When Our young adult chidren Marry Non-Christians: Parents' Perspective
The Orthodox Church discourages Orthodox Christians from marrying non-Christians, primarily because it maintains that such unions seriously impair its adherents’ efforts to live a Christ-centered existence. As a result, the Orthodox Church will not conduct the Sacrament of Marriage for an Orthodox with a non-Christian partner. In these instances, couples have the following choices:
Based on my own research and experiences, Orthodox Christians often learn of these guidelines after they have been dating for a period of time and are either contemplating engagement or are already engaged to a non-Christian. In such cases, many Orthodox Christians choose to marry outside the Church.
The implications of this decision are varied, impacting couples and their extended families in different ways. Parents may be particularly affected during the engagement process and wedding, especially if they have a strong connection to their religious and/or ethnic backgrounds.
Hey Mom, I’m Getting Married
Parents struggle to raise their children with the hope that they will make good choices in their lives. They sacrifice in endless ways, while monitoring their children’s progress and laboring to help them make healthy, holy decisions. Then one day, their young adult child makes the following announcement: “Hey Mom and Dad, I’m getting married.”
For parents who have a strong connection to their religious and/or ethnic background, this message can be bitter-sweet—primarily if their child is intending to marry a non-Christian. A part of them dreads the news, while another part wants to be happy for their son or daughter.
To complicate matters further, this news is often disclosed after the couple has been dating for some time and the relationship has become serious. Parents often hear about the relationship after it has become serious because their child does not recognize the relationship as problematic but may intuit that his or her parents might not share the same attitude. So, the relationship is often, but not always, kept from parents until the Orthodox person has already decided to marry.
When the news is finally disclosed and the parents begin expressing reservations, they must walk a fine line. On the one hand, they don’t want to alienate their son or daughter, while on the other hand they may be harboring a number of concerns that may include: (1) their son or daughter’s future well-being, (2) their future grandchildren’s religious and spiritual well-being, (3) the general well-being and stability of the family. Add to these concerns the Church’s disapproval of Orthodox/non-Christian unions together with the negative reactions some parents may get from their local faith community, and circumstances can sometimes become rather complicated and potentially explosive. These circumstances sometimes lead to cut-offs and long-standing, unresolved ill feelings that fester and compromise family life for years.
In negotiating their way through these many challenges, many parents describe numerous frustrating conversations with their son or daughter, which sometimes lead to either temporary or permanent cut-offs. They also repeatedly state that, in their heart of hearts they hope the relationship will end before marriage. In a large percentage of cases, these relationships do end before marriage, but not because these couples cannot reconcile their religious differences. More often than not, these couples break up because of personality differences, money differences, friends, in-laws, and communication styles.
To summarize, parents with a strong connection to their religious and/or ethnic backgrounds walk a very tenuous, stressful path, while prayerfully trying to work through feelings of helplessness, shame, fear, anger, and resentment, feelings which often come to the surface, creating heated and potentially damaging exchanges with their child. While most Greek Orthodox parents manage to gather themselves enough to put on a happy face at their children’s weddings, a part of them remains sad and empty.
What Parents Can Do
If you are a parent whose son or daughter is seriously dating or engaged to a non-Christian, some of the following suggestions and observations might prove helpful to you. They come from my work with parents who have already grappled with the challenges outlined in this article—some more successfully than others.
Over 30% of our country’s population is non-Christian. Thus, the probability that Greek Orthodox Christians will meet, fall in love with, and marry non-Christians is reasonably high. In fact, my work with intermarried couples and their families over the past ten years seems to suggest that these marriages are increasing in number and frequency.
Further, I have also come to see that when Orthodox Christians marry non-Christians, these marriages encounter a variety of unique challenges that impact families at many different levels, particularly the parents, especially during the engagement and wedding planning stages.It is my hope that those Orthodox Christian parents who face the challenge of a child who is considering or has already decided to marry a non-Christian will profit from the information offered in this article as they struggle to embrace and respond to their son or daughter.