The Emotional Challenges of Interfaith Marriage
There is a rapid rate of intermarriage among people of different faiths in the United States. Estimates are that 50 percent of Jewish men and women intermarry. Several articles about the Catholic Church have pointed out that many young people have left the Church and have intermarried. These facts are indicative of the high degree of assimilation and tolerance that is practiced in this country. This is taken as evidence of the declining role of faith and religious identity in the minds of many young Americans. Surveys, in fact, show that many do not identify themselves with any religion.
Interfaith marriage usually occurs between one person who is Jewish and another who is Christian. However, there are increasing numbers of young Catholics and Protestants intermarrying. Generally, this is viewed as less difficult for the young couple because of a commonly shared theology and culture. Nevertheless, even among Christian sects, interfaith marriage poses serious problems and creates crises for the couple and their respective families.
Separation and Guilt
According to Judith Wallerstein, author of The Good Marriage: How & Why Love Lasts (Warner Books, 1996), for a marriage to succeed, the young couple must psychologically and emotionally separate from their families of childhood. If the in-laws are against intermarriage, the stage is set for conflict, bitterness and misunderstanding, with damaging and long-lasting consequences for these relationships. Also, such hostility can provoke enormous guilt for the young bride or groom. This guilt makes the task of emotional separation more difficult to achieve.
Perhaps the greatest task of all is coping with feelings of guilt about having left the fold and defied the family. Until recently, there was little help for those who wanted to marry someone from another religion. Many such people agonized over the fact that they were leaving their religious heritage. Many priests, rabbis and ministers who were alarmed at the number of people who appeared to be abandoning the Church and the synagogue reinforced that guilt.
For Jews in particular, there is the guilt of contributing to the possible demise of their religion through the process of assimilation and intermarriage. Intermarriage confronts the Jew with the specter of the Holocaust and the memory of German Jews who believed they were assimilated until Hitler reminded them that they were Jews and not Germans. Here, too, members of the community accuse the person who is about to intermarry of being a Jewish anti-Semite, believing that the reason for the marriage is to escape a Jewish identity. They also blame this individual for contributing to the future disappearance of the Jewish people through intermarriage.
Faith, Conversion, and Religious Identity
The Christian partner does not fare much better. For this person, there can be the problem of coping with latent prejudice, which spills over when the family is faced with this new reality. Then, too, there is the matter of faith. Religious families decry the abandonment of the Catholic or Protestant way and fear for the soul of the individual who is departing from “the one true road to salvation.”