Dispatch from the Institute: Navigating a Relationship before Marriage

By The Jewish Outreach Institute


The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to “reach out and welcome in” the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI’s services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

This article is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Creating a Successful Jewish Interfaith Marriage: The Jewish Outreach Institute Guide to Challenges, Opportunities and Resources, by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Joan Peterson Littman, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2002.

All relationships take time. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship surely knows that. But what most people do not know is that interfaith relationships take more time, particularly when partners have a sense that such relationships might evolve into long-term commitments.

All relationships continue to develop well after the first date together is just a pleasant memory. This follows a natural course of events. And so as part of their plans for the future, couples should probably take this dynamic element of their relationship into account, consciously planning to devote additional time in the years ahead to give attention to the complex details of an interfaith relationship. To assume that your relationship is different than those who have gone before is risky. It’s better to anticipate the challenges that will inevitably have to be faced in the future. It is important to acknowledge that specific decisions will have to be made (or at least that a variety of specific topics will have to be broached) years before they appear relevant to your lives, even when they can’t be seen emerging on the horizon. Generally, in an interfaith relationship more significant decisions will have to be made earlier than what might be considered “normal” in an evolving relationship, maybe even before the relationship actually becomes a committed one–certainly earlier than perhaps is the case for your peers who are marrying within their own religious community.

Each interfaith relationship will make its own path, but some precautions can be taken in an attempt to keep it steady and healthy. People in interfaith relationships who take precautions produce marriages most likely to succeed against tremendous odds. Most of the interfaith issues that are critical to a relationship’s survival are very difficult for couples to verbalize to each other. That’s why it is important for both individuals in a relationship to be honest and clear about their needs and the direction they want the relationship to take. To proceed on the assumption that you can make your partner change his or her position on critical topics or feelings later is potentially dangerous and too often made by interfaith couples who naively believe that “love conquers all.”

Is the question of religion on the agenda now?
The discussion of religion seems as if it should be reserved for a real relationship, and not merely a date to the movies, or to dinner. And perhaps conventional wisdom dictates that certain topics such as religion have no place in first date conversation. But the first date is the first step to a more serious relationship. So bring the topic of religion up early in your relationship–even as early as the first date. Open and honest communication is indispensable to any successful relationship; it is even more so the case in interfaith relationships. One friend, Lori, reminded me that she told her future husband, a new neighbor, that she could not date him, because she was committed to marrying someone who was Jewish. But that was before they got to know each other, became close friends, starting dating, and then found themselves in love.

In raising the question of religion, you may be concerned about risking the entire relationship. Consider whether you are skewing the conversation about religion in an attempt to protect the possibility of a future relationship. In other words, don’t just listen to what you want to hear yourself–or your partner–saying. Now may also be the time to begin to explore your own religion (if your knowledge is limited, or if you left it behind as a rebellious adolescent), as well as the religious community of your partner (particularly if you have limited knowledge of it), as well.

Working through issues as the relationship evolves
It is crucial that you continually look for the profound degree of love, respect and commitment that will be required for this relationship to succeed. In general, be reflective about how the relationship is progressing. The questions–“Am I being honest with myself or am I in denial? Is the headiness of infatuation affecting my good judgment?”–need to be asked of oneself often and answered honestly. It does not seem fair, but it takes more introspection in an interfaith relationship than when two marry who are of the same religious faith. You may have to extend yourself to your partner in ways that you never anticipated, from the very beginning of your relationship. On the other hand, be conscious of a variety of stress markers along the way. Consider, for example, how you may be “using” religion in your relationship. Are you forcing your partner to make concessions for the sake of religion, or to forgo things dear as a result of it–when, in fact, your own personal sacrifices are not your intention? Do you make your partner “prove” love through religious commitments in much the same way that sex is often used in teen dating? Watch out for such “crooked thinking.” You’ll hear it in thoughts like, “if s/he loved me enough, s/he would convert.” The primary key to a long-lasting partnership, based on a loving relationship, is honesty–with yourself and with your partner. If you are honest with one another, then you will be able to confront many challenges that you will face along the way.

The late Rabbi Samuel Sandmel told us, “The greatest hazard lies not in the openly held viewpoints in the traditions but in the more subtle areas of unexpressed emotional identification and response. A Christian can learn the factual data about Judaism or a Jew those about Christianity. But unconscious loyalties that suddenly become awakened can present surprises which not only may be unpleasant, but be disruptive of a relationship.” When Sven and Sharon came to me for premarital counseling, they were bewildered by the evolving reactions of Sharon’s parents. Sven had been raised in Europe as a proud atheist. Sharon had been raised as a twice-a-year Conservative Jew in suburban New York. Her parents were delighted that she had found someone, having worried that she would remain alone the rest of her life since she was already 35 when she met Sven. As the wedding plans developed, each bit of advice offered by her parents puzzled her even more than the next. During Sharon’s childhood, her parents had never made a big deal about being Jewish. Yet, they said, “Of course, the wedding will be at a synagogue. Of course, there will be a rabbi. And, of course, when you have children [her mother meant sons], there will be a bris.” Sharon’s only response, which she kept to herself, “I hope we just have girls.”

Some Guidelines
* It’s never too early to start talking about important issues and feelings. Early in your relationship, begin a discussion with your partner about what an interfaith relationship would mean to you and your family.

* Be realistic about prospective difficulties. Interfaith relationships are seldom easy. It is important to identify challenges as they emerge–large or small–that will impact on the stability of your relationship.

* Be completely supportive. Because of the ongoing challenges that interfaith couples face, individuals need to support one another fully, especially in their dealings with respective family members. The trust that develops from complete commitment and support creates powerful glue for any relationship.

* Be sensitive to your partner’s point-of-view. Some things that emerge in the context of a relationship aren’t logical or rational, but they are just as real. As you try to figure out how to respond to individual issues, try taking your partner’s perspective, as well as that of his or her parents.

About The Jewish Outreach Institute

The Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Its website is joi.org.