Navigating interfaith marriage is a search for common ground

Published: Saturday, Aug. 2 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Bruce and Miriam Eatchel with their twins, Max and Madeleine. While Miriam Eatchel is Jewish, her husband is not, and together they are raising their two children to be Jewish Monday, July 28, 2014, in Park City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — She's a devout Catholic. He's an active Mormon. And for more than three decades the couple has learned how to deepen their own faith while appreciating the faith of the other.

Their secret?

“We will accept each other as we are and pray to grow together but not necessarily pray for conversion,” said Juliana Boerio-Goates of Orem, who married Steven Goates on July 2, 1977. She then adds a caveat: "The path that we’ve chosen is not something that we encourage anybody else to do.”

In the United States, about 42 percent of marriages are interfaith unions, according to a leading expert in interfaith marriage in the United States. She reports that this up from 15 percent in 1988 and 25 percent in 2006, according to data from the General Social Survey, social science research supported by the National Science Foundation.

Interfaith marriages are three times as likely as same-faith unions to end in divorce, Naomi Schaefer Riley reported in her 2013 book, " 'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America."

"It is not the doctrines of religion, but its practices and rituals that are more likely to affect our day-to-day lives, and therefore our marriages. The latter may ultimately lead to more disagreements and eventually to divorce," Riley said in her book.

Juliana and Steven certainly understand the struggle. They said the "most intense fights" during the first two to three years of the Orem couple's 37-year marriage concerned religion. Now they happily married couple live in harmony, finishing each other's sentences.

“We decided that the only way we could make the marriage work was to be able to say, ‘Yes, I will love you even if you never change your faith. Even if I die Catholic and you die Mormon, we’ll have a happy relationship based in the things that we share, with an understanding of the differences,' ” Juliana Boerio-Goates said.

They tell a story of how early in their marriage, he was reading from Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and a passage helped him better understand and appreciate the sacrament of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to her, he read Teilhard de Chardin incorrectly, something she said does not matter much since it helped him spiritually.

“We decided to have a life together and that’s our advantage. That’s the thing that matters to us,” Steven Goates said.

Their relationship has not been without its bumps. Marriage is hard work and adding the interfaith element was an additional challenge. One benefit of their union has been an increased understanding of their respective beliefs, they said.

"Interfaith issues tend to be more complicated emotionally for people to figure out how to deal with than most issues that walk in my door," said marriage and family therapist Jonathan Swinton.

He said religious beliefs are more deeply ingrained in a person than other beliefs, and he said spouses struggle to separate their partner from their partner's beliefs.

Learning to cope

Interfaith couples considering marriage should discuss the details of which religion their children should attend and how they can best support the spouse in their religious activity, Swinton said.

In addition, it is important to communicate respect and understand how to best communicate their support for the other spouse's faith, according to Steven Szykula, a psychologist who specializes in children and families. It is also vital for people to know how involved their future spouse will be with their religion and be prepared to protect their partner from pressure that may come from their family of origin.

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