A reader asked: Can interfaith relationships really work out? The short answer: yes, but…!
The greatest challenge? Finding agreement in disagreement; being comfortable with your partner’s individual religious beliefs and activities.
Sounds simple enough, though when you consider that one’s faith affects a whole range of cultural, ethnic, and social practices, the discussion becomes more complicated. As you can imagine, major theological disagreements can lead to some pretty tense holiday dinners.
But since it’s unreasonable (and dare I say, unethical?) to ask your partner to abandon their personal history and identity, I recommend a more judicious approach.
That judicious approach begins with an open mind. At Tawkify, we believe open mindedness is a powerful conduit for love. Because while everyone is entitled to their own preferences, we’ve found that laundry lists of requirements tend to stand in the way of true connection rather than catalyzing it.
Yes, it’s important to be realistic about what kind of match you’ll likely be compatible with, but love is not a concrete science. You can plan for your ideal match as much as you want, but at the end of the day there’s no controlling who you’ll end up falling for.
Would religious differences compel you to walk away from a great love?
I believe that love can conquer even the most tremendous conflicts, so before you close the door on a special someone or narrow your search to a single faith, consider the following 8 tenets:
1. SET BOUNDARIES
Let’s be honest, one of the biggest hurdles in interfaith love is family disapproval. But your mother and Aunt Sue aren’t going to be waking up next to your partner every morning or caring for them when they’re sick. You will be. So how fair is it for them to dictate who you should spend your life with?
If you have an Aunt Sue and you’re ready to commit to an interfaith relationship, setting boundaries with your family is key. Let them know in no uncertain terms that they cannot control your love life. Complaints, sabotage, and passive aggression will be wasted energy on their end. Exhibiting a little backbone upfront will save you time and stress, and, frankly, probably earn you some respect.
2. ALLOW TIME TO MOURN
Related to Tenet #1: Upsetting your family might be unavoidable, but doing so should be tempered with compassion. They might need real time and space to mourn before they come around.
I say ‘mourn’ because they may literally be mourning. They are mourning the idea of the life they thought you would have, as well as the role they imagined in the lives of their grandchildren. And with some religious cultures facing high rates of intermarriage and low birth rates, parents may literally be pinning the survival of their culture on your marriage. That is A LOT of pressure.
3. BE UPFRONT ABOUT YOUR BELIEFS
When you first start dating someone, it can be tempting to ignore potential issues in the relationship. We often hide parts of ourselves hoping that once the object of our affection ‘falls in love’ with us too, we’ll feel safe enough to bare-all. But when family, religion, culture, ethnicity and/or citizenship are involved, pretending to be someone you aren’t is a dangerous risk to take.
As Dr. Yudit Greenberg, who literally wrote the book on love and religion, explains:
“In the first rush of love that can accompany dating, religious considerations are often brushed aside or ignored, and assumed to be dealt with later. Whether it’s meeting the parents, or deciding on marriage or children and how to raise them, what comes later can be even more challenging than the initial period of interfaith dating.”
Imagine investing years into a relationship to eventually realize your partner will be unable to accept your own religious beliefs? Plus, compromise will be so much more difficult if one partner feels as though they were misled. A relationship built on the shadows of half truths and lies of omission will possibly never be able to thrive.
4. CLARIFY EXPECTATIONS
Are you OK with your partner maintaining their religion as long as the kids are baptized in your church? Do you expect them to join you at synagogue weekly, or only when Bubbie is in town? Is conversion the only option?
It might not be very sexy to begin a relationship at the negotiating table, but it will definitely save you time and fights later down the line.
5. DUBIOUS? CONSIDER CULTURE
Let’s say you’re not particularly religious. Perhaps you find it difficult to accept your partner’s beliefs and practices. I suggest taking a step back to consider that religion is intertwined tightly with culture. You may find the superstitions of a Catholic Latina to be strange or illogical, but when you recognize that those beliefs are part of the wider cultural heritage, they can be easier to accept, and even fun to explore!
