Interfaith couples sometimes look a little doomed. And a recent article by Lee Block about them makes them sound even worse off. Divorce rates for these couples are higher than for same-faith couples, she tells us. And is it really such a surprise? After all, with differences as big as religion, who could possibly make it work?
Sheila Gordon, president of Interfaith Community, a Manhattan-based inter-religious educational initiative with a thriving group of families, has seen it work many, many times. She estimates the divorce rate of members of the IFC community at 2%. When I interviewed her for this piece, she emphasized the importance for bi-religious couples of commitment to interfaith education. "It isn't easy," she said, of being part of an interfaith family. Which is why it requires serious thought, communication, and planning. Gordon counsels interfaith couples who plan to marry. She suggested that, like in marriage in general, couples are more successful when they're more conscientious, thoughtful, and forward-thinking.
When we talk about interfaith relationships failing most of the time, there are some big questions that need to be asked.
1. Where is the data?
Interfaith organizations often maintain that comprehensive data on interfaith relationships is outdated and scarce.
2. How much has the experience of being an interfaith couple changed?
If we're looking at outdated statistics and information, we need to consider that being part of an interfaith couple as recently as a few decades ago meant being extremely vulnerable to stigma, prejudice, and severely limited inclusive religious (or even communal) options. While the situation hasn't been improved in every way, it's certainly true that interfaith couples currently enjoy a much broader range of communal options and face a great deal less stigma.
3. Who are the people who form interfaith couples?
They are a diverse group. The members of an interfaith education organization in Manhattan are likely to have very different challenges and opportunities than interfaith families in St. Paul or Atlanta. Gordon says, "Not only may the attitude toward religion differ within couples, but couples also function in different environments. Some live in areas where interfaith families are not common; others are surrounded by others like them. Some have parents or grandparents who are immigrants and whose religious identity is tied to another culture - and some have parents who oppose the marriage and others have parents who provide thoughtful support. Some bring to their marriage a strong educational background or an inclination to anticipate and analyze." The decisions couples make and the ways in which they approach family life as a bi-religious household are impacted by all of these factors. Not every interfaith family starts from the same place.
Block paints a gloomy picture of interfaith life, but it's not the whole picture. I for example, am Jewish, and I recently married a non-Jewish man. It might be easy to say that our lives will be complicated because of our disparate religious backgrounds. But my husband is not even slightly interested in his religious background, whereas I am very involved in the Jewish community. I find that my relationship with him contains considerably less angst surrounding religion than the relationships I had with other Jews (who had much stronger opinions on how to be a "good Jew" or what kind of Jew they wanted their partner to be). We are nothing like the couples who fight over whose religion should be the kids' religion, or the couples who calmly, carefully construct a life that includes both religions, or the couples who never discuss how religion fits in until they have kids. But we are called "interfaith" just like they are.
Maybe it's time to stop making assumptions about what it means to be interfaith, who is interfaith, and why it must be a bad idea. Let's see who is actually out there, and what real couples are experiencing. If you ask Sheila Gordon, they're doing pretty well. And if you ask me, well, I wouldn't have my relationship any other way.