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Frequently Asked Questions about Extended Family Issues

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Extended family dynamics

Question:  "I have been dating a Greek girl for nearly a year. We both love each other very much. Up until recently she believed that if the relationship was to proceed to the next level I would have to convert to Greek Orthodoxy. However, recently she has found out from her mother that even if I convert, the family would not be happy with me. Yesterday, she informed me that nothing could ever happen between us. She now believes that it might be better for us to break up. Can you offer any advice?"

Answer: When I have encountered similar extended family dynamics, couples either (a) ended the relationship or (b) slowed things down and separated until they could make some decisions about their future together. Since I don't know the two of you, I won't be more specific. However, based on the information that you provided, if I were the two of you I would not take this relationship to the next level until the issues you've briefly described are resolved. If they remain unresolved and you become engaged, one or more of the following possibilities will likely result: (1) She will one day feel guilty and resent you for convincing her to defy her family. (2) Her family will have nothing to do with you or treat you like a second class citizen. (3) Her family will cut her off for a period of time - generally a lengthy period of time.

Finally, rather than put too much credence in what I've written, I would encourage the two of you to consider making an appointment with a couples' therapist. A few sessions with a competent couples' therapist should help you both make some decisions about your relationship and it's future.

The following Web sites can prove helpful to you in your efforts to locate some help:

Sorry I couldn't be of more help. 

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Question: My son’s wife (married civilly) was christened in the Greek Orthodox Church. Her mother motivated her to do this. Her mother is dying of cancer and has been given three to six months to live. I welcome your advice on this issue.  Because of my sons wife’s mother's situation, my son and his partner moved up their marriage. My son’s wife is now living with her mother to take care of her while my son is traveling on business.

They were married recently by a minister.  They have yet to set a date to get married in the Orthodox church. My son told me that he and his partner would like to get married in the Orthodox church privately with just their sponsor. How might I motivate my son to do this as soon as possible?  I realize that it is important that my son wants to get married in the Orthodox church, rather than do this for me. I am very concerned that he is out of standing with the Orthodox church at this time.

Answer: Your daughter in-laws baptism in the Orthodox Church would suggest to me that your son and daughter in-law will eventually receive the Sacrament of Marriage in the Orthodox Church. As a result, I am inclined to encourage you to ask God to help you find patience. Pushing too much at this time could sour your relationship with your daughter in-law, resulting in further delaying or indefinitely postponing what you've written to me about.

I suspect the couple - especially your daughter in-law - may need to attend to her mother at this every difficult time and cannot focus on receiving the Sacrament of Marriage. It could also be that your son wants to give his wife give the time she needs - undistracted from other concerns. In any event, patience and support at this very difficult time will go a long way toward strengthening family ties and making it easier for them to receive the Sacrament of Marriage in the Orthodox Church.

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Question: “I live outside of the United States. My boyfriend lives down the street. He is Muslim. I know several Orthodox girls married to Muslims. Their life is just fine. They didn't have to convert. My father has informed me that if I marry my boyfriend, he will disown me. Is there is a way I can still be with him and also have my family’s support? “

Answer: My sympathies to you. You are in a very difficult place. Here is some information related to your question that might help. Contact me again if you have additional questions or concerns.

The Orthodox Church will not permit you to marry a Muslim in the Orthodox Church. As a result, Orthodox who fall in love with non-Christians must consider marriage outside of the Orthodox Church. When they do, they lose their good standing with their faith group and they are not permitted to receive the Sacraments. For more specifics, I would encourage you to review the information in the Interfaith Marriage Web site:

Orthodox Who Marry Non-Christians

With regard to your question related to your family,  based on what you have written me, it does not appear as though your father will accept your decision to marry this young man. Moreover, I do not know what I could write to you to help you convince him to change his mind. The following article might give you some insight into what your parents may be going through. (refer to her Father, since he is the one she mentions)

When Our young adult children Marry Non-Christians:  Parents' Perspective

Again, based on what you've written, it seems to me you are faced with the following two choices. You can choose to marry this young man and try to make a life with him apart from your family in hopes that they will accept you back one day, or you can give up on this relationship, grieve the loss and with God's help move on with your life.

I am sorry I could not provide you with more hope. Unfortunately, in your case, I do not believe you have any attractive choices. Things are as they are. I wish they were different for you, but they are not. May our Lord’s love comfort you.




