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Parenting Challenges Interfaith Couples Face (Part ONE)

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

Most couples decide to begin a family after a few years of marriage. Along with the typical challenges that intrafaith couples face, interfaith couples can expect to encounter additional challenges before or just after the first child arrives. In order to discuss these challenges, this subject will be presented in two parts. This is part one.

Meet Joe and Elena

Joe (28), a civil engineer and Elena (29), an elementary school teacher have been married four years. Joe is a cradle Episcopalian, attends services sporadically, but continues to retain membership in the Episcopal Church. Elena considers herself a second generation Greek-American, and is an active member of her church. They have two children, Nicole (2) and Jason (3 months). They describe their marriage as being stable and happy, but state that they have faced numerous marital difficulties related to their religious and cultural differences over the past several years.

When asked to describe some of these challenges, Elena begins. "When I look back at the past four years of marriage, there are a number of really good memories, but there have also been a number of difficulties. But maybe one of the most upsetting things for me has been our inability to come to terms with our religious and cultural differences. We're both strong willed people, and I guess that hasn't helped."

Joseph agrees and elaborates. "I don't know, it didn't really concern me when Elena wanted to get married in the Greek Orthodox Church. I sort of understood that it was important to her and her family. But some of our major problems began developing when we started thinking about having children."

"That's probably true," remarks Maria. "Before the children, when we attended church, we kind of alternated and attended both churches. And while I'll admit that the services in the Joe's church didn't always do that much for me, I went because I knew it pleased Joe and my in-laws. But when we started thinking about having children that's when things began to get more complicated. After Nicole was born, I assumed we were going to baptize her, and indeed, all our children in the Greek Church, and I guess that's when things got bad between us. It turns out that Joe needed to talk about this decision more, and I considered the decision made, and didn't want to talk about it. Looking back now, I think Joe thought I was being real stubborn, and this made him angrier. But I was really afraid that if we talked about this, he would talk me into baptizing our children in his church. And the thought of this possibility really upset me."

At this point, Joseph says, "Yeah, we really had some very heated arguments…. And it's not that I was necessarily against baptizing the kids in the Greek Orthodox Church, because I think our churches are very similar. But my main complaint is that she arrived at this decision with her folks and kept me out of the loop. I guess I always knew that our kids would attend the Greek Orthodox Church, because Elena's with the children more, and she's always taken the lead regarding religion. But when I found out that she and her folks had made the decision together - without including me - that really got to me, and I resisted the whole idea."

"It got so bad at one point," Elena continued, "that I left the house one night after a particularly heated argument and went to my parents' home. Thankfully, my father encouraged me to return home and work things out with Joe. So, I returned home with some reluctance, and that night we had our first serious discussion about this issue. We decided to baptize Nicole and our other future children in the Greek Orthodox Church."

"That was kind of hard for me, and it's still kind of hard on me," stated Joe. "As the children have grown, we've all but stopped attending the Episcopal Church, and almost exclusively attend the Greek Orthodox Church. We do this because we want what's best for their religious upbringing." Joe pauses for a moment and then continues. "It's also been kind of hard because I'm feeling more and more like the 'odd-man-out' when it comes to our family's religious life these days. The fact that I can't really participate in an active way at church with my family, and that I often feel more like 'the visitor' kind of hurts. While I have thought of converting, I'm just not ready to leave my religious tradition behind - who knows, maybe I'll never be ready."

Elena offers the last comment by stating, "Every time I think about this sacrifice that Joe made for me and the kids, I'm really grateful to him. I don't think I could have made the same sacrifice."

My Viewpoint on this Subject

As this interview suggests, many interfaith couples who attend our churches have certain personal needs that are related to their religious and cultural backgrounds. One of these needs, is to share their religious and cultural heritage with their future children. Since both spouses come from different religious, and sometimes, cultural backgrounds, meeting this need can be difficult. Young couples' efforts to meet this need can also generate some personal distress and marital conflict.

Joe and Elena's experiences suggest that intergenerational coalitions can sometimes develop between couples and extended families. These can adversely effect a couple's marital satisfaction, and their relationship with extended families. Being aware of these types of possible trouble spots can certainly be advantageous.

Most marital difficulties and divorces occur during the first seven years of marriage. Understanding these and other potential pitfalls can assist interfaith couples during this most vulnerable period. A prayerful awareness and consideration of the challenges cited in this and the next article can help these couples find mutually satisfying resolutions to these and other challenges as they consider parenthood.