Setting Boundaries — a Retroactive Primer for Mormons and Ex-Mormons

Mormons are terrible at boundaries. For those outside of Mormonism, they see it with missionaries who knock on their doors at all times of the day and night and want to offer their heartfelt message about Christ. The boundaries are transgressed on both sides, as the non-Mormon feels that their space is being trespassed against and at the same time feels that the Mormon missionaries are “oversharing” personal details about their own lives. But it works, sometimes, and it works very well. So it keeps happening. Mormons not on missions are encouraged to challenge friends to take the missionary discussions. Mormons make it their purpose in life to baptize all the dead of the earth, whether or not they are relatives or have their own religious traditions (case in point, the Mormons baptizing the dead from the Jewish Holocaust until recently this practiced was stopped).

Within Mormonism, I can tell you there are even more problems with boundary setting. Mormon teens (and sometimes younger children) are called in regularly to talk to their local pastor (bishop) to discuss their spiritual lives — and their sex lives and sexual thoughts, habits, and more. This begins a lifetime of feeling obliged to tell intimate details to the local bishop. Maybe it sounds like it isn’t so different from other religions’ confessional systems, but confession typically is offered by the parishioner. In Mormonism, you’re called in and asked specific “worthiness” questions. And the lack of boundaries expands to many other things, including being asked to serve in a particular calling without any warning and with full expectation that you will agree if you are devout and understand the calling “actually” comes from God, not the local leaders.

Other ways that boundaries are constantly ignored in Mormonism include the ministering system (formerly known as visiting and home teaching), tithing settlement, temple recommend interviews, and testimony bearing. Ministering brothers and sisters are assigned by “inspiration” by those in leadership. No one is asked for their opinion and offering one is decidedly looked down upon (You think you know better than God who would work for you?). It gets worse around the end of the month when you are pressured to make an appointment so these brothers or sisters can feel they’ve done their work and have contacted you appropriately to see if you have “needs.” Though they always ask if they can do anything, the system doesn’t always work as ideally as you might think. If your ministers are total strangers, will you really tell them your problems? And then there’s the question of whether or not you want them to come to your house when it’s convenient for them — or when they show up unannounced because they need to check you off their list.

Tithing settlement is when bishops ask you about whether or not you’ve paid your full ten percent to the church. They’re not supposed to ask more pointed questions at this time, but they will feel free to do this at temple recommend interviews, where they ask about your testimony of specific Mormon doctrines, whether you’re drinking alcohol or coffee or tea, if you beat your spouse or children, and if you associate with people who are working against the church (whatever that means).

Then there’s “fast and testimony meeting,” sometimes called “open mic night.” All members are invited to stand and recount their testimonies in front of the ward at the pulpit, using a microphone. But it often devolves into everyone in the ward hearing about the most intimate details of a ward member’s life. They can be boring travelogues, but they can also be about a divorce, drug addiction, pornography, child abuse, rape, and more. Sometimes the church tries to encourage people to keep it about Jesus, but I’ve never seen it work for more than a few weeks.

If you’ve come to the point where you want some distance from the church, well, good luck with that. That’s why you’re reading this essay, hoping I have some good suggestions. First of all, you have to figure out what boundaries are. No one ever talks about them within Mormonism. Who needs boundaries when you have the church and Jesus, right? If everyone is good, then they won’t step over you. Well, no, that’s not true. And women in particular have to be careful about learning how to set boundaries because Mormonism tends to teach you, both culturally and doctrinally, that as a woman, your purpose in life is to serve other people’s needs and to never have any of your own.

The first thing I want to tell those who are distancing themselves from Mormonism is that you don’t have to tell anyone why. I feel like so much time is spent in ex- and post-Mormon circles talking about how to tell your family members and friends about why you’re leaving. And you do this because no one ever taught you about boundaries.

My advice: you have absolutely no obligation to have these difficult conversations. I don’t see any good that will come out of them, even in the best of circumstances. And in the worst of circumstances — they are disasters that you will lose relationships over. Just don’t. If people ask you questions, give very short answers:

1. What’s your calling? I don’t have one.

2. How is church going? Fine.

3. I notice you’re not wearing garments. Nope, I’m not.

4. Are you drinking coffee now? Yes, I am.

5. I saw you posting a photo of you at a bar? Yeah, that’s a good bar.

Next, dealing with Mormon ward members who want to “friendship” you, ie bring you back to full activity in the church. I honestly think most of us need a lot of time and space (years of less contact) to figure out where our boundaries are. So I’d say give yourself space. It’s often better to just tell people you don’t want to talk than to blow up relationships sharing your well-earned anger.

But if you’re ready to re-enter these relationships, make sure that people understand that you have rules. You don’t have to say them out loud. Just live them. A friend of mine said about learning her boundaries that once she had set them, she didn’t need to talk about them. She just acted on them. If they’re talking about uncomfortable things, walk away or change the subject. They’ll get the idea.

I know, it sounds rude. It sounds hard. That’s because you never got taught how to do boundaries when you grew up Mormon. No one around you showed you how to do good boundaries. And honestly, Mormons are often offended by good boundaries. If you try to talk about them, they’ll tell you you’re misunderstanding, that they meant no harm. And yeah, well, that may be true. But you still need good boundaries.

I could go on here about how boundaries are so important for negotiating a good dating life, a good sex life, on and on. Also not something Mormons ever talk about. They’re so busy telling you not to have sex until married that consent isn’t even a topic of conversation. It’s why rape is often misunderstood and why people imagine that once you can have sex, then all your problems are over — when really all your problems are just beginning. Consent and negotiation are the foundation of boundaries, but if you never learn them, you are going to have a lousy sex life, which is what happens to so many Mormon marriages.

Anyway, like I said, this is just the beginning of a primer. You have a lot to learn, and honestly, so do I.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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