The experience of an individual going through a crisis of faith can send ripples through the family and friend groups connected to that person. People might be shocked to hear someone lost their faith or is choosing to step away from their faith tradition. The person may make an open declaration and want to explain their story, or they may quietly step back and leave others guessing.
It’s not uncommon for people to experience some discomfort or awkwardness around their friends and family after such an event. We may not know what to say to them or how to act. Do we just pretend that nothing happened? Do we talk about what’s going on? Should we ask questions or is it better not to pry? Maybe we want them to change back or to change with us. Perhaps we don’t understand why they are distant. Maybe we wish we could make them see things the way we do or maybe we just wish we understood what was going on.
Whether you are the person who has gone through the faith crisis or someone in that circle of family and friends, I hope to provide some understanding and suggestions for how to offer support to the ones you love.
Did you choose it or did it happen to you?
Most people who go through this intense crisis of faith feel like it is something that happened to them and not something they went looking for. They describe the experience using phrases like “the bottom dropped out” or “the rug was pulled out from under me” or “my hopes and dreams came crumbling down around me.” This is sometimes hard for others to understand. How the faith crisis happens is a topic for another post (or maybe even a whole book!) but for now, know this is not something your loved one chose, it is a difficult thing that happened to them. Even if you don’t believe it, that’s how your friend/family member sees it. And that’s what matters.
It’s common for a person to become overwhelmed and only see his/her own perspective when going through a big life change, like a faith crisis. If this has been you, it’s okay. Take the time now to take a step back and think about your family and friends. Your faith crisis is also something that happened to them. None of them chose this either. Now your people are wrestling with the question of how to be a spouse/parent/sibling/friend/child of someone who left the faith.
Be patient with each other.
Fear of rejection
The person who left the faith may worry that you will reject them. They may fear that they will be shunned, left out of important events and conversations, or no longer considered part of the family. Sometimes acting defensive or distant is easier than facing rejection, so they might pull away.
Something people going through a faith crisis often overlook is that their family members and friends may be having the same fears. They may fear that you will reject them and leave them like you left your religion. Or they may worry that they won’t be included in your life or that you won’t want to come around anymore. They may act distant or defensive.
Fear of criticism
The person who left may worry that they will be criticized. Having been in the faith previously, they may know what people say and think about people who leave: they are deceived, unclean, unworthy, apostates, weak. Likely, they thought these things about others in the past and are ashamed to now be one of them. They may become distant or seem angry or defensive because they are waiting for and dreading your criticism.
Your family and friends may also be afraid of criticism. They may be expecting that you will attack them and their faith. They may be steeling themselves for when you point out the flaws in their logic, ridicule their most sacred beliefs and practices, or call them brainwashed, sheep, stupid, or weak. As a result, they may pull back, avoid you, or be quick to attack or defend because they are afraid you will criticize them.
Turn up the volume on love
The antidote to these fears is to turn up the volume on love and acceptance. Make sure that it is explicit—loud and clear—that you love your family members or friends. Remember that your relationship matters. When you see your loved one struggling with a faith crisis, turn up the volume on love. Say “I don’t understand what you’re going through, but I can see that it’s hard for you. I love you. I’m here for you. How can I help?” When your family or friends are reacting to the news of your faith crisis say “I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for me too. It’s okay if it takes a while for you to process this big change. I still love you. How can I help?”
Say the things that go without saying.
When you notice your family or friends becoming distant or pulling away, turn up the volume on love and acceptance. Reassure them that you still want them in your life, that you love them and value your relationship. If you think it goes without saying that you love them, are never going to stop loving them, and will always have a place for them in your life, say so! This will go a long way toward maintaining and even strengthening your relationship through such a difficult time.
Not sure how to start that conversation? Share this post as a way to get the ball rolling.
If you'd like me to help you preserve your relationships, I'd love to work with you. Learn more about how I work here.
The idea to “turn up the volume on love” borrowed from Peter Danzig, LCSW, Mormon Mental Health Association Conference, July 2015