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Other Specific Challenges that Inter-Christian, Intercultural Couples Encounter

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

An Emphasis on Being Greek Orthodox and Christian

Another ongoing struggle that many inter-Christian, inter-cultural couples face is how they can remain respectful to their own religious and cultural preferences, while also being respectful of their partner's religious and cultural preferences. As such, it should come as no surprise that when intermarried couples decide to have children, striking a balance between their personal religious and cultural preferences, their partner's religious and cultural preferences, and their children's religious and cultural needs can be a somewhat elusive proposition.

One way that these couples achieve this objective is by adopting an approach that emphasizes what they hold in common when raising their children. The following remarks made by one non-Orthodox respondent who was raising his children in the Orthodox Church illustrate this point. "We have determined to raise our children in the Orthodox Church. So we tell them that they are Greek Orthodox Christians, but we also frequently just tell them that they are Christians. And its not that we try and water down their Orthodox affiliation, but we find it easier to co-exist in an mixed Christian home if we emphasize both the Greek Orthodox and Christian dimension of their religious identity."

As this comment suggests, intermarried parents try and strike a balance between what they hold in common with one another and de-emphasize what differences may exist between their religious traditions. One of the main reasons why such an approach is preferred by these couples is because it permits their children to remain respectful to both parents' religious traditions, as well as both grandparents' religious and cultural traditions. "We don't have to worry," stated another respondent, "about insulting the grandparents when we emphasize the fact that we are all Christians. This really makes it easier on everyone because everyone feels more a part of each other and no one's feeling are hurt. Besides this, we believe that religion should not separate families but bring them together. And we also believe that's what God wants."  

According to respondents, when intermarried parents adopt and utilize this approach, their marital and family life is enhanced, and when only one spouse's religious and cultural preferences are respected and valued this approach generally creates some degree of family instability. "I really had to learn this the hard way," stated one Greek Orthodox woman. "My church and parents taught me that Greek Orthodoxy is the one true faith, and I was insisting that our children receive this message… but it caused so much tension between my husband and me that I have mellowed considerably on this point. The way I look at it, God does not want us to be an unhappy couple and family,… so, I have learned to be more tolerant and more respectful of my husband's religion and he is more respectful to me and my efforts to raise our children Orthodox. So we have compromised. We have agreed to tell our children that we are both Christians, but that they are also Orthodox Christians."

Children's Names

When thinking about having children, some couples struggle with the Greek tradition that necessitates parents to name their first born after the Greek Orthodox spouse's parent. Reflecting back to a disagreement that one couple had over this, one non-Orthodox spouse stated: "It was kind of a shock to me when Jim told me he wanted to name our son "Eustratios," after his father. I found the whole tradition of naming the son after the father's grandfather rather strange and intrusive. And worse than this, I also suddenly found myself caught between insulting my father-in-law and disappointing my husband and naming my baby a name I wasn't real crazy about." 

Depending on each spouses' cultural/ethnic attachments, this decision may or may not be particularly challenging. For example, when both spouses have an essentially Americanized  worldview, these interfaith couples will not find this tradition important nor feel obligated to follow it. In other instances, if one of the two spouses has a strong attachment to his or her cultural/ethnic background, this strong attachment will generally determine whose ethnic traditions may impact how they name their child(ren).

Furthermore, when the Greek Orthodox spouse is the one with strong ties to his or her ethnic background, then these couples may be challenged when selecting a name for their first born. In some instances, such couples will determine to give their child two names, a legal name, and the Greek grandparent's name at baptism. Quoting from one non-Greek Orthodox respondent, "I didn't have any problem giving my son his papou's name at baptism, which was Athanasious, but I just couldn't consent to this when it came to his legal name."

In other instances, couples simply determined to give their first born (especially the male first born) his Greek Orthodox grandparent's first name. In this case the decision was made out of strong needs that existed from both the Greek Orthodox spouse and his desire to honor his extended family. The following reflections typify this point. "Hey, my Dad worked hard to raise me. He sacrificed everything to make certain that I got a good education… and you know, he didn't care about having a big house, a fine car,… but having my first born named after him meant everything to him…. How could I not do this for him, it was the right thing to do."

