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Couples, Listen Up!

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Jeannine Callea Stamatakis, M.A., M.F.T.I.

Working as a couples therapist, there are myriad factors why couples seek counseling, yet one issue, in my clinical experience, is paramount when I am working with interfaith couples: the religion of their children.

I recently worked with a couple, “Eric” and “Judy.”  Eric was raised Presbyterian and Judy was raised within the Jewish faith.  While they attended couples counseling before they married, they constantly skirted the issue in which religion their potential children would be raised.  Fast-forward a few years and now with two children in tow, there is contentious debate in which religion to raise their children.  Both have viable arguments for their own religion, plenty of emotional ammunition to thwart the opinions of the other spouse, and their children are, quite literally, stuck in the middle.  When asked why this was not considered prior to their union, the answer echoed by both, “We figured it would work itself out.”

It is very interesting to hear how couples assume glaring issues will be remedied on their own terms.  After hearing similar stories from couples, the following are several key thoughts that I have gathered that may be helpful when confronting this issue:

  • Discuss the Issue of Religion Prior to the Marriage:  While this issue may be thought as easy to tip-toe around rather than confronting it straightaway, in the end, this causes marked stress and tension within the couple, and ultimately ricochets to the children as well.  Pre-marital counseling often addresses such issues, so instead of hoping things will work out, try to meet this challenge head on – one spouse (of another couple) once stated that it would be easier to go through with the marriage and later get a divorce rather than confront this issue (for the record, that couple is no longer together).  While this discussion may be quite heated and difficult, taking the time to come to some sort of agreement will save stress and ill-will in the future.
  • Permit Both Religions to be Represented:  This is somewhat difficult, as some couples note that then children have one foot in the door of one religion, and one foot in another, or, perhaps, hopscotch between the two without any true sentiment.  A few couples, however, have decided that both religions can be incorporated into the household, celebrating both Christmas and Hanukah.  In this regard, children have the ability to partake of both religions and learn about two different faiths.  Working with these couples, it is interesting to note that all individuals had an agreement to always respect each others’ upbringing, and, for them, this has proven successful.
  • Ask the Kids:  While some children may be too young to understand the complexities, youngsters may provide you with insights that provide a middle-ground.  One young client I worked with specified that while he found parts of his father’s Catholic religion insightful, he much preferred to be baptized in the Greek Orthodox faith as he wanted to learn to speak Greek, and this would be more logical.  After speaking with his dad in a session, his dad was very receptive to this and joined with his wife for their son to be raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. 
  • Guilt Trips Don’t Work:  I once had a husband and wife both playing on each other’s emotions, thinking that the other would soon give in (“she’ll cave”) and permit the other parent to let his/her religion win out.  This caused constant angst and havoc in the household and eventually led to a trial separation.  Religion and faith are such hot-button issues that “guilting” your partner will only increase frustration and tension – make sure you do not get into this dangerous battleground (the couple eventually came back together, but both partners felt very disrespected).
  • Be True to Yourself:  Make sure you are expressive and true to your own thoughts.  As Shakespeare’s character, Polonius, advised his son Laertes so eloquently in Hamlet, “To thine own self, be true.”  There may be a plethora of reasons why this is an important matter and while, hopefully, you will be able to concur, do not negate your thoughts as submerging your tenets will not be beneficial for anyone. 
  • Get to the Heart of the Matter:  With one couple, the husband, a non-practicing Catholic, wanted the children to be raised in his church, even though he did not attend, yet his wife, felt that as she was a churchgoer of a different faith, religion ought to be her responsibility.  After working with them, the pinnacle of the problem emerged – he felt indebted to his grandmother, long deceased whom his wife had never met, for taking him to church as a child and inspired him to attend college.  While he did not actively pursue the faith, he felt a connection that, until couples counseling, he was neither able to effectively understand himself nor communicate to his wife. 
  • Seek Couples Counseling:  Talking to a third-party can increase communication and provide the couple with an outlet to express their views in a comfortable and safe environment.  Make sure you find a counselor whom you feel genuinely understands you and the issues you bring to sessions – it may take a few tries, but once you find this individual, your relationship has the chance to strengthen as well as working out issues so they do not come between you and affect the relationship negatively.  Some couples may prefer to seek counseling from a religious/spiritual advisor as well. 

“What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility” (Leo Tolstoy)

Jeannine Callea Stamatakis is a (intern) psychotherapist in Danville, CA.  She received her Master’s Degree in Counseling-Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy with Honors from Saint Mary’s College (Go Gaels!) in May 2009.  She received her B.A. (Honors) from the University of California, Berkeley (Go Bears!).  Her theoretical orientation is Rogerian/Humanistic and, working as an integrative therapist, she incorporates Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT), and Positive Psychology as well.  Her clientele include adults, couples, and children.  Her clinical interests consist of neuroscience and animal-assisted therapy.  She can be contacted at