place in which  all of the moving parts of a community are assembled so thoughtfully and beautifully that good people would be naturally constituted as a product of a righteous system.  The former will often make an appeal to  anecdote, scriptures and prophetic discourses to justify their position on personal rights and wrongs.  The latter will synthesise a thorough exposition of the scriptures with a broad theoretical and ideological orientation to justify their position on social rights and wrongs. Thus the moral spouse and the ethical spouse find themselves at odds.


The problem is often exacerbated by the ideological climate of the church where the personal morals oriented spouse will almost always have significant institutional back-up.  Not that there is a dearth of broad based Zion orientated discourse on record, its that rules of behaviour are more easily articulated than the large and complex vision that we supposedly hold for an eventual Zion society.


That might seem fine in the light of day, but played out on the midnight pillows of the maritally conflicted who feel justified in their own positions as THE position this tends to cause problems.   Consider the following table (and apologies for my crude use of seminal philosophical terms):


Moral Spouse Ethical Spouse
Considers how those straying can be bought back into the fold. 

Worries that they must have a white shirt for Sunday at all costs.



Thinks to themselves,   ‘I’m so glad to be a member of this gospel’.




Uses words like, ‘True” and “correct”, and “right”


Often sees behavioural deficits before they see character.


Institution, curriculum and handbook centered.


Claims authority


Reliable, predictable, and duty bound


Operates in clear binaries



Faultless about keeping rules


Sees morality in the payment of tithes.



Seeks to constitute utopias by carefully selecting and censoring information



Happier with certainty.


Thinks the world will be better if it was more like the church.




Was most likely offered a faith crisis but refused it.



Christ is embraced as He is found in the church


Says:  ‘I have to believe.’


At the church centre.


They keep the church going

Wonders how the fold could be different so that it was inviting for those who have strayed.

Is happier wearing the black shirt made locally, than the white one made in Chinese sweat shops.



Thinks to themselves, ‘I’m committed to the principles of the gospel – my membership in the church is something to be thoughtfully endured”.


Uses words like, ‘efficacious, transcendent, and beautiful’


Often sees character in spite of behaviour.


People, ideas, justice and connection centered.


Challenges authoritariansim


Keeps people guessing


Apprehends a kaleidoscope of hues and colours positions and orientations.


Objects to rules if they see faults.


Is concerned with the ethics of the use of tithes.



Wants all the information in order to understand how utopias are built and destroyed.



Happier with questions.


Thinks the church could be better it didn’t suffer from an absence of doubt in itself.




Was probably offered a faith crisis and embraced it.



Christ is embraced wherever He can be found.


Says:  ‘I choose to believe’


At the church periphery.


They keep the church thinking



As some might have astutely ascertained, this post is somewhat autoethnographic. I wondered aloud to our former bishop a couple of weeks ago if I have enough energy for more years of tension between Nathan’s moral certitude and my institutional ambivalence.  He assured me that there is incredible potential in the assembling and merging of both sides of ourselves and that together we could create something wonderful.


So I put this to my moral spouse, asking, ‘How, given you are the moral spouse and I am the ethical spouse, is this going to work? Doesn’t this call for an immediate divorce?”


I suppose it’s a good thing that he is the moral spouse, because he has never, nor would ever consider divorce (under these conditions) as anything but morally wrong.  I on the other hand would consider divorce as an ethical possibility in the broader interests of  the collective good.  Then again if I was married to someone similar to me we’d already be divorced, and if Nathan had married someone like him he wouldn’t be having such a good discussion.


So he identified two couples in our stake.  One couple is ethical, and one couple is moral.   Couple one he observed is wonderful, but unreliable (reliability is important to him).  They do wonderful things, when they feel the desire, but when the ‘system’ isn’t aligned to their liking they are no shows, leaving others to pick up the slack.    The moral couple is tyrannical.  They are self-righteous and frightening.  They have battered their children with their dogmas and have broken hearts in their wake.  They are inflexible, doctrinaire, and strict.


“Its a universal principal – Ying and Yang,” he proclaimed.  “I’ve moved significantly during the course of our marriage and now consider ideas I never would have had I not been married to you, and I’m hoping I have given you some stability and security.”


In truth he has.  To be fair he has kept me going and centred.  He hasn’t given up because I’ve gone into apoplexies of ideological rage at the world, and I’ve always, always given him new things to think about.  We’ve in some ways corrected the excesses of the other, and we are both grateful for it… (at least for today).    We’ve realised that our  belief systems don’t need to be competitive, they can be complementary –  as long as we graciously accept the necessity for the other.



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