Developing a Religious and Spiritual Bond
An important ingredient to any successful marriage is developing and maintaining a strong bond between partners. This bond can be formed and maintained in a number of ways. Physical affection and sexual intimacy are two important aspects of a couple’s bond, as well as being able to share intimate thoughts and feelings with our partner. The bond is also strengthened when a couple shares activities together, such as leisure or recreational activities. Another critical element is a couple’s religious or spiritual bond. Therefore, this unit focuses on ways in which couples from different religious backgrounds can build and strengthen their religious or spiritual bond.
Religion and Spirituality
Many individuals distinguish between organized religion and their personal spirituality. Often these people refer to their personal faith or spirituality as being something inside themselves (e.g., faith, personal beliefs) or revolving around their relationship with God. In contrast, church or religion is viewed as an external institution with church buildings, rituals, customs, traditions and doctrines. Some individuals view religion and spirituality as independent from one another. For example, Andrew stated, “I think you could have faith and not attend church at all.” Likewise, Alan said he would be willing to change denominations because his personal relationship is with Christ, and not so much with a particular church.
Given that many individuals distinguish between their religious and spiritual lives, these topics will be treated as separate dimensions. The first part will explore how couples can develop a joint religious life, including how to find ways to worship or participate in church communities together. The second part will explore how couples can build a joint spiritual life, which might be independent of organized religion. It should be noted that some believe that one’s religious and spiritual lives can or should strengthen and reinforce each other. Being active in a church can nourish one’s spiritual life, while one’s spirituality or faith can find expression through one’s participation in a church community. Thus, it would be hard to separate these two dimensions for many people.
Where to Attend Church
An important question many interchurch couples face is where they will attend church. Interchurch couples found a variety of ways to answer this question. Some couples decide that both partners will remain active in their own churches, but will seldom, if ever, worship at the other’s church. A strong commitment to their own church, as well as a possible discomfort with their partner’s church, may lead some couples to choose this approach. The potential downside is that this can inhibit a couple from developing a religious bond. In addition, one or both individuals may miss being able to worship with their partner. Eric shared, “When I see a couple in the church I just think ‘Man, do they realize how neat it is for both them to be together?’ They probably take it for granted.”
Another approach some couples adopted was for each individual to remain active in his or her own church, but also regularly attend the other’s church. For a number of couples, this seemed to resolve the dilemma of wanting to remain faithful to their own religious identity, yet find a way to worship with their partner. Couples who used this approach often did it in one of two ways. Some couples tried to attend both services every weekend. Jim and Sandy, for example, went to Mass Saturday night at Sandy’s church, and then attended Jim’s church service Sunday morning. Other couples would alternate weekends attending each other’s churches. In some cases, the interest in attending each other’s church may not be mutual. Susan, a Latter Day Saint, said she developed an interest in the Catholic Church and would attend Mass with her husband Michael. However, Michael never went to Susan’s services because he had no interest in her church.
Another approach was to choose one church to attend as a couple. The desire to worship together is an important reason why many couples chose this option. In some cases, deciding to attend one church is accompanied by a decision to change religious affiliation, while in other cases it does not. Tom, a Methodist, for example, did not become a Catholic despite becoming active in his wife’s Catholic Church. The next unit has a more detailed discussion regarding considerations that individuals weigh in deciding whether or not to change religious affiliation.
The above discussion assumes that both individuals attend church, which is not true for all couples. For some couples, one person may be very active in a church, while the other one is not. In other cases, neither partner may be very active in church. If one or both of you are not involved in a church community, it may be helpful for the two of you to discuss the reasons behind this. Have negative experiences in the past influenced one or both individual’s desire to attend church? Are one or both of you unclear on how to deal with religious differences, and remain inactive as a way of avoiding possible conflict over religious differences? Or, do one or both of you view church as unnecessary because you have separated your personal spirituality from belonging to a church community? Even if both individuals do not attend church, it is still possible for the couple to develop and strengthen a spiritual bond, which is discussed later in the unit.
Issues in Attending One Partner’s Church
There may be a number of issues that individuals may need to work through regarding attending each other’s church. An issue raised by many individuals was the discomfort they experienced visiting their partner’s church. In some cases, this discomfort was so strong that it prevented them from ever attending their partner’s church. However, for those who were able to work through or overcome this discomfort, they often encountered unexpected rewards. Some couples are surprised to find more commonalities than anticipated when attending each other’s services. For example, Richard noted similarities between the Catholic and Baptist church despite the use of different terminology. In some cases, individuals discovered that they preferred their partner’s denomination or church, and even changed religious affiliation.
An individual’s discomfort in going to the partner’s church could be due to several factors. Often this discomfort existed simply because the other church was different or unfamiliar. One Protestant man, Greg, said one of the biggest challenges he faced in his interchurch marriage was “going to this strange building with these strange objects around that she calls a church.” For example, he was uncomfortable with the crucifix hanging in Catholic churches, and had commented to his wife that he thought it was an idol. In contrast, his partner Jolene said, “If I don’t see the crucifix hanging up there, it’s not a church. I’ve gotten past that so that I can go to other churches. But it’s still important.” Danielle, a Catholic, was very apprehensive about going to her fiancé’s Evangelical church for the first time. Part of her apprehension was around people speaking in tongues during the service. In addition, she said, “I, myself, am more introverted with my religious practices and so I probably wouldn’t be so interested in such an overt display, but, I can see why people would be.” She finally did go to his church for an Easter service, and had a positive enough experience that she planned to attend the church again.
