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HOW INTER-FAITH AND INTRA-FAITH COUPLES HANDLE RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES

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Sponsored link.

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Two quotes:

"Different religious beliefs make for bad company" Posting on a Hillel Mailing list, 1990-NOV.

"...unity within diversity adds a richness and beauty to marriage and to life." Rev. Tom Chulak, Unitarian-Universalist minister.

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There are no rules...

Inter-faith marriages are those between persons from different religious traditions. Intra-faith marriages are between two persons from different denominations within the same religion. Each one is special. They come in  many varieties:

bulletSome couples follow very different religions (e.g. Christianity and Buddhism). Others are members of similar faith groups within one religion (e.g. Southern Baptists and Assembly of God).
bulletSome spouses have very little involvement with their faith; to others, religion forms the core of their life.
bulletSome spouses see merit in faiths other than their own; at the other extreme, they may view other faiths as forms of Satanism.

There are no general rules that fit all (or even most) inter/intra-faith couples. The degree of differences and amount of conflict vary widely from family to family.

For simplicity, we will assume in this essay an intra-faith marriage between two Christians of different denominations. This is the most common form of religiously mixed marriage in North America. The same dynamics equally apply to people who go to a church, circle, grotto, mosque, synagogue, or temple; they also apply for same-gender and opposite gender couples.

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Various approaches that couples have used:

When the couple is dating and later becomes engaged, inter-faith conflicts may not be particularly serious. Even in the initial years of marriage, difficulties may not be significant to them. Many couples defer resolution of their inter-faith status until later in marriage, perhaps when their first child arrives.

We have discovered seven common techniques for resolving religious differences in a marriage. There may be more. This field is so new that terminology is not well developed. We have selected a term to describe each of the options.

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1. Withdrawal:

Both spouses withdraw from organized religious activity. They might stop attending church and avoid religious discussions within their marriage. This has the advantage of minimizing friction over differences in religious tradition. But is may not be sustainable. Often one or both spouses will want to become religiously more active, later in life - perhaps after the birth of a child. Membership and activity within a faith group may be such an integral part of one or both spouses' spirituality that they cannot suppress it for long. 

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2. Conversion:

One spouse converts to the religion of the other. One source estimates that this option is chosen by about 40% of intra-faith couples. 7 This has the advantage of avoiding friction due to religious differences, but only if the conversion is sincere and accepted without pressure. The partner who has given up their religious faith for their spouse's may:

bulletFeel unfairly treated, either at the time, or in the future. 
bulletFeel resentment for being pressured into converting.
bulletFind that their family of origin is be angry and disappointed. 
bulletFind it difficult to worship God in their new faith tradition. 
bulletHave intellectual problems with new doctrines that they must accept.
bulletMiss the cultural traditions associated with their old faith tradition. 
bulletHave feelings of renunciation or even betrayal of their faith tradition.

One participant in a Greek Orthodox focus group on inter-faith marriage commented: "If I were to leave the Church, I would feel like I was leaving something important about who I am and what makes me tick." 8 One web site suggests methods to respectfully attempt to convert your spouse to your faith.

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Sponsored link:

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3. Compromise:

Both spouses convert to a compromise religion. One source estimates that this option is selected by about 30% of intra-faith couples. 7 Here, both spouses leave their religious tradition and settle on a new faith group. This could be a denomination "half-way" between their original religions. As examples:

bulletA Methodist and a Roman Catholic might decide to join an Episcopal/Anglican church. The Methodist might be relatively comfortable with the choice, since they would still be in a Protestant denomination; the Catholic would still enjoy the majestic church rituals which would be similar to those that they were accustomed to.
bulletA Christian and a Buddhist might join a congregation affiliated with the Unitarian Universalism Association. The UUA is a church free of dogma which has members from many different traditions: Aboriginal, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Neopaganism, etc. The purpose of a UU congregation is to support each other in the development of their own unique spiritual path.

Some of the disadvantages associated with the conversion option (#2 above) may also apply here. In particular, both of the families of origin may be angered at the decision.

SelectSmart.com ™ provides a  Belief System Selector which is designed to help a person locate a faith group that corresponds to their religious and spiritual beliefs. Both spouses might try the test independently, and see if they share a faith group that returns a high rating for both of them. 

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4. Multi-faith:

Both spouses affiliate with both denominations. They might go to one church each Sunday morning and the other on Sunday evening. Or they might go to a Sunday service at alternate churches on successive weeks. Each would support the other in their religious activity. If church regulations permit, they might even join each other's church. They have the opportunity to "create a wedding, a lifestyle and a family environment that can honor both traditions." 1 Each can grow to understand and appreciate their partner's religious heritage. Their effort does "not seek to homogenize religious differences. Rather, it honors the sacredness and uniqueness of each faith..." 1

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5. Ecumenical:

The two spouses merge their religious traditions and become an ecumenical family. They examine each other's religious traditions and, in essence, combine the two faith groups within their family. They create "ways by which the many paths can meet on common ground or unite in a new and sacred creative form." 1

The couple engages in the same path towards unity as many Christian denominations are attempting today. Since there are only two adults involved, the merger can be accomplished in weeks rather than the decades or centuries that formal denominations often take. They might satisfy their needs for fellowship by joining with other similar couples to form a house church.

