When an Intermarriage Doesn’t Work Out: Problematic Situations That I Have Encountered as a Rabbi

By Rabbi Sanford Seltzer


The high rate of intermarriage among Jews would imply that religious and cultural differences are no longer viewed as significant deterrents to happy marriages. Yet, that optimism notwithstanding, it is estimated that currently the incidence of divorce among the intermarried is nearly 50% greater than the comparable rate among Jewish men and women who are in-married.

Believing that love conquers all, and hoping that somehow things will work out in time, or that one partner will change after the wedding, many couples marry despite clear danger signs. Some intermarrying individuals don’t want to rock the boat and therefore don’t convey their honest feelings to their partners. They may fear losing a partner if they are too demanding about their wishes.

When differences in family backgrounds and religious traditions are added to the normative set of potential problems attendant to the success or failure of any relationship, the risk of divorce increases. Indeed, some people seem drawn to psychologically difficult situations, fraught with conflict. One couple comes to mind: a Jewish man who was very disdainful about all religions, who was involved with a born-again Christian. Deeply committed to her faith, she wanted a marriage and a family in which her Christian beliefs would be celebrated. I could not envision how they could work out their differences, yet they were talking about getting married and having children.

Incompatibility can also stem from cultural as well as religious differences. In one case, the man had grown up in a home in which it was clear that his sisters as well as his mother were subject to the control of his father, who made all of the basic family decisions arbitrarily, with little or no room for discussion. His fiancee, on the other hand, was the product of a background in which the direct opposite was true. In her home, ideas were exchanged freely and openly. Her parents had set an example of cooperation and equality. While in some cases opposites attract, this couple had an enormous gap regarding what family relationships were all about. It was a gap that would have to be resolved for their marriage to succeed.

I have seen many couples who didn’t understand that even when sincere promises are made to one another during courtship, people and circumstances tend to change in the course of a marriage. What once appeared to be a reasonable expectation may no longer be experienced in the same way later on–when a baby is on the way.

Perhaps the most frequent reason for the failure of an intermarriage is the inability to resolve the question of a child’s religious upbringing. Although the matter may have been discussed or even agreed upon at one time, the onset of a pregnancy and the subsequent birth of a child are events which can profoundly alter one’s prior intentions. What seemed perfectly acceptable in theory can become a source of great anxiety as a parent holds an infant in his or her arms. Suddenly a promise made years earlier to have children identified and educated as Jews (or Catholics, etc.), is no longer as simple as it once seemed. When a situation of this kind arises and is not dealt with successfully, there can be a breakdown of the marriage.

In another situation I have encountered many times, a Jewish husband had insisted that his non-Jewish wife make religious concessions as a precondition of their marriage. Once she complied, however, he essentially abdicated any active role in the spiritual life of the household and relegated total responsibility for it and for the Jewish upbringing of their child to her. One angry mother complained: “All he cared about was my conversion to Judaism. That was the only way he could keep his parents and friends happy and get over his guilt about marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish.” The husband’s refusal to take his wife’s complaints seriously did not bode well for the future of their marriage.

It is important to remember that intermarriages can and do work if the impact of religious and cultural diversity is recognized and is addressed candidly, and if appropriate compromises and adjustments are made as required by both partners. Not doing so, however, may set the stage for one of the unhappy scenarios touched upon here.


About Rabbi Sanford Seltzer

Rabbi Sanford Seltzer is a rabbi at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, Mass. He was the first director of the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach. His publications include Jews and Non-Jews Falling in Love and Jews and Non-Jews Getting Married.