National Edition

Leaving it at the altar: Navigating interfaith marriage

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

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.

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