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Greek America and the Intermarriage Challenge

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

 

By now most of you are familiar with Toula and Ian’s story in the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend it.

Intermarriages like Toula and Ian’s, are very common today. According to figures kept by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA), over the past 20 years, 64% of all marriages that have taken place in the GOA have been labeled inter-Church. Moreover, if we consider the marriages that haven’t taken place in the GOA, then it’s likely that over 75% of all marriageable Greek Americans intermarry.

As a result of these and other similar statistics, with Leadership 100’s support, the GOA commissioned the Interfaith Research Project (IRP) to examine this growing population of faithful more carefully. One primary goal of this research was to identify some of the unique challenges that intermarried couples encounter. Another closely related objective was to discover effective ways of attending to this growing population’s needs.

What follows are some results from this study, together with a brief summary of the GOA’s ongoing work. After reviewing the information that follows, if you have additional concerns or questions, you can e-mail me at joanidesch@aol.com.

Some Results from the IRP

A wealth of information about intermarried couples emerged from the IRP. The following few points illustrate what I mean.

  • Intermarried couples who worship in the GOA do not simply crossover faith group boundaries when they wed. Most crossover ethnic boundaries, and some crossover racial and class boundaries. As a result, the label “interfaith” does not adequately describe these couples and their families. In an effort to account for this population’s cultural, racial and class differences, the term intermarriage has been selected and is currently being used.
  • Intermarried couples encounter a host of unique challenges that single faith and single cultural couples do not face. While most couples successfully resolve these challenges, when they are unable to find mutually satisfying resolutions, these challenges can have a toxic effect on individual, marital and family well-being. As a result, awareness of these challenges before and after marriage, can promote marital satisfaction and family stability.
  • The challenges that intermarried couples face change from one stage of the marital life cycle to the next. For example, engaged couples encounter a cluster of challenges that differ from the challenges that couples will face when the first child arrives. Similarly, couples with small children encounter different challenges than couples with young adults. When these challenges are not successfully negotiated in earlier stages, a couple’s failed negotiations can have a negative impact on their efforts to resolve the challenges they will encounter in later stages of the marital and family life cycle.
  • Intermarried couples encounter many different types of challenges. Some tend to be less complex than others. For example, some may be almost exclusively individual, couple, family or extended family challenges. In other instances, the challenges are more complex. When these challenges are sorted out, they generally include individual, as well as a combination of couple, extended family and faith group challenges. Let’s turn our attention back to the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, to help me explain. I’ll begin by illustrating a simple challenge, and then a more complex challenge.

As Toula becomes more involved with Ian, she wonders if she’s doing the right thing. She also struggles to find ways of telling her family about her growing love affair. Questions arise, such as the following few. Will this work? How can this work? What will my family say? How will my father react? As a result of these and other ruminations, she keeps the relationship secret until it’s impossible to hide. This is an example of an individual challenge, because Toula struggles to resolve these issues alone.

However, once the relationship is out in the open, the challenge becomes more complex. In addition to Toula’s personal challenges, both couple, as well as extended family challenges emerge. A number of individuals are now challenged to find ways of respectfully accepting the changes that emerge when two people from different faith and cultural backgrounds desire to wed. This is an example of a more complex challenge, because it involves more people.

Some Useful Resources

In an effort to address the unique challenges that intermarried couples and their families encounter, the following resources have been produced. For more information about these resources, you can contact your local priest or Father Charles.

A Resource for Couples. A resource for intermarried couples is finally in print. This work is entitled, When You Intermarry: A Resource for Inter-Christian, Intercultural Couples, Parents and Families. It offers intermarried couples:

  • general information about intermarriage
  • descriptions and observations from hundreds of intermarried spouses who participated in the Interfaith Research Project (IRP)
  • useful information that will identify some of the unique challenges that intermarried couples face as spouses, couples, and parents
  • useful coping strategies that have proven to facilitate marital satisfaction and family well-being in the individual, marital, and family lives of hundreds of intermarried spouses
  • premarital preparation materials written for couples intending to intermarry
  • pastoral guidelines to clarify the Greek Orthodox Church's rules as they apply to intermarried couples

Resource for Clergy and Lay Workers. A companion manual for clergy and lay workers is presently being prepared for publication. The estimated time of completion is the Spring of 2003. The tentative title of this book is, Ministering to Intermarried Couples: A Resource for Clergy and Lay Workers. This book is designed to encourage qualitatively different thinking with regards to the intermarriage challenge facing the GOA. In an effort to accomplish this objective, the information in this manual will seek to answer the following questions:

  • Why is the Archdiocese concerned with intermarriages?
  • On a local level, why should we be concerned with intermarriages?
  • What unique challenges do intermarried couples experience over the marital life cycle?
  • What are some of the salient social ecological challenges that intermarried couples face?
  • What are some examples of programs and approaches that can be utilized to minister more effectively to intermarried couples?
  • What are some suggestions and guidelines that can help clergy during the premarital preparation process with perspective inter-Christian and intercultural couples?
Interfaith Marriage Web site. An Interfaith Marriage Web site has been up and running for several years. The address of this site is, www.interfaith.goarch.org. This site has proven to be an important source of information for thousands of interested individuals. A new version of this site is currently under construction and should be up and running early next year.

Interfaith Marriage Chat Rooms. Two different chat rooms exist. One chat room allows intermarried spouses and couples to ask questions pertaining to inter-Church, intercultural and interreligious marriage issues and concerns. A second chat room has been established for stakeholders. Stakeholders are people who have a vested interest in this subject, such as priests, lay leaders, parents and social scientists. There are currently over 600 Q & A’s in these chat rooms that visitors can review.

Confidential E-mail. E-mail of a personal nature is received and answered on a regular basis by Father Charles. Most of this mail concerns itself with pastoral issues of a semi-therapeutic nature.

Orthodox Observer. Regular submissions on the subject of inter-Christian and intercultural marriage have been appearing in the Orthodox Observer.

Articles, Videos, Radio Programs and Interviews. Father Charles has written articles for numerous publications. He has also been interviewed on various radio programs and by several newspapers and magazines.

Journal Articles. Father Charles has published several academic articles. Some of the references appear below.

Patsavos, L., & Joanides, C. (2000). Interchurch marriages: An Orthodox perspective. International Academy for Marital Spirituality Review. 2, 215-223.

Joanides, C., Mayhew, M. & Mamalakis, P. (2002). Investigating inter-Christian and intercultural couples associated with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: A qualitative research project. American Journal of Family Therapy, 30, 373-383..

Joanides, C. (in press). A Systematic Conceptualization of Intermarriages In the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Press.

Speaking Engagements. Father Charles lectures on marriage and family issues across the Archdiocese. For more information and a brochure, please contact Fr. Charles or the Interfaith Marriage Web site.

Conclusion

Toula and Ian’s marriage begins in celebration. However, it’s not too great a stretch of the imagination to envision this couple seriously conflicted in five years as a result of their different family backgrounds.

My research suggests that over time, the intimacy and love that inspired Toula and Ian to wed can slowly erode. In a divorce culture like our own, couples today must work hard at protecting their marriages. This is especially true of intermarried couples who confront a host of additional challenges.

My research also suggests that intermarried couples who work hard at promoting and protecting marital satisfaction, are enriched by their different backgrounds. In the words of one respondent who participated in the IRP, “Life has been a blessing. I thank God for my husband. But I can also see how things might have soured and gone south if we failed to celebrate our differences and didn’t allow them to enrich us and our family.”