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Ties that bind? How interfaith marriages struggle — and thrive

How interfaith marriages struggle — and thrive

Sitting at the Christmas dinner table with her eyes closed and head bowed, Alexis Gewertz felt out of place for the first time. Although she had never avoided talking or learning about Jesus as a Jewish woman, the religiosity of the pre-meal grace at her boyfriend's family's Rhode Island home in December 2009 raised some cultural red flags.

"I remember thinking, 'oh my, what did I get myself into here?'" Gewertz says.

Gewertz, an active member of the Jewsish community, had met her boyfriend, Steve, a devout Catholic, a year earlier while attending Harvard Divinity School. The two developed a strong friendship based on what Gewertz describes as "a sarcastic sense of humor, staunch dedication to the proper use of punctuation and a fascination with religion." However Gewertz says their own personal religious views were taboo from discussion.

"It's no coincidence we broke up after he took me home for Christmas," Gewertz admits. "I think we didn't discuss our religious differences because we just didn't want to rock the boat and take the risk that the relationship might end, which is something many interfaith couples deal with."

After a time apart, the couple made amends and began to openly accept their religious differences, becoming one of the growing number of interfaith couples in the United States. According to the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey in 2009, 37 percent of American adults who are married or living with a partner are in religiously mixed relationships.

However, as Gewertz found out, the tension brought on by this significant difference can be a cause of relational turmoil. With differing expectations on how much of a role religion will play in a couple's daily life, raising of kids and traditions surrounding holidays and customs, the strain can be too much. In a 2004 article published in Population and Development Review titled "Religion as a Determinant of Economic and Demographic Behavior in the United States," Dr. Evelyn Lehrer of the University of Illinois at Chicago found there is a 20 percent likelihood for an interreligious marriage to dissolve within the first five years for mainline Protestants, while the number went as high as 42 percent for interfaith relationships, such as those between a Christian and a Jew.

Silvia Garcia is another who knows the difficulties an interreligious marriage can bring. Unlike Gewertz, Silvia and her husband, Joel, were active together in a Stamford, Conn., Pentecostal church for 15 years. However after being introduced to the Mormon faith in 1999 by a family Joel worked for in Stamford, he became a member of the LDS Church.

"When he told me I said, 'Are you crazy, are you out of your mind, why are you doing this to me or your family?'" Silvia says. "I thought we were going to get divorced."

Silvia says she could tell how much the Mormon faith meant to her husband and saw a positive change in his life. However, his parents were leaders in the Pentecostal congregation and the rest of the family was fully entrenched in the Pentecostal lifestyle. Two of their kids stopped going to church completely because of the religious split in the family. On top of that, Silvia believed strongly in the Pentecostal doctrine and had an aversion to the Mormon faith. The pull of the family in different directions was too much for her and after a year she gave him an ultimatum.

"I pulled him away from the kids one day and told him I needed to talk to him," Silvia says. "I told him, 'You stop going to that church, or at this moment you pick up all your things and leave this house and we are going to get divorced.'"

The strain on the Garcia's relationship may have been due to the religious dynamic in the home. According to a report done in 2009 by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs on Interreligious Relationships in America, the most successful interreligious relationships occur when "one or both of the spouses self-identify more with their religion's spiritual guidance than its theological doctrine." Being that both Joel and Silvia were passionate about their churches' theological doctrine, the couple struggled to accept the differences of each other's religious practice.

Dr. Patrick C. Hughes of Texas Tech University has been studying interreligious marriages for more than 10 years and echoes this sentiment. Hughes, an associate vice provost and professor of communications, points out that a person's religious orientation is more important in a relationship than the religion itself. His research shows people who are intrinsically oriented — more philosophically and spiritually tied to their religion — end up having more satisfaction in an interfaith relationship as opposed to those who are extrinsically oriented. This is because those extrinsically oriented use faith as means to an interpersonal end, by attending more worship services and being more involved in religious outreach.

"Extrinsics tend to be less open to incorporating other religious preferences or at least tend to be more committed to their own," Hughes says. "They are less likely to adjust to those of others. And that's good to know, if your orientation to your religion is extrinsic then it's going to be really important for you to marry someone within your own religious denomination or faith, because you're going to expect that person to participate with you in your religion, not just spiritually or philosophically. You're going to want that person to come to church with you, to go to the potlucks with you, to do those things you love about the relational aspects of your faith."

The orientation of the couple's parents is also something burdensome to interfaith couples, according to Melody Fox, the project coordinator for the Berkley Center report. Fox comes from an interfaith background herself, being brought up by Jewish and Catholic parents while being married to a Muslim man for seven years. She says the support or lack thereof from parents can play a huge part in the relationship.

"We talked to some people that when they got married their parents would not speak to them and tried to disown them," Fox says. "The parents couldn't fathom they would marry someone of another faith and they saw it as a personal rejection of their history and their culture."

Both Garcia and Gewertz acknowledge the effect the couples' parents had on their own interreligious relationships. Gewertz says her boyfriend's parents' staunch Catholic views made her uncomfortable because she was Jewish and her parents were divorced, while Silvia delivered the ultimatum to her husband only after the prodding of Joel's parents that if he didn't change his religion, she could take the kids and live with them.

Yet Gewertz points out part of the satisfaction of being in an interfaith relationship is seeing the change and compromise in those closest to the relationship.

"Steve's mom really wasn't happy that he was dating someone outside of the Catholic faith," Gewertz says. "But she's really come around and this year she bought me Hanukkah socks and to have that change with her makes me so excited. I didn't love what I went through when I felt like they weren't happy about it, but that shift has been really heartwarming. It's definitely gratifying to see those changes."

Those involved in healthy interfaith relationships suggest a high respect is the most important aspect of the relationship. Decisions surrounding holidays, customs and raising of children all tie into an open communication and adjustment to their partner's beliefs.

Silvia and Joel endured two more years of attending separate churches until Silvia joined him as a Mormon in 2002. She says the relationship they had overcame their interreligious difficulties.

"We loved each other," Silvia says. "The love was there between us and our differences. Every time we had a discussion or argument about religion, at the end our love was there to keep us together."