Creating a Positive Out of Religious Differences
One of the most important things that couples from different religious backgrounds need to learn is how to deal with their religious differences. If not properly managed, religious differences can become a source of conflict and tension within the relationship. However, if properly managed, religious differences can become a catalyst for growth. This unit examines constructive ways to work with religious differences that will enrich rather than divide you as a couple.
Common Myths about Religious Differences
There are two common myths about religious differences that couples may need to dispel to effectively work with religious differences. The first myth is that only interchurch or interfaith couples have important religious differences. Religious differences can exist between all couples, even those who belong to the same church or religion. Two Catholics, for example, may differ on how important attending church is to them, or which teachings they believe in.
A second myth is the belief that religious differences are inherently problematic. There is some truth to this myth. Unfortunately, human beings have a tendency to mistrust differences, and can have a negative view toward people with different beliefs. Charles admitted that in the beginning of his marriage, “I had pretty well all the answers, and that I knew what I believed. And, by golly, she was wrong. Somehow I was going to make sure that she knew that.” Therefore, religious differences do have the potential to create problems if individuals are not careful in how they approach these differences. What this myth does not acknowledge, however, is that religious differences can lead to positive outcomes if they are effectively handled. Couples often find, to their surprise, that religious differences have the potential to enrich one another and their relationship. The next section describes some of these benefits.
The Potential Benefits of Having Religious Differences
Couples who explored their religious differences often found that that the experience strengthened their own spirituality. A genuine exploration of each other’s faith can lead individuals to examine their own beliefs more closely. After admitting that he tried to prove his wife’s beliefs were wrong, Charles reflected, “Not only did I learn that I don’t have all the answers, but I also learned to start to find out what I really believed. There was a tendency to just assume that I knew what I believed. But then when you’ve got somebody on the other side saying, ‘Why do you believe that?’ Well, no one’s ever asked you that question before. It kind of forces you to go back and start asking, ‘Well, yeah, why do we all believe that?’ and, so I think you grow in faith when you’re challenged like that. I think my faith is deeper because of her, and because I was forced to look at what I believed.”
Spiritual growth can also come from being exposed to different perspectives. One Catholic woman shared how her Baptist husband helped her incorporate the Bible into her spiritual life in a way she found helpful. Getting different perspectives by attending both church services was also cited as being helpful. Erica said that her husband’s pastor goes through a more theological perspective on the readings, while her priest tries to apply it to daily life. Another individual offered that being in an interchurch group with couples of different faiths was a rich experience because “everybody had so much to offer.”
Finally, exploring differences can lead individuals to become more accepting or tolerant of other religious traditions. Beth said she has become more inclusive in her thinking, and recognizes that we are all here for some purpose and believe in one God. Danielle said, “I know we’ve all had preconceived notions about our opposite religion before we knew each other and started dating. So, I think I am personally more open to other people’s views and less judgmental of them.” Chris said that being exposed to a different religion has made him more open to other faiths and challenged some of his “intellectual arrogance.”
Guidelines for Managing Religious Differences
The following section describes positive things to do to manage religious differences, as well as things to avoid. By following these do’s and don’ts, it is hoped that you can turn your religious differences into an asset for your relationship.
Learn About Your Partner’s Faith
It is important that individuals make an effort to learn about their partner’s faith. Otherwise, religious differences can be a barrier in the relationship. One man described walls that were in the couple’s relationship until they began to explore each other’s faith. Conversely, exploring each other’s faith can enhance the intimacy for the couple. Chris stated that being curious about each other’s religion had led to hours of conversation.
Making the effort to learn about our partner’s faith also conveys love and acceptance. By learning more about our partner’s faith, we are demonstrating in a concrete way that we value who our partner is and our desire to know them better. One woman even attended religious education classes at her partner’s church just to learn more about her partner’s faith. This level of commitment to learn about a partner’s faith sends a powerful love message.
Individuals can learn about their partner’s faith in a number of different ways. Attending each other’s places of worship was one way that many couples learned more about their partner’s faith. Having conversations about each other’s beliefs was also important. Others also read literature about the other’s faith, or even attended religious education classes in the other’s church.
