Navigating the Bumpy Terrain of Interfaith Relationships and Marriage (INTERVIEW)
Spiritual teacher Ram Dass once quipped: “If you think you are enlightened go spend a week with your family.”
A family gathering can be especially challenging for interfaith couples, as many no doubt have experienced during the recent Passover and Easter celebrations. To gain insight into the struggles of these couples I interviewed psychotherapist and author Dr. Brenda Shoshanna, who has devoted much of her practice and writings to the issues of interfaith relationships and marriages.
Bernard Starr: Brenda, You have a personal reason for your interest in interfaith relationships and marriage.
Brenda Shoshanna: As someone who was in an interfaith marriage, I’ve directly experienced many of the consequences that continue year after year. And as a therapist who has counseled interfaith couples I’ve found that few are aware of the complexity of what they are getting into, the issues that may emerge, and the delicacy of the interfaith relationship.
Q: Coming from an orthodox Jewish background, why were you willing to get involved in an interfaith relationship? Were you aware of the problems that would result?
A: In my case, I was married on my eighteenth birthday. We eloped after I knew my husband for ten weeks. I was as shocked to find myself married, as was everyone else. Needless to say, many forces contributed to this occurrence.
At the time I met my husband, I was not involved in Jewish practice and was not aware of how deeply Judaism had informed my life—how important it was to me and would be in the future. This was a time of breaking away – my first experience away from home, going to college, and reaching for a freedom I never had before. My great wish was to be in theater, and the man I married was my acting teacher at the time. My focus was on sharing my artistic yearnings with someone who felt the same way. After the marriage my parents sat shiva for me (Jewish mourning for the dead) – and I didn’t see them, or my extended family for a long time.
Q: You have counseled numerous interfaith couples. What are the critical issues that concern most of them?
A: I have spent a good deal of my life not only dealing with interfaith relationships, but working with the interfaith movement – helping to bring peace and understanding between different religions. I don’t believe this work would ever have taken such root in my life, had I not experienced the pain and challenge of being in an interfaith marriage myself.
These days, interfaith relationships are common, and many couples are not in danger of being as severely shunned, as I was. Many couples, however, are still concerned with their family’s reactions— whether they will accept the partner and the effect upon all of their lives.
Q : What happens when families object?
A: Some insist that their child’s partner convert. Resentment about this can surface later. That’s what happened to Bob who I worked with. Even though he converted, he never felt fully part of the family, especially during holidays. He said he always had a sense that he was never “good enough.” Soon Bob also began to feel that he was abandoning his original family. Converts often feel that they must sacrifice a great deal to be loved and accepted.
Q: What about issues related to having children?
A: In some cases, this is easy to work through. In others, not so. In many interfaith relationships, the couples are not deeply involved with their own religion or traditions at the time they marry. Their concerns about marrying someone of another faith revolve more around their families’ reactions and the child rearing issues. Determining how children will be raised should be worked out before marriage. But there is no guarantee that those decisions will hold up.
Q: What role does degree of religiosity play?
A: In relationships in which one or both parties are involved in religious practice, it can be a delicate situation. Some couples negotiate for the opportunity to follow their own religious practice, even if their partners do not participate. Others want their partners to join them, or hope that they eventually will.
For example, Lanny’s deep infatuation with Helen led him to believe that she would become everything he wished for. He expected that in return for his love Helen would join him at church services. When she didn’t, and rejected involvement in his practices, he experienced a great deal of disappointment. Needless to say, demanding that someone fulfill your fantasies of who you want him or her to be, has nothing to do with real love.
Q: What about those who are in denial—shrug off “issues,” or believe that love will conquer all?
A: When two people are “in love” it’s common for the intensity of that feeling to push aside or minimize other concerns. All that matters is being with the “beloved.” While this is a very beautiful feeling, inevitably it changes over time . Sooner or later, differences between the couple emerge which can become a source of conflict. It’s almost impossible for couples to be aware of all the issues and problems which may arise.
