Interfaith couples counseling: an often neglected niche in couples therapy

Is interfaith couples counseling even relevant to our modern pluralistic society?

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, in the U.S., 69% of married couples share an identical religious background.

Some studies show that religious differences in a marriage aren’t perceived as dauntingly insurmountable as they may have been in previous generations.

This relaxed attitude could be unfortunate for many interfaith couples.

Another study indicates that almost 40% of Americans who have tied the knot since 2010 did so with a partner from a different religious heritage.

How much have Americans changed around interfaith marriage? Consider this…fewer than 20% of couples who married before 1960 were interfaith couples.

We have to be careful with what we mean by “interfaith.” Many contemporary interfaith marriages are between spouses who identify as Christians and their spouses who describe themselves as “religiously unaffiliated.”

When you look at Americans who have married since 2010, 18% are marriages between a Christian and a religiously unaffiliated partner. This was only true for only 5% of Americans who married before 1960.

Interfaith couples counseling and the pursuit of marital durability

Some research indicates that marriages between spouses of the same religious background may be inherently more durable than interfaith marriages.

This makes sense because shared meaning and a similar worldview are to be expected with a shared religious heritage..

Research also tells us that family support is a crucial variable in early marriage. Similar religious traditions promote an easy familiarity within both extended families.

However, it’s apparent that interfaith marriages are becoming increasingly commonplace. And research shows that it’s even occurring more often with co-habitating partners who are not yet married or choose not to marry at all.

How prevalent is it? Nearly half (49%) of co-habitating unmarried couples in the U.S. are living with a partner from a different religious tradition.

The Pew research also tells us that some religious backgrounds are more likely than other traditions to choose a partner from the same faith. This is true whether they are married or co-habitating. These traditions are somewhat more culturally impenetrable.

For example, over 90% of U.S. Hindus, nearly 80% of Muslims, and over 80% of Mormons are committed to partners of the same faith. The same is also true for these groups whether they are married or not.

On the other hand, about 60% of Protestants, 65% of American Jews, and well over 50% of the “religiously unaffiliated” are in interfaith relationships.

The hidden problems of being an interfaith couple

Perhaps the greatest issue confronting interfaith couples is the tendency for some to minimize and marginalize the potential difficulties that their union may present to their respective extended families.

Unfortunately, many interfaith couples do not see interfaith couples counseling as an essential task of their preparation for marriage.

While interfaith unions raise comparatively few eyebrows these days, marrying outside your religious tradition requires you both to be keenly sensitive to the dilemma you may be presenting to your respective families of origin.

You need to show a sensitive, but united front.

Interfaith couples have a parallel responsibility to manage difficult family members with humor, respect, flexibility, and firmness. Each partner must defend their spouse within their family of origin and demand respect.

You must each draw a protective circle around your marriage. Cultivating an abiding sense of “we-ness” is essential. Pre-marital counseling for interfaith couples is always a good idea because it will give you concrete strategies for defending your marriage.

The dilemma and peril of being an interfaith couple

Some argue that interfaith marriage is good for our pluralistic society. They say that interfaith marriages bring families together who might otherwise never come into meaningful contact with each other. They are of the firm belief that interreligious marriage between different groups makes a  society more integrated, and consequently more tolerant.

But these optimistic pundits aren’t looking at the small picture.

For whatever cultural benefits might be bestowed, interfaith marriage can be profoundly challenging to couples and families.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, spouses in interfaith marriages are three times more likely to be divorced or separated than spouses from the same religious background.

Can there be interfaith differences within faiths?

Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, published a paper 25 years ago which found that if members of two similar mainstream Christian denominations marry, they have a 20% chance divorcing in five years.

A Catholic and a member of an evangelical Christian denomination have a 33% chance over the same period. But look what happens when a Christian and a Jew marry.

According to Lehrer’s researchthey have a greater than a 40% chance of divorcing within five years. More recent research reveals that even couples who differ in their degree of religious observance and even differing degrees of the same or similar religious belief may result in marital friction.

Research conducted by Margaret Vaaler, Christopher Ellison and Daniel Powers of the University of Texas at Austin less than a decade ago found higher rates of divorce when if husband attends religious services more often than his wife, and also when a wife is more religiously conservative than her spouse.

I bet these couples didn’t start out thinking that differences in their Christianity would cause marital strife.

Yes, I know. Some of you might say, well, that’s Texas. But Texans take the sanctity of marriage very seriously. Since 1982, the Texas divorce rate has been steadily declining. When they hit a rough patch, couples in Texas pursue couples therapy avidly. But religious differences may present real and unexpected challenges to certain couples.

I think the heart of the problem is that our secular, pluralistic society has discounted the importance of religious differences. The secular orientation of most therapists doesn’t help much either.

Some feel that it is backward or rude to care about such matters. But numbers don’t lie. Religious differences promote many opportunities for family friction, toxic rivalries, and divisive alliances.

Interfaith couples counseling is a good idea for many couples. It will help them to explore volatile family issues well ahead of time. Modern couples would do well to have a healthy respect for interfaith issues. It’s best to face them head-on and early with interfaith marital counseling. Marriage isn’t just about love. Sometimes it’s about growth too.

19 vital topics to discuss in your interfaith marriage couples counseling

  • Don’t minimize or ignore your religious differences. Talk them through with a qualified science-based couples therapist.
  • Don’t think that goodwill will get you through. Expect challenges and prepare for them.
  • Remember that some compromises will be easier. But some religious issues require a choice. Do we Baptize?…Circumcise?…Tithe?…these may be uncomfortable conversations. Have them early.
  • On the other hand, don’t be fatalistic. Religious differences are not insurmountable. Pre-marital interfaith couples counseling can reduce your possibility of divorce by 30% or more.
  • Recognize the importance of respecting, accepting, and dealing with your religious differences head-on.
  • Family cut-offs are a sign of immaturity. Stand your ground. Together. But seek to stay connected to your family of origin.
  • Don’t think conversion is the answer. It’s not.
  • Don’t think that family concerns are irrelevant. Don’t try to dictate to your family of origin what they need to worry about.
  • Don’t let them dictate to you either.
  • Notice similarities in your religious traditions. Find uniquely personal ways to blend tradition and share meaning.
  • Don’t be wildly pessimistic or optimistic. Religious differences may present a perpetual problem that will require constant attention. Interfaith couples counseling can help you manage your differences while remaining emotionally connected.
  • Talk about your children. Including your unborn children. How will they be raised? How will you collaborate?
  • Don’t be so quick to assume that religious differences don’t matter. Different religious traditions are a jungle of nuance.
  • Plan ahead for the religious holidays. Find ways to collaborate and share. But don’t get competitive, and don’t let your families draw you into competitive struggles either.
  • Share your beliefs and traditions. But don’t impose on your partner.
  • Don’t let faith difference become a “fight about nothing.”
  • Always keep your extended family out of your marital differences.
  • But keep your respective families in the loop on how you are spending the holidays.
  • Hold your ground about what traditions matter to you. And allow your partner to do the same.

Are you a struggling interfaith couple? Call us now for proven, science-based help

Originally published October 9, 2018

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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