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When Children Reach Young Adulthood

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

Over the past six months I have written about the challenges that intermarried couples and their families face over the life cycle. This article will continue this work by describing some of the typical challenges that these families encounter when their children become young adults. The information included in this article emerged from twenty focus groups that were conducted across the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) from 1998 – 2000. My hope is that intermarried couples with children will find this information helpful.

Separating from the Family

Children in our culture who reach young adulthood are typically busy separating themselves from their parents in an effort to form their own opinions about the world around them.themselves Parents are also generally assisting and supporting them in this effort.

When young adults begin separating themselves from their childhood homes, they not only separate from their family of origin, but must also separate from the cultural, religious, and community structures of their youth. However, this does not imply that young adults thoroughly discard their cultural and religious roots since in most cases this does not happen. Young adults are simply creating enough space between themselves and their parents to afford themselves ample room to make independent choices and decisions about important matters such as culture and religion. Moreover, if parents are too intrusive and seek to impose their values on their young adult children, they may create tension or worse, a family cut-off.

One focus group participant expressed the separation process in this way: “I went into the military at 19. A year later when I returned on leave, my parents began asking me all kinds of questions and treating me like a kid. Some of their questions had to do with religion like, ‘Have you been going to church?’ Well, I didn’t say much, and there was a lot of tension in the house between us. I felt as if I was old enough to make my own decisions about a lot of things, and it wasn’t their business anymore. Take religion for example, I felt like I needed to explore the idea of religion by myself.”

Four Possible Pathways

Unlike adolescents who busy themselves experimenting and testing out new ideas, most young adults are beginning to form the basis of a solid and stable life structure and cultural identity which will ultimately assist them in their efforts to make crucial decisions about such things like their career and future mate. Some of these decisions will be related to religion and culture. For example, Dr. Joel Crown, in his book, Mixed Matches, describes four possible pathways that young adults'’ might take when decisions about culture and religion are being considered.

  1. Some young adults will essentially identify themselves with "the parent who is from the dominant culture, and they will essentially adopt this parent’s cultural and religious values. These young adults may or may not identify with the other parent who is from a minority culture.
  2. Some young adults will identify themselves "with the minority ethnic, racial, or religious background of one of their parents. In these instances, the young adult may or may not acknowledge the other parent'’s background.
  3. Some young adults will tend to create their own values, rituals and identity - irrespective of both parent's’ cultural and religious backgrounds. These young adults may refuse to accept any labels or create a distinct label that differentiates them from any childhood cultural and religious labels.
  4. Other young adults may strive to bring together and integrate both their parents'’ cultural and religious backgrounds. These adults will generally acknowledge that both their parents have influenced their perceptions of culture and religion.

What is important to note here is that young adults may make some initial decisions regarding religion and culture at this stage in the life cycle, but these decisions may be reconfigured several times as they mature. The following remarks are typical, “When I left home for college, I all but rejected my Greek Orthodox faith. But as time passed and I had a family, I found myself slowly gravitating back to my Greek Orthodox background. I guess when it came down to it, of all the places I would like to be on Sunday morning, I decided St. George Greek Orthodox Church was probably the best place for me.”

Marital and Family Challenges

As young adult children make decisions about religion and culture, it can be a particularly unsettling time for all members of their family. If parents have not come to terms with their religious differences, old wounds will generally surface and irritate their marriage — especially if their adult children make decisions about religion that appear to be related to parents'’ unresolved religious differences. In this case, spouses might be prone to assign blame and reopen old arguments. The following short exchange between a husband and wife from one of the focus groups illustrates this point.

George: “From day one, our religious differences - and to a lesser degree – our cultural differences have been sore spot in our marriage.”

Linda: “I wouldn’t argue about that. We’ve had a hard time agreeing about where to go to church, where the children would be baptized and which church activities they should attend.”

George: “I always wanted them to attend the Greek Church and she wanted them to be raised Catholic.”

Linda: “For years we had some real heated arguments – sometimes in front of the children.”

George: “Then somewhere around the time when they were teens, to keep the peace we just stopped going to church.”

Linda: “Yeah, and now that they’re on their own, one of them won’t have anything to do with organized religion, and the other two are attending non-denominational churches. (Thoughtfully) These days George blames me, and I blame him.”

Family Tension and Cut-Offs

Parents with strong opinions about religion can also potentially drive a wedge between themselves and their children. Young adult children might pretend to espouse certain religious affiliations to please their parents. They might also resent covert and overt intrusions into this part of their lives that could negatively color their relationship. In some instances, cut-offs might take place when irreconcilable differences over religion and culture exist between a parent(s) and a young adult child.

One participant who had little to do with her parents stated, “I came to this country as an exchange student and later became an American citizen. During the time when I was studying, I met my husband. We started dating, and we fell deeply in love. When I told my parents, I knew they wouldn’t be pleased, but I didn’t expect them to react so negatively. They tried everything to break us up. But nothing worked because we loved each other.We eventually set a date to get married in the Greek Orthodox Church, but they refused to attend the wedding. This hurt terribly, but I decided to go ahead with the wedding. We’ve been happily married for ten years now. They still refuse to meet my husband, and I have slowly begun accepting the fact they may never be a big part of our lives.”

Some Concluding Thoughts

Results from the Interfaith Research Project clearly suggest that most intermarried couples and families live a very stable and happy existences. However, together with the challenges that single faith marriages and families face when children reach adulthood, results also indicate that intermarried couples and families confront some unique challenges related to their religious and cultural differences. This article has described some of these challenges. Intermarried couples who are aware of these challenges will be in a better position to cultivate marital satisfaction and family stability.