Faith in Marriage

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One Marriage, Two Faiths

Religion, however, can complicate marriage when spouses hold different beliefs. Today, according to a recent American Religious Identification Survey by the Graduate Center at City University of New York, 22 percent of U.S. households are of mixed faiths (Christian/non-Christian, Christian of different denominations, or believer/nonbeliever). Some 50 percent of Jews and 25 percent of Catholics marry outside their faith, and 16 percent of Americans switch their religious affiliation at some point.

Religious beliefs not only influence our most basic convictions -- what happens after we die, what it means to live a virtuous life -- they also govern a host of daily choices, such as what to eat, how to raise children, even whether or not to use birth control. And "every layer of difference that exists between partners adds complexity to a marriage," says Joel Crohn, PhD, the San Rafael, California-based author of Mixed Matches (Ballantine, 1995). An additional difficulty, says Dr. Crohn, is that before marriage many interfaith couples never discuss what their religion means to them and how the difference will affect their future. Do they intend to go to their respective churches alone or attend alternate churches together? Will they want their child baptized? Celebrate a first communion or bar mitzvah? Such unresolved issues can become emotional minefields. One unfortunate result: Adults who've had children with someone of another faith have a divorce rate three times that of single-faith households. Indeed, disputes over what faith to instill in the children can outlast the marriage. Experts say battles over "soul custody," as it has been called, are on the rise. (The courts have been slow to get involved because many judges believe determining a child's religion is outside their purview.)

The greatest predictor of marital stability, however, isn't whether a couple is of the same faith but how much they agree on the role religion will play in their lives.

Denominational differences don't cause breakups, according to a study at Creighton University's Center for Marriage and Family, in Omaha, Nebraska. It depends on what the couple do together religiously and how they deal with differences. If they can fashion some kind of shared religious life, they will be as stable as any same-church marriage, concludes the study.

Growing numbers of interfaith couples, with the help of support organizations, networks, therapists, and even clergy, are successfully fashioning marriages that incorporate faith, whether that means one partner converting, each remaining with his or her religion of origin, or both embracing a new, blended belief.

Eve Edwards, 34, of McLean, Virginia, found such a compromise. An observant Jew, she had always wanted to share her beliefs with the Roman Catholic college sweetheart she married at 25. Neither spouse ever considered giving up his or her religion. Instead, after much discussion and soul searching the couple chose to raise their children in both faiths.

"We celebrate Easter and Passover, Christmas and Hanukkah," says Edwards. "We tell our children, 'Mommy's Jewish and Daddy's Catholic, and you are Jewish and Catholic.' We tell them that different people envision God differently and different people take different paths. But in the end all paths lead to God." Edwards acknowledges that their family life would have been simpler had she and her husband agreed on one faith from the outset. But the process of deciding how to practice their faiths and what to teach their children, she says, "has given us one more way to share."


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