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

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."

EMAIL: jbolding@desnews.com

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