“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.
5. Share your histories with each other.
Instead of forcing a decision (e.g., “we’ll have this type of wedding” or “our son will be raised Catholic”), Crohn encourages couples to discuss their religious and cultural experiences with each other. Not only does this take the pressure off, but it gives couples the opportunity to get to know each other better.
6. Consider a course.
Today, there are many courses for relationships, which can help couples resolve a variety of issues. One place to look is www.smartmarriages.com for a wide range of resources. Crohn cautions readers to be discerning consumers and to look for courses that are skills-based, time-limited and inexpensive.
7. View therapy as preventative.
Couples typically wait until their relationship has significantly suffered to seek counseling. Crohn encourages readers to see a therapist before getting to this place. Be proactive. He suggests interviewing the therapist to make sure that they specialize in your concerns.
You can learn more about psychologist and couples specialist Joel Crohn, Ph.D, at his website. He practices in the Los Angeles area, where he also teaches in a family medicine residency program. He is an advocate of creating multidisciplinary “patient-centered medical homes,” where primary care physicians, mental health professionals and other health care providers collaborate in offering effective and affordable health care. You can learn more about psychology-related careers in health care here.