“In this life it is our great opportunity to struggle, to fight, and, yes, to fail occasionally in our pursuit of the divine. It is all part of the process designed to refine our character and perfect our spirits.”
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Can You Hear the Music?” BYU Devotional January 2019
It was Jennifer Finlayson-Fife’s third time back to the DMV. She was trying to get her car registered in Massachusetts, where she was earning her PhD in counseling psychology, and what should have been a simple task kept going wrong.
The woman at the counter beckoned Jennifer forward. Jennifer approached, hoping the paperwork clutched in her hands would finally be enough.
To the shock of the DMV employee who had been giving Jennifer a hard time, Jennifer broke down, sobbing at the counter.
“I just felt this terror that something was going to fall apart for me that I couldn’t hold together,” Jennifer remembered. It had nothing to do with her car’s license plate.
It was 2000, and Jennifer had just started research for her PhD dissertation — research that forced her to confront longstanding questions she’d had about her own self-worth and to reconcile herself, her beliefs and her faith.
“The struggle persisted for me,” Jennifer said. “I wondered, ‘What is my relationship to the Church, and what is my relationship to our theology? Who am I, and what do I really feel and believe?’”
Through sincere searching, Jennifer was able to turn her struggle into strength — for herself, and for the thousands of others.
Today, Jennifer is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Chicago, but her influence reaches much farther as a relationship and sexuality teacher. Through online courses, live workshops and free podcasts and videos, Jennifer has been helping Latter-day Saint individuals and couples to find a renewed sense of self, leading to more meaningful connection and intimacy in their relationships and, ultimately, deeper spiritual integrity.
“President Nelson said the Church needs strong women, and that’s really, really, really true. We need strong men, too, obviously. That strength is valuable for strong communities, strong marriages, strong families, strong individuals. God wants us to thrive,” she testified. “God wants us to genuinely be strong and make a positive difference. When we’re stepping back, stepping down, playing small, more fear-based, not only does sexuality and intimacy suffer, but so does your sense of self and your ability to affect things in a positive way. Understanding the truthfulness of that is so important for us thriving — and creating Zion.”
Grappling With Questions
Jennifer grew up in Vermont, where her parents were heavily involved in the Church. Her father served as Branch President, then later District and Stake President. As they were physically building their chapel, Primary was held at Jennifer’s home during the week. Though she had 80 first cousins, they were all in Utah and Idaho: Her ward and stake became her extended family, loving Jennifer and caring for her in a way that impacted the course of her life.
Even as a youth, Jennifer was sensitive to the struggles of those around her and felt a desire to help them. The field of psychology first piqued her interest in junior high, when she realized it was a profession that would allow her to help people. In high school, friends — and even their parents and other adults — gravitated to Jennifer for advice, which made counseling a natural career choice.
“It was a role that was familiar to me, so the profession appealed to me — but I also didn’t envision myself having a profession, because I anticipated that I would get married and have kids,” she said. “I didn’t realize there were lower-level certification programs, and I thought a PhD was so much more than I should probably do. I wanted it, but I put it aside as something that wasn’t realistic to do, given that I wanted a family, and given that I questioned whether or not it was good for me to get that much education, as a woman.”
Jennifer felt cultural pressure to choose between pursuing a career and planning to have a family. But Jennifer was always a questioner. As a child in Primary, she asked, “Well, what if you don’t get a confirmation?” She wasn’t trying to be difficult; it was simply the way her mind works, pondering alternate possibilities.
“I ended up both a deep believer and a questioner,” she said. “Both were really true: I knew God was real, the Gospel meant a lot to me, and so many things about it had been anchoring in my life. But I had questions about women, and women’s place, and polygamy. I had a lot of faith, and I had a lot of questions. And I felt defective for that.”
Between self-doubt and her unanswered questions, Jennifer chose a “more compatible” career and began studying interior design at BYU. While she does love and care about design, it wasn’t her first choice — simply the “legitimate” one. She enjoyed her two years as a design major before serving a mission in Spain, where a powerful spiritual experience on not only changed her career path but set the foundation for her life’s work.