In many ways, these ecumenical couples are showing Christian churches the types of compromise necessary to achieve unity. Unfortunately, many denominations view this process as involving dangerous compromises. Conservative denominations, in particular, generally condemn intra- and inter-faith marriages in which one partner is a born-again Christian and the other is not.

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6. Diversity:

If the spouses have a high level of commitment to their faith, any form of compromise may be intolerable. Each spouse may choose to follow their past religious heritage, separately. They would continue to go to their own religious services and celebrate different holy days. This is considered the least desirable approach by many couples, because it reduces the amount of time that they spend together and diminishes the level of companionship in their marriage. This may be compensated for by a substitute joint activity.

A crisis may develop if the couple has children. One spouse may be willing to give their partner complete religious freedom of belief and practice. But they may not be able to tolerate what they see as teaching "lies" to the children. One "religious skeptic" posted to a thirties-something Internet list: "I...am having trouble raising our children in 'her' church when I don't support it or many of its doctrines."

Dr. Willard F. Harley of Marriage Builders 2 recommends that whenever a conflict arises, to:

bulletset ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe
bullethave a time out if you reach an impasse
bulletremain respectful and nonjudgmental at all times
bulletidentify the problem, so that each spouse can state the other's position accurately
bulletbrainstorm solutions, without evaluating their worth or practicality
bulletchoose the most appealing solution

Dr. Hurley writes: "...marriage (and children) will thrive only if spouses put each other's feelings before the dictates of their religious convictions. It doesn't mean that religious convictions must be abandoned. It simply means that you must live your faith in a way that accommodates the feelings of your spouse."

The "diversity" option may be the only viable one in situations where both spouses are strongly attached to their separate faith groups.

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7. Do nothing

In many cases, organized religion plays a minimal role in the lives of one or both spouses. They might feel that their commitment to religion is so low that they would not want to spend the time and energy needed to resolve their religious differences. Irritants due to religious and cultural differences might not justify the effort to resolve them. They might decide to let things slide for the moment, and resolve conflicts in the future as they develop.

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What about children?

The arrival of children is liable to increase the level of religious tension in the family.

bulletFor those denominations which practice infant baptism, the couple has to decide which church to baptize the child in, or whether to baptize the child in both churches or neither.
bulletThere is the additional problem of selecting Godparents. One of their responsibilities is to act as a spiritual guardian for the child. A Godparent who is not a member of the denomination in which the child is being baptized may not be acceptable to the church.
bulletThe decision of how to handle the children's religious education is best handled early - preferably before marriage. Some couples educate:
bullettheir children in both faiths.
bulletmale children in the religion of the father, and girls in their mother's faith (or vice versa).
bullettheir first born in the father's religion, the second in the mother's faith, etc.
bullettheir children in a compromise faith. Unitarian Universalist and some other congregations often have comparative religious education courses for children.

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References:

  1. "What is Interfaith?," Association of Interfaith Ministers, at: http://www.interfaithclergy.org/interfaith.html
  2. W.F. Harley, "You believe what?! How to resolve conflicts of faith (Part 1)," at: http://www.marriagebuilders.com/graphic/mbi5040_qa.html
  3. "Inter-faith Marriages," a discussion thread at a "thirty-somethings" forum at : http://www.bianca.com/interests/thirties/bbs/posts/
  4. Valerie Morgan, et. al., "Mixed marriages in Northern Ireland," University of Ulster, (1996). Preface and sections 1,6 & 7 are online at: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/csc/reports/mixed.htm
  5. Bernard & Shirley Karstad, "How to help your mixed marriage succeed!," pamphlet by Interchurch Families - Saskatoon, at: http://www.sfn.saskatoon.sk.ca/rel/ecum-sce/mixedmar.htm
  6. A rather distressing exchange of postings on a Hindu discussion list describes some of the problems that Hindus have had in inter-religious marriages. Most seem to originate with the inlaws. See: http://hindustan.net/discus/messages/54/69.html
  7. Terry Matthews "The changing nature of denominational life," at: http://www.wlu.ca/~wwwaar/syllabi/matthews/rel166/
  8. Fr. Charles Joanides, "The Interfaith Marriage Challenge," at: http://www.interfaith.goarch.org/research.html 

Originally published: 1999-MAR-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

Latest update: 1999-DEC-15

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