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This section will concern itself with participants' observations regarding their extended families. While these observations may not apply to every intermarried couple, couples who have some association with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America should find this information useful. In general, participants' indicated that they encountered most extended family challenges during the dating process, engagement process and after marriage, up through the time when the first child arrived.

During the dating and engagement periods, individual preferences regarding a choice of mate sometimes triggered family conflict. Many parents wanted their adult child to marry someone of the same faith and ethnic background. Parents’ needs tended to create a number of individual and family challenges.

After marriage, questions regarding baptism and the couple’s church home surfaced. Intermarried parents often made decisions regarding their children’s baptism and the church they would attend that ultimately conflicted with the wishes of one or both sets of grandparents. Intermarried couples were often challenged to find ways of addressing their nuclear family needs while being respectful to their parents' needs. In some instances this was not always possible, and conflict resulted.

Results also indicate that if couples were able to strike a balance early on between nuclear family needs, and extended family needs, future extended family challenges were less frequent and serious. If couples were unable to strike a balance between nuclear family needs, and extended family needs, lingering extended family tension and conflict related to their religious and cultural differences negatively impacted intermarried couples throughout the marital and family life cycle. Moreover, this conflict could undermine marital and family well-being.

Participants’ age and Extended Family Challenges

  • The age of participants generally determined the quality and amount of the conversation that took place within each focus group regarding extended family challenges. Generation “X”ers ( ages 21 – 34) spent more time discussing extended family issues. This presumably was the case because “X”ers were trying to work through extended family challenges related to their religious and cultural differences. In contrast, Baby Boomers’ (ages 35 –52) comments generally suggested they had negotiated and formed boundaries between themselves and their extended families.

Gender Specific Challenges

  • When non-Orthodox male participants described their initial experiences during the dating process, they often observed that dating guidelines were generally more conservative than the dominant culture's standards. This did not hold true when non-Orthodox female participants described the dating process. This suggests that gender can play a role in the type of challenges that dating couples face.

Dating

  • Many participants inferred that their parents' approval and happiness with their choice of dating partners was important to them, and they tried to date individuals who would please their parents. However, this was not always possible. In some instances, participants described experiencing some initial displeasure from their parents regarding their choice of partner. A few participants also indicated that ill feelings regarding their choice of partner lingered into the first few years of marriage. This was especially true of many Greek Orthodox participants' experiences. In these cases, participants described being caught between their desire to please their parents, and their growing love and affection for their mate. Some reported that cutoffs occurred after they disclosed their decision to intermarry. Cutoffs were rare, and often did not last.
  • Extended families' association to the old country, their level of ethnicity, and their level of religiosity, were all factors that were related to the challenges couples experienced during the dating process, engagement period and the period shortly after marriage.
  • During the dating process, couples observed that the degree of attachment their parents (and extended families) had to the old country, was related to the difficulties many had in obtaining their parents' blessings to move the relationship to the engagement stage. Immigrant and first generation extended families were likely to offer more resistance to couples as they became serious with one another. Conversely, families who had been in this country for a longer period of time were generally less resistant to their children dating outside of their culture and faith group. Having a more "Americanized" perspective influenced parents' expectations regarding their adult children’s choice of partner during the dating process and beyond. As such, results suggest that (1) the extended family's level of ethnicity, and (2) the length of time each spouse's family of origin had been in this country, were factors that were associated with the amount of extended family resistance a couple encounter.
  • Greek Orthodox parents who exerted pressure on their adult child to cool their involvement with their non-Orthodox dating partner, tended to confuse and insult some non-Orthodox. These respondents often felt that their partner’s parents were intolerant toward other cultures and faith backgrounds. If the relationship survived, and the non-Greek Orthodox partner was eventually accepted into their partner’s family, these negative perceptions changed.

