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The Life-Cycle of an Interfaith Relationship: Phase One--The Dating Game

May 2003

Doesn't everyone just love a new couple, full of life and energy and hope? Over the years, I've basked vicariously in the glory of young love. I've listened as excited couples wonder at their good fortune in finding their soul mates. I've watched them look into each other's eyes with the knowing stare that says, if this is all I ever have, it will be enough. And I've listened when young couples, so hopeful and passionate, struggle with religious differences and wonder if their love alone will overcome obstacles to the survival of their relationship.

Some interfaith partners say that they brought up religion on the second or third date because they knew that if they couldn't get through the negotiations of their religious future, it would be a "deal breaker." Others say that they waited until the crisis was upon them, doing their best to avoid the painful, emotional talks that are usually required to work through religious differences.

image of young coupleOften there is a certain cycle that couples go through when they initiate a religious discussion: they talk until they begin to argue, and then they go out to dinner and avoid the topic because their primary goal is to keep their relationship going. Most people don't like to argue. For interfaith couples, the wish to avoid the potential threat to their relationship often overrides the necessity of making religious choices.

Once a couple has decided to face the challenges before them, they often attend an interfaith workshop. I strongly recommend this because it gives couples an opportunity to talk with other interfaith couples, learn from them, and also hear from a counselor experienced in the issues of intermarriage.

The first stage of interfaith counseling for couples involves beginning to learn about themselves and their partner religiously. Through identity exploration exercises, couples learn a new "language" to use to understand their own religious feelings better and to teach their partner who they are, where they come from and what they want religiously.

As interfaith expert Esther Perel describes it, couples think they are speaking the same language because they are speaking English, but they are often speaking a very different religious language. Each partner's ethnic/cultural differences create a type of "cultural lens" through which they view the world, affecting their communication styles and coloring their perceptions of other people's behavior.

For example, one partner may express anger through silence while the other partner expresses it through loud, angry outbursts. This is likely a culturally influenced behavior but can lead to miscommunication if the partners do not recognize their different styles of communicating.

Another example may be prayer. One partner may prefer to pray privately if that is what his family did and what he is familiar with, while the other may prefer public expressions of faith. This may cause discomfort if the couple is searching for ways to express their religiosity together.

Some things to consider when exploring religious identity are: Who has influenced you religiously? What are your significant memories of religious events and celebrations? How do you express your religiosity (prayer, financial contributions, home observance, belief in God, etc.)? Because religion and religious identity are so multi-faceted, it is impossible to know someone religiously based on any one single factor.

Learning about your partner's religious history and family influences can help if your partner has difficulty explaining his or her attachment to his religion.

For example, one Jewish partner may say that he does not "practice" his faith but wants his children raised as Jews. If his Christian spouse does not see him doing anything that she considers religious, she will have a very difficult time agreeing to this. It would help If he could explain to her the deeper level of his commitment to his faith--perhaps his memories of Passover seder or his visits to his grandparents and the stories they would tell of their childhoods in Europe bring him closer to his Judaism. Or maybe it is the songs that he remembers hearing at services or the fact that his grandparents survived the Holocaust and he feels a certain level of responsibility to them.

For the Christian partner, it may be the nightly prayers she said with her mother at her side that bring back the warm feelings she associates with her faith. Or it may be the close relationship with the Sister at her Catholic school whom she remembers whenever special things happen in her life. Whatever each individual's memories and connections are, it is only through deep discussion about each partner's family and cultural/religious upbringing that they will shed light on their feelings about religion and be able to make informed religious decisions for their futures.

This is one area where couples often get stuck because while one partner may "feel" his connection to his religion in his heart, he is not doing anything to show his partner why his religion is important or how it plays a role in his life. And what one person cannot see, she also cannot understand. In such a situation, the partner must find the words to explain exactly what it is about his religion that matters to him, how he expresses it in his life, and how he will want it to be expressed in his future family and home. He may also have to begin doing some things so that his partner will have some idea of what it is that he is describing.

Once couples have developed an understanding of their own religious identities, including an ability to explain why religion is important to them and what their expectations are for the religious future of their families, they may then begin to address the decision-making process regarding holidays and children.

 

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
S. Courtney Nathan

S. Courtney Nathan, LCSW, is a clinical social worker and co-author of the book, When a Parent Is Seriously Ill, Practical Tips for Helping Parents and Children. Formerly coordinator of the Outreach to Intermarrieds program at Jewish Family Service, she is currently taking time off to raise her children.

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