Sunday, January 2, 2022

Interfaith relationships

 One of the most common things people message me out of the blue to ask about is interfaith relationships. I guess when they're looking for advice, I'm the person they think is most likely to have the answer.

My first response (which I don't say) is generally, "What makes you think I'm any GOOD at it?" I don't have many marriage rules but one of the ones I do have is, never set your marriage up as a model for anybody. Everybody I know who does that ends up having a humiliatingly public divorce. And besides, it's embarrassing.

But I do have some rather general advice I tend to offer, and I think it's as good as any. I read a book once, In Faith and In Doubt, hoping it would have something helpful to say, only to find it was mostly about atheists marrying progressive Christians or Jews. The only thing they had to say about marrying more conservative religious people was "well, our book isn't meant for that, it probably won't work out anyway." THANKS THAT'S REALLY HELFPUL.

There are two kinds of advice I can offer. Advice before you get married and advice for after.

Should I marry somebody with different beliefs?

I can't answer that for you, obviously. But there are a few questions worth considering.

First, are you both people who prefer not to talk about religion, or both people who love to talk to religion, even with people you disagree with? Either way is fine. Where you get hung up is when one person loves their religion and wants to talk about it a lot, and the other is upset by the reminder you don't agree. Or when one or both of you find religion an important topic you'd want to talk about with the people closest to you, but also can't stand to talk about it with people you disagree with. Either of those is going to be a big problem. Religion is fine as a thing people don't really bring up. Not so great as a thing you desperately want to talk about, but it's a big fight whenever you do.

Second, how out-there are the beliefs we're talking about? Not just in terms of ideas. I imagine most people aren't that threatened if you believe in aliens or something, but what about practice? Here are a few beliefs and practices that can be a red flag if only one partner believes in them:

  • no birth control
  • male headship
  • no meat
  • no medical care / limits on medical care
  • clergy get a say in family decisions
  • children must be raised in the religion
  • everyone not in the religion goes to hell
Rules like this tend to affect both partners. So you can't just say "well you don't use birth control and I will." And I highly don't recommend going with, "well, let's hope it never comes up." It'll come up.

I think you can sometimes have a happy marriage while disagreeing on things like this, but whenever a belief will affect the other partner, I think it's really important to discuss what you'll do about it before you get married. For instance, if he believes in male headship but she does not, it's worth getting clear that he doesn't actually expect her to obey him since that's not her belief.

Of course as your resident nonbeliever, I'm here to point out that your faith does not give you the right to dictate how another person behaves. You can't say, "Well, I have a belief against meat, and you don't have any beliefs about meat, therefore mine takes precedence and no meat can ever be allowed in our house." I don't believe that "my religion teaches it" should be any stronger (or weaker) an argument than "I really want it." You do really want it, because you really want to be loyal to your religion! And the argument that you really want it, sincerely (and not just because your church is making you) is generally the argument that will play best with a nonbelieving spouse anyway.

In general, I don't think different beliefs are a reason not to get married. Not even if your whole family says it's absolutely unthinkable to. But you should respect their beliefs, and respect them for having them. You should not believe they are deluded, brainwashed, or willfully rejecting God. If you believe that about somebody, you don't really respect them and you shouldn't marry them.

Once you're married or in a long-term relationship

So let's say you're already in the relationship you're in, and your partner announces they are joining a new church or has left the church you shared. These are generally the more difficult situations, because none of this stuff was gone over ahead of time. It feels like you went into the marriage expecting one thing and got something completely different.

Well, it happens. People change throughout life; part of the scary part of marriage is that you will be married, not just to the person you said vows to, but the person they grow to become over the next twenty or fifty years.

But the person you married did not (and could not) promise not to change for you. No matter what church you married in, they have to follow their conscience. So try to understand this change in light of your respect and love for them. What good thing about them led them to this change? Is it their intellectual curiosity, their spiritual side, their conscientiousness? Whatever it is, it probably existed in them when you got married, and you probably loved it then. Your marriage has a better chance of weathering this change if you can respect and love the qualities they have that led them to join or leave a religion.

I say "chance" because let's be completely honest here: a lot of marriages do not survive a change in religion. Sometimes, a church itself tries to break one up because one spouse left! Sometimes, both partners have to accept that their life paths have diverged too much to stay together. I think it's always best to honestly talk about the possibility of divorce. Is that something you've thought about? Is it something they've thought about? What are the reasons you don't want that to happen? Are they on board to stick with something that's more of a challenge than they signed up for?

Another thing to discuss, as above, is whether or not religion is something you still enjoy talking about. Are you up for hearing all about their spiritual journey, or would you rather you both quietly just believed other things? Do they agree with you on that? Is there a compromise where you talk about it a little bit but try not to argue?

