“Coming out” as ex-Mormon is a big deal, especially when your social sphere is almost entirely comprised of Latter-day Saints. It’s extremely difficult to be vulnerable about your loss of faith with people who have been taught that it’s the worst crime you can commit—people who may even have taught you that from an early age. It’s even harder when circumstances force you to come out while you’re still grieving the loss of your god, your sense of meaning and purpose in life, and a whole bunch of other really significant stuff that takes a long time to sort through.
Few things are more daunting than having to tell the people you love most that you no longer believe in the thing they love the most (despite how hard you tried to maintain belief), knowing that it may well damage your relationship with them forever.
When you’ve spent your life hearing your brothers and sisters talk about people who leave the church, you’re painfully aware of how negative the dominant narrative about ex-Mormons is, and can recall many times when you’ve judged someone for leaving, either to their face or in private. You remember how you refused to accept their given narratives, instead imposing your own (more comforting) ideas about why people leave Mormonism—they’re lazy, sinful, too focused on the negative, foolish, and many other variations of those things.
You hope you’ll be met with the empathy you so desperately want. You’ve gone over what you’re going to say numerous times and have prepped yourself extensively to try and ensure you navigate the discussion calmly, rationally, and lovingly. You’re armed with a willingness to compromise because you know you’ll have to for the relationship to continue functioning even remotely similarly to how it did before. But you have no idea whether that willingness will be noticed, let alone appreciated. And you’re still hurting, so there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to keep a clear head if you’re met with character attacks.
You’re entering a war zone of human fragility and emotions, likely knowing that if someone had approached you with similar news in the past, you’d have thought all sorts of nonsense things about them, and would have been relatively lacking in empathy for them being in what you would have seen as a self-chosen predicament.
But you plough through the fear and do it. You announce that you no longer believe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “true”. Due to the high-demand nature of the religion, this usually involves telling your closest friends and family members in person, then making a more public social media announcement a bit later on, because you know far too many Mormons to have conversations with all of them individually, and frankly, you want to be open about your experience because you believe it may benefit others.
Some people will react poorly. Like, really poorly. They’ll say all sorts of things that aren’t true in an effort to self-soothe. You obviously never had a real testimony to begin with. You didn’t pray/read the scriptures/fast enough. Satan has deceived you. You’re running from some sin you’ve committed. The light has left your eyes.
Those people are probably going to react like that regardless of how delicately you approach the situation, though the toxicity of their responses may be reduced if you’re able to stay calm and loving and ensure they don’t feel accused of anything. (“Joseph Smith was a liar and a conman!” will immediately invoke defensiveness in someone who believes with all their heart that Joseph Smith was one of the greatest men to have ever walked the earth—regardless of how much solid evidence you can present. Better to opt for less emotionally charged phrasing like, “I no longer believe the truth claims made by Joseph Smith,” though that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a better response.)
Others respond with more gentleness, and want to make sure you know how much they care about you. So they’ll say this:
“I still love you.”
Or, variations like, “I love you no matter what.”
Sometimes it’s just them paying lip service to what current LDS leaders teach about those who stray from the church (that you should love them so they’ll eventually come back), but a lot of the time it’s really genuine. People are shocked and hurt by the news that you’re leaving Mormonism, but they really do still love you, and they want to make sure you know that.
Which is great. It’s so important that people feel loved when they leave the church. But to me, the phrase “I STILL love you” implies that you’ve done something wrong.
Eli McCann, a hilarious gay blogger who grew up Mormon, wrote about his dislike of this phrase as a response to someone coming out as LGBTQ:
“I know these statements are coming from people who mean well, and I’ve never been upset at someone who has said them to me, but I really think they can do some harm. The premise or implication of these kinds of statements is “you just told me a negative thing about yourself, but my love for you is great enough to overcome it.”
He then shares some ways that people can respond with more positive messaging, like “I’m so glad to hear this” or “That’s awesome!”
Of course, such responses are fundamentally challenging for Mormons when responding to a loved one they just found out is ex-Mormon, because the church’s doctrine is inherently negative about apostates. (Just like every religion ever.) The most ideal responses to someone sharing the loss of their faith with you, like “Wow, congratulations for investigating your beliefs and following the path of truth even though it was painful!” aren’t exactly compatible with the notion that Mormonism is God’s One True Church On The Earth Today and those who reject it are the worst kind of people and won’t make it to the place where all the good people go in the afterlife.
It’s hard being ex-Mormon because you have a lifetime of experiences that make you empathetic to how Mormons think and feel (you were one!), but you’re pretty much guaranteed to have your thoughts and feelings invalidated by at least one Mormon when you tell them you’re leaving the church.
I know that in the grand scheme of things, “I still love you” isn’t a huge deal. Heck, the church used to kill people for leaving, so they’ve really come a long way. But I still think Mormons can do better, especially if they’re the parents of someone coming out as ex-Mormon. (It’s incredibly sad how many parents reject their children for losing faith in the religion they were raised in.)
Remove the implication of wrongdoing. It could be as simple as omitting the “still” and just saying “I love you” or as thorough as a response like this:
“I love you and I’m here for you. I can’t fully understand what you’re going through but I want to, so please feel free to share as much or as little about your experience as you’re comfortable with, and I’ll do my best to listen without imposing my own judgment and narratives onto it.”
Maybe it’s a pipe dream of mine that ex-Mormons will one day be met with responses like that across the board when they “come out”. I understand how many conflicts there are between what people need to hear from their loved ones after sharing something so vulnerable and what the church teaches about people who leave. But I like to feel hopeful, and the progression of attitudes toward apostates over time validates my hope.
It’s hard leaving your tribe. If you’re a Latter-day Saint reading this, I hope you’ll help make it easier for anyone going through it.