When exploring each other’s faith, both individuals will ideally adopt the spirit of a traveler who ventures to a different land to witness the customs and beliefs of a different culture. The traveler goes with the hope of discovering something new and exciting. As we observe this new culture, we note both ways in which it is similar and different from our own. In this manner, we learn not only about the new culture, but also our own.
Couples sometimes face barriers when learning more about their partner’s faith. For example, unfamiliarity or negative preconceptions about their partner’s religion or denomination can be an initial barrier to learning more. Alicia was raised hearing negative views of Catholics in the church she grew up in, and was originally apprehensive about going to a Catholic mass with her fiancé. In time, however, individuals become more open to learning about their partner’s church as they become more familiar with it, and their negative misconceptions are proven to be untrue. Alisha said, “I never would have thought to walk into another church. And now I feel comfortable going to any church.”
Another potential barrier is if one or both individuals are not well informed about their own faith tradition. In some cases, individuals may not know a lot about their own church teachings or may even be misinformed about them. This can lead to some confusion as to what the differences really are between the couple.
Look for Commonalities
Successful couples often commented on the temptation to focus on religious differences, but stressed the importance of looking for commonalities. Robert said that too often “you tend to focus on a relatively small amount of differences and tend to ignore the acute body of stuff that’s similar.” Ellen said, “When we first got married, nobody had you talk about what was the same. All you ever heard about was, ‘These are your differences.’ We knew we had differences, but not until later, did we ever talk about what was the same. Now you still know the differences are there. You don’t minimize the differences, but now you spend a lot more time on – we can worship together, the creeds are the same.”
Couples with religious differences can focus on their commonalities in a number of different ways. Several interchurch individuals focus on the fact that both are Christians, and pay less attention to denominational differences. When talking about baptism, Louis said that when they first got married, the baptism of his daughter in a different church was a big deal. Now 15 years later, it is not a big deal because he recognizes that she’s baptized into the Christian family. In a similar vein, many interchurch individuals stressed that both partners believe in the same God. Doug said, “My God isn’t different from hers because I’m Presbyterian. My God, to me, isn’t any different than her God in the Catholic Church.”
Some interchurch couples believe that it is important to focus more on each person’s spiritual relationship with God and less on the differences between the churches. Lance stated, “As long as your focus is on our church does it this way and the minister said this, or Sunday school is different, you will never make any progress.”
Learning more about each other’s faith can also uncover commonalities. For example, interchurch individuals often discovered after visiting their partner’s church that the two churches were more similar than originally perceived. Doug said, “We didn’t know there was anything the same because we had never stepped inside a Lutheran or Catholic Church.”
Respect and Acceptance of Differences
Couples from different religious backgrounds also emphasized the need to respect their partner by accepting their partner’s differences. There was a strong belief among many interchurch individuals that it is not right to judge others. Doug said that he wonders about some things in his wife’s church, but reminds himself that it is not for him to judge what is right or wrong. Another individual said, “I’m sure Jesus would want us to try to be accepting and understanding of each other despite minor differences.” Others believed in the old adage “different strokes for different folks.” For example, Vanessa stated, “I feel that everybody has his or her own way of worshiping and Catholic Church is not the only way to do it, although it’s the way for me.”
Don’t Try to Change the Other Person
In interviews with interchurch individuals, many shared how early in their marriage they challenged their partner’s beliefs or practices. Peter showed his fiancée a book that described the different religions, and used the book to point out what he didn’t like about her faith. Another couple, Jeff and Margaret, admitted that in the beginning of their marriage, they were each out to try to convert the other and would point out what was wrong with the other’s beliefs.
Unfortunately, this approach can lead to conflict in the relationship, leaving one or both partners feeling angry or invalidated. Chris and Danielle had frequent debates over different topics related to communion (e.g., transubstantiation), whether or not it was possible to know if you were saved, or if it was appropriate to pray to others. During one debate, Danielle told Chris, “I feel that you’re saying that unless I do everything exactly the way that you think I should be doing it, that I might as well give up. I might as well quit going to church. I might as well quit reading the Bible. Why should I bother to do any of this, if you think that no matter what, that I’m wrong because I’m Catholic?”