We also have religious and cultural expectations of our mates that are unconscious and deeply inbred that can unexpectedly appear. One couple I worked with felt they were emancipated from their Catholic and Jewish upbringings when they married. As time passed however, Steve began to miss his family’s food, traditions and ways of behaving. He found his wife’s responses to things so different from the way he had been raised that she began to seem like a stranger. He expressed a great deal of loneliness in the marriage and his fear of having children with her. No matter what Gloria did to make him happy, she couldn’t replace his sense of family and she began to feel inadequate.
Q: What role does the nature of the couple’s relationship play?
A:The feelings for one another in a marital relationship usually assumes overriding importance, especially if the couple communicate well and meet each other’s needs. In the beginning many believe that they will never need anything but the love of their partner. As time goes by, though, other needs come to the fore—the need for relationships with family and friends, and the need for relationship with the higher self, (soul, God, or the divine). One type of relationship doesn’t replace or eliminate another. When we turn to another person to give us what we need from spirit, or from our higher selves, that’s when trouble begins.
Q: What happens when the degree of religiosity of one or the other changes?
A: As general rule people do change and often in unpredictable ways. This can also happen with couples in same faith marriages when one becomes “religious” and the other does not – or when one who was “religious” opts out of observance.
Sometimes the birth of a child, a crisis, illness, or loss, prompts an individual to suddenly develop a yearning to return to familiar religious practices. This urge can arise unexpectedly and create quite an upheaval.
If one or both partners become more involved in spiritual practice, this will significantly affect the relationship. When the two are not sharing vital experiences, each one can easily drift in a separate direction. Here’s an example from my practice. Over the years, Ron’s involvement in his spirituality deepened. He began leaving for retreats. Although he and his wife were of the same birth religion she did not share his new practice. She began feeling more and more rejected and abandoned each time he left. She grew jealous of his intimacy with those on his path and finally said: “You’re married to your practice, not to me. Choose.”
Q. Didn’t you have a similar experience in your marriage?
A. Yes, I did. In my case, along with practicing Zen meditation for many years, I returned to my original Jewish practice and brought my children along—and they continue to practice Judaism today. Although my husband did not engage in any religious practices, my decision was enormously difficult in many ways. Not only did my marriage basically end when I began to keep the Sabbath, but I also encountered a dismissive response from my religious community. Despite the fact that I attended synagogue with my four children, weekly for years, something negative was always said about interfaith marriages, both from the pulpit and elsewhere in the community. And, even though I knew many people in the congregation, neither I nor my children were ever once invited for a Sabbath meal at anyone’s home. This was a direct result of the fact that in many communities, intermarriage is seen as an act of betrayal, something that cannot be undone, or ever forgiven. Even in communities where things seem more lenient, there’s often a sense of shame cast upon the intermarried person. In this way, those communities are foolishly losing both the children of intermarried couples, the parent, and even the partner, preventing all from coming closer. Then rabbis, priests and others bemoan the fact that people are drifting away. This is a terrible unnecessary loss for all concerned. It is a true challenge and mandate for all religious communities to create an environment where all are welcome, can be nourished, and given the opportunity to grow.
Q: When in the relationship should a couple discuss inter-faith issues?
A: Ideally, it would be wise for the couple to explore religious and spiritual issues early in the relationship, especially if those issues are likely to be contentious. In some instances it might be best to end the relationship. Certainly, when the couple notices their feelings for one another deepening, the inter-faith issues need to be confronted. We cannot simply ignore or minimize who we are without paying a price. When sharp differences and needs are not recognized, accepted or honestly expressed, this often leads to the erosion of love, which can harm the relationship and self esteem.
Q: Should interfaith couples seek counseling—and if so at what point in the relationship?
A: I believe counseling is needed as soon as the couple realizes that the differences between them are disturbing for them and/or their families. We don’t only marry an individual, in many ways we marry their entire family. So, a family’s unresolved conflicts will inevitably affect not only the marriage, but later the children.
Q: Should other family members be brought into the counseling—or could that worsen matters?
