Marriage within Marriage

By Wendy Weltman Palmer


Many years ago while helping a family friend and his wife celebrate their wedding anniversary, I asked what was the secret of their wonderful marriage, now 25 years old. As a newly minted marriage and family therapist and as a newlywed myself, I was more than a little curious. Here came the blunt answer: You have to understand, he said, it’s not been just one marriage. We’ve probably had at least three different marriages over the past 25 years.

What a concept! As it turns out, the early family therapists came to the same conclusion. Extrapolating from Erikson’s theory of personality development, they postulated that families go through developmental stages as well. And it seems that just as families have their own life cycle or stages of development, so do the marriages within those families. As a couple moves through these different developmental stages–early-life stage, mid-life stage, and late-life stage–their relationship has to grow or re-work itself to accommodate these changes.

So, what about the interfaith married couple? Is their course any different? One would predict–and in fact, it does appear–that the interfaith relationship tends to be front-loaded. That is to say, the early stage which includes courtship, marriage, and the formation of one’s own family generates more anxiety for the interfaith couple than for couples in general.

Take for example the stage of separating from one’s family of origin to form a new family unit. The challenge of blending two distinct family cultures always exists when any couple joins together in matrimony. With the interfaith couple, however, comes the additional question of what to do with two distinct religious traditions. Another layer of complication then gets layered on to what is already an anxious psychosocial passage.

It used to be that everyone from extended family to the “communal” family was a ball of nerves around this passage. And, while interfaith marriage is now much more prevalent and accepted, it does not diminish the fact that the couple still has to work out exactly how they are going to blend these two different cultures and two different religions into an entity that looks like neither one of their families.

Then come the children. Nearly every interfaith couple will agree that were it not for the children, life would be a piece of cake. Two individuals can make up a family unit, but with no children, it is possible to maintain separate religious traditions without a great deal of conflict. Always with the introduction of children comes the necessary process of sorting out what one wants to retain from one’s own upbringing and what one is willing to jettison. What exactly does one want to pass on to the next generation? For the interfaith couple, this stage is especially complicated by having a partner from a different background, one whose holiday traditions and childhood rituals can differ vastly from one’s own experience.

So it seems to be that the interfaith marriage is precoded to experience more intensity in the early years because of the decision-making in regard to the children. But what happens during the mid-life phase when these children are being launched, leaving for college or marrying to form their own family unit? And, what happens in the late phase when the inevitable trials of illness, loss, and death rise up? How does the interfaith relationship bear up under these phases?

During the mid-life phase when the children are being launched into the world, the interfaith couple is often pulled to revisit their own earlier interfaith conflicts. Interfaith parents at this time tend to experience a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” kind of predicament. If the interfaith couple has successfully raised their child with a secure identity in a single faith, they may see that child go out and pick a spouse from another religion. When warned about the difficulties posed by such a choice, the young adult may counter with, “You and Dad seemed to have worked it out, I don’t see why we can’t as well.” Or going off to college, the young adult may reject the faith they were so securely raised in or take on a more extreme version of it, leaving the interfaith parents to wonder whether all their hard work has paid off or simply backfired on them.

The late phase of life also presents challenges for the interfaith couple. Traditionally, when faced with illness or the loss of a loved one, most people turn to their faith for comfort. Certainly, loss of any kind–job, friend, one’s youth–can generate the kind of existential questioning that could lead one to embark upon a spiritual journey. Since it is rare that any two spouses are on compatible spiritual journeys at any one time, we can see how there might be some built-in difficulties for the interfaith couple who have already started out on two separate religious paths.

Still, it is my observation that interfaith couples tend to be strong. Forced early on to acknowledge and negotiate their differences, interfaith couples often acquire good communication skills that help them navigate the contours of these different developmental phases. To be successful, an interfaith couple has had to bring a certain degree of consciousness to their relationship from the beginning to work out all those obvious places where they don’t match up. It is precisely this hammering out which has pay-offs for later on when the time comes to re-form and re-commit to the next “marriage” within the marriage.


About Wendy Weltman Palmer

Wendy Weltman Palmer M.S.W, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in interfaith couple counseling. Her "Dear Wendy" advice column has been seen in these pages.