Ask Scott: Religion and Relationships

Dear Scott,

I’m religious and pretty involved in my church (not crazy involved like it runs my life), and my boyfriend refuses to believe in what I do. Which is fine, I have nothing against it, but due to childhood experiences, he won’t step even near my church or go to anything church related with me. I perform at my church and he won’t come see me, even. It’s becoming a problem because we’re talking about marriage in the future and I want it to be religious and he doesn’t. My family is all religious and his isn’t and I’m worried it’s going to cause a rift in our relationship. I have no idea what to do about it.  

-Ash Wednesday

Dear Ash,

According to a Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, 39% of new American marriages were interfaith.  Another Pew Research Center survey found that 88% of couples cited “love” as a very important reason for marriage while comparatively 30% said “relationship recognized in religious ceremony” was important.  Some other research suggests intermarriages may not be as strong as marriages with shared religious beliefs.  But most of the research into the matter of relationships suggests that the more a couple has in common, particularly in socioeconomic, educational, and religious background, the better.  But each relationship is unique and despite major differences, many believe that a strong interfaith marriage is still possible.

One of those people is Sheila Gordon, president of Interfaith Community, who strongly emphasizes the need and commitment to interfaith education.  In a Huffington Post interview, Gordon recognized the difficulty of being in an interfaith relationship, suggesting that successful couples practice conscientiousness, thoughtfulness and forward-thinking in their marriage, just like in any marriage in general.

This is where I suggest you both root your conversation in those three tenants.  Allow those roots to spread into the very foundation of your relationship; embed these practices in your interactions with each other, each other’s families, and each other’s faith.  Regardless of marriage, faith, race, gender or age, any couple can stand to work this into the core of their relationships.

I suggest several conversations, difficult conversations, about how much and what role faith plays in both the relationship and each other’s individual lives, before any more talk of marriage occurs.

You’re going to have to talk about how your faith and your marriage are intersectional and both of you are going to have to give some ground in order to make it work.  You’re also going to have to talk about the importance of a religious ceremony, to what degree is the ceremony religious, how much he’s willing to participate in, and how much you’re willing to let go.  If children are even remotely on the horizon of thought, discussing the role religion will play in their upbringing will also be needed.

Your boyfriend refuses to even enter a church — due in part to past experiences.  He even refuses to come to your performances.  This must be addressed as well before more marriage talk happens; together you must confront his unwillingness to enter churches.  There is the potential that he faces some strong triggers and is emotionally unable to handle being in a church.  Perhaps it is a stubborn pride or ego that is preventing him from letting go of pain from his past.  It very well could be his staunch disbelief in religion that prevents him from setting foot inside religious vestibules.  These are all options.

I think some of the more resounding advice comes directly from people who are in interfaith relationships themselves.  This “Letter From an Atheist Married to a Christian” nails home how important communication is in these kinds of relationships.

“Marriage is a partnership. Each partner brings the best and the worst parts of themselves to their marriage, and the success or failure of their union depends on how they embrace the good and the bad. In a successful marriage, two people, who are different by virtue of being people, find the common ground on which they relate to each other, and use that as a foundation. They grow toward each other by learning about and respecting their differences, and then stay together by willingly meeting each other’s needs, whether they fully understand them or not. That last part, that really hard part — that’s love.”

This specific quote contains, I believe, some of the best wisdom regarding the topic.  While research and numbers can tell you one part of the trend or story, they are limited by one factor — numbers cannot feel.  What really predicts how relationships will turn out is how the people within them interact with each other.

Both anecdotes and research reason that making an interfaith relationship work is undoubtedly difficult, and not as common as marriages with shared religious beliefs.  But a commitment to both each other and the relationship, coupled with a dedication to understanding each other’s needs will be what keeps you two together.