HOW INTER-FAITH AND
INTRA-FAITH COUPLES HANDLE RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES
"Different religious beliefs make for bad company" Posting
on a Hillel Mailing list, 1990-NOV.
"...unity within diversity adds a richness and beauty to
marriage and to life." Rev. Tom Chulak, Unitarian-Universalist
There are no rules...
Inter-faith marriages are those between persons from different
religious traditions. Intra-faith marriages are between two persons from
different denominations within the same religion. Each one is special. They come in many varieties:
Some couples follow very different religions (e.g. Christianity and Buddhism). Others
are members of similar faith groups within one religion (e.g. Southern Baptists and Assembly of God).
Some spouses have very little involvement with their faith; to others, religion forms the
core of their life.
Some spouses see merit in faiths other than their own; at the other
extreme, they may view other faiths as forms of
There are no general rules that fit all (or even most) inter/intra-faith
couples. The degree of differences and amount of conflict vary widely from family to
For simplicity, we will assume in this essay an intra-faith marriage
between two Christians of different denominations. This is the most common form of
religiously mixed marriage in North America. The same dynamics equally apply to people who
go to a church, circle, grotto, mosque, synagogue, or temple; they also apply for
same-gender and opposite gender couples.
Various approaches that couples have used:
When the couple is dating and later becomes engaged, inter-faith
conflicts may not be particularly serious. Even in the initial years of
marriage, difficulties may not be significant to them. Many couples defer
resolution of their inter-faith status until later in marriage, perhaps
when their first child arrives.
We have discovered seven common techniques for resolving religious differences in a
marriage. There may be more. This field is so new that terminology is not well developed.
We have selected a term to describe each of the options.
Both spouses withdraw from organized religious activity. They might stop attending
church and avoid religious discussions within their marriage. This has the advantage of
minimizing friction over differences in religious tradition. But is may not be
sustainable. Often one or both spouses will want to become religiously more active, later
in life - perhaps after the birth of a child. Membership and activity within a
faith group may be such an integral part of one or both spouses' spirituality
that they cannot suppress it for long.
One spouse converts to the religion of the other. One source estimates that this option
is chosen by about 40% of intra-faith couples.7 This has the
advantage of avoiding friction due to religious differences, but only if the conversion is
sincere and accepted without pressure. The partner who has given up their religious faith
for their spouse's may:
Feel unfairly treated, either at the time, or in the future.
Feel resentment for being pressured into converting.
Find that their
family of origin is be angry and disappointed.
Find it difficult to worship God in their new faith tradition.
Have intellectual problems with new doctrines that they must accept.
Miss the cultural traditions associated with their old faith
Have feelings of renunciation or even betrayal of their faith
One participant in a Greek Orthodox focus group on inter-faith marriage
commented: "If I were to leave the Church, I would feel like I was
leaving something important about who I am and what makes me tick."8One web site suggests methods to
respectfully attempt to convert your spouse to your faith. 2
Both spouses convert to a compromise religion. One source estimates that this option is
selected by about 30% of intra-faith couples.7 Here, both
spouses leave their religious tradition and settle on a new faith group. This could be a
denomination "half-way" between their original religions. As examples:
A Methodist and a Roman Catholic might decide to join an Episcopal/Anglican church. The
Methodist might be relatively comfortable with the choice, since they would still be in a
Protestant denomination; the Catholic would still enjoy the majestic church rituals which
would be similar to those that they were accustomed to.
A Christian and a Buddhist might join a congregation affiliated with the Unitarian Universalism Association. The UUA is a church free of dogma
which has members from many different traditions: Aboriginal, Buddhism, Christianity,
Hinduism, Judaism, Neopaganism, etc. The purpose of a UU congregation is to
support each other in the development of their
own unique spiritual path.
Some of the disadvantages associated with the conversion option (#2
above) may also apply here. In particular, both of the families of origin may be
angered at the decision.
SelectSmart.com provides a Belief System
Selector which is designed to help a person locate a faith group that corresponds to
religious and spiritual beliefs. Both spouses might try the test
independently, and see if they share a faith group that returns a high rating
for both of them.
