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Questions You Should Consider Before Intermarrying

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

 

(For more information, consider obtaining a copy of the following resource: Joanides, C. (2002). When you intermarry: A resource for inter-Christian, intercultural couples, parents and families.When you intermarry: A resource for inter-Christian, intercultural couples, parents and families. New York, NY: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.)

What questions should couples from different Christian and cultural backgrounds consider during the premarital preparation process?

  • In addition to the normal life cycle issues that single-church, single-cultural couples must negotiate, intermarried couples must negotiate a host of additional challenges that are related to their religious and cultural differences. When engaged inter-Christian, intercultural persons take time to consider how their religious and cultural differences might impact their lives after marriage, results from the IRP suggest that this will have a positive impact on couple communication, relationship quality, individual adjustment after marriage, and the well-being of their future children. The Q & A's presented below can assist engaged couples during the premarital preparation process.

Have we prayerfully discussed the pros and cons of entering into an inter-Christian marriage(1) versus an intra-Christian marriage(2)?

  • Results from the IRP suggest that many intermarried couples who get married in our churches do not carefully consider the pros and cons of becoming an inter-Christian couple verses an intra-Christian couple.
  • Results also suggest that a sizable number of participants believed that they might have profited from some type of premarital conversation regarding this issue, so long as their discussion(s) took place in a no-pressure environment which respected each individual's religious needs and sensitivities.
  • Results further indicate that when engaged inter-Christian persons enter into a conversation regarding their different religious backgrounds in a Christ-like, respectful and tolerant manner, Christ-centered decisions regarding this question are more likely to emerge that will prove invaluable to many couples who might otherwise have failed to discuss this issue.

Have we prayerfully discussed the pros and cons of becoming an inter-Christian family(3) versus an intra-Christian family(4)?

  • Results from the Interfaith Research Project (IRP) suggest that many couples who get married in our churches have not carefully, honestly or prayerfully considered the pros and cons of becoming an inter-Christian family versus an intra-Christian family.
  • According to the IRP, couples who neglect to address this issue before marriage will likely encounter it under more complex, difficult circumstances after marriage.
  • In addition, if after considering this issue carefully, a given couple chooses to raise their children in an inter-Christian environment, the time spent in arriving at this decision will provide a less stressful beginning point from which to effectively reconsider this question in the future.

Have I been entirely honest with myself about entering an inter-Christian marriage?

  • Results from the IRP suggest that some individuals’ were so deeply in love that they decided to ignore any uncomfortable feelings and concerns connected to their religious differences before marriage. Unfortunately, after the honeymoon, and somewhere during the first or second year of marriage, many reported that they began to experience a combination of guilt and regrets because they failed to be honest with themselves and their spouse before marriage.
  • Conversely, results also suggest that when partners were honest with themselves before marriage regarding what they could and could not tolerate, this positively impacted their personal adjustment after marriage as well as enhancing marital and family quality.

Have I been entirely honest with my fiancée about entering an inter-Christian marriage?

  • According to the results from the IRP, the following points provide explanation as to why it is beneficial for couples to broach their personal reservations regarding inter-Christian marriage with their partner before marriage.
  • Respondents indicated that a failure to do so could result in compromising marital trust and intimacy, as well as future marriage and family religious well-being.
  • Respondents stated that honest, respectful premarital conversations afforded them the opportunity to begin developing effective coping strategies that proved to help them resolve future disagreements related to their religious and cultural differences after marriage.
  • Respondents maintained that at the premarital stage in the marital life cycle, respectful dialogue is generally all that is necessary to arrest most premarital concerns. They further observed that this approach increases the likelihood that couples will grapple with issues related to religion collaboratively and respectfully rather than in an adversarial, controlling, manipulative manner.

How do I meet my personal religious and spiritual needs in an inter-Christian marriage?

  • Results from the IRP suggest that most inter-Christian spouses were repeatedly challenged to find ways of meeting their religious and spiritual needs.
  • Respondents also indicated that when they failed to find ways of meeting their religious needs, personal religious participation waned or stopped altogether. They also indicated that when this occurred, discussions with their mates about religion were generally characterized as contentious and, by extension, destabilizing for each individual, the couple, and their family’s well-being.
  • While there are no simple recipes that couples can utilize to ensure that their personal religious needs are met, participants involved in the IRP indicated that they found the following strategies useful in their efforts to address this need before marriage.
    1. Individual spouses should clearly and respectfully articulate their religious needs to their partner before marriage.
    2. Spouses should ask God for continued guidance.
    3. In addition to considering their personal needs, individual spouses should simultaneously respect their partner's and family’s religious needs. Otherwise an inordinate amount of importance will be placed on their needs to the detriment of their partner's needs and their family’s needs.
    4. Both spouses should understand that disrespectful, manipulative, controlling, intolerant behavior of the type that seeks to dismiss and, or deprive one's partner from meeting his or her religious needs will negatively impact marital and family success and stability.