Baptism

While inter Christian couples appear to respect and tolerate each other's religious preferences, they report engaging in more discussion and debate regarding their children's religious and spiritual development. A second challenge that some of these couples reported grappling with is where to baptize their children. "It wasn't so hard for us to accept and respect each other's religious background," stated one respondent while reflecting back to the couple's efforts to decide where to baptize their children. "But it was entirely another matter when it came to our children's baptism. So, we struggled a little more then usual over this decision."  

While the decision to baptize was not especially troublesome for all these couples, it did create a moderate to high challenge for some. One chief reason this decision challenged some of these couples was linked to the notion that their children's baptism might determine where the family's future place of worship would be.

In an effort to decide where to baptize, numerous couples stated that honest, respectful communication was indispensable to them. For example, one respondent stated, "We sat down and looked at all the facts and we decided that since my wife would be spending more time with our kids, we should baptize them in her church." In addition, some couples reported that discussions before marriage with regards to where their future children would be baptized, and which name they would receive, proved to be beneficial to their family's religious well being. The following statement was typical of what numerous respondents had to say about this point. "I told him before marriage that it didn't matter to me if he converted to the Greek Orthodox Church, but I couldn't accept my children being baptized in any other church than my own. And I don't know what would have happened to us if he resisted this request. But that was really important to me, and I think he realized it."

Factors Affecting Interfaith Parents' Decision to Baptize

It is also important to note that a decision regarding when and where interfaith couples' children are baptized is generally not made by accident. Certain factors appear to influence this decision, with the following few being of prominent importance.

First, when respondents appeared to have the same level of commitment to their religious tradition, one chief determining factor that helped many of these couples select the church where their future children would be baptized was based on gender. Several respondents indicated that mothers are in a better position - due in large part to the greater amount of time they spend with the children - to cultivate and nurture spirituality in their children.

Second, when one spouse had a stronger faith than the other, participants' observations indicated that the spouse with the strongest faith and attachment to his/her religious tradition had the greatest impact on where their children were baptized. "It was clear from the beginning," stated one respondent. "My husband had the strongest attachment to his church, and so the logical place for us to baptize was in the Greek Church." 

Third, it was also observed that non-Orthodox will respond positively to the notion of baptizing their future children in the Orthodox church if they have some understanding and respect for its theology and traditions. For example, the following remarks made by one non-Orthodox illustrate this point. "It wasn't that I was against having my kids baptized in the Greek Church, but I wanted to make sure that it was a Christian Church that would teach my kids Christian ways. When I figured this out, there was no real problem for me." Furthermore, some opposition may occur if non-Orthodox are not completely convinced that their future children will receive adequate Christian training, or similar Christian teachings as they did when they were children. While commenting on the Sunday School program in the Greek Orthodox Church his children were attending, one respondent made the following statement. "I'm not really thrilled with the Sunday School at the Greek Church where my children go. It seems that there's no real substance to it. Sometimes I feel that they are only learning how to color, and that's not good enough. So we've been talking about this, and I know it upsets my wife, but I want them to know Christ, and if the Greek Church can't help, then we've got to do something about this. It may be that some religious home schooling could help." 

Fourth, while extended family pressures were not mentioned as being of primary importance, they were mentioned as playing a secondary role of importance in a couple's decision to choose a church in which to baptize their children. In these instances, nuclear family needs were generally of primary importance, while extended family needs (while important) were generally deemed of secondary importance. Moreover, when couples were unable to keep these priorities in order, they reported difficulties until such time they were able give primary importance to their nuclear family needs. In the words of one respondent who struggled with this issue, "Until I was able to say, hey,… I love you mom and dad, and you're important, but my family's needs have to come first… my wife and I continued to have problems over this baptism thing." One couple who had a particularly difficult time in pleasing both sides of their extended family, determined that it was going to be impossible to do so. In this case, this couple made a decision to baptize their children in the Greek Orthodox Church, and then respectfully suggested to everyone that only "those who are able to celebrate this event with them were invited, and all others should stay home."

