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Inter-faith & intra-faith marriages

Divorce: Encouraging word; avoiding
divorce, personal story; conclusions

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An encouraging word:

One problem with these studies is that they tend to lump all "mixed" marriages together, and report on the overall results. An exception is a study of intra-faith Christian marriages by Michael Lawlor of the Creighton University Center for Marriage and Family in Omaha NE. He concluded that:

"Denominational differences don't cause breakups. It depends on what the couple does together religiously and how they deal with differences. If they can fashion a shared religious life, their marriages will be as stable as any same-church marriage."

The Creighton University study found that divorce rates among Christian couples who were raised in different denominations were:

bullet Six percent for couples who affiliated with a single church.

bullet Fourteen percent for non-intra-faith couples -- those who were raised in the same denomination and stayed in the same church as a married couple.

bullet Twenty percent for spouses, each of whom retained their affiliation with different churches. 1

These results can be interpreted in at least two ways:

bullet Stability in an intra-faith marriage will be improved if both spouses decide to become affiliated with a single denomination. Such marriages are more prone to fail if spouses continued to go to their original churches.

bullet A couple who is not intensely committed to one denomination or another is liable to have fewer conflicts and thus a lower probability of divorce. They will easily compromise on a single denomination to attend. Those who are devoted to their original denominations will experience more marital conflicts and are thus more liable to divorce.

How to avoid divorce:

We offer no firm suggestions, only hunches:

bullet Be realistic: Although about 100% of all engaged couples are positive that their marriage will last, the ugly fact is that about half fail. Marriages between spouses from different faith traditions, whether inter-faith or intra-faith, most probably fail. We recommend extensive pre-marital counseling. Breaking off an engagement is a gut-wrenching experience; terminating a marriage (particularly one with children) is a lot worse.

bullet Tackle the inter-faith problems directly: Don't sweep them under the table. Don't assume that you will resolve differences sometime after you get married. Pre-marital problems generally grow into "Hindenburg class disasters" after marriage. They need to be settled while you are still engaged. Love does not necessarily conquer all. Consider:

bullet Trying to assess how important each spouse's religious traditions are.

bullet Explaining your religious needs to each other.

bullet Studying your own, and your spouse's faith traditions.

bullet Evaluating how your faith traditions will impact on your life together -- diet, decision-making within the family, disciplining children, baptizing children, making charitable donations, how to handle the situation if a child finds out that they are gay, celebrating holidays, birth control, number of children wanted, whether abortion is an option, etc.

bullet Whether you will worship together or apart.

bullet Whether you will accept your spouse's faith or try to change them to your own, or change your own to your spouse's.

bullet How you will support your religious institution(s) financially.

bullet How to handle the children's religious education.

bullet How to handle any rejection on the part of your two religious institutions towards inter-faith marriage ceremonies, child rearing, etc.

bullet Whether you can expect much flak from in-laws over religion.

bullet Consider the in-laws: Parents have more life experience and can sometimes assess potential problems more accurately than the couple can. However, if they are strongly opposed to the marriage, and you are really committed to your relationship, then you might have to decide where your priorities lie. You may decide to give an ultimatum to one or both sets of parents.

bullet Plan in advance: Waiting until after the birth of the first child is not the best time to decide whether to ritually circumcise him (as a Jew), or baptize her or him (as a Christian), or to welcome a child with a Wiccaning ritual (into a Wiccan tradition), or to not engage in a ritual at all.

bullet Respect the faiths that you were raised in: Try to weave into your marriage ceremony elements from both your parents' faiths. This may mean that you will have to go shopping for the right celebrant(s). Sometimes it is possible to have two clergy officiating. Some couples even go to the extreme of having two ceremonies.

bullet Consider taking an inter-faith tour: "Interfaith tours are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in Israel. Jewish, Christian, and sometimes Muslim participants get a taste of each others' religious traditions by exploring holy and historically significant sites, with the leaders putting these places in ecumenical context." 2,3

bullet Communicate.


Communicate more.


Communicate still more.

bulletIf the relationship is in difficulty, redouble the effort at communicating.

A personal story about a strategy that broke down:

The author recalls asking a young woman for a second date, some five decades ago. She turned him down flat. Her reason is that she was a Roman Catholic, and that it was her policy to never date a non-Catholic more than once, out of fear that it might eventually develop into an inter-faith marriage. Perhaps she had a good idea.

On the other hand, the system may not be foolproof. After the author's marriage broke down, he separated, and obtained a divorce. He asked his friends and family to take him behind the barn and shoot him if he ever dated the same woman twice. He figured that this would guarantee that he would never become seriously involved with any woman; he figured that it would probably take at least a few dates before he ever reached the "PNR" -- the Point of No Return when he might develop a desire to pursue a relationship actively. As it happens, the system broke down. In the basement of the local diocesan center, at a meeting of the New Life Group for Separated and Divorced Catholics he met a woman. Part way through their first date, he reached the PNR. The rest is history. The author engaged in a death defying activity by dating the woman, while always watching over his sholder, looking for a friend or family member with a gun. The two celebrated their 20th anniversary of their inter-faith marriage in Hawaii, during the fall of 2010: one is Agnostic, the other Atheist.

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Most of the data seems to show that religious differences within inter-faith and intra-faith marriages is a major contributor to marriage breakdown. If nothing else, it at least should impress on a couple entering such a relationship that they need to pay very close attention to resolving religious differences while engaged.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Interfaith Marriages Lead to More Divorce, Study Says," Associated Press, at:
  2. Judi Dash, "Tripping the faith fantastic: Religious pilgrimages take travel to soulful heights," at:
  3. Interfaith Tours organizes tours which "explore the spiritual and historical roots of Christianity and Judaism in the land where both religions were born." See:

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Copyright 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAR-20
Latest update: 2011-JAN-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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