Commentary and Question: Father, you have not heard from me for some time. Several years ago I wrote to you for advice related to my son and his girlfriend. If you remember, I informed you that they were having some serious issues related to their religious backgrounds: she belonged to an old calendar church with very traditional beliefs that was very rule oriented that my son wasn’t comfortable with. Since I wrote you, the couple broke up as a result of extended family pressure. Anyway, after a number of months passed, I decided to write her. We got together and aired our feelings and thoughts. Needless to say, our son was not accepting of this, but eventually my meeting permitted the couple to reconnect and one good thing led to another. Today they are engaged, and she plans to convert. I hope your heart lightens as a result of this news as did ours. That stated, we still must pray for these two Orthodox churches to somehow begin talking and reunite. Many blessings upon you and your family this blessed New Year. Your thoughts?

Answer: Thank you for sharing this blessed news with me. I pray the couple finds happiness and continued peace on their marital journey. Going forward, I also pray that these few observations remain in your thoughts.


1. As matters settle, your son’s fiancé must continue to try and make things right between her and her parents. Furthermore, she must always take the lead and your son must always stand in the background supporting her.


2. You must do all you can to be sympathetic, while also doing all you can to facilitate their reconciliation. Active listening, Christ-centered support, heart-to-heart discussions when the couple are receptive are some examples of what you can do.


3. As a parent, try to empathize with Angie's parents. I suspect her father is feeling betrayed and her mother has ambivalent feelings and thoughts.


It is hoped that in God's good time the couple will be blessed with children. When the children arrive, the grandchildren may open hearts and change family dynamics. Until then, all involved parties should do what they can to avoid fanning the flames and fueling the fire. In these cases, I believe that only God's mercy, love and forgiveness can soften hearts.

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Subject: Personal Challenges

Commentary and Questions: I enjoy reading the Q&A in the Marriage and Family section of the Orthodox Observer. Now I suppose it's my turn to ask a question.


I am blessed to be married to an exceptional man. I lost my mother years ago. We have all dealt with it in our own ways.  We are also separated by great distances, with my closest relatives scattered throughout the country and world.  My husband's family grew up very close-knit, and they are geographically also very close.


The problem for us has been that my husband and I get very stressed with each other and our children when we are constantly attending family events. There is a great deal of pressure to participate in activities together--all of his siblings with their children and his mother. While I don't have a problem doing this, I get frustrated with feeling obligated and then guilty if I don't do it on a frequent basis. Events also are usually last-minute, and while that can be a lot of fun, I become very nervous if I am behind on work and cannot spare the time. At the same time, I become resentful that my family is scattered and that we cannot see them as often.


I feel like these issues are placing a stress on my husband and marriage. All I want is for us to define our own little family and enjoy quality time together. I want to enjoy time with the extended family but just need some breathing room too. These dynamics have resulted in some pretty nasty fights and hurtful words in our home, especially in the midst of very stressful, emotionally difficult holidays. I am trying to be more assertive, but I feel like this is one of those little things that can grow in the background if not addressed and then sabotage our marriage.


I appreciate any guidance you can offer. If you choose to address this question publicly, please withhold my name.



You’ve alluded to some complex issues. Moreover, the therapist in me was left with more questions than useful comments. For example, as I read through your message, I wondered what the sticking points are between you and your husband regarding what you shared. I also wondered if these sticking points are large or small  contributors to the stress that you’ve described. I also wondered how much of the distress you wrote about is somehow interrelated to the one -sided  extended family experience you described and if more contact with your family were possible, how more contact might  soften your feelings and make things better. I also wondered if the family you grew up in was different than your extended family and  if these differences are somehow interrelated with the challenges you described.  Finally, I wondered to what extent you've lifted these challenges up to prayer and felt as though God was listening.


As a result of these questions, I’ve decided to refrain from providing specific guidance related to what you’ve written and would like to make the following recommendations. I suspect you would benefit from some counseling that will respectfully address these and other similar questions. Considering what you’ve written 8 – 10 sessions with a therapist who understands relational dynamics should begin helping you answer some of yiour questions and concerns. Concurrently, along with the therapy, you might also consider consulting your pastor. The spiritual counseling you receive can function as an excellent complement to the talk therapy.

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