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Developing a Clearer Understanding of Interfaith Marriages and Their Challenges

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

Over the next several months a series of articles will begin appearing in the Observer with the intended purpose of sharing some of the results that are emerging from the ongoing research that is occurring on interfaith marriages across our Archdiocese. If you would like your voice heard and included in this ongoing research process, and you are an interfaith spouse/couple, clergyman, lay leader, parent, social scientist, or other interested person, you are encouraged to visit the interfaith marriage web site on the Archdiocesan home page. Interfaith spouse/couple feedback forms are available for interfaith spouses and couples who visit this site, as well as stakeholder feedback forms for clergy, lay leaders, parents, social scientists, and other interested persons.

An Orthodox, Ecological, Developmental perspective of Interfaith Marriages

Because of the diversity that exists among interfaith marriages across our Archdiocese, developing a basic conceptual understanding of the challenges that face interfaith spouses/couples who attend our churches is no easy task. To be more specific, some of these marriages include two spouses who have equally strong religious and ethnic connections. In other instances, some of these marriages include two spouses who have equally strong religious commitments, but dissimilar ethnic ties. And in yet other instances, some of these marriages may include spouses with similar ethnic attachments but dissimilar religious connections. Furthermore, some of these couples may consist of a Greek Orthodox spouse and an Irish Catholic spouse or an Asian, or Chicano… Catholic spouse, while others may be Greek Orthodox and some variation from the white Anglo Saxon Protestant tradition. In short, the number of combinations are numerous and varied when religious, ethnic, and dominate cultural variables are considered.

As a result of the inherent complexity in this population of faithful, one of the first tasks that has been deemed necessary is to develop ways of managing the many seemingly desperate pieces of information that exist in an examination of interfaith couples across our Archdiocese. As the research process has unfolded, therefore, a theory has begun to emerge that (a) will help us conceptualize the many differences and challenges interfaith couples face, and (b) is at once grounded on Orthodox theology, human science, and interfaith spouses' lived experiences.

To be more specific, over the past few months an Orthodox, ecological, developmental, grounded theory has begun to emerge. And while it is far beyond the scope of this short article to offer a detailed explanation of this developing theory, an introduction to some of the salient components of this theory is not too ambitious a task. The following are some of the important points to emerge after 13 focus groups have been conducted, in six dioceses.

  • By virtue of interfaith spouses'/couples' religious and ethnic differences, these types of spouses/couples struggle with numerous unique challenges throughout the life cycle.
  • These unique challenges are not simply the result of interfaith spouses' and couples' challenges, but are the result of the social environment (social ecology) in which they are embedded.
  • Among the many components of interfaith spouses' and couples' social ecology, (a) the individual spousal subsystem, (b) couple subsystem, (c) family subsystem, (d) extended family subsystem, (e) faith community subsystem, and (f) our dominate American culture appear to be of salient importance and should be given the most attention in our efforts to understand this population's unique challenges.
  • In addition, each of these various subsystems have certain inherent needs, priorities, and expectations. Moreover, these various subsystem needs, priorities, and expectations do not always fit perfectly together. For example, individual spousal needs, priorities and expectations can conflict with couple needs, priorities, and expectations; couple needs, priorities and expectations can conflict with extended family needs, priorities and expectations; extended family needs, priorities, and expectations can conflict with faith community needs, priorities, and expectations etc.
  • Interfaith spouses and couples are constantly seeking to strike a balance between all these disparite subsystem needs, priorities, and expectations. If they are successful in striking a reasonable balance between these numerous subsystem needs, priorities, and expectations, then their efforts will serve to positively impact individual, couple, and family well being. To the extent that they are unsuccessful, then individual, couple, and family well being (and by extension, religious well being) will be negatively impacted.
  • Anyone wishing to minister to this population of people will benefit from discerning how interfaith couple's religious and cultural differences interface with their social environment to create unique challenges (over the life cycle) for this population of faithful.

A Brief Illustration from the First Stage in the Marital Life Cycle

If you are confused by these theoretical assumptions, then perhaps the following brief illustration might serve to help you begin better understanding what has been posited above.

Couples involved in the interfaith research project have reported that when they initially began casually dating circumstances between them were reasonably simple and innocent. But this quickly changed once they began becoming more serious about one another, and individual spousal needs, priorities, and expectations surfaced. For example, some respondents stated that they became increasingly more concerned about their religious and cultural differences and, they wondered how these differences might impact their marriage. Many of these same respondents also stated that they questioned how they could meet their own religious and cultural needs while also respecting their partner's religious and cultural needs, priorities and expectations.

Numerous respondents also reported that when the issue of marriage began to be broached, they felt pressure from their parents as a result of certain extended family needs, priorities and expectations. In the words of one respondent, "I wanted to please them (my parents), and meet my needs, and my spouses needs,… but they kept making me feel guilty because I was marrying a non-Greek."

They also stated that they were challenged by the conflicting rules that existed between their respective faith communities as they sought to determine where they would marry. For instance, numerous Greek Orthodox, Catholic combinations ruminated over the trails and tribulations they encountered when they tired to reconcile conflicting church rules with regards to their children's religious development.

And to complicate matters further, while discussing the dating process several participants also stated that certain dominate American culture norms such as tolerance, acceptance, and respect for difference also served to further confuse them. One Greek Orthodox respondent's observations were typical of what many respondents stated about how church rules and our American culture sometimes conflict: "We live in a society that is tolerant of difference, but sometimes I feel caught between what my church says, and what society is saying…. Society preaches tolerance, acceptance… while my church seems to often be intolerant of outsiders."

Some Resolutions and Solutions

In the face of all these and numerous other conflicting subsystem needs, priorities, and expectations that surfaced during the dating process, participants reported making an effort to strike a balance that would meet personal, couple, extended family and faith community needs, priorities, and expectations. Moreover, to the extent that they were successful in negotiating these conflicting needs, and striking a balance between them, the events leading up to their marriage, and the day they were married, was a pleasant, memorable, blessed event. And to the extent that they were unsuccessful, the time before marriage, as well as the day they were married, was riddled with a degree of disappointment and controversy. Furthermore, if these conflicting subsystem needs, priorities, and expectations lingered, then they continued to be irritants that seemed to negatively impact individual, couple, and family religious well being for years to come.

A Life Long Endeavor

The unique challenges enumerated above succinctly considered what many interfaith couples encounter during the initial phase of the first stage in the marital life cycle, i.e., the dating stage. The challenges do not, however, end when these couples are finally married, but merely change over time as individuals, couples, and families pass through the individual, marital, and family life cycle. Furthermore, the success that interfaith spouses and couples have at striking a balance between the many subsystem needs during early stages in their relationship will either negatively or positively impact future marital and family well being, and by extension, religious well being.

Two Concluding Observations

Because this theory and ongoing research will be grounded on (a) Orthodox theology, and (b) interfaith spouses' and couples' lived experiences, the following results are anticipated:

  1. The church will be provided with a means to better understand the unique challenges facing interfaith couples' and families' across our Archdiocese.
  2. It is also anticipated that this work will give the church another effectual way to begin strengthening its ties with this growing group of faithful: to God's glory. Amen