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Intermarried Couple Challenges after Marriage

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

During the first few years of marriage, couples are seeking to blend two separate lives into one life. Along with the typical challenges that most single faith couples encounter, intermarried couples must negotiate a host of challenges related to their religious, cultural and racial differences. This article will portray some of those challenges.

Meet Tina and Harold

Tina (25) and Harold (25) have been married for almost two years. Tina is a second generation Greek-American Orthodox Christian. Harold was raised in the Methodist Church, and comes from a Scotch-Irish background. Both met at a small liberal arts college, dated for about one year, and were subsequently engaged and married in the Greek Orthodox Church.

When asked to describe some of their experiences since marriage, Harold began with the following observation. "It's been an interesting two years. For a while, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, because we were having lots of difficulty adjusting to each other's backgrounds. But I suppose our love for each other buffered us from any serious negative residual effects."

Nodding in agreement, Tina remarks, "It's been harder than I first supposed it might be for me also, but I think it was harder for Harold. He seems to be the one who had to make most of the adjustments."

Asked to elaborate further, Harold continues. "I wasn't exactly embraced with open arms, by Tina's family before the marriage. Tina's Mom even went so far as to tell me that it was difficult for her when she realized that Tina would be marrying a non-Greek. And to make things worse, for a long time after the wedding, most of her family seemed cold and distant toward me.

Tina interjects, "I don't think it was that long, Honey - maybe a few months. When they began realizing that I was happy, and you weren't going away, they began to soften."

"I suppose," says Harold. "But to me, it seemed like a long time. And then when everyone began to warming up to me, this was also an awkward time. Members of my family tend to relate differently to one another. From what I've discovered, Greek families tend to be more involved and aware of each other's business. They also tend to be more emotionally expressive people. So when Tina's family started treating me like one of the family, it was rather difficult for me to handle because I didn't really know how to interpret all this new and unfamiliar behavior. But don't misunderstand me. I like Tina's family, and have learned to adjust to their way of interacting with each other. It was just hard at first, that's all.”

Harold pauses, then looks at Tina as if to ask if she has anything to add, and continues. "Then there were the differences in our religious traditions. I was raised in the Methodist Church and wasn't really going to church very much when I met Tina. But since she has such a strong faith in God, to please her, I began attending the Greek Orthodox Church with her after we got married. But it was really frustrating for me, because I couldn't understand the rituals, and a lot of the services were being conducted in Greek. And worse than this, whenever I asked Tina to explain something, she wasn't able to offer me a complete explanation."

"That's true," Tina states. "I love my church. It's the only church I've found that makes me feel comfortable. I went to Harold's church a few times, but things were too unfamiliar. Anyhow, as I was saying, when Harold started asking me questions about the Orthodox Church, I realized how much I didn't know. So we started picking up books, and even going to some of Fr. Peter's Wednesday night adult education classes, which this proved to be an enriching experience for us both."

Harold looks at Tina with a smile and declares, "I think that maybe it's been more of an enriching experience for you than for me. But I will say one thing, when Tina fasts, or displays icons in our home, or when I'm at my in-laws and they crack Easter eggs or cut the New Years bread - at least I'm not lost."

This part of our conversation appears to be coming to an end. Both are quiet, until Tina makes the following additional observation. "Even though we've spent most of our time describing the difficulties that Harold experienced trying to adjust to my background, I think that he would agree that we've worked hard at trying to combine the best of both of our backgrounds."

Nodding in agreement, Harold says, "I think that's a fair statement. I also think we're far more like other couples than we are different. And the few differences we've spoken about seem to have enriched our lives. I also think that our future children will benefit from our different backgrounds."

Challenges After Marriage

  • Couples like Tina and Harold who participated in the Interfaith Research Project (IRP), said repeatedly that they were faced with challenges during the first few years of marriage. Results also suggest that couples who viewed their different religious and cultural backgrounds as enriching were less inclined to experience long term negative residual effects. Conversely, couples who continued to experience difficulties related to their religious and cultural differences, tended to perceive them as drawbacks, and were more likely to experience lingering marital and family conflict.
  • While both partners may experience some degree of culture shock in their efforts to adapt to their partner's religious and cultural background, results from the IRP suggest that the non-Orthodox partner may be apt to experience more discomfort when introduced to their partner's Greek Orthodox background. In most cases, the insecurity and unfamiliarity with their partner's cultural and religious idiosyncrasies tended to resolve with time.
  • Spouses also described an awkward adjustment period that they experienced between themselves and their in-laws. In most instances this period did not last long. However, in some instances, their relationship with their in-laws remained distant and cold. The non-Greek Orthodox partners seemed more likely to experience more of these types of challenges than their Greek Orthodox partners.
  • While it may not be apparent from this interview, results from the IRP indicate that it was important for newly married couples to draw healthy boundaries between themselves and their parents. Keeping out unwanted extended family intrusions was important to couples' efforts to mold and shape a life together.
  • And finally, most of these couples indicated that their faith in God was indispensable in their efforts to strike a balance between personal, couple, and extended family needs. Given their religious differences, some couples were challenged to find ways to pray together. Couples who struggled to develop a prayer life together found that the stresses and strains of developing a life together were minimized.