Monday, September 16, 2013

Interfaith Weddings: Beating the Odds

When the poet, Virgil, coined the phrase “love conquers all” over 2000 years ago, perhaps he didn't have interfaith marriages in mind.  Indeed, there is nothing that can put this phrase to the test any more so than a relationship between a couple who share a bond of love but do not share a common religious heritage.  On the other hand, when an interfaith marriage works, it can be a beautiful thing—a microcosm of what the world might be if we didn't allow religious differences to divide us.

Fortunately, we are seeing a shift in social and cultural norms that appear to be breaking down (or at least going around) many of the religious barriers that have all too often interfered with matters of the heart.  According to Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of the book ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America, marriage between couples of differing faiths is on the rise.  Compared to the 1960s, when 20 percent of married couples did not share a common religion, 45 percent of married couples now fit this description.  This is certainly encouraging, but according to Riley there is also a downside: on average, the divorce rate among interfaith couples is considerably higher than that of couples who share the same religion … up to 30 percent higher, depending on the blend of religions involved.

Although the divorce statistics are perhaps unsettling, they are not particularly helpful.  In fact, they may be harmful if they are misunderstood and misused.  They don’t, for instance, say anything about the two of you as a couple … about your chances of a successful marriage if you happen not to share a common religion.  Nevertheless, people who are naive about the way statistics work can easily read more into the numbers than they are able to reveal.  For instance, when The Dallas Morning News invited various members of the clergy to react to Naomi Schafer Riley’s book, here is how one theologian began his response:

“According to Riley’s research, interfaith couples are less happy in their marriages than same-faith couples.  In my view, there’s a simple reason for that fact.”

Unfortunately, this statement is a rather serious misrepresentation of what the research revealed.  First of all, as any statistician will tell you, statistics do not prove anything—at best they may support a particular theory or proposition.  By asserting that the first statement is a “fact,” this theologian is not being factual.  But this is a minor sin compared to the greater transgression committed by this gentleman.  In stating that the research reveals that “interfaith couples are less happy in their marriages than same-faith couples” he is essentially saying that all interfaith couples are less happy than all same-faith couples—and that is simply not true!  Whether the misstatement was intentional or not, I can’t say, but I feel sure there are others who would interpret the numbers the same way—perhaps a well-meaning friend or family member who is hoping to dissuade you from getting married.  I can’t stress enough that the divorce statistics are based on samples and averages.  They don’t say anything about the likelihood of a successful marriage in a particular case.

Couples who are deeply in love and committed to one another don’t tend to base their decision to get married on statistics.  Nor should they!  Why?  Because if Americans were to base their decision to get married on divorce statistics alone, there would probably be half as many marriages across the board as there are now.  After all, based on statistics alone, the odds of a long-term marriage are roughly equivalent to that of a coin toss. 

I submit that beating the odds in an interfaith marriage is not a lot different from beating the odds in any marriage.  That’s not to say that religious differences don’t matter, or that you should bury your head in the sand and hope that any problems that might arise regarding your religious beliefs will take care of themselves.  I’m simply saying that religious differences are a bigger deal to some couples than they are to others.  Not to trivialize the issue, but some couples will experience problems if he is a PC user and she is a Mac user.  Disposition, tolerance, personality, mutual-respect, devotion to one another … these are the kind of difference-makers that will be more influential than religious differences in determining the long-term success of a marriage.  In fact, they are more significant and more meaningful than simple demographic differences of every kind, whether they pertain to cultural differences, racial differences, class differences, political differences, etc.

More helpful than the statistics is specific information on why some interfaith marriages succeed and others don’t.  Aside from being deeply in love and desirous of spending your life together, here is a short list of critical success factors that pertain to interfaith marriages:
  • You and your partner have compatible personalities, dispositions, and goals for your marriage
  • You and your partner have mutual respect for one another and are each committed to allowing the other the freedom to make personal choices concerning religious matters
  • You and your partner are united in your resolve to stand up to parents, friends, extended family members, etc. when and if they try to pressure you to adhere to their religious ideals and practices
  • You and your partner are in agreement on how you will observe religious holidays and other religious observations that could affect you jointly
  • You and your partner have discussed and have worked out a solution that is agreeable to both of you concerning the role that religion will play in raising your children, including what religious doctrines, rituals, and traditions you do and do not wish them to be exposed to
I also recommend premarital counseling, regardless of your situation, but especially if you and your partner do not share a common faith.  But be careful whose guidance you seek.  If you are looking for a non-biased perspective on how to deal with the challenges of an interfaith marriage, you aren't likely to get that from a member of the clergy.