By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
“People try to minimize the differences when they’re in love,” says Joel Crohn, Ph.D., author of Mixed Matches: How to Create Successful Interracial, Interethnic and Interfaith Relationships. But dismissing the differences can be detrimental to a couple in the future. If you’re part of an interfaith relationship, you have an extra layer of diversity to deal with.
Crohn, who specializes in couples and family therapy, offers seven ideas for understanding these differences and helping interfaith relationships work.
1. Face the issues.
Again, the biggest problem facing interfaith couples is denying that differences actually exist. Even if you’re not that religious, differences can creep up in the future, Crohn says.
Also, in avoiding the differences dialogue, couples might make inaccurate assumptions about their partner’s religious preferences. (Interestingly, “people tend to become more religious with age,” Crohn says.)
So he urges couples to face their issues head-on. The best time to talk? Now, Crohn says, is typically the best time. Avoidance won’t help the conflict go away.
2. Clarify your cultural code.
“People have trouble separating religion and culture,” Crohn says. Even if religion isn’t a factor in your life or your relationship (e.g., you’re both agnostic), you still have a different cultural code than your partner. And these differences, he says, don’t disappear.
When thinking about your culture, consider: What’s normal in my family? What are my expectations for the relationship and a prospective family? How do we express our emotions? Then, talk about these cultural differences as a couple.
3. Clarify your identity.
Many interfaith couples will start negotiating what religion they want their kids to be, for instance, without having a clear idea of their own identity. It’s common for “members of minority groups in America…to have a complicated sense of their own identity,” Crohn says. So self-exploration is key!
Crohn tells the story of an Italian Protestant woman who converted to Judaism. Her Jewish husband came home from work surprised to see her reading the Torah. He accused her of getting “carried away.” In reality, this man wasn’t clear on what being Jewish meant to him.
Other clients have said to Crohn that “Being Jewish is important to me.” But when he’s asked them what this means exactly, they’ll respond, “It just is.” The problem? Individuals who have a vague sense of their religious identity “may push their partners to be something they can’t be.” For instance, a non-Jewish partner can’t become “culturally Jewish.”
To clarify your identity, Crohn suggests the following exercise: Think about your religious identity and your cultural identity when you were five years old, 12, 18 and today. Crohn suggests journaling your responses.
It’s typical for people to experience big changes at these time points. In fact, throughout your life, with both culture and religion, “there are usually big ups and downs, experimentation and rebellion,” he says, “before settling on a stable sense of identity.”
After thinking about your identity, it still might be hazy. Crohn says that this is OK. It’s “problematic when you’re negotiating for something you aren’t clear about.”
4. Practice “unconditional experimentation.”
It’s also not productive to negotiate “until you’ve exposed yourself to your partner’s religious practices,” Crohn says. Doing so allows a greater understanding of your partner.
For instance, you might attend church or synagogue with your partner. This doesn’t mean that you’re making any promises, such as converting. But it does show that you take your relationship seriously, and you’re willing to learn more about what’s important to your partner.
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