In a more extreme example, individuals may pressure their partner to change religious affiliation. Beth changed denominational affiliation because she didn’t want a disagreement over religion to keep her and her partner from getting married. She said she was raised Catholic and had strong beliefs, yet her husband Peter was “real head-strong” about not becoming Catholic, and said he didn’t want the family “split” by going to two different churches. Therefore, Beth said she would change religious affiliation. Pressuring a partner to change, however, can create serious problems in the relationship. Beth admitted that she and her husband have had arguments about it since. She said, “At times I feel resentful because I think he made me do it.” For example, her feelings of resentment surfaced when their son was born because she knew that he would not be baptized in the Catholic Church. The fact that he wanted her to change continued to be a problem in the relationship for many years. While attempting to work out some of their problems, her husband said she could go back to the Catholic Church if she wanted to.
Another couple described a conflict over religion that nearly ended their relationship. Ron was an inactive Baptist, while Nicole was an active Lutheran. After Ron refused to go to church on a family vacation with Nicole’s parents, the couple had a big fight upon returning home. Nicole gave Ron an ultimatum that he would either go to church with her, or she would give up on the relationship. Ron stated that he would have responded better if Nicole had asked him to attend church with her rather than giving him an ultimatum. After the fight, Nicole realized that she needed to back off. She stated, “I had to back off in order for him to step forward and say, ‘I’ll go to church.’” Nicole said backing off was hard to do, but she recognized that the decision was not in her hands, but “It had to come from God.” Ron did eventually go to church with her, and later even joined the Lutheran church.
Not all couples went into their marriage trying to change their partner. Michael stated that he and Susan went into the marriage with a mutual understanding that “she wasn’t going to try to make me do her way, or I wasn’t going to make her see my way.” Many individuals also did not want their partner to change their religious beliefs or faith because it was such an integral part of their identity. Joan said, “I don’t want my husband to change because that’s not him.”
Putting the Problem in a Broader Context
Another view expressed by some couples was that the problem was not with the interchurch couples themselves, but with the fact that the various churches were divided. In other words, the division over religious differences within interchurch couples reflects the division within Christianity. For some couples, this perspective helped them to avoid personalizing the struggle too much. At the same time, it suggests that couples that can successfully work through their differences can model the ideals of ecumenism to the larger faith community.
Trouble-shooting Conflict over Religious Differences
If you are having conflict over religious differences, you may need to slow things down and make sure you and your partner are using effective communication skills described in the first unit. For example, you may need to clarify the intent behind each other’s message. When Chris and Danielle discussed religious topics, Danielle felt that Chris was putting her down by challenging her beliefs and practices. When Danielle finally shared this with Chris, he was able to clarify that this was not his intent. Chris shared that he enjoyed debating about their religious differences, but did not view her in a lesser light because her beliefs were different from his.
As much as possible, each of you should try to maintain a curious or inquisitive approach toward your partner. Rather than simply focusing on what your partner believes or practices, it may be helpful for you to explore why certain beliefs or practices are so important to your partner. It may also be helpful to explore how each of you came to adopt your beliefs or practices, which will be addressed in the next unit.
Also, recognize that for many people, religious traditions are intertwined with family traditions. Going to church is a family ritual for many individuals. Religious and family rituals may be closely interwoven during religious holidays such as Christmas or Easter. For example, Jessica experienced a strong sense of loneliness when her partner did not attend church with her on Christmas because she associated Christmas as a time of family togetherness growing up. Because of this strong connection between religion and family, you need to be aware that challenging an individual’s religious beliefs or practices may also challenge their loyalty to their family identity, resulting in a more intense reaction.
If you are stuck, there are other questions you might consider. Are you and your partner focusing too much on differences, and not enough on commonalities? Is the difference the two of you are fighting over a “difference that will make a difference?” In some cases, standing back and putting the issue in a broader context makes it easier to simply agree to disagree on an issue. If you find yourself continually struggling over religious differences, it would be wise to seek out professional help.
- Separately, each of you should write a list of the five most important religious or spiritual beliefs that you have in common with your partner. After each of you have composed your lists, share them with one another. How are the lists similar or different? Are there any surprises? If so, why?
- With your partner, discuss one thing that you can do to learn more about your partner’s religious or spiritual life.