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Many couples come to me for premarital counseling around interfaith issues. Typically they want to know how to prevent interfaith differences from contaminating their marriage. They worry that even though their relationship is great in the present time, unpredictable crises may arise in the future. The couple may have heard dire predictions from parents or from their own religious leaders. Yet, here they are, two people in love, planning a life together.
Josh summed up a common desire, "Rabbi, we want to look at any issues that might rise up later to derail us. We want to be prepared."
Responding to this thoughtful request, I have guided hundreds of couples through interfaith dialogue, helping each member of the couple explore their own experience, values, dreams and also helping each one listen to the other. Finding a way to explore the issues in a calm way is helpful for building a healthy relationship.
Some couples fall into the pitfall of avoiding the issues entirely. "I think it will just work out," Pete told me. "Kayla is a worry wort. She wants to discuss every possibility, but I have a more laid-back attitude."
Feeling optimistic and having a relaxed attitude is well and good but if your partner wants to have important conversations about your life, it's a good idea to rise to the occasion.
Other couples try to wrestle with interfaith issues but have a hard time listening well to each other. Each member of the couple feels threatened and is reactive to the other. A vicious cycle starts that makes it harder and harder for the couple to communicate well. Anxiety escalates and the issues look harder and harder to face.
What's fortunate is that a premarital or just-married couple discussing interfaith issues is laying the groundwork when there is still ample time. The pace can be leisurely; no immediate decisions need to be made. You are building relationship skills that will serve you well in future conversations about interfaith issues when perhaps the pressure is on: how to welcome a baby, where to affiliate, religious education, lifecycle ceremonies such as Confirmation and Bat Mitzvah. The more you've discussed your feelings, concerns and hopes together, the stronger a foundation you'll have when it is time to make decisions.
During this early exploratory phase (which ideally lasts a few years), the goal should be simply to get to know each other better. An attitude of curiosity about your partner's religious experience and attitudes will keep the conversation open and flowing. "What does God mean to you? What was religious school like for you? What did your parents want you to get out of it? How do you want your life to be the same and how do you want it to be different from the family you grew up in?"
It's not a bad idea to find a professional or a support group to help structure some of these conversations. In our hectic lives it's often hard to make time for in-depth dialogue unless we specifically plan for it. Finding a marriage and family counselor or an interfaith support group may be useful in facilitating your conversations.
You don't need to have a blueprint for the future on every issue. As you can see, in this approach, the process of being able to talk with each other is way more important than the product of your decisions. There are many good ways to live family life; you will evolve the way that is best for your family. There is no one right answer to discover.
Over the course of a life together, you'll need to make many, many decisions together ranging from where to live, whether and when to have children, childcare and education, how to take care of ageing parents, etc. The best work you can do now to prevent interfaith crisis down the road is to build strong relationship skills. Develop your ability to talk about important things and to listen calmly to each other. Get to know each other even more deeply. And have lots of fun together, too! Fun helps build strong relationships.
When the time comes to make big decisions, you'll be making them as a team of people who know each other very well. Interfaith issues may at times be challenging--there will be times when you disagree or have different needs --but they can't contaminate a relationship that is based on an alliance of understanding. When your partnership is strong, you have all the resources you need to work through hard situations with love, patience and respect. Go for it!
Julie Greenberg is a rabbi in Philadelphia where she does counseling and lifecycle ceremonies with many interfaith families. She is also mother to Rosi, Raffi, Zoe, Joey and Mozelle Greenberg. She can be reached at JulieGberg@earthlink.net.