Religion lives on a spectrum. There’s cafeteria Catholicism and bagel-and-lox Judaism on one end, and evangelists and Orthodoxy on the other.
Understanding where your mate falls on that spectrum will help you better identify and manage potential roadblocks, as well as realistically assess your probability of success as an interfaith couple.
6. FIND A WAY TO RELATE
One of the most powerful facets of religion is tradition. Often, it is tradition that families are most concerned with preserving.
Exploring these traditions opens the door to one of the most beautiful byproducts of interfaith dating: learning, (and even growing), from your partner’s traditions. Yes, there is a seriously positive side to interfaith relationships!
Whether you’re laughing over stories from your days in parochial school or enriching each other’s spiritual lives through thoughtful theological debate, don’t forget to celebrate the benefits of your non-traditional union.
One of the best ways to do this is to find a way to relate to your partner’s religious traditions. Consider learning how to make your loved one’s favorite family recipes! Perhaps you’re not fasting on Yom Kippur, but you can spend time contemplating atonement. You don’t need to practice tithing to make giving back to the community a priority.
However you relate to your partner’s tradition doesn’t have to be perfect or exactly theologically correct for your efforts to show a true willingness to participate-in and explore the beauty inherent within their religious experience.
And to be clear, your loved one should be reciprocating that same level of interest-in and respect-for your traditions as well.
7. LAUGH…A LOT.
There is no perfect recipe to make an interfaith relationship work. It’s going to require adjustment, compromise, and sometimes a thick skin. But if you and your partner can find the humor in every embarrassing faux pas and mispronunciation, you probably have what it takes to come out the other end a stronger couple and more culturally aware.
As Dr. Greenberg points out, “Interfaith dating offers great opportunities for cross-cultural learning, not to mention humor – it’s no wonder that there are so many RomComs about cross-cultural relationships.” Check out The Big Sick, Keeping The Faith or Jewtopia for a little inspiration.
8. THINK IT THROUGH
You have options. Fighting through the disagreements, walking away, and even the C word: conversion. Consider them all, because the rest of your life is indeed an important topic of deliberation. Which leads us to:
Should You Convert?
Obviously, conversion is an option that may ameliorate many interfaith woes. Not everyone is going to be willing to go through the sometimes tenuous process of conversion, but it is something to consider if you are planning a family.
Why? The nuances of theology are tough for even adults to grapple with, so you can imagine how certain discussions might be confusing for young children. Further, children raised in two different faiths might feel pressured to pinpoint where they stand between both faith’s teachings, even with no direct pressure from either parent in the most healthful and communicative families. This is especially difficult if the two faiths are at extreme odds.
If You Are The Conversion Point.
Have you asked your partner to convert? Even if you are not in a serious relationship right now, do you already know you would make that request in an interfaith dating relationship? If so, truly consider the real implications of this ask.
Along with the coursework that’s likely required, you could also be asking your loved one to forgo their own cultural heritage, traditions…(and plot in the family cemetery).
If you are not willing to put that same amount of effort and sacrifice into the relationship then it isn’t fair to make such a request of your partner. Are you that committed? Don’t ask until you’re sure.
It’s also essential to keep in mind laws of the religion and of the land. In Israel, for example, there is no concept of secular marriage. To marry in the Holy Land, both partners must be of the same faith. In the Islamic faith, it is permissible for a man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman, but a Muslim woman must marry a Muslim man.
This isn’t the case across the board. Taboos surrounding interfaith marriage in the Catholic Church have dissipated to some extent in recent years. Interfaith couples can now be married in the Church through special dispensation from their diocese. Jesus was Jewish after all!
When Will Interfaith Dating Not Work?
Well…if your partner’s religion demonizes you. If they want you to convert, but you are unwilling. If you both want to raise your children in your own faith, and will not budge on the topic. Basically, when ethics and expectations are misaligned.
Love unites us,
Learn more about Professional Matchmaker, Isabella Beham, here.
We’d love to hear from readers on this topic. Are you in an interfaith relationship, or have experience dating someone of a different religion? What strategies to find ‘middle ground’ have you employed?