How to Make Multi-Faith Relationships Work

How to Make Multi-Faith Relationships Work

In “Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century,” Jon M. Sweeney and Michal Woll address the joys and hurdles of being in a multi-faith relationship. Drawing on research, personal stories from friends and acquaintances, and their own experience as a mixed-faith couple, they show that–even as multi-religion romance has become increasingly common in the 21st century–spiritually committed couples can still find the situation challenging. In this exclusive essay for Bookish, Sweeney and Woll break down four guidelines for overcoming the difficulties and focusing on the pleasures of having a partner of a different faith.

Spiritual commitment can matter more than belief

Our friends Rachel and Jeremy met in their 30s after Rachel had already been married and divorced. She’s an involved mainline Protestant, while Jeremy’s an active Conservative Jew. She remembers, after her divorce, praying to God and asking to meet a spiritual man this time around. Meanwhile, Jeremy was ending an unsatisfying relationship with a fellow Jew, one who was completely uninterested in Jeremy’s religious commitments and values. So, the relationship between Rachel and Jeremy progressed quickly and easily despite the Christian-Jewish divide. Today, they’re married and raising two kids, trying to combine the practices and teachings of two religious traditions in one home.

Faiths can be integrated with a little creativity

Then there are Lainie and Phillip: She was raised Catholic and became primarily a practitioner of earth-based, or pagan, religion, and Phillip was raised a Unitarian-Universalist and still remains involved in his church. When they married, Lainie and Phillip integrated a handfasting ritual and a blessing of the four winds into a simple Unitarian ceremony.

Compromise is crucial

Not everyone finds ways to blend so easily. Wendy and Ahmed, for instance, are Christian and Muslim respectively, and they usually visit church and mosque without each other. Exceptions are made on major Christian holidays as well as Fridays when Ahmed visits his mother’s grave near a mosque farther from home. At these moments they attend as a couple, providing each other with support and companionship even though, in the mosque, Wendy’s in the women’s section and not able to take in the experience in Arabic. But, she likes being there with Ahmed.

Agree to disagree

As for us, we determined early on that our family practice would be Jewish—in the home and congregationally, even though Jon is a Catholic. This didn’t preclude Michal from joining Jon at church, but when she goes to mass it is often difficult. Particularly memorable for us, going back to one of our earliest shared religious experiences, was the time we took Jon’s two teenage kids to Christmas Eve mass. We’d only been together as a family for a few months. Michal sat, listened, and enjoyed hearing the singing of a teen she knew from other local activities in town. Jon’s son pretty much fell asleep, or pretended that he was. And his daughter sat reading the book she’d brought with her, showing no intention whatsoever of listening to the service. An hour and a half later, as we walked far enough away from the doors of the church to be out of earshot of others, we debriefed. “Really boring,” was his son’s appraisal, followed by his daughter with decidedly more emotion: “How can people say things that they know they can’t possibly believe!?” And Michal: “I still don’t quite understand why you need Jesus if you have God.” For his part, Jon had a meaningful experience and the post-game critiques didn’t seem to affect that much at all. So if we are any indication of a norm, trying to worship together can be a mixed bag.

The issues are always going to be tough to navigate for couples of interfaith constellations, but our experience is that the benefits can far outweigh the difficulties. A deep spiritual connection and shared values can bridge most religious divides. Be sure to talk, talk, talk. You’ll never succeed without communicating what you feel, what you want and who you are.

Jon M. Sweeney and Michal Woll are the authors of “Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century,” to be published by Jericho Books in October 2013. 

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