Ties that bind? How interfaith marriages struggle — and thrive

How interfaith marriages struggle — and thrive

Published: Friday, Feb. 10 2012 5:00 a.m. MST


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.'"

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