Is it necessary to be acquainted with my spouse’s religious tradition?

  • Respondents involved in the IRP generally indicated that it was important for both engaged and married persons from different Christian traditions to become reasonably well acquainted with their own and their partner's religious needs and practices.
  • When engaged persons and inter-Christian spouses are more familiar with each other’s faith traditions rules, rituals, and rites, and how and why their own faith tradition differs, this can help curb misunderstandings and hurt feelings that may be linked to intermarried couples' religious differences.
  • Respondents also stated that when they took the time to become familiar with their partner’s faith tradition, this extra effort seemed to help them develop a keener understanding of their own religious needs and faith tradition and, by extension, a deeper faith in God.

Will we worship together or apart?

  • Persons contemplating intermarriage are at risk of being disappointed and distressed after marriage because they failed to spend quality time discussing this question before marriage.
  • In addition, respondents repeatedly stated that discussions regarding religious worship should respectfully try to take each spouse's feelings and thoughts into consideration.
  • Reaching a mutually agreeable understanding around this issue can positively impact individual, couple and family well-being.

Should we discuss our religious financial commitments?

  • When couples fail to strike a mutually satisfying understanding regarding their finances, this can result in creating serious marital conflict.
  • It is, thus, important that inter-Christian couples discuss how they will pledge to both partners’ churches. A failure to do so may result in creating hurt feelings and unexpected marital disagreements.

How much of a Greek Orthodox home will we have?

  • If practicing Greek Orthodoxy is of central importance to the Greek Orthodox partner’s self-understanding and well-being, then both should carefully consider this question before they choose to intermarry. Questions such as the following few may help:
    1. Where will the icons go in our home?
    2. How will my non-Orthodox partner react to me when I burn incense?
    3. What will our diet look like around the Orthodox Church's fasting periods?
    4. How will we pray together as a couple at home?

In which faith tradition will the children be baptized?

  • When partners from different religious and, or ethnic traditions are considering marriage, results from the IRP suggest that it is advisable for them to spend some time discussing their future children's religious and spiritual development. Questions like the following few should facilitate this process:
    1. How will I feel if my children are baptized in my spouse's church?
    2. If we choose to baptize our children in my faith tradition, how will my spouse feel, and how will this decision impact our marriage?
    3. How will my parents react if our children are baptized in my spouse's church?
    4. If we choose to baptize our children in my faith tradition, how will my in-laws feel, and how will this decision affect our relationship?

How will the children develop their religious identity?

  • Results from the IRP clearly indicate that even though many participants retained a level of affiliation to their own religious background, most also deliberately sought to inculcate their children in one faith tradition. Results also suggest, parents who made this choice reported that this decision turned out to be in the best interest of their children's religious development. Conversely, parents who chose to raise their children in both parents’ faith traditions, from hindsight, regretted this decision. Those who raised their children in one faith tradition offered the following additional useful observations:
    1. Participants deliberately sought to instill respect in their children for both parents’ religious backgrounds. However, they also asserted that children must be raised in one faith tradition.
    2. They further observed that just as children require both parents to be in agreement when it comes to other dimensions of their development, it is equally important to their children's religious well-being for parents to be in general agreement about their children's religious development.
    3. Participants also stated that their conscious decision to raise their children in one church provided them with the needed consistency and structure that children require to bond to a faith tradition, and develop a religious identity.
    4. Respondents also discouraged parents from choosing to raise some of their children in one parent's faith tradition and others in the other parent's faith tradition. In these instances, respondents stated that this approach served to compromise their children’s and family's religious well-being.

How do we deal with our future children's questions regarding our decision to intermarry and remain intermarried?

  • As children mature, they begin to ask their parents questions in an effort to piece their physical and social worlds together. Moreover, some of these questions will inevitably be related to religious matters. Along with the questions that single-church parents must contend with regarding religion, inter-Christian parents must contend with questions from their children that are related to their religious differences. Couples contemplating an inter-Christian marriage are thus advised to begin considering how they might address their future children’s questions.

