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The Accidental Theist

A Christmas Tree in My House? Over My Dead Body

The Joys and Challenges of an Interfaith Relationship
Interfaith Marriage
Published on July 13, 2010 : 2 comments

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Warning: I am about to get very personal.

In October, I am getting married to a terrific guy. He’s thoughtful, caring, funny—and not Jewish. In fact, he was raised Mormon, though he now considers himself agnostic, and a majority of his close family are practicing Mormons. I, in case you haven’t already guessed, am Jewish and my faith and culture are a very important part of who I am and how I (try to) live my life. The process of planning a wedding and thinking about our life together has raised many questions for us individually and collectively about our spiritual lives and identifications. 

For me, these questions have included:

  • If having a Jewish environment in my home is important to me (which it is), (how) can I do this in a way that is respectful of the fact that my partner is not Jewish and this is our home?
  • Does it make me a jerk if I insist that we do not bring pork into our home?
  • How do I act in a respectful way when my in-laws pray in Jesus’ name without compromising the principles of my faith?

For him, these questions have included:

  • How do I support my partner’s spiritual and cultural needs without ignoring my own and without converting to Judaism?
  • Am I turning my back on who I am if we don’t celebrate Christmas and have a Christmas tree?

And it has us both asking:

  • How can we be spiritual together without having to sacrifice our individual core identities and beliefs?"

Interfaith WeddingAccording to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, my fiance and I aren’t the only couple grappling with the questions that are raised when entering an interfaith marriage or partnership. This study by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York was the first national survey to examine the religious composition of marriage and domestic partners in large enough numbers to be able to make generalizations. The study found that of all the surveyed households that contained either a married or domestic partner couple, 22% reported a mixture of religious or spiritual identification amongst the couple.

From this data, researchers found that, "in all, about 28 million American married or otherwise coupled adults live in a mixed religion household."  That’s  almost 10% of the overall population, and the rates of interfaith marriages or partnerships are far greater in certain religious groups, such as the Buddhist, Jewish, and Episcopalian communities. Interfaith marriages and relationships are not a recent phenomena, but certainly the heightened levels of interaction and interconnectedness among people of diverse beliefs and faiths brought on by migration and immigration, technology, and globalization of our workforce has accelerated this. 

Challenges of an interfaith marriageChallenges of an interfaith marriageSo how do couples of different religious or spiritual backgrounds and beliefs build a healthy, respectful marriage or partnership together? This answer is going to be different for each couple as every relationship is unique. However, more and more resources are now available for couples who are navigating these issues.

One of the most helpful and practical articles I’ve read is by authors and e-How marriage columnists Sheri and Bob Stritof. In their article, "Coping Strategies for Interfaith Marriages: Some Do’s and Don’ts for Interfaith Couples," they list several simple but essential items to consider and discuss with your partner before you formalize your commitment to one another (such as, where and how the two of you will worship/practice your faiths or beliefs) and offer some helpful suggestions for understanding and communicating with one another about your religious/spiritual needs, beliefs, and practices.  Over the past three decades, several nonsectarian and non-profit organizations, such as the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources, have formed to provide resources and support for interfaith couples. 

More and more faith communities now welcome interfaith couples into their communities and also are developing resources for these couples. These include websites from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Islamic Society of North America.  It should be noted that just as interfaith couples vary, so do the approaches, philosophies, and resources of these sites. So, for some communities, welcoming interfaith couples may mean making it easier for the non-member to convert, and for others, it may mean creating an environment where interfaith couples can belong and be connected without the expectation of the non-member converting. 

Wedding ringsBeing in an interfaith relationship brings its own set of joys and challenges, and I certainly do not recommend it for everyone. But for me, it has provided a powerful opportunity for me to learn more about myself, including what beliefs, practices, and customs are essential to being authentically me and to deepen my relationship with my fiance by discovering our shared values and learning about our different religious and cultural backgrounds.

I’d love to hear from you if you have been in or are in an interfaith relationship, as well as those who have friends and family members interfaith marriages. 

  • What have been some of your or their joys and challenges in these relationships?
  • What are some suggestions or resources that you or your friends and family members have received to strengthen these relationships and foster understanding and communication? 

I look forward to your feedback!

bethkatzBeth Katz is founder and executive director of Project Interfaith and a self-professed interfaith junkie. You can reach her at beth@projectinterfaithusa.org, find her on Facebook or follower her Twitter: @bethkatz.

