The Secrets To An Interfaith Relationship

Photo: John Neff/
The Secrets To An Interfaith Relationship
Cath-Wics? Hin-Jews? The face of interfaith is changing fast, but the secrets to a successful dual-faith relationship remain the same.

Wendy, 32, and Joe, 37, had been dating nearly a year before their divergent faiths first gave them pause. "So, what are they like?" Wendy, who was raised Christian, but now describes herself as "spiritual, verging on pagan," asked Joe, who is Jewish, over dinner one night. For weeks, the two had been planning to have dinner at the home of another couple that coming Friday—close family friends of Joe's—whom Wendy was excited to finally meet.

"Um," Joe hesitated. It was rare that he was at a loss for words, but now he looked distinctly uncomfortable.

"There's kind of been a change of plans."

"Oh, did something come up for them?" asked Wendy.

"Well," stammered Joe, "I told them about you. You know, that you weren't Jewish. And…well, they said it's Shabbat, the Sabbath, and they can't really have anyone who's not Jewish at the table," he trailed off.

The couple observed a moment of unintentional silence before Wendy spoke.

"This is like the 2007 version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," she finally spluttered.

"I felt like I'd been sucker-punched," she recalls. "A million thoughts sprang to mind, but I didn't know what to say first. I felt scared. And sad. And indignant. And really angry, all at the same time."

Yet, statistics indicate this scene could play out over one in four dinner tables across the country. More than 28 million married or cohabitating Americans—almost one quarter—are interfaith, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey.

The Changing Face of Interfaith
At first blush, you might not even recognize the newest religious fusions. "I've married so many pagans to Jews and Christians," says Reverend Laurie Sue Brockway, an interfaith minister and couples counselor who has performed over 500 interfaith weddings over the course of her career. "They call themselves 'Cath-Wics,' she says. "And then there are the 'Hin-Jews.'"

The truth is, interfaith relationships are on the rise in virtually every American religious community, researchers say. Nearly half of Jewish marriages and 40 percent of Catholic couplings are interfaith. And with Islam, Wicca—an earth-based belief system that predates Christianity—and the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints among the fastest-growing American religions, by the year 2050, the most common interfaith pairings might not be the Jewish-Christian matches we most often hear about today. And all of the above combos can be fraught with tension, though the perceived slights may be invisible to the naked eye.

Recently, The New York Times Magazine contributing writer and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, an Orthodox Jew, wrestled with the challenges of reconciling modern-day life, and love, with tradition. After attending a reunion for his yeshiva, the religious school where he studied for years, he and his Korean-American wife were unceremoniously removed from the alumni group photo when it was printed in the school’s newsletter.

One current 2008 presidential candidate made peace with his interfaith upbringing early on. "My mother was a deeply spiritual person and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world's religions," Barack Obama told Chicago Sun-Times religion writer Cathleen Falsani in her 2006 book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. Now a practicing Christian, Obama was exposed to myriad religions, having been raised by an agnostic father, Protestant mother, and non-practicing Muslim stepfather.

These stories only begin to hint at the issues involved in an interfaith pairing. The truth is, we can't choose who we love—and sometimes who we end up with challenges our deepest-held assumptions about what the future will look like. When the obstacles involve faith, the issue is, even in the earthly sense, bigger than the two of you.

Suddenly, the wagons circle: Spiritual advisors, friends, and generations of well-intentioned family members all want a say in how your relationship will play out, from the traditions you adopt, the holidays you celebrate and the way you raise kids, to how you choose to say "I do."

Making Your Way to the Altar(s)
Planning a wedding ceremony that will set the tone for a lifetime of love can be a meaningful and illuminating process—or a tear-inducing morass. And that’s before you try to incorporate two faiths. Besides, there's not exactly a rulebook to consult when a Christian and a Wiccan get hitched. Take, for example, a recent interfaith wedding Brockway officiated: an atheist man with Christian parents marrying a Wiccan woman with a Jewish mother. The planning began on the tense side: "Just don't say 'Goddess' in front of my 84-year-old grandfather," the worried groom cautioned his bride. But, ultimately, the couple wound up with a wedding that integrated their— and their families'—respective traditions, using one of Brockway's favorite refrains. "Never 'instead of,' always 'in addition to,'" she intones, meaning, never omit a ritual
important to one partner or the other; instead, always be willing to incorporate more.

To honor the Christian side, the bride wore white, the couple lit a unity candle, and the wedding ceremony was co-officiated by a Unitarian minister. The Wiccan half of the nuptials involved lighting a specially blessed oil candle representing the male and female deities—and having the bridesmaids "call in the directions," a longheld Wiccan tradition.

Too convoluted? Brockway says about one in four couples choose to say "I do" twice, in two distinct ceremonies. Traci, 32, and Partha, 31, had a Christian ceremony one night and a second full-scale Hindu wedding the next, complete with traditional Bengali dress and the blessings of a Brahmin.

To Brockway, the biggest boon is seeing older generations set aside their differences to rally around the newlyweds. After one interfaith wedding, she spied the fathers of the bride and groom shuffling off together.

"Oh, it's all the same place," she overheard one say to the other. "There are just different ways to get there."