Going on a mission in and of itself was wrought with conflict for Jennifer. “I was in a real struggle with God sort of the whole time,” she said. “It was a bit of putting my questions aside, ‘Just be obedient and do it, and see what I can learn from it.’ But at a certain point I came to an acute crisis where I had to know. ‘God, how do I reconcile these things? How do I honestly make sense of them? Do I just shut them all away and pretend? I don’t want to let go of what I feel is true.’”
Though some people have frequent spiritual experiences, “I’m not that person,” Jennifer summarized with a laugh. Her spiritual experiences are fewer and farther between — but unequivocal. After a great deal of struggle, prayer and fasting, Jennifer received an answer she knew was for her. That answer included that her questions wouldn’t be settled in just one answer: She was going to have to struggle honestly with what’s true and what’s not true, discern for herself and align herself with what she believed — even within the Church and Church culture.
“It was kind of like, ‘You have to be a seeker — that’s your job,’” Jennifer shared. “I didn’t hear it as, ‘That’s your job because someday you’re going to be speaking about these things,’ I didn’t hear it in a mission sense, but more that’s what it takes to come to know what your mission is. ‘You need to struggle in this way, you need to think through it, you need to work through it.’ I had permission from God to have my questions and stop feeling broken.
“I still felt some fear in that answer, because I thought maybe I would be seen as a threat, or that other people would reject me for not accepting certain ideas,” she continued. “But I felt clear that God wouldn’t reject me, and that my honest pursuit of truth was OK with Him. That resolved something in me.”
After her mission, Jennifer returned to BYU and changed her major to psychology, with a minor in the newly established women’s studies program and the intent to complete a PhD. Despite being told by some men she dated that it was faithless of her to want to get anything beyond a bachelor’s degree, Jennifer was no longer afraid to pursue what she really wanted.
In fact, she was more afraid to get married. She fully desired marriage and a family and sometimes wondered if she was impaired in some way, when all her friends were dating and getting married. “But if I focused on my actual behavior, I was making sure I didn’t have a boyfriend,” Jennifer reflected. “I was afraid I would lose my choices, because of what I’d been taught about what I was supposed to do as a woman. I took that seriously: I didn’t want God to be unhappy with me, I didn’t want to do the wrong thing, so I made sure marriage wasn’t a possibility until I was ready for it to be.”
It wasn’t until she began her master’s program at Boston College that she had a serious relationship — and also met her future husband, John. For the first time, Jennifer felt seen when she talked to a man she dated — safe to be herself and receive thoughtful, non-judgmental responses. John was a very different person than some of the men Jennifer had dated; she knew completing her PhD wasn’t going to be a threat to him. As she continued her studies in counseling psychology, Jennifer also continued to learn about herself and her beliefs.
Once, a senior clinician was presenting a case where a religious woman had chosen not to have sex into her twenties, and the clinical perspective was that she must be sexually repressed. “There was a lot of simple-minded judgement about anyone who would make that decision; I understand it’s not a simple, straightforward thing in any direction, but I was uncomfortable that this was getting slapped onto this woman’s psychopathology,” Jennifer said.
In a room full of people who had much more clinical experience than she did, Jennifer spoke up. She expressed how unfair she felt the judgement was, and that as a religious woman herself she believed people could make a deliberate choice about sex from a self-defining position. “It wasn’t a big moment,” she said, “but it did shape people’s sensitivity to not just be dismissive, which I think is easy for non-religious people to do toward religious people.”
Despite Jennifer’s obvious interest in women’s issues and sexuality, she was still focused on psychology in general when she applied to her doctorate program. She was planning to do her dissertation on forgiveness. As part of the PhD program, Boston College assigned teaching or research internships, and she was offered two courses to teach: drugs and alcohol or human sexuality.
The humor in the specific courses offered to Jennifer was not lost on her, especially since she was only about to be married. She turned down the drugs and alcohol course and agreed to teach two sections of human sexuality. “I really thought about it — ‘Can I do that? Do I know enough?’ But I saw it as an opportunity for me not to have to step into a post-sexual-revolution frame, but instead teach students to be critical consumers of ideology.”
