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Challenges Interfaith Couples Typically Face during the Dating Process

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

This article will describe the challenges that dating partners face before marriage. Subsequent articles will feature information about interfaith couples at other junctures of the marital life cycle. The observations and descriptions that follow are representative of the observations and descriptions that emerged from the Interfaith Research Project (IRP). This project included over 350 interfaith couples and spouses.

Meet Denise and Gus

Denise (24), whose religious and ethnic roots are Polish Catholic, and Gus (26), a Greek Orthodox Christian, have been married for 2 years. The couple live in the southwest where Denise works as a bank clerk and Gus is a sales representative. Both spouses describe their relationship as stable and happy, but also admit to having worked through a number of challenges over the past several years, "especially when we were dating."

Challenges during the Dating Process

When asked to describe the challenges related to their ethnic and religious differences when they were dating, Denise smiles, and then succinctly responds. "Sometimes it was like a bad dream that never seemed to want to end."

The couple laughs, and she continues. "From the beginning, our parents discouraged us from dating each other. Gus' parents wanted him to date more Greek girls, and my mother - my parents are divorced - wasn't too keen with the idea that I was dating someone from the Greek Orthodox Faith."

At this point Gus enters into the conversation, "More Greek girls - that's a hoot. My Church is small, and there were only a limited number of Greek girls that I could date. And yes, I attended some YAL conferences in hopes of connecting with someone, but I just never felt the same kind of chemistry between the girls I met at these conferences, and what existed between me and Denise."

Denise giggles at the last comment and then continues. "We met at Kansas State in my junior year, and his senior. At first we wanted to keep everything relaxed and casual. But soon we realized that this wasn't like any other relationship either of us had experienced."
Gus picks up the conversation and states, "I think we both pretty much knew after a few months that this was something special. By the end of our first year of dating, things had gotten pretty serious, and be began to discuss marriage."

"And just when everything was going so well, we decided to inform our parents of some of our feelings and intentions, and that's when things got interesting. At first, Gus' parents and my mother were politely unresponsive to the news. But as we continued seeing each other, the disappointment and concerns from both sides started coming with regular frequency. There was this awful tension between my mother and Gus, and Gus' parents grew rather cold and aloof toward me."

"My parents kept on trying to dismiss my feelings for Denise, as if they were some fanciful whim. When this didn't work, they began to apply pressure on me to break things off," Gus stated while shaking his head…. "My parents also asked me not to bring Denise to the house, or to Church. And they kept suggesting Greek girls' names that I hadn't dated. It was really insane."

"Then there was the issue of the Church wedding," recalls Denise. "The Orthodox Church wouldn't recognize the Catholic Sacrament of Marriage. To accommodate this rule, we began talking about getting married in the Orthodox Church. I think this made it easier for Gus' parents, and broke some ice between us all, but at the same time irritated and hurt my Mom. She believed that the wedding should take place in the bride's church. To make things worse, Gus couldn't explain his Church's position. It was a real mess again, and people weren't talking to each other, and things didn't look good."

Gus continues, "I think one of the turning points was when we decided that if that's the way our parents were going to act, then we would simply get married by a Justice of the Peace. And we proceeded to respectfully inform them of this decision. I think that's when both sides began softening their position and accepted the marriage, but also subtly predicted its demise."

"I also think that our priest's advice really helped," states Denise. After asking us some rather pointed questions, both priests were super supportive, and guided us through these and other land mines, until things began to become tolerable."

"Things are better now," Gus adds with some relief in his voice. "My' folks really love Denise, and Denise's mother has warmed up to me. But for a while, things were really touch and go, and I wasn't certain how our desire to marry would effect our relationship with our parents."

Some Key Points That Emerge From This Conversation

  • Most interfaith and intercultural couples can expect to encounter challenges from their family of origin during the dating process that are connected to their religious and cultural differences.
  • While some tension can and often does develop during the dating process, it is important to note that much of this tension is healthy, because it compels couples to face some of the realities behind their decision to enter into an interfaith and intercultural marriage.
  • Parents may politely tolerate their adult children's dating partners until the dating process moves from a casual to a more serious level. Parents may seek to undermine the dating process when couples become serious by revealing displeasure and withholding their blessings. In most instances, this occurs because parents care for their children and are concerned for their well-being.
  • It is also important to mention that while some tension typically emerges between the dating couple, and their extended families, this tension generally does not result in cut-offs between adult children and parents. A reduction in intensity and regularity of this tension usually occurs over time as new and healthy boundaries develop that meet (a) individual dating partners' needs, (b) the couple's needs, (c) extended family needs, and (d) faith community needs and expectations.
  • Conflicting faith community rules can also create some conflict, and dating partners may feel caught between a desire to have a church wedding, meet their individual and couple needs, please both sides of the family, and respect and obey their respective Church's rules.
  • Given these and other challenges, information from the IRP suggests that the following coping strategies can be useful. Honest, respectful premarital discussions about their religious and cultural differences are vital. Continued communication of the type that serves to increase intimacy and understanding is also helpful. An acknowledgment by the couple that their relationship is a work in progress, and that all the answers will not be immediately apparent can also be of assistance. Couple's mutual love is also a chief factor in assisting couples to resolve their religious and cultural differences in a mutually satisfying manner. And finally, A healthy prayer life can serve to bridge the distance that they encounter.