Trying to Help the Non-Orthodox Partner from Feeling Like the "Odd-Person-Out"

When interfaith couples determine to baptize their children in the Greek Orthodox Church, they reported struggling to help the non-Orthodox partner avoid "feeling like the odd-person-out" when it came to the family's religious life. As one father stated, "I can still remember the first time my four year old referred to daddy's church and the rest of the family's church. It made me feel really left out and somewhat separated from him. And even though I try to be part of my kid's religious development, when they receive communion and I don't it's a poignant reminder of the distance that exists between us in this area of their lives." In these instances spouses admitted that this was essentially unavoidable for the non-Orthodox parent to feel somewhat marginalized in this area of the family's life. They also stated that an acknowledgement of these feelings by either one or both spouses helped minimize them and also curtailed any destructive resentment that might build from these feelings. As one respondent stated, "My husband and I talk about it when I get bummed, and that makes me feel better. But it still hurts, and maybe one day I will opt to convert, but not now." 

When Parents Don't Agree

When reflecting upon parents' efforts to make decisions about their children's religious development, participants observed that overt and/or covert squabbling, and manipulation by one or both spouses was viewed as inappropriate and ultimately unhealthy for both the marriage and their children. Some spouses also indicated that when honest, open conversation regarding their children's religious needs had not occurred between them, they tended to struggle with ambivalent feelings. This was especially the case when one or both spouses felt that a mutually satisfying agreement regarding their children's religious development had not occurred. In these cases, parents stated that they desired their children to experience many of the same religious experiences they had experienced as children and, "regretted giving into certain pressures before marriage from their spouse and his/her extended family that prevent this from occurring." For example, one Catholic mother who had begrudgingly agreed to baptize her children in the Greek Orthodox Church stated the following: "I wanted my daughter to have her First Communion, and Confirmation. And it really disappointed me to realize she would not experience what I experienced." An undercurrent of tension often pervaded these couples' discussions when the topic of religion was broached which was due in part to spouses' failure to arrive at mutually agreeable resolutions about their children's religious development before or after marriage.

Couples also stated that a failure to amicably decide where their children would be baptized and receive their religious training could potentially jeopardize their child(ren)'s religious development. For example, while considering the difficulties that one couple had encountered over the years regarding their children's religious training, one respondent made the following observations: "We've struggled over our children's religious upbringing for years. And I guess we never really came to any resolution. So maybe that's why some of our children are indifferent to religion and several don't even belong to a church."

Several participants maintained that children reared in a home that is conflicted over religion might negatively impact their children's perception of religion, and cause some children to avoid religion altogether as adults. Along these same lines, these couples also felt that if their children belonged to one church, this would serve to minimize their children's confusion about religion and facilitate religious and spiritual development. Choosing a church and then agreeing to raise their children (with consistency) in this faith tradition was deemed important to their children's religious development. "Children need structure, and that applies to their religious training. We made the decision early to bring them up in one church, and this has made a world of difference to their religious development. I'm sure they would not be as attached to their religion if we sent them to both churches."    

Challenges Related to Living in a Multicultural Society

Although most of these couples were raising their children in the Orthodox Church, many indicated that they did not want their children to develop a parochial, exclusionary perspective of the world. To illustrate this, consider the following comment: "As I listen to the group's conversation about children, I'm starting to worry a little more. My son, who was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church has grown up in a sterile environment, because he has come to this Church which is primarily Greek. And it's all he sees, and I worry a bit about that. I want him to be exposed to many different types of people. I prefer to see an emphasis on a multi-national environment. And even though I'm proud that he's half-Greek, I don't want my kids to develop a culturally narrow view of the world."

Many of these respondents' observations appeared to suggest that they viewed this as a challenge and encouraged their children to develop a respect for (a) their Greek Orthodox heritage, (b) a respect for the non-Orthodox partner's religious and cultural heritage, and (c) a respect for all religions and cultures. For example, one respondent stated, "My kids went to a Jewish preschool, because I want them to be well rounded, tolerant, and understanding of difference. I believe we have to try and get along with everyone. So I hope my kids would never think to say anything about their friends who are Jewish. And even more then this, I continue to ask my husband to teach me all he knows about his Polish culture so that I can teach our kids. I want them to know about others, and I want them to know about their Greek and Polish backgrounds." 