On a Wing and a Prayer
It's easy to fall hard for someone different from you, but who actually stands the best chance of living a long, happy two-faith life together? Studies show that couples who assign similar values to their faiths are more likely to succeed, according to Joel Crohn, PhD, author of Mixed Matches: How to Create Successful Interracial, Interethnic, and Interfaith Relationships and a psychologist in Calabasas, California, who has counseled interfaith couples for more than 25 years. If only one member of the couple is religious, he says, the secular partner runs the risk of becoming "more and more peripheral" as children come into the picture.

"What love conceals, time reveals," he says, meaning, when it comes to interfaith, the devil is in the details: The problems you face probably won't emerge immediately, but bubble up as you try to tease out your day-to-day life.

Which is just what happened to Elizabeth, 34, and her boyfriend, Joshua, 31. Elizabeth was raised in a conservative evangelical Christian church in the Midwest; Joshua grew up an atheist Jew with an Israeli mother in El Paso, Texas. But after three happy years of dating and cohabitating in Washington, D.C., they went into a tailspin trying to discuss their future—issues like what their wedding would look like and how to raise the children.

While Elizabeth was supportive of their kids learning Hebrew and celebrating Jewish holidays, Joshua was adamant: He would not attend church with Elizabeth, and the children would not be taught to believe in Jesus. The couple consulted both a rabbi and a couples counselor. Despite some compromises—Joshua eventually agreed to let the children attend church periodically—the sessions wound up raising larger questions for Elizabeth.

"I don't care how strong your beliefs are—when you're considering giving up a relationship because you won't back away from your faith, you start to think there damn well better be a God or none of this is worth it," she says.

Voicing doubts with a capital "D" such as these is healthy, explains Crohn. "If you help people to be more specific, they will either break up, or work their way through their issues and eventually have a more robust relationship," he says.

Family Matters
There are many ways to bridge the mine-and-yours religious landscape: Troy and Sonja, Jewish and Mormon respectively and both 34, have been happily married for six years. They have gotten by swimmingly by relying on honesty and humor—"it was always my dream, growing up as a Jewish boy, to marry a returned missionary," quips Troy—that is, until their daughter Alana arrived.

Now a toddler, she adds a new layer of complexity to their efforts at compromise. While Alana divides her time equally between Tot Shabbat and Sunday church services, it’s still easy for a 3-year-old to get confused.

Once, Alana got excited at church: "Shabbat Shalom, hey!" she shrieked, gleefully, swinging her arms—much to the amusement of her fellow congregants. As she grows up, she's becoming more aware of her two faiths—and the couple wrestles with how to fuse them.

"It's the biggest stress in our next step," says Sonja. "That she's going to feel torn or scared that she's going to let us down if she chooses one or the other."

Not to worry, say experts. "The key to a successful interfaith marriage is to keep opening doors," says Mary Helene Rosenbaum, executive director of the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources. "You need to keep communicating, and also testing your own feelings and beliefs about your relationship with your religion, your relationship with each other, and your relationship with the larger community."

Remember Wendy? Uninvited to her boyfriend's friend's Shabbat dinner, she felt some trepidation at the prospect of meeting his parents for the first time—at their Passover Seder dinner. She got busy preparing, poring over an "interactive Seder plate" she found at the night before hopping on the plane.

And her pointing and clicking paid off. She felt relaxed and welcomed, she says, especially when Joe's stepdad invited her into the kitchen to taste-test the charoset—an apple and walnut dish which symbolized the mortar Jewish slaves used in Egypt, Wendy now knew. And yet, "I wasn't sure what symbolic mortar was supposed to taste like!" she confesses. So she went on instinct.

"I think it needs more cinnamon," she finally pronounced.

Joe's stepdad nodded his approval. "That's when I got a total case of the Passover warm fuzzies," says Wendy. "By making me a part of the ritual, he had helped me belong."

And that may be the secret to the interfaith recipe: Make it up as you go—and question often—to be sure what you're creating suits both of your tastes.

The Big Questions
Are you ready for interfaith? Joel Crohn suggests 10 things to ask before you merge belief systems.

1. What have your religious beliefs and practices been ineach phase of your life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood? They've probably changed—and could again.
2. What do each you believe about an afterlife? Heaven, hell—and everything in between—are issues couples in early stages of love often find easy to avoid.
3. Do you plan on having children? If so, you should talk about what role you want religion to play in their lives.
4. What's the ideal religious and cultural composition of your future neighborhood? The social context will affect how you practice your religion.
5. How do your families feel about your relationship? You may not welcome their input, but they will inevitably affect your emotional state as a couple.
6. How much do you know about the faith in which your partner was raised? Even if you plan to practice separate religions, ask about your partner's as a show of respect.
7. How do you your partner's cultural and religious practices differ from yours? People who don't practice religion may still have a cultural attachment to their faith.
8. If you have children from a prior marriage, of a faith other than the one you intend to practice, how will you include them? You'll need to create a system, especially if your ex-spouse is raising them differently than you.
9. How do you feel about making charitable contributions to religious or cultural institutions? A potential land mine many couples don't broach early on.
10. Do you see your wedding as an opportunity to work through your different beliefs? Preparing for your ceremony is an important dress rehearsal for your marriage.