While teaching the course, Jennifer contemplated her friends’ experiences who had tough transitions into marriage. She got married herself, and though her own transition wasn’t particularly hard, she began wondering what Latter-day Saint women’s experiences were with sexuality. Jennifer had found the topic of her dissertation research.
A Testimony of Women & Marriage
As she began her research, Jennifer started with going through things that prophets and other leaders had said about women and sexuality through the years — resulting in some tough moments for Jennifer when she wondered how such things could have been said. From her 2000 lens, the limitation of the lens in the ’70s and ’80s was jarring.
Jennifer struggled on after her DMV breakdown, continuing to participate in Church as she wrestled with reconciling her beliefs. She found comfort and strength in what she had learned by the Spirit on her mission, and came to realize what President Nelson and other Church leaders have been emphasizing in recent years: the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore the evolution of the Church, continues today.
“We’re evolving; we need to continue to seek, we need to continue to grow. Our theology is so rich, it allows for so much of that growth: We’re in an eternal progression, and we’re seeking to know the difference between good and evil. That’s a process,” Jennifer explained. “I was able to come to peace with realizing I was asking too much to think Church leaders and members in the past are going to get it all right — that would take away some of the individual responsibility to wrestle with God and with Gospel principles, and to really seek for what is true.”
As she continued her own sincere seeking, Jennifer reached a decision. “I just felt like I wanted to struggle here. I didn’t want to be somewhere else. I gave myself permission to go, but as soon as I really, really knew I had permission to go, I knew I didn’t want to.”
Helping Latter-day Saint women led to helping couples, and in recent years, to creating a course especially for men. In 2016, Jennifer was asked to speak at BYU for the 25th anniversary of the women’s studies program. The invitation was a meaningful acknowledgment to Jennifer for the work that she’s been doing — especially since when she started in the program, she wondered if she was being unrighteous or doing the wrong thing. But even more validating has been the hundreds and hundreds of people who write to Jennifer and tell her that she’s made a difference in their lives.
“I’m not even sure what to make of it,” she said humbly. “I feel really privileged, to be in a position to make a difference for people. It’s also really clear to me that so many other people play a role in that: The person I married is just a super supportive, kind person who wants very much for me to thrive and be able to make a difference in this way.”
Jennifer also credits her parents, who have grown and supported her over the years. Her father passed away last year, but his change in attitude towards her work meant a lot to Jennifer. He grew from “Women’s studies, who needs that?” and, jokingly, “Women already have too much power!” to telling Jennifer that he thought it was amazing she’s been able to help so many people — even being open to learning from her.
Once, Jennifer struggled with desires for both an influential career and a family, and feared she would have to choose between them. She persisted in the struggle, and has found transcendent peace and joy in both her work and her life with John and their three children, now 21, 18 and 15. Her struggle to navigate flawed aspects of Church culture, which she has already seen evolve in so many ways, and reconcile her beliefs with her faith has led to helping not just herself but thousands of other Church members.
She teaches listeners that they can live with deep personal integrity, fully embracing themselves and their faith, to become a stronger force for good. Through it all, Jennifer has learned to trust the struggle — in life, in faith, and in marriage — and encourages others to do the same.
“I really see marriage as a divine institution, because it pressures your development. So much of refinement in life is based on sacrifice — and I don’t mean it in the way I used to think about it, which is that you have to do really hard things and life sucks,” she said with a laugh. “I mean that choosing to constrain your life is actually what makes it freer.”
Freely choosing to obey commandments; committing to a marriage relationship; being willing to embrace the struggle, rather than look for a quick solution, and trusting it leads to greater good than you can imagine.
“It’s stepping into a commitment and saying, ‘I choose to love you, even with your limitations, even when you disappoint me, and I’m going to develop myself into somebody who’s more capable of love and managing myself and being a better person,’” Jennifer said. “I’m definitely a better person than I was when I got married — I still have a long way to go, but the marriage definitely blessed my life both by what it’s offered me and also by how it’s pushed me to become someone capable of offering good. Sometimes we think of freedom as freedom from constraints, but so much of constraint is what drives our development, and our development is what makes us free.”
For more information about Dr. Finlayson Fife, visit her website finlayson-fife.com.