Despite parents' best efforts to raise their children in one church, however, many participants also stated that they believed that their children would acquire a more inclusive perception of Christianity by virtue of living in an inter Christian household. In an effort to address this latter point, one respondent stated, "Even though they come to the Greek Church, there is no doubt in my mind that our children will grow up with a predominantly American view point, and be exposed to a lot of different influences. And I also think that they will have a Christian way of looking at the world, not just simply a Greek Orthodox way."

Along these same lines, many of these parents also recognized that they lived in a multicultural, multi-religious society, and that it was moderately to highly probable that their children might not continue to worship in the church where they were baptized and were presently being raised. One participant's remarks appear to summarize most respondents' sentiments with regards to this latter point. "As hard as I try to instill a basic pride in my kids for their background, I also know that there may be a chance that they will marry outside of the Greek Orthodox Church. After all, we live in a society where there are many types of people. So if my children fall in love with a non-Greek, I can't say to them, leave the house. No. I will say, let's consider how you can get married in the Greek Church. But if they don't want that, well, then I will have to accept that and support them as best as I can…. I won't be happy, but I'll support them."

Numerous comments also suggested that these participants would be considerably more unsettled if their children chose to embrace a non-Christian religious tradition. For instance, the following remarks were indicative of how many parents felt. "I am trying to raise them in the Greek Church, but there are many religions in this country, and once they are old enough, I suppose there's a chance they may jump ship and change. And while this might bother me, it won't bother too much if they change to another Christian religion. If they were to choose a non-Christian religion, well that's a different story entirely. That would probably bother me a lot more." In relation to these latter concerns, participants stated that they felt that the religious and cultural differences would likely prove to be destructive to the marriage and, also ultimately jeopardize their grandchildren's religious and cultural identity. While reflecting on these observations, one respondent added: "I mean, how can children really learn who they are if their parent's religious backgrounds are too different. The radical cultural and religious differences will only serve to confuse them and deny them an opportunity to develop a religious and cultural identity."

Explaining The Concept of an Interfaith Marriage to their Children

Interfaith parents report experiencing some apprehension and concern when trying to explain their religious differences to their children. This may be the case because these types of parents want their children to grow up respecting both parents' faith tradition, while also acquiring a healthy religious identity. And while these two objectives may not be mutually exclusive, they may at times contradict one another. For example, these parents recognize that when they are respectful to both spouses' traditions this may result in diluting their children's efforts to bond with one religious tradition, which could have a negative impact on their children's sense of religious identity. Trying to strike a balance between being respectful to both religious traditions, and raising their children in one religious tradition can and does pose some challenges for these families.

Some couples described moderate levels of discomfort when they attempted to explain their religious differences to their maturing children. They stated they were often unable to answer these questions and felt intimidated by them. One typical question mentioned was: Why can't mommy and daddy receive communion together in the Orthodox Church? Another similar question was: Why do we celebrate Easter on two different days? In many cases participants stated that they gave age appropriate responses. Some also stated that they waited until they could talk with their priest before giving a complete answer. Furthermore, many parents tended to believe that a complete answer positively impacted their children's efforts to develop a positive perspective of religion and/or a religious identity.

Helping their Children Acquire a Religious Identity

Participants repeatedly indicated that parents should take a proactive approach in their children's religious development, but in many instances also admitted that they had frequently fallen short of this parental responsibility. Those who had assumed an active role in their children's religious development also indicated that they had also profited from this endeavor. As one respondent stated, "I think that one of reasons that many parents don't take an active role in their children's religious formation is because they don't know their Greek Orthodox faith. And I happen to be one of these types of parents. But one day I just decided that this needed to stop, and I ordered some books and began teaching myself and my children."

Interfaith couples who perceive themselves as successfully inculcating their children with a religious identity have often done so by arriving at mutually agreeable decisions and then offering religious training that is primarily consistent with one faith tradition. This means that while they understand that their children will likely be exposed to both parents' cultural and faith traditions, they work together to help them develop a respect for both faith traditions, but primarily raise them in one faith tradition. The recognition that their children will be indoctrinated into one primary faith tradition seems to be their preferred approach, since many of these parents believe that doing otherwise will result in confusing their children and diluting their commitment to religion. As a way to illustrate this, consider the following short exchange that occurred in one group between two parents.

