There was an interesting article in The New York Times recently about a new way psychologists are thinking about what factors contribute to happy and sustainable marriages. While the words "Jewish" and "intermarriage" don't appear anywhere in the piece, I couldn't help but notice that these new findings relate directly to the huge rise in interfaith marriages during the past several decades.
What these psychologists have found is that the strongest relationships are those in which both partners feel they are growing and benefiting as individuals. Today, "people are looking for a partnership, and they want partners who make their lives more interesting. ... Individuals use a relationship to accumulate knowledge and experiences, a process called 'self-expansion.' Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship."
For years, "authority figures" in the Jewish community have claimed that the more two people have in common, the stronger their marriage will be -- and therefore single Jews should marry other single Jews just like themselves if they hope to avoid unhappy marriages. But all along I've heard from happily married interfaith couples that the best thing about their marriage is how much they've learned through each other's differences! And how exciting it is to enter a new culture and engage in new experiences.
I've personally experienced this in my own marriage, having visited my wife's homeland of Japan eight times and always thoroughly enjoyed the fascinating and unique experience of being a "stranger in a strange land." Granted not everyone loves those kinds of experiences, but many people do. And that kind of exploration of another culture has in no way diminished my own Jewish identity; in fact, it's strengthened it because I've had to reciprocate by serving as "tour guide" into Jewish life for my Japanese wife.
The article continues, "Over time, the personal gains from lasting relationships are often subtle. Having a partner who is funny or creative adds something new to someone who isn't. A partner who is an active community volunteer creates new social opportunities for a spouse who spends long hours at work."
It turns out that differences between partners can actually complement and strengthen a marriage. If divorce really is statistically higher among interfaith marriages (debatable), here's yet another reason why it is wrong to assume a simple cause-and-effect relationship between the breakup and the couple's different religious backgrounds. This adds yet another reason why the Jewish community needs to change its standard narrative about intermarriage.
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