National Edition

Leaving it at the altar: Navigating interfaith marriage

Published: Friday, April 12 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

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.”

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