World Religion Day on 18 January aims to promote inter-faith understanding. Margarita Tartakovsky offers tips for making
mixed faith relationships work
People try to minimise the differences when they’re in love,” says Joel Crohn, PhD, author of Mixed matches: How to create successful interracial, interethnic and interfaith relationships. But dismissing the differences can be detrimental to a couple in the future. If you’re part of an inter-faith relationship, there’s an extra layer of diversity to deal with.
Crohn offers seven ways to understand these differences and to help inter-faith relationships to increase their chances of long-term success.
1. Talk, talk
The biggest problem facing inter-faith couples is denying that differences actually exist. Even if you’re not that religious, differences can creep up in the future, Crohn warns. Also, in avoiding having the ‘differences’ dialogue, couples might make inaccurate assumptions about their partner’s religious preferences. Interestingly, “people tend to become more religious with age,” says Crohn.
He urges couples to face their issues head-on. The best time to talk? Now, Crohn says, is typically the best time. Avoidance won’t help conflict go away either today or in the future.
2. Cultural pursuits
“People have trouble separating religion and culture,” Crohn says. Even if religion isn’t a factor in your life or your relationship, you still have a different cultural code than your partner. And these differences, he says, don’t simply disappear.
When thinking about your culture, consider: What’s normal in my family? What are my expectations for the relationship and a prospective family? How do we express our emotions? Then, talk about these cultural differences as a couple. By laying the groundwork in the early stages of a relationship there is a clear understanding of expectations as life evolves and the family grows.
3. Who are you?
Many inter-faith couples will start negotiating what religion they want their children to be raised in, for instance, without having a clear idea of their own identity in the first place. Crohn tells the story of an Italian Protestant woman who converted to Judaism. Her Jewish husband came home from work one night and was surprised to see her reading the Torah. He accused her of getting, “carried away.” In reality, the man wasn’t clear on what being Jewish meant to him.
Other clients have said to Crohn that, “Being Jewish is important to me.” But when he asks them what this means exactly, they respond,
“It just is.”
The problem? Individuals who have a vague sense of their religious identity “may push their partners to be something they can’t be.” For instance, a non-Jewish partner can’t become “culturally Jewish.”
To clarify your identity, Crohn suggests the following exercise: think about your religious identity and your cultural identity when you were five years old, 12, 18 and, now, today. Crohn suggests writing down your responses.
It’s typical for people to experience big changes at these time points. In fact, throughout your life, with both culture and religion, “there are usually big ups and downs, experimentation and rebellion,” he says, “before settling on a stable sense of identity.”
After thinking about your identity, it still might be hazy. Crohn says that this is OK. It’s “problematic when you’re negotiating for something you aren’t clear about.”
4. Find out more
It’s also not productive to negotiate “until you’ve exposed yourself to your partner’s religious practices,” Crohn continues. Doing so allows even greater understanding of your partner. For instance, you might attend church or synagogue with your partner. This doesn’t mean that you’re making any promises, such as converting. But it does show that you take your relationship seriously, and also that you are willing to learn more about what’s important to your partner to be closer to them and their identity.
5. Share your history
Instead of forcing a decision, Crohn encourages couples to discuss their religious and cultural experiences with each other.
Not only does this take the pressure off, but it gives couples an early opportunity to get to know each other. Like all communication, an honest approach is best.
6. Take advice
Today, there are many courses for relationships, which can help couples resolve a variety of issues. Crohn cautions readers to be discerning consumers and to look for courses that are skills-based, time-limited and inexpensive. Working together can create insight into each other’s faith and ensure greater understanding.
7. Think positively
Couples typically wait until their relationship has suffered to seek help. Crohn encourages readers to consider counselling and to work with a therapist, before getting to this place. Be proactive and your relationship has greater chances of succeeding.
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