A: It’s an act of great respect and wisdom to include the entire family. If the families are willing to talk honestly and openly and really listen to one another, there’s a good chance for building a strong foundation and positively working through differences. Unfortunately many families are not open to an encounter of this kind—or there are differing views within the family. The mother of an interfaith couple I worked with, a Greek Orthodox woman, was inconsolable. She felt that her son’s choice of a wife from another religion was a rejection of all she held dear and a direct slap in her face. She threatened him in every way she could, and finally refused to attend the wedding. Not only did this effect the marriage, but it created a cloud over the rest of his life as well.
Q: What if it’s clear that it will not be smooth sailing with the family—or with some of the family members?
A: It’s almost impossible to forecast the issues and problems that may emerge. Differences are to be expected. Couples and families can learn a lot from differences, if they are willing to listen and respect each person’s point of view. The primary focus should not be on changing another person but on sharing who we are, learning about each other, and honoring feelings. In this framework growth and change can happen. Genuinely listening to others and accepting them as they are is an act of love. Sometimes in the process you discover that a family member will not be able to accept a choice you’ve made. It’s important to be aware of the price you may have to pay for making this choice. Better not to get caught short and then later blame the trouble and pain on your partner.
Q: Should interfaith couples seek guidance from their clergy: priests, ministers, rabbis? Are they likely to be helpful and supportive of an interfaith relationship?
A: This depends very much on the couples’ “religious connections.” A supportive clergy person can help ease the struggle a great deal, and also build bridges between the families. Some clergy will naturally be resistant, lending support to one or another family member who is opposing the marriage. There are also interfaith counselors available who can help guide couples through rough patches. It’s always best to query a counselor first to insure that you will get the help, support, and healing that you need
Q: Isn’t one of the most critical issues child rearing—and decisions about family religious practices?
A: Yes, child rearing issues are often where disputes erupt. Even if couples ignore or downplay child rearing before they have children, when children arrive that’s likely to change. Many individuals want to share with their children the traditions and values they grew up with. If parents have different traditions, this has to be handled carefully, so as not to confuse or trouble the child. Certainly, never make the child take sides. These days, however, it seems that more and more people are moving away from identifying with their religious upbringing or tradition. Many feel that they haven’t found the fulfillment and meaning they’ve longed for and search elsewhere. Others say they’ll let their children decide when they become older. What do they transmit to their children then? This is frequently an unanswered question. The formative years of childhood are very important for offering a way to celebrate, honor and connect with the sacred aspect of life. If the children have no examples of this at home, what will they base their future choices on? But choice can also bring conflict. For example, Mark and Leslie’s second child, Evan, was fascinated with the songs and stories of Judaism, and kept asking to go to services as his friend down the block did every week. Mark agreed to take him, but Leslie, being raised as a Baptist felt anxious and did all she could to prevent it . “Let him choose on his own, later,” she insisted, fearing that her son’s interest in Judaism would create distance between him and her. But Mark insisted on responding to his son’s need and started taking him to the synagogue regularly. This choice ultimately had a damaging effect upon the marriage, which ended several years later, after Leslie met a Baptist man and chose to be with him.
Q: As you noted, today we hear a lot about many young people becoming secular, more universally spiritual rather than religious—Christians switching denominations, Jews and others embracing Buddhism and other Eastern traditions. How is this trend impacting interfaith relationships? Do these trends make it more comfortable for interfaith couples, or does it seduce them into thinking it will be easy?
A: Defining yourself as “spiritual” rather than “religious” can mean many things. Being spiritual may sound easier, or more abstract, but true spiritual practice is as demanding as any religious practice. It requires consciousness, vigilance and awareness. Ultimately, there is no difference between authentic religious and spiritual practice. The distinction is bogus in my eyes.
I believe that the switching denominations is simply the search for a place that resonates with who we are and what we truly believe. Buddhism, for example, does not conflict with any religious practice. In fact Buddhist practice can enhance and intensify other religious practices. I believe the reason many are drifting away from traditional religious identification is that they no longer want to be bound by guilt. They are searching for the true inspiration that is so badly needed in these chaotic times. Individuals do not want to see their religious institutions function as business or political ventures, but as a place where the spiritual teachings come to life. They seek honesty and authenticity. They long to be touched by spirit and are have trouble finding it in many traditional congregations.
