RELIGION
02/03/2016 11:41 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2016

4 Questions Every Interfaith Couple Should Ask Before Getting Serious

Here's some advice from the experts.

Many interfaith couples trust that having the "same values" will be more important in the long run than having the same religion. 

Similar values can certainly strengthen the bonds between interfaith couples, but these values are often tested by familial and cultural expectations. A whole slew of questions (from Who will officiate at the wedding? to What will we teach our kids about God?) are bound to pop up over the course of the relationship -- especially considering that Americans tend to get more religious as they get older. 

Dr. Charles Joanides, a marriage therapist based in Newburgh, New York, told The Huffington Post that one of the most common problems he's seen come up in his practice is that couples aren't honest with each other and with themselves about their religious differences. 

"Many end up sacrificing or compartmentalizing important parts of themselves to protect the relationship and/or keep the peace. They stop participating in significant rituals and celebrations and settle for less offensive, watered down ways of acknowledging religious celebrations like Easter, Christmas, Hanukkah or Ramadan," Joanides wrote in an email.

Talking through religious differences and finding commonalities can help couples build a vibrant spiritual life together. Here are a few questions that interfaith couples can consider while preparing to make a lifelong commitment.

A couple participates in a Hindu wedding ceremony. Interfaith marriages are becoming increasingly common in the United States
Philippe Lissac/Godong via Getty Images
A couple participates in a Hindu wedding ceremony. Interfaith marriages are becoming increasingly common in the United States. 

1. What are some beliefs within your own religion that you treasure/don't treasure? 

Before putting unnecessary expectations on a partner, it's important to figure out what faith means to you on a personal level. 

When you’re asked to become intimate with a religious tradition that is very different from your own, it pushes you out of your own comfort zone and causes you to spend time thinking about what you really believe.

For example, you can ask yourself, do I appreciate what my religion teaches me about the nature of God? Does my religion put an emphasis on the oneness of humanity or on the importance of personal prayer?

According to Rev. J. Dana Trent, a Christian minister who is married to a devout Hindu monk, this is an area where interfaith relationships may actually have an advantage over same-faith relationships. 

"When we are surrounded by people who, at least on the surface, believe the same things we believe, there’s often no impetus for wonder—no cause to dig deeper and get to the roots of our tenets," Trent wrote in a Q&A about her book about the subject, Saffron Cross. "[My journey with my husband] forced me to ask: What do I believe? How has scripture and my tradition informed me? How has my relationship with Jesus affected my life? Has it changed? Am I doing the same things I’ve always done?"

2. What are some practices within your own religion that you treasure/don't treasure?  

It can be useful to distinguish between religious beliefs (theology, doctrine) and religious practices (the way belief takes shape in your life, through holiday celebrations, for example, or church attendance). Thinking back to your childhood can be a good way of understanding what religious practices and behaviors are important to you. For example, a Jewish partner in a relationship may not put an emphasis on going to a synagogue every week, but may look back with fondness at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or Hanukkah celebrations. 

It's also important to clarify what behaviors may have been important to your family, but are not necessarily important to you. Dr. Joel Crohn, an assistant clinical professor of family medicine at UCLA and author of Mixed Matches: How to Create Successful Interracial, Interethnic and Interfaith Relationships, suggests evaluating your own cultural and religious roots before making a commitment to someone else. Some of the questions he suggests that people ask themselves are: "What were the roles of men and women in my family of origin? Are there changes I would like to make in my marriage?"

What does God mean to you? Take some time to reflect on your religious identity, and make sure to share these thoughts with y
Paras Shah Photography via Getty Images
What does God mean to you? Take some time to reflect on your religious identity, and make sure to share these thoughts with your spouse.

3. What is sacred for both of you and how can you build that together?

After you've clarified what is sacred to each of you individually, have a discussion about where those beliefs and practices overlap and how you can build on those commonalities in the future. 

Rev. Julia Jarvis, spiritual director of the Interfaith Families Project of the Greater D.C. area, tells the couples she advises to take their index fingers and trace an invisible circle around themselves. 

"Then I tell them, this is your sacred circle that no one can enter. No in-laws, or parents or even children (when you have them) can come in UNLESS they are invited," Jarvis told The Huffington Post in an email. "In this sacred space, you both make the ultimate decisions about what kind of wedding you want to have; how you want to celebrate both of your holidays; how you want to raise your children, etc."

This circle is a symbol of the religious identity that couples form from scratch with their partners, one that is separate from the religious identity they grew up with.  

"Creating this sacred circle of love around them keeps their commitment to each other stronger and the boundaries between them and others clearer. The invisible circle of love holds them together through the thick and thin," Jarvis continued.

4. What will you teach your kids about religion and about God?

Despite the challenges that come with raising an interfaith family, research suggests that many couples don't discuss how they'll raise their kids before they get married. But doing so can at least get your feelings out in the open, even if your opinions change later on. 

There are several lines of thought on this issue. Some families decide not to raise their children in any specific tradition. Some organizations advocate for raising children in one just parent's tradition, to avoid confusion. Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Familyis convinced that children can be raised in both parents' traditions.

Frank Fredericks, the founder of the interfaith youth organization World Faith, strongly identifies as an evangelical Christian, while his wife Medina identifies as a Muslim. Fredericks believes the challenges are different for millennial couples. 

Still, there are some challenges that will remain the same.

"We're not troubled by the same things Gen X interfaith and Boomer interfaith couples are," Fredericks wrote. "[But] like the generations before us, we must grapple with identity, family acceptance, and family tradition. In fact, in the absence of congregational liturgy, the challenge of feeling 'authentic' in individual worship, balanced with shared family ritual, may be even more difficult to navigate."

Whatever route you decide to take when it comes to children, it's important to have these tough conversations earlier on in the relationship.

To Wrap Up:

There are already plenty of support groups, organizations, and even holiday decor companies for those involved in interfaith relationships. Take advantage of the resources in your community, or if there's nothing available, try talking with a couples therapist.

Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Bothwrote in a blog for The Huffington Post, "As the number of interfaith families across the U.S. and across the world, continues to grow, traditional religious communities are likely to become more welcoming, and new communities created by and for interfaith families will spring up." 

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