Interfaith marriages are becoming more common worldwide. But unlike marriages between couples who hold the same religious or cultural beliefs, interfaith marriages have some unique challenges. Unsurprisingly, these often emerge as couples kickstart their wedding planning. We spoke with leading interfaith wedding officiant and author the Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway about interfaith couples and her recently published book, Your Interfaith Wedding: A Guide to Blending Faiths, Cultures, and Personal Values into One Beautiful Wedding Ceremony. Below, she talks about how interfaith couples can overcome these challenges through thoughtful planning and teamwork.
Q: What is an interfaith marriage?
A: People tend to think of “interfaith” as Jewish and Christian but it is actually an umbrella term for many diverse pairings. The combinations are unlimited. When any two people of differing faith or cultural backgrounds decide to marry it is considered interfaith. On one end of the spectrum is a Catholic marrying a Lutheran – both are Christians but technically of different faiths. Or it could be a union between a Hindu from Trinidad and an African-American Jehovah’s Witness. In that scenario there is a blending of both religions and cultures. The most recent Pew study tells us that about 37 percent of all marriages are interfaith.
Q: Is there a common thread between these couples?
A: The common denominator boils down to a four-letter word: LOVE. They love each another, therefore, they are willing to rise up against the odds, or ignore them, and build a life together.
Q: You have officiated many interfaith weddings. Looking back on your extensive career, what have been some of the most surprising lessons you’ve learned?
A: It has been a great delight to discover that a “wedding chapel” can be created anywhere—on a beach, in a park or hotel, or even in a castle. The love between the couple creates an energy that radiates and it is very holy. Another delightful lesson: Families tend to get very stressed and demanding when it comes to planning a wedding but they settle down by the wedding day—after the ceremony.
Q: What inspired you to write Your Interfaith Wedding: A Guide to Blending Faiths, Cultures and Personal Values into One Beautiful Wedding Ceremony?
A: This book is a very personal mission for me. It is all my years in interfaith wedding ministry in a book! I serve so many diverse couples, from so many different backgrounds and points of view. The book includes the ceremonies, stories and wisdom of hundreds of the couples I have married. It is filled with rituals, prayers, readings and information on so many different faiths and traditions. It takes you from the start of the process — figuring out the kind of ceremony you want — through the entire experience of creating a personalized wedding ceremony. I get so many calls from couples in different parts of the country asking me for help and ideas for complex wedding situations. I wanted to put it all together in a book to help couples figure out how to weave together their different cultures, traditions, faiths, personal values and families. I wanted them to know it is possible.
Q: You mentioned in your book that one of the trends you see is couples choosing various spiritual and meaningful elements from their religions or cultures to incorporate into their wedding. What other trends have you noticed in interfaith wedding planning?
A: The other trend I see in my ministry is very personalized, meaningful ceremonies that celebrate the love between the couple, honor the families that are united on that day, and tell the unique love story of the bride and groom—without mentioning religion or God. Some couples want to walk the middle ground and keep religious and tradition out of the ceremony.
Q: In your book, you note that the most common challenge you see with interfaith couples are brides or grooms concerned with appeasing religious or very traditional parents. What are other common challenges interfaith couples face?
A: Sometimes the challenges lie within —our own deep down prejudices and judgments. Some couples have to truly get beyond that in themselves. Some couples are spiritually confused; they don’t feel inspired by their faith but feel connected to it by guilt. Other couples have a faith imbalance, where one partner is more religious and the other is atheist or “lapsed,” so they have to seek a middle ground. The other challenge is keeping a united front as a couple while tackling any family issues together. If groom or bride falls under the strong influence of their families, it creates a lot of friction in the relationship.
Q: What are the best ways couples can deal with such challenges?
A: First off, each partner has to take personal responsibility for his or her own issues and work on them individually. In addition, couples have to master the art of dialoging with each other and talking things through. We have to remember that relationships of any kind are an opportunity to grow and evolve as human beings. I am a big believer in therapy or spiritual counseling, as needed.
Q: In one chapter, you tell of a mother upset over the ceremonial lighting of the unity candle. Her son was so afraid of her rejection that he never discussed his relationship or the wedding ceremony. How can couples open up communications with their families?
A: The best approach to dealing with parents who resent or reject your union is with empathy, and trying to understand their point of view and feeling — and then giving them time to adjust. Ultimately, you have to decide what is right for you, but attempting to hear their point of view is an important part of the process for all. It is an exercise in understanding the culture your family or in-laws hail from and it allows you to prepare for married life.
The issues that surface during planning a wedding are a microcosm of the issues that may underline your ongoing family relationships so it is so important to pay attention. These are the things that will get exacerbated during family functions, holidays and when the children come.
Q: Part Two of your book is devoted to putting together the wedding ceremony. What are the essential questions couples need to ask when figuring out how to organize their wedding?
- Where does religion fit in? For example, if you’ve not stepped into a synagogue since a childhood Chanukah party, would you want a Jewish ceremony with a rabbi or a cantor? Or would you perhaps just like a symbol of the religion, such as the breaking of the glass or a Hebrew prayer?
- What type of ceremony is most suited to you? Would a traditional ceremony be most suited to the two of you – or not? Or would you rather blend in aspects of your traditions in a nondenominational ceremony? Or would something romantic and offbeat be more your style?
- What are your special needs? Think about the requirements you each may have. Is one of you more religious or traditional than the other? Is one of you atheist or agnostic? How much do you want to honor your heritage and the traditions of your parents and family, etc?
- What do you two truly want? Most importantly, be completely honest with one another (and then, your officiant). Honor your heritage and your parents, but make sure you are creating this ceremony for the two of you – not just to please others.
Q: What advice can you offer to couples who are trying to figure out how to blend their individual cultures or religions and create a unified family?
A: Be clear on your own personal spirituality and the traditions you most love about your own faith. Learn about the traditions and beliefs of your partner’s faith. Be respectful of your family and their beliefs, and be respectful of your spouse’s family and their beliefs, but find your own unique path — together. Love your family but focus on creating your own new family unit and make your relationship to one another the most important thing. Learn to compromise without conforming in an unnatural way. Communicate. Seek counseling when needed.
In the words of Michael who married Jennifer in a Jewish-Christian interfaith ceremony, “Holidays are easy. On Hanukkah we go to my family and on Christmas we go to Jen’s.” Every couple needs to find their sweet spot when it comes to spirituality and blending families. Seek to gather in the whole family in your love and strive for family closeness, but also protect your love and your relationship by forming appropriate boundaries so that family cannot instigate issues in your marriage.
Q: What is your personal philosophy on interfaith unions?
A: I believe in the power of true love and soul mates—that people who are meant to be together find one another. True love is a gift, even when an adoring, committed partner does not quite fit the ideal of our fantasies or arrive in the outer package our parents imagined for us. My philosophy is that love between two people is a sacred union and it adds a dimension of holiness to our world that cannot be categorized by religion or culture.
Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway is a widely recognized expert in interfaith, multicultural and nondenominational weddings, and bridal stress. She has an active wedding ministry in New York City and serves hundreds of couples each year. She is author of 13 books, including Your Interfaith Wedding: A Guide to Blending Faiths, Cultures and Personal Values into One Beautiful Wedding Ceremony, just released by Praeger Publishing.
As a leading interfaith minister and wedding officiant, she is known for her warm, loving and creative approach to blessing couples of all backgrounds and faiths, and for guiding them on their journey to the altar and beyond. Visit her at www.WeddingGoddess.com.