Comments

Nikki Bluue (not verified) says:

August 1, 2010 : 4 years 12 weeks ago

Nikki Bluue's picture

Beth,
I really hope you have already recieved some insight via email. I am atheist, but I do love to discuss religious beliefs and religion. I like to learn about different beliefs of the world. I would hope you will welcome my thoughts here. <3 The questions I throw out is simply for you to think and answer to yourself and your fiance. You don’t need to answer them to me. :-)

Have both of you sought marriage counseling or “mentoring” by other marrieds? It may help? I have heard of married people “mentoring” engaged couples before they marry to ensure success.

■ If having a Jewish environment in my home is important to me, (how) can I do this in a way that is respectful of the fact that my partner is not Jewish and this is our home?

I do not know much about the Jewish faith, so pardon me. What about the married bedroom? Does your faith allow you to leave some religious symbols out of the married bedroom? If not, another thought: you could try to find some subtly religious symbols for your bedroom. Like a painted picture that is not overtly religious, but sublime. :-) I like those kinds cuz when I look at pictures of sublime religious icons, it makes me think and feel more than those that are very suggestive of faith. :-)

■Does it make me a jerk if I insist that we do not bring pork into our home?

No, not a jerk, imho. If he likes pork, he could compromise by eating pork via dinners out or at his families’ houses. I have done without a lot of red meat lately, and I don’t miss it all that much. Is there any Jewish-inspired healthy food that he likes? If so, you both could go from there and build new food favorites.

■How do I act in a respectful way when my in-laws pray in Jesus’ name without compromising the principles of my faith?

Can you allow them to do their prayers and then they allow you do to a prayer as well? Take turns? Will that be inoffensive to each other? When they do theirs, you can either bow your head out of respect or keep head up with eyes closed but don’t pray with them outloud. Can they give you the same to your prayer as well?

I am very uncomfortable with suggesting one part leaves the room while the other prays. I don’t think that will invite cohesion with the family atmosphere.

■How do I support my partner’s spiritual and cultural needs without ignoring my own and without converting to Judaism?

Are you spiritual in any way? You could share your spirituality with hers without converting to Judaism. I see spirituality as “sharing”. Sharing does not mean one converted to the other’s faith. I am at a slight loss to answer this question cuz I know little about Judaism or what sort of spirituality you ascribe to. Can you do without pork? If so, that is one way you can be supportive. If not, agree to eat pork only out of the house, via dinners out, etc. Again, I know little of what you both might have already agreed on.

■Am I turning my back on who I am if we don’t celebrate Christmas and have a Christmas tree?

I say no. Christmas is not just about trees and presents and overspending. You don’t need a tree to celebrate the sacredness of a holiday. Just look at it this way: Christmas and other sacred holidays give people of various faiths (or lack of) a chance to be giving, generous, compassionate and to open the hearts a bit _more_ around that time. As an atheist, I am trying to shift my focus from the tree and decorations to “having time with family”. Laughter, love, light-hearted discussions about whatever topics, catching up, etc can be done around this time of year. Trees need not be there to invite that. :-)

If you are still uncomfty with that, you can find a pillar candle with a Christmas tree picture on it, and light it when your family visits, and light it again on Christmas day. That is, if both of you are okay with the pillar candle lighting. Or simply draw a tree on the candle and just use that candle for Christmas only.

■ How can we be spiritual together without having to sacrifice our individual core identities and beliefs?

That is the 64,ooo$ question. You stated you did some research on how to build on the differences. Have you both talked about what you would like from the other in re: faith practices, etc? If not, you could restart that discussion and see about compromises.

I hesitate to ask about children. Have both of you agreed on how you are going to raise the children? In what faith, if any? If you have not yet, I strongly encourage you to discuss this before marriage and again before concieving/adoption, as feelings on children rearing can change over time. I apologize if this topic threw you off, but I felt it was important. :-> I hope you are not angry at me for this.

I found your request via the Facebook page. I am Nikki Bluue there.
In compassion,
 Nikki

jordy says:

August 2, 2010 : 4 years 12 weeks ago

jordy's picture

@Nikki What a thorough response to Beth’s article! Love how you made your comment so easy to follow by quoting her.

The general theme seems to be one of mutual respect and a process of give and take. I’m also not an expert on religions, but it would seem that from two Abrahamic faiths, there shouldn’t be too many times when one religion directly undercuts the teachings of the other (i.e. you should be able to respect your partner’s faith without having to adopt it yourself, but still not feel that you are “violating” your religion.) At least, I would assume.

However, the issue of children that Nikki brings up at the end, and the culture you want to raise those children in (which really means more than just faith and religion), that’s going to be…well…that’s going to be a big one :o)

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