The fact that we were upfront and knew what we were getting ourselves into is really important. There’s been a lot of back and forth in trying to figure out how we could make it work. —Jenna Watson
On his first date with now-fiancé Jenna Watson 30 months ago, Tyler Barnett wanted to make sure things were clear.
Over dinner at Tin Roof Bistro in Manhattan Beach, Calif., he said, “I’m Jewish. And I’ll never be Christian.”
Watson shot back, “I’m Christian and I’ll never be Jewish.”
“Well, I’m glad we got that out of the way,” one of them joked.
That kind of candor is a major reason Watson believes the couple is on track for a strong marriage, although it did take more than one conversation to become comfortable with the idea of an interfaith marriage.
“The fact that we were up front and knew what we were getting ourselves into is really important. There’s been a lot of back and forth in trying to figure out how we could make it work.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Watson and Barnett are both public relations professionals who communicate for a living.
For most, marriage is challenging enough on its own. Add the weight of religious differences, and many relationships simply crumble. According to data just published in "'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America" by Naomi Schaefer Riley, evangelicals who marry outside of their faith are 50 percent more likely to be divorced, and Jews are twice as likely.
Furthermore, self-reported marital satisfaction rates for interfaith couples are lower almost across the board.
Those are ominous omens for Watson and Barnett.
However, this young couple doesn't seem to have an issue with the very thing that undermines so many interfaith marriages (which comprised a whopping 45 percent of all U.S. marriages over the past decade): a lack of open communication about religious views and their implications for parenting.
Elephant in the room
More than half of interfaith couples didn’t discuss how they want to raise their kids before getting married — and that doesn’t include the 20 percent who planned to raise their kids without religion.
Riley said nothing surprised her more in her research for "'Til Faith Do Us Part" than that statistic.
“We live in an era where people want to know everything about the person they’re going to marry,” said Riley, who is a Jew married to a Christian. “This major issue seems to be overlooked.”
She said faith significantly affects the issues couples most often fight about — how to spend money, how to spend time and, most of all, how to raise children.
“Kids require you to articulate how valuable religion is in your life, what it means, whether you’re going to use religious principles to answer some of the most important questions kids ask.”
Early in the marriage relationship, there’s a tendency to believe that love conquers all, said Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist who is co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families.
“But there’s nothing like having children to surface one’s more unconscious ideas and ideals about identity and culture and family,” he said. “Some of these things lie hidden.
“Parenthood triggers memories from our childhoods, either fulfilled or unfulfilled. (It presents) the opportunity to help develop the identity of our children, but it’s also an opportunity to enrich and enliven our own identities, and one of the forms of identity is religion.”
Dr. Fran Walfish, a family psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” said children inherently want to know where they fit in, asking such questions as, “Who am I in this world — what part of my mom am I and what part of my dad am I? Who am I in terms of my beliefs?”
Stacey Weiland, who is Jewish, said she and her Lutheran husband faced this question from their daughter when she was in second grade in Evergreen, Colo.
“On her own, one day she said to me, ‘My friends all go to Sunday School, why don’t I go? What am I?’ ”
“I told her, ‘Well, you’re both religions — you’re Jewish and Christian.’ ”
The couple gave her the option of attending Sunday School or Hebrew School. She chose the latter, as did another sibling, while a third chose neither.
“We supported their religious interests just as we support their interest in their sports and hobbies and such,” Weiland said. “Things have worked out very nice. The most important thing is loving each other and raising our children.”
Walfish said that such a response minimizes tension. She’s seen moms and dads enroll children in religious schools without the other parent’s knowledge, inevitably leading to marital strife.
“When one or both parents become polarized in their religious beliefs and practices, a tug-of-war can ensue. And that’s when it becomes particularly confusing for children.”
Life’s curve balls can also rekindle religious desires, said Walfish.
“What happens when, for instance, maybe the wife has a life-threatening scare with cancer and feels it’s due to God that she was saved?”
People in such situations sometimes become more religious as a way of expressing gratitude, she said. This increase in orthodoxy can increase the tension in an interfaith marriage.
Coleman agreed. “Marriage is like going off on this huge 10-day hike and you just can’t assume it’s going to go well without planning for it and thinking about, ‘What happens when we have bad weather, or we run out of water or something else happens?’
“You can’t assume that all of the goodwill and positive feelings that are there at the present time are necessarily going to carry you through those. You have to have a plan.”
Married in haste
In a 1693 comedy of manners, English playwright William Congreve wrote:
"Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure: Married in haste, we may repent at leisure."
Perhaps truer than ever when applied to interfaith marriage, the saying "marry in haste, repent at leisure" is one that many have learned the hard way — perhaps none more publicly than Katie Holmes, a Roman Catholic who split from husband Tom Cruise five years after a fairytale wedding, reportedly over concerns about Cruise’s Scientology and its ramifications for their daughter Suri’s upbringing.
Watson and Barnett have invested a significant amount of time talking through what-if scenarios and issues related to religion, wanting to avoid the mistake — and lasting regret — Congreve referred to.
Anytime the couple's relationship hit a breaking point, it was around differences between her Christianity and his Judaism. Watson mentioned one specific example:
“Christians believe that if you’re not a born-again Christian, you’re going to hell. Well, what if our kid comes to us and asks, ‘Is daddy going to hell?’ How are we going to respond?
“That’s a very tough subject to talk about with someone you love so much.”
Walfish said that those tough conversations, when done right, give interfaith relationships a much better chance of success.
“Some things are too big and religion is a very, very big issue. If two people aren’t on the same page, it can cause a crack in the foundation of the relationship.
“Romance fades after a reasonably short period of time,” she said. “But I think the thing that turns people on to each other and is the glue that holds people together in relationships is open, honest communication. That glue can also be very attractive.”
She said that the more a couple learns to talk, wrestle with conflicts and listen respectfully without interrupting, the more each individual will feel validated, acknowledged and accepted, flaws and all.
Parents and congregations
It used to be that marriage took place in the context of a particular community, said Riley, a community in which faith and family wielded substantial authority.
The autonomous individual is a relatively new phenomenon — one fueled, in part, by greater geographical mobility and the rise of the average age at marriage.
All of this can leave parents — most of whom believe it’s important for their children to marry someone of their own faith — feeling frustrated as they watch children move away and date people outside of the faith in which they were raised.
“(In writing my book,) I would talk to couples who would say, ‘After a year of dating, so-and-so flew home to meet my parents,’ ” Riley said.
“That gives you a sense of how long the relationship had gone, how far away removed they were from family and how little concern they had, in some sense, for the approval of family.
“It is presented as sort of this fait accompli. There’s this sense that it would be getting in the way of love to take these practical considerations into account. Love is the number one priority.”
Still, Riley said that parents who desire a faithful outcome shouldn’t abandon hope: 25 percent of same-faith couples were once of different faiths.
Riley, Walfish and Coleman all agree that the best thing parents and religious leaders can do is to welcome the couple into the family in a spirit of love, respect and understanding.
“Turning them away would actually contribute to weakening their faith rather than strengthening it,” Coleman said.
Riley believes that attempts at educating or converting the spouse are better done by a religious leader, at least in part. A spouse saying, “Won’t you consider being Catholic?” can come to feel like, “Why haven’t you picked up the dirty laundry today?”
“The older you are when you marry, the more likely you are to marry out(side of the faith),” Riley said. Parents interested in influencing their children’s marital decisions should have conversations about marriage early on. As one pastor said, "Be intentional about it.”