Q: How do psychological factors fit into the picture—e.g. self confidence, self worth, etc.?
A: All true and vital religious and spiritual practices develop confidence and self worth in the individual— not ego but a desire to grow, share and express what one has discovered. It takes enormous strength to travel the path, no matter what obstacles appear. Some of us have no choice but to do so. Life without our soul’s guidance (or higher selves), without a direct taste of the divine, becomes ultimately empty, no matter how close we are to others and how beautiful this life can be.
Q: Under what circumstances would you discourage an interfaith relationship or marriage?
A: It’s not up to me to encourage or discourage any relationship. I would strongly point out though that an interfaith marriage has the potential to present extra problems and difficulties that one must be prepared to deal with. For some it will never make a difference. Others may find themselves walking in a mine field. If they come from strong religious backgrounds, it’s very possible for old feelings and longings to surface. They may want to return to their background and practices and be unwilling to do so for fear of introducing conflict or losing the marriage. In some instances, though, circumstances trigger changes.
Hal is a good example. He was raised Jewish, dearly loved his Protestant wife Sandy and did all he could to make her happy. However, when his mother died suddenly in a car accident, he was shocked and terrified by the sudden loss. To his amazement, he only found solace in returning to the synagogue to say Kadish – the prayers for dead, which go on for one year. By the end of that year, his life had turned around one hundred and eighty degrees. Sandy said he was unrecognizable, not the man she once knew. She could not accept Hal with his new-found observance. The marriage soon ended.
Q: In view of the complexity of interfaith relationships and the potential bumps in the road ahead, is it possible to offer general principles or guidelines?
A: I strongly feel that it is very valuable for interfaith couples to share with one another and support each other along the potentially bumpy road. There is no better medicine for a relationship than to pray, meditate or contemplate together, and share the experience of the sacred. This may not be possible in an interfaith marriage unless the partners have explored their feelings and backgrounds and have found deep harmony. Support groups where couples can discuss their common experiences can be extremely helpful. There is a strong sense of healing and power in joining together with like minded souls.
I also think that children of Interfaith marriages often feel that they are rejecting one parent by taking on the religious practices of the other parent. It’s important for this to be discussed and worked through. For those couples who celebrate both traditions, it would be wonderful to have religious instruction for the children that includes each parent’s tradition. When done honestly, it would be inevitable for the children to see the many common points between the religions as well as the differences. When any tradition is truly lived, how can harm result? Embracing the spiritual core of religious traditions produces kindness, acceptance and love. If those are not the outcome we have to look more deeply at what is really going on.
Starr: Thanks Brenda. It’s clear that interfaith marriages are a reality that individuals, families, and religious leaders would be wise to relate to in a constructive manner. Bemoaning, shunning or condemning interfaith marriages serves no one.
Shoshanna: That’s why I’m establishing “One Tent,” a center for meditation, contemplation and celebration that will be open to people of all faiths. As our forefather Abraham has taught us, we should welcome all into the tent and share our mutual inspiration and experiences of the divine. Hopefully, in this way, the conflicts and friction between different faiths will be replaced by mutual respect and harmony. These gatherings will not replace others places of worship or practice. Hopefully, they will be a way of enhancing understanding, harmony, and a deeper connection with all of life.
Brenda Shoshanna is a psychologist, speaker and author of many books including: Jewish Dharma (The Practice of Judaism and Zen), Zen and the Art of Falling in Love, and most recently, Just Grab The Dust Rag (Confessions of a Deluded Zen Student Who Never Learned A Thing), and many more. She is the founder of “One Tent” (Center for Meditation, Contemplation and Inspiration). Website: www.drshoshanna.com
Bernard Starr is a psychologist, journalist, and college professor. His latest book is Jesus Uncensored:Restoring the Authentic Jew. He is also organizer of the art exhibit “Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide.” Website: www.bernardstarr.com