Both spouses affiliate with both denominations. They might go to one church each Sunday
morning and the other on Sunday evening. Or they might go to a Sunday service at alternate
churches on successive weeks. Each would support the other in their religious activity. If
church regulations permit, they might even join each other's church. They have the
opportunity to "create a wedding, a lifestyle and a family environment that can
honor both traditions." 1Each can grow to
understand and appreciate their partner's religious heritage. Their effort does "not
seek to homogenize religious differences. Rather, it honors the sacredness and uniqueness
of each faith..." 1
The two spousesmerge their religious traditions and become an
ecumenical family. They examine each other's religious traditions and, in essence,
the two faith groups within their family. They create "ways by which the many
paths can meet on common ground or unite in a new and sacred creative form." 1
The couple engages in the same path towards unity as many Christian
denominations are attempting today. Since there are only two adults involved, the
merger can be accomplished in weeks rather than the decades or centuries that formal denominations
often take. They might satisfy their needs for fellowship by joining with other
similar couples to form a house church.
In many ways, these ecumenical couples are showing Christian churches the
types of compromise necessary to achieve unity. Unfortunately, many denominations view
this process as involving dangerous compromises. Conservative denominations, in
particular, generally condemn intra- and inter-faith marriages in which one partner is a
born-again Christian and the other is not.
If the spouses have a high level of commitment to their faith, any form of compromise
may be intolerable. Each spouse may choose to follow their past religious heritage,
separately. They would continue to go to their own religious services and celebrate
different holy days. This is considered the least desirable approach by many couples,
because it reduces the amount of time that they spend together and diminishes the level of
companionship in their marriage. This may be compensated for by a substitute joint
A crisis may develop if the couple has children. One spouse may be willing to give
their partner complete religious freedom of belief and practice. But they may not be able
to tolerate what they see as teaching "lies" to the children. One
"religious skeptic" posted to a thirties-something Internet list: "I...am
having trouble raising our children in 'her' church when I don't support it or many of its
Dr. Willard F. Harley of Marriage Builders2recommends
that whenever a conflict arises, to:
set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe
have a time out if you reach an impasse
remain respectful and nonjudgmental at all times
identify the problem, so that each spouse can state the other's position accurately
brainstorm solutions, without evaluating their worth or practicality
choose the most appealing solution
Dr. Hurley writes: "...marriage (and children) will thrive only if spouses put
each other's feelings before the dictates of their religious convictions. It doesn't mean
that religious convictions must be abandoned. It simply means that you must live your
faith in a way that accommodates the feelings of your spouse."
The "diversity" option may be the only viable one in situations where both
spouses are strongly attached to their separate faith groups.
7. Do nothing
In many cases, organized religion plays a minimal role in the lives of
one or both spouses. They might feel that their commitment to religion is
so low that they would not want to spend the time and energy needed to
resolve their religious differences. Irritants due to religious and
cultural differences might not justify the effort to resolve them. They
might decide to let things slide for the moment, and resolve conflicts in
the future as they develop.
What about children?
The arrival of children is liable to increase the level of religious tension in the
For those denominations which practice infant baptism, the couple has to decide which
church to baptize the child in, or whether to baptize the child in both churches or
There is the additional problem of selecting Godparents. One of their responsibilities
is to act as a spiritual guardian for the child. A Godparent who is not a member of the
denomination in which the child is being baptized may not be acceptable to the church.
The decision of how to handle the children's religious education is best handled early -
preferably before marriage. Some couples educate:
their children in both faiths.
male children in the religion of the father, and girls in their mother's faith (or vice
their first born in the father's religion, the second in the mother's faith, etc.
their children in a compromise faith. Unitarian Universalist and some other
congregations often have comparative religious education courses for children.
A rather distressing exchange of postings on a Hindu discussion list describes some of
the problems that Hindus have had in inter-religious marriages. Most seem to originate
with the inlaws. See: http://hindustan.net/discus/messages/54/69.html