I want to very adamantly stress that it is never your job to convert your spouse. I learned that as a Catholic and I still believe in it now. Each person's spiritual journey is a path they have to walk in perfect freedom. Other people in their life can try to guide them on it, but you're their spouse. It's impossible for them to take your advice in the same light they take anyone else's. It feels like pressure. If you want, you can offer to talk about your beliefs any time they'd like. But talk about them as your beliefs. Don't bring out your apologetics stuff. Offer to set them up with another person to have those conversations if they want to. But make it clear that you're committed to them as they are now, not in the hope they'll someday change their mind.

Making decisions together

There are tons of decisions you make as a couple, and religion affects a lot of them. For instance, what are you doing for Christmas? Can the kids do Sunday morning soccer? What will you eat? How many children will you have?

In general, the tip in the first part still stands: the fact that your religion calls for something is not a trump card. Just say you really really want it. You believe that it is important, so you should be willing to compromise on other things to get it. If you're in the habit of wanting the last word on everything, you don't have much relationship capital left to argue for church on Sundays.

Try to be fair. If you want to go to church by yourself on Sundays, your spouse should get some kidfree time to do what they want on Saturdays. If you want to instruct the kids in your faith, it's fair that they should get to explain to the kids why they believe differently. If you want a kosher menu, offer to cook it. Never make your religion a burden on somebody else.

Where having children is concerned, I strongly believe it's important that both parents agree before having a child. If one says yes and the other says no, the answer is no. Why? Because a child will be a massive undertaking for both parents.

Birth control is the decision of the person whose body it is--even the Catholic Church admits this. But I would add that, despite what the church says, it's a lot healthier to make that decision together. Try to come to an actual agreement, not a deadlock. Never ever pressure your spouse to put something in their body they don't want to. Never ever pressure your spouse to have unprotected sex (or any sex) if they don't want to.

Raising children

Whether or not to raise the children in a faith is one of the biggest decisions you'll ever make as a couple. Personally, I don't believe children have a faith, because they aren't yet in a position to judge what they believe. My kids change their minds about it all the time. I gave permission for them to be baptized Catholic and chrismated Orthodox, so they count as far as the church cares, but in my view they are just children. The religion(s) they choose as adults will matter a lot more.

You can make any compromises you want to. Ours goes something like this: the kids go to church, unless there's a plague afoot or they intensely don't want to. John says prayers with them and answers their questions according to his beliefs. I answer their questions according to my beliefs. I teach them a bit about various religions, and ask them if they have any guesses about God. I tell them their guesses about God are as valid as anybody else's, because nobody knows for sure.

If at some point one of the kids takes a strong dislike to church, we'll have to re-evaluate. On the one hand, I strongly believe in respecting a child's wishes when possible. (Especially because you never know what's given them such a strong aversion to something.) On the other, I'm also aware that dragging a child kicking and screaming into a church is a surefire way of making an atheist adult. This is generally my argument to John for why we shouldn't do it--his best bet for these kids growing up religious is to make it something they get to do, not something they have to do.

And if one of our children is gay or trans, I will support them immediately and request that John do the same. His faith is against it, but I think his conscience is for it, so we'll just have to see what happens. I know that my belief in supporting a child's identity is every bit as strong as any person's religious faith, so I'll go to bat for that where I didn't for other stuff. I feel like when you are willing to compromise about most issues, it makes it mean a lot more when you dig your heels in on specific things that matter to you.

To sum up

Respect and compromise go a long way in any marriage, doubly so in an interfaith one. Respect that your spouse's religion is a part of them, and that, even though you don't agree, you know it comes from a good place. Compromise on everything you can, to win agreement on those things that are truly vital to you. Never assume that your religion is a trump card your spouse is obliged to defer to--even if they shared it when they married you. Treat religious and non-religious beliefs as equal.

Only talk about religion if you both are comfortable with it. If you sense your spouse is upset by discussing areas where you disagree, drop the issue before it gets heated. Be ready to explain, but never try to convert them.

And if you can't agree on important decisions, you can't respect their beliefs as a part of them, they don't respect you in turn, or you can't stand being married to someone who believes differently . . . it's okay to break up. Just remember that, if you have kids, you will still need to be an expert on interfaith dialogue to be a good coparent.

I hope that helps. All of these ideas are things I've personally learned, but remember: I'm not perfect at this either. An interfaith marriage is playing on hard level. As long as you keep what you love about your partner at the forefront of your mind, I think you can get through a lot of mistakes and arguments.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...