Religious Affiliation

To Change or Not to Change

At some point in their journey, most couples consider, even if only briefly, the possibility of one or both individuals changing religious affiliation. In fact, one study found that 43.8% of couples that were initially interchurch later became same-church through one or both partners changing religious affiliation. Therefore, the focus of this unit is to explore the topic of whether or not to change religious affiliation.

No Right or Wrong Answer

Should individuals change religious affiliation to create a same-church marriage, or should each partner remain committed to their own religious affiliation? Couples have built successful marriages choosing both paths. Therefore, the question is not whether or not one approach is right or wrong, but rather, which approach best fits you and your partner’s needs. Each approach has potential advantages and disadvantages, which will be described below. Couples must weigh the importance of each of these factors in making their decision.

Reasons Why Some Changed Religious Affiliation

Individuals who were interchurch relationships changed religious affiliation for a number of reasons. These reasons include:

Preferred the New Denomination – In a national survey, individuals who were originally in an interchurch relationship indicated that the most important reason they changed religious affiliation was that they preferred the new denomination. Through an interchurch relationship, individuals become exposed to and learned about their partner’s denomination. For some individuals, they find their partner’s denomination a better fit than the one in which they were originally raised. Bernadette, for example, was raised Lutheran by her parents. Through her marriage with Phillip, she learned more about the Catholic Church. Over time, Bernadette discovered that the Catholic teachings were a better fit with her beliefs, and she eventually joined the Catholic Church. In some cases, individuals change churches for non-doctrinal reasons (e.g., they find the other church more welcoming or supportive).

A Stronger Marriage and Family – The national survey also revealed that another key motive for individuals to change religious affiliation was the belief that their marriage or family would be stronger if they were united on issue of religion. For example, Marie expressed concern that families have enough problems as it is without being “split on the religion issue.” She felt the family would be stronger if it had one faith. Adam expressed a similar desire for unity, stating, “The point of getting married is two becoming one. And, what is the point of doing that if you’re living separate lives, especially in an area as intimate as your faith.”

Desire to Worship Together – Another key reason for individuals to change religious affiliation was the desire to worship together as a couple. This desire may be closely related to wanting a united marriage for many individuals.

For the Children – Children was another common motivation for changing religious affiliation. Some couples feel that the children will receive a mixed message about religion, or will be confused by being raised in two different religious traditions. How couples address the religious upbringing of children will be explored in more depth in the next unit.

Both Changed as a Compromise – Some individuals reported that one reason they changed religious affiliation was out of a compromise. Rather than require only one individual to change religious affiliation, some couples agree to look for a church that will be mutually agreeable to both. Peggy and Matt both became Episcopalian because it offered elements that both wanted from a church. Peggy, a former Catholic, said she needed a church that had kneeling benches, liturgy, and communion similar to the Catholic Church. Matt, an organist, needed a church with good music.

To Keep a Relationship – Some individuals also felt pressured by their partners to change religious affiliation, or risk losing the relationship. Beth admitted that she didn’t want a disagreement over religion to keep her and her partner from getting married, so she changed religious affiliation. Although Beth was raised Catholic, she said that her partner didn’t want the family split by going to two different churches, but was “real head-strong” about not becoming Catholic. Beth said, “I guess I wanted to get married so bad I did, more or less tell him, ‘Yes, I would change.’” However, she later reported feeling resentment over this issue.

Keep the Peace in Extended Family – For a small number of people, they changed religious affiliation in order to keep peace within the extended family. One woman became Catholic because her husband’s family was strongly Catholic. Otherwise, her different religious background would have been a “bone of contention” in the marriage and extended family.

Reasons Why Some Individuals Did Not Change

Just as some individuals had compelling reasons for changing religious affiliation, research also uncovered compelling reasons why others did not change religious affiliation:

Don’t Accept Beliefs – In some cases, individuals disagreed with the beliefs of their partner’s church. Therefore, they felt they could not change religious affiliation because of an incompatibility of beliefs. An individual’s disagreement with the beliefs could be based on an informed view of what those beliefs or practices were, or it could be based on misperceptions or stereotypes.

Church Traditions – Some people did not change religious affiliation because they cherished or valued certain religious traditions within their own church. Because Jean has been active in her husband’s church for 12 years, people will ask her why she doesn’t simply join that church. She responds, “There are certain traditions in the Catholic faith or the Catholic religion that are very important to me that I’m not willing to give up.”

Loss of Identity – For many individuals, their denominational affiliation is an integral part of their identity, making it difficult for them to change religious affiliation. When Michael was asked if he ever thought of changing religious affiliation, he declared no, and justified it by saying he was an “old South Omaha Irish Catholic.” Like Michael, one’s religious identity can be tied with one’s racial or ethnic identity, making it even more difficult to consider changing religious affiliation. Identities are also heavily shaped by family experiences growing up. For many, family rituals are often intertwined with religious rituals. Therefore, changing affiliation may alter both religious and family traditions, creating another potential loss.

Family Reactions – Some individuals reported that they would not change religious affiliation because doing so would mean going against family tradition and risk losing family acceptance. Alex described how he was open to changing religions, but felt that it would be a disaster if he did because he came from a strongly Catholic family, which included family members who were priests. Jefferson said that one thing that has held him back from changing religious affiliation has been his mother, who would strongly object to his becoming Catholic.

Change is a Process

It is important to recognize that making a decision to change or not to change religious affiliation is a process. Learning about each other’s religious traditions is critically important, particularly for those who may seriously consider changing religious affiliation. Learning about a new religious tradition takes time. Although a significant percentage (37.2%) of interchurch couples become same-church within the first year of marriage, the process can take longer for other couples. For 22.3% of the couples, change of affiliation did not occur until after five years of marriage. Jacob, for example, did not change to Catholicism until he and his wife had been married for seven years and had four children.

Even after an individual decides to change religious affiliation, it may take even longer for that person to be fully comfortable with the change. Beth said that it took 15 years before she could say going to a Presbyterian Church was going to “her” church instead of her husband’s church. Cheryl, a former Catholic, said she struggled with in her conversion to a Protestant church because she was taught growing up that the Catholic Church is the one true church. With time, however, individuals can come to fully embrace the new denomination. Although Cheryl initially struggled with her change, she eventually entered seminary to become a Presbyterian minister.


After reflecting on the following questions, share with your partner your answers.

  1. The unit described several factors that led some individuals to change religious affiliation. Which of these factors might encourage you to consider changing religious affiliation?
  2. The unit also described several factors that led individuals to maintain rather than change their religious affiliation. Which of these factors might discourage you from changing religious affiliation?
  3. What beliefs or religious practices do you cherish most from your faith tradition?
  4. What beliefs or religious practices do you think your partner cherishes most from his or her faith tradition?
  5. What beliefs or religious practices do you find most appealing about your partner’s faith tradition?