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Frequently Asked Questions about Engagement/Dating Challenges

Question:  "We both have a strong connection to our religious background. We are dating and considering engagement. We can’t seem to get past our religious differences. Can you provide some helpful information?"

Answer: Couples with high connections to their religious and/or cultural backgrounds generally encounter moderate to greater challenges. In most cases, these couples will fit into one of the following profiles. After reviewing the profiles, consider if any of them apply to you. Depending on where you fit, you may require some outside help.

Profile One. In some cases, after a number of difficult, respectful, prayerful conversations, both partners determine to get married while also continuing to worship God through their own faith tradition because neither partner is ready to switch or convert, whichever applies. In these cases, these couples remain inter-Christian couples and work out the details with regard to questions like the following:  Where will we worship on Sunday?  Where will the children be baptized?...  These questions should preferably be worked out before marriage. When these questions are worked out before marriage, such couples observe that their religious and cultural differences do not create serious issues and problems for them during the first few years of marriage. Conversely, when such questions are not worked through before marriage, they can create moderate to high levels of friction between couples after marriage.

Profile Two. In other instances, after a number of difficult, respectful, prayerful conversations that have failed to lead couples to mutually satisfying resolutions, both partners (in their heart or hearts) continue to cling to a hope that the other partner might consider conversion. These couples are caught in gridlock. Like the couples in Profile One, the optimal way of handling these challenges is through respectful, prayerful conversation prior to marriage. If these couples cannot get past the gridlock, and they decide to marry, the issues that caused the girdlock reappear soon after they have married - undermining marital satisfaction and religious and spiritual well-being. Conversely, if they can get past the gridlock, these couples observe that their religious and cultural differences do not negatively impact marital satisfaction and family stablity.

Profile Three. In other instances, one partner may be open to marriage as long as the other partner is willing to accept being part of an a inter-Christian marriage (e.g., Orthodox and some other Christian faith tradition). In these cases, a number of details must be settled before this can occur. If the couple cannot reach mutually satisfying resolutions regarding what life might look like in an inter-Christian marriage and family, these couples either breakup or get married and live to regret this decision because their differences continue to surface and create future tension.

Profile Four. In other instances, after a number of difficult, respectful, prayerful conversations, the couple end up becoming a single church couple (e.g., Orthodox and Orthodox). In these cases, one partner will eventually sacrifice more than the other for the sake of the relationship and their future children. However, if both partners' choices are Christ-centered choices, these couples report being stable and happy.

Do you generally fit into any of these profiles? If you do, I would recommend that you continue to prayerfully discuss how your religious differences may impact each of you personally and as a couple. I would also suggest that if you fail to reach some mutually satisfying resolutions related to your religious differences, you should consider outside help. In many cases, a few sessions with a competent professional who works with religious populations can prove very helpful. 

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Inter-Christian Differences and Their Residual Affects

Question:

This past week we traveled to my hometown for my sister’s Orthodox wedding.  The standard Ephesians 5 Epistle was read at the ceremony – and this obviously did not sit well with my fiance because of the “wives submit” line and so afterwards she asked me my view of marriage.  I told her that I feel that it is important for me, as a husband and future father, to be a leader in our home.  I portrayed to her that I feel that I should be a leader in a Christian household. That yes, we are equals, but I want to be able to establish an order for our life together.  I conveyed how I felt the best way to establish this foundation or order was through an Orthodox upbringing.  Unfortunately, she took this message the wrong way and said that she views marriage as a 100% equal partnership and it’s not fair for me to dictate the faith of our kids on her because of that premise. I know now that to be a leader, I cannot force my leadership on anyone.  Manipulative behavior and ultimatums, on both of our parts, just lead to stalemates and are not the way to go.

These discussions sometimes turned to extreme anger, yelling, screaming, and irrational thought.  We were no longer focusing on the ultimate goal – become one flesh because we are the right people for each other and thus experiencing heaven.  The past 6 weeks reached a major stalemate to where we were not behaving like ourselves anymore.  Sure, we have both have outside influences tugging at us (parents, friends), but I strongly feel that we need to remove the noise and focus on our objectives.  I recently suggested that we forget these details for the time being – that we know the baptism of our kids is important – but we can’t forget why we are here – to love each other and become one flesh.  Yes, it is extremely important that we resolve this issue prior to any wedding ceremony planning, but right now we are not loving each other and should focus on that first.  I asked for her forgiveness for exhibiting my anger and treating her poorly in some of our discussions.  In essence, I suggested we take a breather on this big detail so that we can remove all the noise and let our hearts guide us. I think that she seems to agree with this approach for now and so we are treading water right now, hoping to bring back the love that brought us to the point of engagement and unity.

I am writing now to seek your guidance on this issue and for your prayers. What is the best way to resolve this very important issue that is mutually satisfying? My hope is that after some time has passed and the love fully returns, we can seek guidance from our priests (potentially in the pre-marital counseling setting).  I don’t know that she would be open to this because of what she heard read at my sister's wedding, but perhaps after some time she could  be open to this idea.  I do see this as a religious issue and I’m not sure secular counselors can effectively help without making me seem chauvinistic or unreasonable because they think “I always win”.  How do we remove the noise and focus on what is important for us and our future family? What is your advice?

Answer: I have just finished co-authoring a premarital education program. Based on what you've written, I recommend that you consider purchasing a copy of the couple's workbook and reviewing it together. I suspect you will find a great deal of information in this resource that will help both you and Monika get past the gridlock that you've described. I believe you can purchase a copy by calling the Religious Education Department, 617-850-1218.  Ask for The Journey of Marriage in the Orthodox Church. You might also try Holy Cross Bookstore, 800-245-0599.

I have attached a copy of Session One because I believe much of the information in this session can enrich both your perspectives of marriage. Please review the document and get back to me with any follow-up questions or concerns. I also recommend the following resources. Most of the information in these books should also prove helpful.

Intermarried couples from different Christian and cultural backgrounds encounter unique challenges that single-church, single-cultural couples do not face.

When You Intermarry describes these challenges from the perspective of hundreds of couples who participated in the Interfaith Marriage Research Project.

When You Intermarry is an especially useful tool for intermarried couples who have some level of connection to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America or some other Orthodox jurisdiction. It is available on amazon.com, Light & Life Publishing or by calling the bookstore at Hellenic College Holy Cross at 1-800-245-0599.Whether you are a couple preparing to marry, are newly married, or are past the newlywed stage, you will find this resource to be very useful in your efforts to reclaim the love you have lost or to protect the love you still enjoy. This book combines down-to-earth examples, cutting edge research and the author's Orthodox Christian perspective to assist you and your partner to attend to your marriage and its needs. The author calls up his extensive experience as a pastor, therapist and educator in writing this valuable resource.

It is available from Light and Life Publishing: www.light-n-life.org.

In closing, let me offer you a few observations related to what you have written.

In theory, I agree with your suggestion that you both "take a breather on this big detail so that we can remove all the noise and let our hearts guide us."  However, this strategy will likely prove to be a temporary fix. Eventually "the noise" will reenter your relationship and create further disturbances. All of which means that you need some help. That is why I have suggested the above resources. If you are both motivated to get past the issues you've written to me about, then the information in these resources could prove very helpful.

However, if these resources are not sufficient in helping you find some mutually satisfying resolutions, I strongly urge you to find a couple's therapist who is comfortable working with Christian couples. There is information in the above resources to help you find a professional who can be helpful.

You shall remain in  my prayers. Contact me if you believe I can be of further help or if you need a second opinion about anything as you are seeking to find the mutually satisfying resolutions you both desire.

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