For some individuals, the apprehension they experienced in attending their partner’s church was rooted in misconceptions or negative stereotypes they learned about that denomination or church. One woman shared, “I grew up in a church that taught that Catholics were evil. I was programmed to think that Catholics were going to be very closed and that I would have to become Catholic or be an outcast. I didn’t find that to be true at all.” She added, “I was told that I’d be forced to convert, that they’d steal my children and baptize them while I wasn’t looking and make them Catholic.”
Finally, some individuals were uncomfortable attending their partner’s church out of a fear that they would not be accepted. Sandy feared that others might try to get her to change churches. However, others found the friendliness and inclusiveness of other churches to be quite inviting. In some cases, the interchurch partner becomes such an accepted part of the church, that others can forget they are not church members. Erica, a Catholic, said there are many people at her husband’s church who think she is Lutheran because they frequently see her at church services and other activities.
Another concern raised by some Catholics was that attending their partner’s Protestant service did not count toward their obligation to attend Mass each Sunday. Going to both services each weekend was one way in which some couples addressed this issue.
Communion can be another issue that interchurch couples face, particularly those who regularly attend each other’s services. In the Catholic Church, communion is reserved for Catholics. Protestants attending a Catholic service may struggle with being excluded from communion. Daniel shared, “There is something that really makes you feel left out when my wife gets up and goes for communion, and there you sit. And it’s like you’ve got a neon sign going across your forehead saying ‘non-Catholic, non-Catholic.’ You feel awkward and left out.” Non-Catholics can come forward at communion time and receive a blessing from the priest or Eucharistic minister as an alternative to receiving communion. This can help reduce the sense of alienation that the non-Catholic may experience. For some couples, however, this is not a complete solution, and leaves some feeling hurt that they cannot share full communion with their partner.
Conversely, Catholics often did not feel comfortable taking communion at their partner’s Protestant church due to the different beliefs about communion. This, in turn, can make the Catholic feel like an outsider. One Catholic woman commented on her experience of being in a Protestant church during communion, “Everyone in this small church of 100 or 200 people went up to communion. I just sat there. Everyone looked at me, like, ‘Why aren’t you going up?’” Some interchurch individuals believe that differences in beliefs regarding communion are not substantial enough to prevent them from participating in communion at another church. In some cases, this is done with the knowledge and approval of a clergy member.
Other Ways to Develop a Joint Religious Life
It is important to note that attending worship services is only one way that interchurch couples can become involved in each other’s churches. Some couples participate in service or volunteer activities through a church. Others participate in Bible studies or other religious education activities with their partners. Mitch and Tracy, for example, attended a Bible study at Tracy’s church, but volunteered their time doing marriage preparation in Mitch’s church. Couples can also participate in church-sponsored social activities. Linda, for example, played on her husband’s church softball team. Being involved in these activities not only strengthens the couple’s bond, but it can also foster a sense of connection or belonging to a church community.
Developing a Joint Spiritual Life
Some interchurch couples stressed the importance of developing a spiritual bond outside of attending church together. Learning to pray together was one of the most frequently mentioned ways of doing this. Paula stressed the importance of praying together by saying, “So it really doesn’t matter what faith they’re from or what church they’re from, as long as they’re working toward the same goal, praying, and [having] faith in God . . . It’s pretty hard to split up when you’re praying together. You’re working out your problems together.”
How should a couple pray together? The answer depends upon the couple. Prayer encompasses a wide variety of methods and techniques through which one is able to draw nearer to God. How this is done varies from person to person. There are many different approaches through which individuals are able to communicate with God. Some view prayer as a solitary activity done in silence, while others view prayer as a group activity to be done aloud. Prayer can be either spontaneous or rehearsed. It can be done sporadically or in a scheduled manner, such as before bed or before meals. Prayer can be done in a written format, orally spoken, or acted out. It can be used to give thanks, give praise, offer a petition, or simply to listen to God. Some couples use the Bible or devotional books as a starting point for their prayers, while others use prayer journals to enrich the experience. These many methods can be combined to create a unique prayer experience between you and your partner.
Developing a joint prayer life is not the only way to build a spiritual bond. Some couples study the Bible or read religious books together. Others discuss spiritual topics, including how their spirituality informs their values or how they live out each day.
- Below are a variety of activities that couples can do together to strengthen their religious and/or spiritual bond. Identify various ways that you and your partner can strengthen your religious or spiritual bond. Together, develop a plan on how you propose to strengthen your bond in these areas.
- Attend a religious service together
- Attend a Bible study together
- Attend religious education classes together
- Do volunteer or service work through a church
- Pray together
- Say grace at meals
- Read the Bible together
- Read books on religion or God together
- Discuss one’s religious or spiritual beliefs together
- Share with partner what your relationship with God looks like and how you feel this influences your prayer life. Also, discuss with one another how you might enjoy or benefit from praying together as a couple. What methods or techniques would you use? When is the best time for you to pray together?