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Softening the Trauma Response Between Current and Former Members

Stepping away from a community of faith hurts in both directions. Could a deeper recognition of that pain help draw our hearts together again?
Author: Αναστασία “Slow for the Summer.”

How are we to understand the estrangement and woundedness between current and former members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Why does it so often hurt so bad, and are there any ways to soften the pain and our hearts toward each other? 

One story. One Sabbath afternoon, a Sunday School teacher introduced an important conversation about different trials facing members of the Church. After several classic examples were listed on the chalkboard—cancer, mental illness, divorce—one individual in the class raised her hand and suggested another addition: “How about people struggling with their faith due to challenging questions?” 

“Oh, let’s not go there today …” said the teacher. 

The woman raising the possibility felt deflated. This kind of hesitance and fear to “go there” certainly goes in both directions, with some who have stepped away similarly hesitant to talk openly with believing members about weighty questions. Even when outright hostility isn’t present, the awkward silence and distance often involved can be wearying for all of us.  

That’s why we’re raising some ideas below we hope will make a difference—reflecting a framework of sorts to help us work towards some softening, some healing, and maybe even some reconciliation together. 

The trauma of stepping awayin two parts. It’s no great revelation to acknowledge the significant—even excruciating—pain often involved in stepping away from the Church of Jesus Christ. Many people who leave the Church report it as being one of the most emotionally wrenching things they have ever experienced. There is also real pain of believing members witnessing the change in people who may now consider themselves “former” brothers and sisters. 

We may simply not be able to reach each other with our words and ideas without that step of settling our bodies and hearts in a way that allows us to connect first.

The pain, then, flows in both directions. On one hand, those stepping away from the faith often experience a sharp loss of connection, closeness, and harmony with people they genuinely love—along with a removal of the larger security, meaning, and purpose their prior worldview once provided. On the other hand, believing members likewise experience a profound loss of connection, closeness, and harmony with individuals they genuinely love—alongside the loss of shared meaning and purpose they once felt together. 

The sources and drivers of this kind of pain are varied and clearly not widely agreed upon. Many of the explanations available only resonate if you share either a believing or non-believing worldview. What seems clearest is that the pain involved by all parties is real and often agonizing. 

Hypothetically imagine Mary and Jenny, who grew up in the same ward as close friends where they shared many years of spiritual and social experiences together. When Jenny confides in Mary that she’s no longer attending church and considering stepping away for good, it’s a blow to the relationship on both sides. Their friendship is strong enough to weather it, but the storm is pretty fierce. Where they once could rely upon a shared understanding of the world, the future, and God, now they are relying on a sense of personal affection and respect from their long history together.  

Even in the best of circumstances, that’s quite a transition. Mary’s and Jenny’s pain is not the same, and it may not even be equal, but it’s real for both of them.    

What this looks and feels like will depend on the nature of the relationship, with effects often compounded for family members, especially parents and children. Perhaps the highest stakes are for spouses when one person seems to be unilaterally changing the set of terms that the marriage was built upon and with which they’ve raised their kids thus far.

Let’s further imagine a different conversation, when Mary’s husband Steve announces to her that he no longer believes the Church is true. He says things implying that her faith is founded on lies. Mary, who is a lifelong member and a returned missionary, is gutted. This is harder than the conversation with Jenny. Not only have their four children been raised in the Church, but she and Steve have also both held various callings and (she thought) found mutual fulfillment and meaning in their faith. In response, she says things that accuse him of betraying the promises they made when they got married.

Can their marriage survive this?  

Especially when it comes to these most intimate of relationships, we believe the intensity of emotions and experience on both sides may be well deserving of the “trauma” label.  

A two-part trauma response. Have you ever been in a bad car accident or know someone who has faced severe abuse? In recent decades, we’ve grown in our understanding as a society about the emotional and physiological “trauma response” that occurs when anyone faces severe trauma, from war to aggression to catastrophic accidents. 

Compared to a more normative response to even difficult experiences, a trauma response differs in many ways and levels—involving every part of ourselves, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Whereas normal experiences are integrated into our memory in a way that designates them as “the past,” expert Bessel Van der Kolk confirms how true trauma defies such natural memory integration in a way that ensures it intrudes into our present again and again. Thus, a war survivor at a 4th of July fireworks show might experience in their body again right now what they witnessed and endured long ago in the field of battle.  

That helps explain some of the excruciating physical, emotional, and mental aspects of a trauma response: the nightmares, the panic, the emotional instability, the hair triggers, and hyper-reactions to otherwise non-threatening situations, along with ongoing hypervigilance and a sense of continual threat. Each new event in the fast-moving news cycle can likewise be experienced as recurring instigators of fresh turmoil inside—from the various public accusations being made against the church, to the horrific killings in Colorado Spring this weekend.  