Engagement

  • When compared to non-Orthodox extended families, Greek Orthodox extended families generally offered more resistance to engaged couples who planned to intermarry. Many Greek Orthodox parents were described as valuing and encouraging single-church and single-cultural marriage, while most non-Orthodox parents accepted inter-Christian and intercultural marriage. One possible exception were non-Orthodox extended families who belonged to faith groups with a fundamentalist, exclusive view of religion. In these instances, inter-Christian dating and engaged couples received inordinate amounts of pressure from one or both parents.
  • Pressure from Greek Orthodox grandparents was also mentioned repeatedly. In the words of one respond, "sure, it's true that my parents gave me some grief over dating a non-Greek, but don't forget about yiayia pressure, this kind of pressure can be even more pronounced than parental pressure."
  • When extended families viewed inter-Christian marriage from a positive perspective, this approach tended to have a positive effect on the dating process, engagement, and first stage in the marital life cycle. Positive extended family support seemed to have a positive impact on a couple’s relationship with both sets of parents and on family togetherness and vice versa.
  • Once it seemed apparent that a couple was going to wed, almost all extended families appeared to soften, and were considerably more supportive. This does not suggest that extended family challenges ended at this point, because many extended families took more time to warm up to someone from another religious and cultural background.

After the Honeymoon and Greek Orthodox Families

  • While Greek Orthodox parents may experience some initial disappointment when their son or daughter informs them that they intend to intermarry, in most cases this disappointment slowly fades. Here are some reasons why.
  1. Parents want their adult child to be happy. When parents discern that their child has found happiness with their non-Greek Orthodox mate, they tend to accept the marriage.
  2. Should the couple choose to worship in the Greek Orthodox Church, this will facilitate their parents' acceptance of intermarriage.
  3. Parents may also be fearful that their continued disapproval could alienate the couple, and even result in a cutoff.
  4. Another factor that changed Greek Orthodox parents' attitudes was their child's efforts to follow some of the Greek traditions, and the non-Orthodox mate’s willingness to respect and learn about Greek Orthodoxy.
  5. Finally, the arrival of grandchildren also minimized the amount of disapproval some intermarried couples experienced from extended family members. Over time, grandchildren decreased extended family disapproval and enhanced intimacy between (a) the non-Greek Orthodox partner and extended families, and (b) between the nuclear family and extended family.

After the Honeymoon and the Non-Orthodox Partner

  • Participants' comments indicated that after the wedding some extended families try to make couples feel guilty over their decision to remain intermarried. In time, this behavior disappears – especially if parents discern that the marriage is healthy and their adult child is happy. When compared to non-Orthodox extended families, Greek Orthodox extended families tended to apply more pressure on intermarried couples to attend the Orthodox Church. They were also generally described as being more distressed than their non-Orthodox counterparts if a couple chose to worship outside of the Orthodox Church.

Non-Orthodox Extended Family Reactions to Greek Orthodoxy

  • If a couple chose to attend the Greek Orthodox Church on a regular basis, numerous participants observed that our churches' religious and ethnic exclusivity frequently served to create tension between them and the non-Orthodox partner's extended family. Several participants described negative reactions from non-Orthodox extended family members when they were informed they could not function as a sponsor during the wedding or baptism. These negative reactions appeared to potentially threaten marital satisfaction and family stability.

The Importance of Drawing Clear Boundaries

  • When spouses are torn between (a) participating in their family’s religious and cultural background, and (b) their spouse's religious preferences and needs, this inhibited their efforts to make decisions about religious and cultural matters, and created distance in the marriage. This seemed to be especially true during the first few years of marriage.
  • Some participants stated that their extended families covertly competed with each other to convince them to attend and baptize their children in their church. In these cases, intermarried couples were forced to initially accommodate both extended families needs by marrying in both churches. These couples experienced more challenges in their efforts to decide where to baptize their children. As a result, participants stated that intermarried couples must quickly learn how to draw clear boundaries between their nuclear family and their extended families with regards to religion and culture. They also observed that couples must learn to resolve their religious differences apart from their extended families. Otherwise, extended family biases can end up contaminating their decisions and undermining marital satisfaction and family stability.

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