Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
Ten Tips to Avoiding Conflict in an Interfaith Marriage
Originally published October, 2003. Republished January 2, 2013.
Who said marriage was easy? It's not. Never was, never will be. The couples who are successful are the ones who know they have to work at it. When you're in an interfaith marriage, avoiding conflict may require even more effort. That one extra issue of religion can often be the cornerstone of strife in a union. But guess what? It doesn't have to be. In fact, it can be a catapult to improving the relationship. How? Here are some little tips that can help. In the immortal words of David Letterman, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have tonight's Top Ten."
10: Communicate. Seems like an easy one, doesn't it? It may be, but it's often the first thing that gets forgotten in a relationship. Without talking through the difficult issues with your spouse, your chances of working out problems become pretty slim.
Communication is the process by which your feelings get put on the table. How would you ever know that your wife has a problem with your parents giving the kids Christmas presents during Hanukkah, if she never told you? Communication is also the process by which ideas form. When you and your spouse are able to talk about your problems, you can come up with solutions that both of you can agree on.
9: Plan ahead. This is where interfaith couples have an advantage over many same-faith couples. Because two people of different faiths know that they have issues to work out, they can create a framework for doing so before they even marry. This could save a lot of aggravation later on, such as when kids are born and you haven't decided if the baby will have a bris (ritual circumcision) or a baptism.
Often, same-faith couples don't bother to work out many details before marrying. Just because both are Christian or both are Jewish, they may fall into the trap of naturally assuming that life will go smoothly. For example: "We'll have a baby naming for our girl, right?" "Absolutely not. My mother never had one and neither will our daughter."
In my experience, the game plan for a marriage is best created before you walk down the aisle. If nothing else, it definitely should be developed before children arrive.
8: Be flexible. Interfaith marriages require a lot of give and take to make them work. You might find that by letting go of an object or ritual that is dear to you, you reap the rewards of being able to move forward into a wonderful, loving relationship.
I often think of Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher's characters in the movie When Harry Met Sally. When they move into their apartment together for the first time, Fisher is disgusted that Kirby wants to keep his wagon-wheel coffee table for the living room. Eventually he relents, and the relationship is saved.
My wagon wheel was deciding to raise our children Jewish. My wife is Jewish, but I'm Protestant. Although it was tough on me, and it took a long time to reach this conclusion, I felt that this was the best solution. My wife's wagon wheel was letting me have a Christmas tree in the home.
These aren't decisions that were reached cavalierly. A lot of feelings had to be explored first. The point is that if you're committed to making the marriage work, you will have to give up some things that you originally thought would be deal breakers.
7: Expect changes in your plan. Once you and your partner feel comfortable with the framework for your marriage, just know that you have many years ahead of you. In those years, your experiences will sometimes alter how the two of you feel about your plan. For instance, you may decide that keeping a kosher house isn't so bad after all. Or, after a couple of confusing years of no presents for your Jewish kids on Christmas, that it's okay to let the Christian grandparents give them a few small ones. Like the Constitution of the United States, your marriage should be able to adapt to the times and pulse of your union.
6: Inform and include the extended family. This tip may seem a little trivial — after all, it is your life — but nothing helps reduce stress like having your parents on board with your game plan. The easiest way to have them on board is to keep them informed of what you've decided to do, how you've planned to raise your children, what life-cycle events you want to celebrate, etc. You can even swallow some pride and ask for their advice, if you like. I'm always amazed at how much wisdom my parents and in-laws have to offer. These are people who love you. It may not always seem like it, but they ultimately don't want you to fail.
Then, make sure you invite them over for a Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) dinner. Teach your in-laws about how you celebrated Easter as a kid. Do whatever you like — just involve them. My Christian parents love to come over to our house during Hanukkah and play dreidel with our kids. You'll probably be surprised at how including your family in small ways can really help ease tensions.
5: Educate yourself. As important as it is to educate your extended family, it is even more critical to teach yourself about your spouse's faith and culture. It comes in handy when you are asked to explain an aspect of her religion to your parents, or more frightening — to your kids. My three year old bushwhacked me in our minivan when she asked me about the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. My wife was not there to bail me out. Fortunately, I was prepared. Learning about your spouse's background also leads to a greater understanding of her feelings and why various things are important to her. It shows that you care.
4: Participate. Once you start to learn more about your partner's religion, don't stop there. Involve yourself in your interfaith family's rituals and celebrations. Go to services together as a couple or family. Ask the rabbi how you can participate in the bris. Help your husband pick out a new ornament for his Christmas tree. By taking an active role, you not only make your spouse feel good, but you also will give yourself a great feeling of satisfaction. There is no better way to feel included than to participate. Celebrating and learning together bonds the marriage and creates family traditions.
3: Be open to learning. Speaking of feeling included, that was one of my biggest fears before I got married. I worried that if we raised our children in a faith other than my own, I would somehow feel detached. Would my kids think of me as different? It turns out that my two daughters do think of me as different: I'm the only boy in the family (unless you count Jasper, our Labrador). When it comes to religion, they know that I'm Protestant, but I'm still a big part of their Jewish education. I have taken the time to learn about Judaism, so I can teach it to them. I drive them to religious school on Saturdays. I help them with the Hebrew blessings. I am the one who builds the sukkah (hut) for Sukkot. Looking back, my fears of feeling excluded seem silly. The next time I start feeling insecure, I'll try to remember this lesson.
2: Communicate. Did I say this already? Well, it's so important, I'm saying it again. Even if you've been married for twenty years, it's still crucial to express your thoughts to your spouse on a regular basis. Remember how I said to expect changes in your plan? This is how you can smoothly tweak your framework. If something doesn't feel right, don't keep it bottled up. It can only lead to resentment.
Teamwork in a marriage takes two. So remember to be receptive to your spouse's feelings, too. Early in our marriage, my wife saw me hanging Christmas lights on the shrubs in the front of the house. When she told me that she didn't feel comfortable with that, I was disappointed, but I returned the lights.
1: And, the top to avoiding conflict in an interfaith marriage is: Enjoy your relationship. Life's too short to constantly be distracted by the differences with your spouse. While you're working on the framework for your marriage, have fun. If you keep telling yourself that you'll be happy once everything is perfect, you'll be waiting a long time. Why not start now and relish a wonderful, loving relationship.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths"). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."