The emotional tumult of it all can be wearying and overwhelming. Books like Van der Kolk’s groundbreaking text, “The Body Keeps the Score,” have helped many of us better appreciate the reality of associated trauma responses—and how this is all definitely not “just in your head.” 

We have come to believe that what we often witness at the agonizing emotional intersection between believing and former members of the Church—however else we might describe it—represents a mutual trauma response flowing in both directions. If both parties have indeed experienced real trauma in the transition and faith separation, we shouldn’t be surprised to see an emotional and physiological response that reflects that.   

Trauma expert Dr. Bruce Perry notes that communication “is about getting some idea, concept, or story from your cortex to another person’s cortex. From the smart part of your brain to the smart part of their brain.” Yet he adds, “The problem is that we don’t communicate directly from cortex to cortex. We have to go through the lower parts of the brain.” He continues:

All the rational thoughts from our cortex have to get through the emotional filters of the lower brain. Our facial expressions, tone of voice, and words are turned into neural activity by the other person’s senses, and then the sequential process of matching, interpreting, and passing up to their cortex takes place. Along the way, there are many opportunities for the meaning of any communication to be distilled, distorted, magnified, minimized, or lost.

Perry goes on to explain what happens when an internal stress response is activated (which is often part of a trauma response): “Frustration, anger, and fear can shut down parts of the cortex. When someone is dysregulated, they simply cannot use the smartest part of their brain.” This is what Daniel Goleman calls an “amygdala hijack” in his book Emotional Intelligence—reflecting a sort of relational blinding and deafening that can happen when our more intense emotions take hold. 

This is the physiological and emotional reality we’re often dealing with in our embattled relationships. Nonetheless, we often press through with trying to drive points home conceptually and logically instead of prioritizing emotional regulation and relational connection—not recognizing that we may simply not be able to reach each other with our words and ideas without that step of settling our bodies and hearts in a way that allows us to connect first. 

What if we could reverse the emphasis and begin with more priority attention to the emotional and relational elements involved? 

Returning to Mary and Steve, their marriage after his announcement immediately feels different. There is a level of volatility and reactivity they’ve never known before. Whereas they have largely felt comfortable and at ease together through the years, there is a new sense of threat and vigilance between them. They often feel like they’re walking on eggshells, especially on Sunday mornings. 

Similar things, of course, can also show up between friends. Jenny’s and Mary’s friendship, which had always felt so comfortable and easy, now feels noticeably charged. Depending on the moment, one or both now regularly feels uncertain or on edge—worried about saying something that will trigger a negative response.  

And sometimes that’s exactly what happens. As we all perhaps know by experience, a conversation we may have assumed would be doable goes south—leaving both persons unsettled and unsure. On both sides and in both directions, we may find ourselves overreacting and reading into the relationship an emotional threat where none was honestly intended. 

If and when that happens, it’s inevitably shocking to both people—if only for how new and strange it feels to a relationship that had never experienced it before. But maybe it would be less surprising if we could recognize the predictable signs of trauma response. 

A mutual need for compassion and empathy. What could an awareness of these kinds of emotional dynamics mean for our day-to-day relationships together? 

Consider how different this framework is compared with others often shared among either believers or non-believers (focused on presumed failings within individuals or leaders). Whatever truth may still legitimately exist in these other explanations, they most often invoke in both sides a deepening sense of frustration, fear, and sorrow.  

By contrast, we believe a recognition of the reality of shared trauma and its associated trauma response might open up new reservoirs of positive feelings towards each other—the very thing we are in such a dearth of these days. 

None of this is to deny the seriousness of the questions and issues at stake. Nor does it deny the right of people on each side to believe that their position is right. But even in the presence of such jarring juxtapositions mentally, we believe a concrete sense of greater compassion for the legitimate trauma and trauma response happening in both directions might be a leavening and softening influence on everyone involved.  

In the case of Jenny and Mary, although conversation has quickly become more fraught and uncomfortable, and while that’s not a happy development for either, both are committed enough to their friendship that they’re not willing just to walk away. They want their friendship to survive and are willing to put in the work necessary to make that happen. 

Maybe we can find fresh reserves of understanding and love that stitch our hearts together in new ways.

Steve and Mary likewise navigate the new contours of their marriage, in part, by returning to a more fundamental recognition that each is emotionally hurting and, frankly, scared. On that basis, they find ways to come together to show compassion, while reaching for each other on that more basic relationship level. Indeed, they ultimately decide that the preservation of their family relationship is worth fighting for, and not losing over these otherwise important disagreements. 

