Strengthening Interfaith Marriages
For many couples religion unifies and strengthens their marriage. For others, it tears them apart. When individuals from two different religions marry, they sometimes begin a lifetime of disagreements that can be devastating to the sacred union of marriage.Religion is a very important part of many people’s lives. Research shows, in fact, that religion can help couples build a happy marriage. A study done in the United States showed that 89% of happily married couples agreed on how spiritual values and beliefs are expressed. Even couples who attend services in different religions report higher marital satisfaction than those who don’t participate in any religion at all.
But when disagreements do arise, they’re often over different views on core values, such as the meaning of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities. These differences can stir up difficult conflict over religious upbringing of children, over decisions about how to handle life events such as birth, death, and holiday celebrations, and over the absence of a religious bond in the relationship.
One of the most important things interfaith couples can do to minimize conflict and increase unity is to focus on what they have in common. Below are specific ideas about how to do this.
Commit to Your Marriage
Settle once and for all that you will stand by your spouse despite religious differences. Put aside your differences and decide to love each other even though you disagree about religion.
Build a sacred sense of commitment in your marriage. If you see your marriage as something sacred and each other as individuals consecrated to each other, your marriage relationship will grow deeper and stronger.
Learn Good Communication Skills
Good communication skills are essential to success in every marriage, and they become all the more critical in an interfaith marriage. Three articles on this website can help you learn to communicate more effectively. They are Handling Conflict in Marriage, Solving Your Solvable Problems, and Moving from Gridlock to Dialogue. As you enhance your communication skills, your relationship will become stronger.
Respect Your Spouse and Religious Differences
No one likes to be put down for something they believe in. In marriage, criticizing one another on this subject can be devastating to the relationship. So it’s critical that husbands and wives respect the beliefs and values of their spouse. To build respect, work on the following behaviors.
1. Place yourself in your spouses’ religious shoes.
2. See your spouse’s religion as a part of who he is instead of something he just participates in.
3. Never deliver an ultimatum about religion, such as “You have to go to my church or else.”
4. Help your spouse strengthen her religious convictions instead of trying to change them.
Compromise and Find Commonalities that Bring You Together
Finding a religious middle ground can strengthen your relationship. Learning about your spouse’s faith and religion can help you find the values you hold in common. As you find shared values, you’ll gain greater understanding of one another and arguments will diminish. The following ideas can help you compromise and understand one another.
1. Focus on beliefs that you share about God and teachings that are similar in both your religions. You may find out you have more in common than you thought.
2. Focus on non-religious things you both value, such as hobbies, work, sports, and entertainment. Doing things together that you both enjoy will help you increase unity in your marriage.
3. Don’t try to change your spouse. If you insist that your spouse see things your way, you’re not truly trying to compromise.
Choose the Religion in Which Your Children Will Grow Up
When interfaith couples have children, they add a new and powerful potential area of conflict over religious differences. Couples need to decide what religion they want their child to belong to. This decision is one of the most important decisions an interfaith couple can make. If you avoid this decision, you risk causing religious confusion for your child. Answering the following ten questions can help couples make this important decision.
1. How involved in religion do we want our child to be?
2. How important to each of us is our own religious faith?
3. How involved does each of us want to be in our child’s religious formation?
4. What do I find of value in my spouse’s faith?
5. What do our respective faith communities have to offer in helping us with religious training in our home?
6. Which religion provides the best support for children and teenagers, such as effective youth programs?
7. How cooperative will our family and friends be with our plan for our child’s religious upbringing?
8. How comfortable will I be carrying the major responsibility of sharing my faith with my child?
9. What am I willing to contribute to our child’s religious development in a faith different form my own?
10. How much freedom to choose a religion am I willing to give our child?
Make the Best of the Holiday Dilemma
Dealing with differences in holidays can cause conflict in what should be a time of unity and togetherness. Holidays can be extra difficult because they involve not only immediate family but relatives as well. Families can take several approaches as they work to solve this dilemma.
In the traditional approach, you choose the holidays of one religion and celebrate them in a full-bodied way. If you choose this approach, be sensitive to the emotional needs of the spouse whose holidays are not being celebrated. Don’t completely ignore the holidays he or she grew up with.
In the minimalist approach, you celebrate the major holidays in a secular way, just like you would celebrate Independence Day or Labor Day. The gift giving, shopping, and festivities stay the same, but you take out all religious meaning behind the symbols.
In the two-religion approach, you actively celebrate holidays from the religions of both spouses. If you choose this approach, make sure you each learn about the religious meanings and customs behind both religious holidays and teach them to your children.
In the nontraditional approach, you draw traditions from different cultures and regions of the world and incorporate them into your own innovative holiday celebration.
Interfaith marriages can be successful and happy if both spouses are willing to work hard at committing to one another, showing respect for one another, and focusing on shared values. When children come along, it’s important to place the best interests of the child first as decisions are made about how to religiously raise the child and how to celebrate holidays. As interfaith couples carefully consider these issues with sensitivity toward one another, they can avoid most of the conflict around religious differences and will be able to build a loving and unified relationship and family life.
For Further Reading:
Every time I say grace, we fight: Practical help for marriages divided by religion but united by love, by Sandra Doran
Keys to interfaith parenting by Iris Yob
The intermarriage handbook: A guide for Jews and Christians, by Judy Petsonk and Jim Remsen
Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service Website – The Marriage Garden