How do we honor and respect our own parents in our efforts to raise our children?

  • According to participants involved in the IRP, intermarried couples should be aware that they may encounter unwanted extended family pressures in their efforts to raise their children. Couples must learn how to draw clear boundaries between their nuclear family and their extended families with regards to religion and culture. Drawing clear, healthy, respectful boundaries between themselves and both families of origin is important to their efforts to meet their children's religious needs.

What are the Orthodox Church's rules pertaining to intermarried couples?

  • Couples who participated in the IRP repeatedly indicated that they were reasonably ignorant of how the Orthodox Church's rules applied to inter-Christian couples. Furthermore, they also indicated that it would have been helpful to them if, at some juncture during the premarital preparation process, they had taken the time to understand these rules. Such an effort can serve to avert future hard feelings and disappointments, especially during the wedding preparations.


How do I politely inform my non-Orthodox in-laws that they can't receive the sacraments in the Greek Orthodox Church?

  • Engaged persons are especially interested in putting their best foot forward in their efforts to develop a positive relationship with their future in-laws. However, One eventuality that can function to compromise this effort may be linked to non-Orthodox family members' reactions to the Greek Orthodox Church's rules regarding sacramental participation. And while most engaged persons will likely not encounter any major difficulties with in-laws regarding this issue, engaged couples may profit from considering the following materials in the event that such problems emerge.
  • In an effort to avoid hurt feelings, participants observed that the following strategies tended to be helpful in minimizing tension between non-Orthodox extended family members and the couple.
    1. The Greek Orthodox partner must be sufficiently knowledgeable of his or her faith tradition so as to address their partner's and extended family's questions regarding non-Orthodox participation in the Greek Orthodox Church.
    2. Both partners should present a unified front when addressing extended family questions. They should also strive to address them in a non-confrontational, Christian, respectful manner.
    3. The non-Orthodox spouse should take the lead in trying to explain the Orthodox Church's position, and the Orthodox partner should assume a consultant's role. Under no circumstances should the Greek Orthodox partner assume a lead role when the situation is tense and potentially explosive.
    4. Couples should expect that some non-Orthodox extended family members may require time to digest and accept the Orthodox Church's rules, and in some instances may never entirely agree. When non-Orthodox family members do not agree, the couple should try and cultivate a "let's agree to disagree" attitude, and avoid arguing.
    5. Couples should try to view non-Orthodox extended family members' confusion about the Orthodox Church's rules as opportunities for family growth and religious growth.

How do we respect each other's cultural traditions?

  • Information from the IRP indicates that couple’s premarital discussions should focus around ethnic and cultural differences -- especially if one or both partners place a high value on their ethnic background. Participants stated that when they put aside time to discuss their ethnic and cultural differences, they felt more comfortable about these differences, and more assured that their differences would be respected after marriage. These couples also indicated that continued conversation after marriage was equally important to them in their efforts to profit from their ethnic differences.
  • To facilitate couples' efforts to discuss their ethnic and cultural differences, couples might consider the following list of questions:
    1. What about the issue of food and drink?
    2. What about politics? Can I live with someone who is inclined to support Turkey more than Greece?
    3. How much of a Greek home do I want?
    4. How much of a Greek home is acceptable to my spouse?
    5. How much of a non-Greek home does my spouse want?
    6. How much of a non-Greek home is acceptable to me?
    7. How will we raise our children to be respectful to both spouses' ethnic backgrounds?

Is it necessary to be acquainted with my future spouse's ethnic and cultural tradition?

  • According to results from the IRP, an answer to this question depends on how important individual spouse's cultural tradition is to each spouse. Obviously, if culture and ethnicity is of little or no importance to your future mate, then it stands to reason that this question may be of minor importance. If one or both spouses' ethnic backgrounds are moderately to highly valued, then some efforts to understand and respect one or both spouses respective ethnic backgrounds will prove profitable in reducing any potentially destabilizing affects that might occur from spouses' ethnic attachments and differences.

1. The term inter-Christian is used here to refer to couples who are affiliated with two different Christian faith groups. For example, one partner may be Greek Orthodox and the other Roman Catholic or Protestant.

2. The term intra-Christian indicates that both partners belong to the same Christian faith group. For example, both partners are Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant.

3. The descriptor inter-Christian family refers to a family whose members belong to a least two different Christian faith groups.

4. The descriptor intra-Christian family refers to a family whose members belong to the same Christian faith group.