Husband: "We realized early on that we couldn't raise them in both churches, because that seemed to be religious suicide."

Wife: "That's right, I mean we didn't want to kill their efforts at developing a religious identity."

Husband: "The kids needed consistency and structure."

Wife: "And without them, we were afraid they'd have nothing to build on."

Husband: "That pretty much says it all."

Help from the Church

In a world that is filled with numerous threats to their children's emotional, moral, spiritual and physical well being, these couples stated that they turned to church to receive some support in their efforts to help their children acquire a Christian worldview. Couples' comments stated that their busy schedules and the increasingly secular society they live in present problems for them in their efforts to indoctrinate their children in the faith. "We've started gong to church more," stated one respondent, Because we are concerned that are kids won't get a adequate moral foundation. If you don't have this foundation, what kind of a person will you eventually be."

Intergenerational Differences

Participants also stated that they would try not to use guilt, manipulation and other similar controlling strategies in their efforts to indoctrinate their children into the faith. "When I stopped going to church at around 19, my mother tried to make me feel guilty. But all that did was push me further away from the church. Like the old saying goes, I think you can catch more flies with honey then you can with vinegar."

Boundary Issues

Negotiating clear, healthy boundaries that would respect each parent's sensitivities and preferences regarding their children's religious and spiritual development was repeatedly mentioned as salient. When parents were not in agreement about their children's religious training, this negatively impacted their children's religious development and created a source of family stress. While making this point, one respondent stated, "We realized the hard way that our constant bickering about the kids religious upbringing didn't help them. One day, while we were arguing about something, our oldest daughter said, 'when I grow up I'm not going to church. It's not worth it.' And when she said that, I realized that we needed to stop the arguing and get together on this religious thing or our kids would either grow up without a religion or change to a different religion." 

Drawing clear, healthy boundaries between the parental subsystem and the sibling subsystem was deemed important. For example, these couples also recognized the importance of drawing healthy boundaries between themselves and their children. To be more specific, participants generally believed that children lack the maturity to make well informed decisions about their religious development, and they must be a part of this decision well into their children's young adult lives- especially if a child(ren) appears to show an interest in a questionable religious sect.

Participants also identified the need to draw certain clear boundaries between their nuclear family and their families of origin when making decisions about their children's religious development. They believed that most interfaith couples have to contend with extended family intrusions when it comes to their children's religious development. Informing grandparents that they as parents are entrusted with making decisions about their children's religious development, and that grandparents should assume the role of consultants, and only offer solicited advise was deemed as very important. This appeared to be the case since many grandparents' conflicting religious biases and unsolicited advice could undermine and create unhealthy alliances that could compromise their children's spiritual development. In one instance, one respondent who reported experiencing some conflict over religion with his mother-in law indicated that he was concerned that one of her children might one day determine to worship in "grandma's church," because of her continued meddling in their children's religious development.

Children Positively Affect Church Attendance

Because these types of couples want their children to have a religious experience that was similar to their own childhood religious experience, these couples repeatedly reported that having children motivated many of them to regularize the frequency of their attendance as individuals and as a family. This was the case because parents perceived that regular family attendance was important to their children's religious development because family worship reduces the likelihood that their children will become confused about religious matters. Children also compelled these spouses to develop a more sophisticated understanding of their religion, which in some cases facilitated a deeper spiritual relationship between individual spouses and God and between both spouses and God.  

When Parents' Challenges are Seen from a Potentially Positive Perspective

While there are many potential problems that confront interfaith couples in their efforts to facilitate their children's religious development, this does not imply that these challenges are insurmountable and will negatively impact their children's religious development. Most interfaith couples suggested that it is possible to effectively negotiate their religious differences and raise religiously and spirituality committed children. These couples did not view their decision to enter into an interfaith marriage as a liability that might impoverish and or compromise their children's religious and spiritual development. On the contrary, interfaith couples generally asserted that with God's help their intercultural and interfaith marriage enriched their children's religious and cultural well.

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