Sue Stettner was the founding director of The Interfaith Connection of Jewish Experiences for Families, a program of the Agency for Jewish Education in Detroit. This family outreach project introduced unaffiliated interfaith families to the Jewish community in the Detroit metropolitan area.
The Delicate Balance: On the Importance of Good Communication in Interfaith Marriages
Regardless of religion and culture, couples meet, fall in love, and want to create a life together. In the beginning, each partner is intrigued with new discoveries about the other. While individual values may appear to be similar, life perspectives, even if unspoken, may vary. Yet love makes everything appear so magical.
In the United States, coming from two different backgrounds can appear very exciting. After all, many of us are taught that "people are people," or "we really are all the same"; so "just love and respect all people." Many couples with similar core values and a "unique" loving relationship believe that their religious or cultural differences will not really matter. They have a strong bond and trust that everything will work out in the future.
However, as they plan their wedding pressures frequently begin to mount. When parents get involved, each partner is reminded of roots in particular beliefs, cultures, and religious practices. The once-intriguing differences can become hurdles when the couple tries to find two clergy to marry them, one from each faith. With each refusal they encounter, the couple often feels caught in the quicksand of their once-familiar family religions. Anger, stress, and resentment can mount.
Many interfaith couples respect one another's traditions and beliefs and feel it is only fair to observe both religions. As they celebrate, though, a pattern frequently emerges: They may begin to measure time and money spent, the number of family visits, and the types and quality of observance. They watch carefully, and the delicate balance begins.
Unlike other interests about which couples negotiate and compromise, religious/cultural issues are highly charged and sensitive topics. Many interfaith couples decide not to decide and then avoid discussions of religion. Instead, they internally weigh and balance any celebrations of one religion, which they then try to equal in celebrations of the other religion. And when decisions are unclear, extended families vie for their own traditions and celebrations, putting pressure on the partner not of that faith.
Of course, in every marriage there must be compromise. For some, this is not a problem. Yet for others, it can feel like one partner is winning and the other losing, or that every decision leads to one loser and one winner, the totality of which must be balanced over time. The decisions can begin with choosing clergy for the wedding, and can continue with decisions regarding children's religious identity, choices for the family's religious practice and affiliation, and relationships with extended family.
Maintaining the delicate balance can become challenging if partners keep their resentments and feelings inside, constructing walls that interfere with open communication. If this happens, important decisions can be avoided entirely in order to maintain that delicate balance. Without effective communication skills, in time this avoidance can impair the marriage.
Through the years I have worked with interfaith couples I have noticed a challenging phenomenon. When something is of importance to one partner, often the other partner first challenges that decision and then feels the need to balance it equally. For example, I remember one year before the December holidays a woman brought up a situation that caused her to actually dread the festivities. Because Christmas was important to her husband, she felt the need to artificially enhance her celebration of Hanukkah to equal his celebration of Christmas. She tried to give her children equal holiday time, the same number of presents, and to spend an identical amount of money on them. The pressure caused her such stress that she was exhausted and drained emotionally before she began actually celebrating! Not until she was given permission to examine her own needs and values along with her husband's would she free herself from the strains and management of this struggle within their relationship.
When religious identity decisions are left unresolved for the children, a couple's communication styles can lack openness. Individual needs may collide and compete, and dual identities generally emerge for the children. For many interfaith couples, the high cost of affiliation and religious education for their children poses a significant barrier. The Jewish partner, especially if it is a woman, is often uncomfortable about requesting major funds from the family budget for her personal religion. In one particular case, a Jewish mother pre-judged that her non-Jewish husband would never participate in the synagogue with her and her children. Without any discussion she dismissed her wish to belong to a synagogue community and to educate the children Jewishly. She decided that their budget would best be spent and enjoyed by the while family if they went on a vacation or purchased a new car. In these kinds of balancing relationships, where needs are not even spoken, it becomes impossible to confront and/or compromise.
The balancing act in interfaith families can continue even after the parents' divorce. In one example, although both parents had agreed to raise their daughter as a Jew, her allegiance to her non-religious, gentile father and his Irish culture limited how observant she would become. Off at college, the daughter considered attending an event at Hillel, a university social-religious Jewish organization on campus. This was a struggle for her as she began questioning how authentically Jewish she could be with her Jewish-Irish background. In her junior year in college, she thought she might want to go abroad to study in Israel for the year. But when she spoke with her father about the opportunity, she began to feel uncomfortable. She would have found it easier to ask for his support if she had been going to any other country, but choosing Israel felt as if she were choosing her mother's background over her father's. Ultimately, she decided not to pursue the idea.
Interfaith marriages bring unique issues for a couple and their interactions with their children. Past memories, family traditions, rituals, and culture have a profound effect, whether shared and discussed openly or kept within. It is up to each couple to clarify the issues so there are no hidden agendas. It is hard to live trying to delicately balance each circumstance so it appears fair and equal without knowing how the other partner truly feels.