Marrying outside your faith

My thoughts on marrying outside my faith have grown from extremely naïve (of course, it’s fine!) to pragmatically cautious (is it really wise?). I dated a girl who was not at all religious for a short time and I realised that maintaining a relationship with someone outside your own faith is really hard. But I still think it’s possible and that, importantly, it is not wrong or sinful. This post on the blog I kissed my date goodnight got me thinking about the topic of interfaith relationships again (Here and here are two others to look at). Here are my views.

You have to think its ok (at least in principle)

I should probably add a caveat. It is not wrong or sinful unless your beliefs specifically prohibit it (for instance, as I understand it, many branches of Islam do not allow women to marry men of other faiths unless the latter convert). Even the Catholic church allows interfaith marriages (although there appear to be lots of rules, consisting mostly of asking the bishop for permission for various things, which I am sure most Catholics don’t care about). Let us thus assume you don’t think God will smite you if you marry outside your faith. Does that make it a good idea?

Why is it probably not a good idea?

Interfaith marriages (and relationships) have all the problems of more typical relationships, and several (significant) extra ones. Divorces rates are high for these marriages.

You will lose out on an important source of strength and support for your own faith. Even if your spouse accepts and supports that you have another faith, they can never support you in the same way that a spouse of the same faith would. You cannot grow in faith together.

You may have moral/ethical viewpoints that are not compatible. Shared faith is a simple heuristic for shared moral beliefs (but not a perfect one). Any workable marriage must have both partners share important moral values and they must be willing to live with the fact that their partner does not share certain other values. For instance, probably you will want your spouse to feel that adultery is wrong. To enter the relationship soundly you must feel that despite not having the same faith as you, your spouse shares most of the values which your faith leads you to cherish. (This is a necessary but not sufficient condition).

You must decide how to raise the children (if any). Pick a faith or have the children choose when the time is right. But some decision must be made, and it must be made before the marriage (and certainly before the children are born). You have to be content with the fact that your children may choose your spouse’s faith over yours (or none at all, even). I think an incredible amount of damage can be done to children if this is not handled well.

At crisis times you will tend to turn in different directions. It is during crises that all marriages are tested. An important way in which couples get through crises is often by turning to God, together. In an interfaith marriage, it may be that only one person turns to God, or the same view of God. It can lead to separation rather than bonding. It may make it harder to support one another as you have trouble finding common ground. One or both of you may get more support from outside your marriage than the other is comfortable with, which can lead to jealousy.

You will have important goals that differ. Shared goals are important in relationships. At least one potentially fulfilling shared goal is now eliminated: growing in (the same) faith together. You will need to find others, ones that are not shallow, but that nonetheless intersect with your spiritual lives (however you define your spirituality).

An important thing to remember is that none of the above problems are static. You do not just fix them once and then they stay away. No, people change as grow. New circumstances arise. You will continually be faced with all the above challenges in new forms and you must be willing to deal with them.

Why can it still work?

The above problems are, of course, huge. But they are not insurmountable. It is possible to be a fully committed Christian and grow in your faith with a spouse who is not (for instance). Raising children within an interfaith marriage can (potentially) be a beautiful gift to them, instilling a respect for other faiths and human freedom of choice that is so sorely lacking in society. It is possible to find comfort in your spouse’s love and respect in times of crisis even if they have a different faith.  I think it is awesome if one of the shared goals of a couple is growing in faith together. But it does not need to be – substitutes are possible.

Love does not recognise boundaries imposed by culture or faith. The important thing is that there is mutual respect in the relationship and a willingness to work together, to bend, if not to break. If your faith is important to you then an interfaith relationship will almost of necessity be very challenging. But, I think, it is also exactly when both partners are committed to their respective beliefs when such a marriage is most rewarding.

That said, I need to stress that I think making an interfaith relationship work is very hard and the chances of failures (despite the best intentions by both parties are high). I personally think I am very unlikely to find a person of another faith with whom I share enough values and goals to overcome the difficulties. 

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  1. #1 by Thomas Jones on 29/08/2013 - 11:00 pm

    I’m obviously biased since I favour my own situation, but in the hypothetical situation that I was still on the relationship market I wouldn’t be in a hurry to get into an interfaith one. Especially if you’re an epicing-out christian like me, your entire center of gravity (paradigm? cognitive map?) is just somewhere different than someone of another religion.

    I think sure, people end up in interfaith relationships because they change their minds about faith once they’re in a relationship, and some people just go ahead and get hitched because they’re crazy in love and they’re young and stupid (dangerous combo). So we shouldn’t be judgemental. But my first reaction when I hear about someone in that kind of situation is often to wince, since I know (also from experience) that that relationship is going to be quite strained and not be much fun the more seriously someone gets into their faith.

    • #2 by johandp on 30/08/2013 - 2:34 pm

      I’m sure your own situation is quite desirable. And I agree there will be a strain and that the more serious you are about your own faith, the more of this kind of strain there will be. Also, I think (though I have no data) perhaps many interfaith relationships are often among older and more wisened people – ones that for some reason could not find partners within their own faith or whose initial relationships did not work. Perhaps these kinds of people can approach their relationships with a little more perspective.

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