This isn’t how things usually go. It sometimes seems that people who come to see things so differently have no choice but to part ways. Their respective friends may even tell them that they are justified in their anger toward the other party and that it would be easier simply to step away. We are suggesting that while separation is a possible outcome, it is not a necessary one. Many people have shown how these relationships can endure and even be strengthened as both parties grow in empathy and compassion for one another. If they no longer feel the same closeness around their relationship to God and the church, maybe they can find fresh reserves of understanding and love that stitch their hearts together in new ways – including, as we are emphasizing here, an appreciation of the pain that they each have experienced and felt.

The courage to stay with a relationship. The question still remains: Why should we keep trying to interact with each other when it’s hard? 

As we have discussed, the trauma of a faith exodus can make normal relationships and conversation especially hard—as both people might overreact to even the slightest indication of threat from others around them. And we’ve acknowledged where this usually leads a relationship.  

But it doesn’t have to. Because, think about it: what if you knew someone was on hair trigger about certain matters? Would it not lead you—if you truly loved this individual—to be more sensitive, careful, and tender in how you talk and what you say? If your spouse or friend were the traumatized war veteran mentioned above, wouldn’t you avoid setting off fireworks around them—not because fireworks are inherently bad, but because your care for the person matters more? 

Don’t underestimate what this kind of awareness could mean for a relationship. We’re intrigued at how all this could become a backdrop nudging people on both sides to do something challenging—but very rewarding. Rather than fleeing the discomfort, we’ve seen positive things emerge when people learn to sit with the discomfort. That’s what happens on an individual level in mindfulness meditation. And within relationships, this practically means hanging with a conversation and working to show compassion and kindness, humility and patience, even and especially when things get awkward. 

Once again, the pain and trauma that different people feel are not being equated since they differ so widely between situations and positions—with a scale of trauma that escalates for various reasons and details. But what if we could acknowledge whatever pain there is while still moving towards each other? 

Why bother, again? What would the motivation be to sit in such challenging emotions, especially when we have plenty of outlets to avoid them and feel good being among “my people” (from ex-member forums and barbecues on one side to ward parties and ongoing gospel discussions on the other)? 

This is a difficult question to answer because accepting more discomfort is never an easy sell. Nonetheless, we see people making just that choice every day when they go out on a run, meditate, eat their vegetables—or, let’s be honest, continue being a devoted parent or spouse, even when it’s boring or challenging. 

We close with an example that may not be persuasive to everyone, but for us, embodies a perfect reason to lean into this hard work of reconciliation together.  

Perhaps an empathetic awareness of our mutual suffering can become another pathway to draw our hearts together again.

In His steps. Why would anyone stay in a place of ache or pain when we have the option to escape it?  Maybe because that’s what Jesus did.  

When Christ neared the final moments of his life, he had other options than to undergo the brutality of torture. He had the option of turning away from what was most uncomfortable. We know he was tempted to do so, even asking the Father, “if it was possible, let this pass from me.” 

But the only way to escape that pain would have been to abandon his relationships with the people that he so deeply loved—you, me, and all of us. And so, he chose not to turn away from the pain … even at its worst. As he hung on the cross, at the very moment when he would have been completely justified in lashing out at the brutal injustice and extreme violence he was experiencing; he showed humanity another way.  

Even in the middle of torture, his words, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” demonstrate a different possibility.  

That image of Jesus on the cross—extending grace even to those slaying him—could perhaps give believers and nonbelievers alike a bit more courage in the difficult work of reconciliation ahead. In the midst of very real and very deep pain, there is a way forward other than the way of recrimination and gaping separation. 

In the end, compassion beats condemnation. If Jesus came not “into the world to condemn the world,” why would we?  

Let’s practice more compassion with the agony being experienced on both sides of the faith exodus. This would mean taking seriously what it would mean to live out Martin Luther King’s words, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Even if we can’t—and may never—agree on the issues and the facts, perhaps an empathetic awareness of our mutual suffering can become another pathway to draw our hearts together again. 

About the authors

Jacob Z. Hess

Jacob Hess is a contributing editor at Deseret News and publishes longer-form pieces at PublishPeace.net. He co-authored "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You're Still Wrong" and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.” He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Patrick Mason

Patrick Q. Mason holds the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. He is the author of multiple books, including "The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South"; "Mormonism and Violence: The Battles of Zion"; and, with David Pulsipher, "Proclaim Peace: The Restoration’s Answer to an Age of Conflict."
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