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Differences in spirituality can take a toll on marriages without continual communication

In the United States, which has been referred to as the “great melting pot” for generations, it should come as no surprise that with all these different kinds of people have come practically as many ways of believing in a higher power.

What may be surprising is that all those faiths – religions, if you prefer – have crossed lines, much like the ethnicities from which they sprang. And that presents both promise and problems.

Promise in what that means for society as a whole, problems in what that can do to an otherwise solid marriage or partnership.

In an interfaith marriage survey conducted in 2010, journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley surveyed 2,450 Americans and found an interfaith marriage rate of 42 percent. One of the reasons for the rise, she says in an interview, is that we are getting married later in life and making more considered choices.

Data from the national General Society Survey – a sociological survey that collects data on demographic characteristics and attitudes of U.S. residents – reported 15 percent of American households were mixed-faith in 1988. That rose to 26 percent by 2006.

When focusing on the institution of marriage itself, outside the specific faiths involved, Schaefer Riley found interfaith marriages tend to be “generally more unhappy, with lower rates of marital satisfaction.”

They also are often “more unstable, with particularly high divorce rates when certain religious combinations are involved,” she writes in “‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America” (Oxford University Press), an outgrowth of her survey and a decade-long fascination with the interfaith phenomenon that stemmed from her own marriage. She is a conservative Jew and her husband is a former Jehovah’s Witness.

Her interviews, which included about 200 members of the clergy, marriage counselors and interfaith couples, suggested few Americans are aware of the potential problems with interfaith marriage.

“People tend to underestimate how important religion is going to be to them later in life,” she says. “We have an instinctual desire to shape our children.

“There wasn’t much difference, amusingly enough, between people in same-faith marriages and people in interfaith marriages arguing about religion. But religion affects things that affect our marriages: how we spend our time, how we spend our money and how we raise our children.” These are issues that can’t be addressed once, she says, “and then put in a drawer. These are (issues) that come up throughout the course of a marriage.”

Changing from Catholicism to Buddhism in a marriage that is seasoned could be like the Titanic hitting an unseen iceberg. Likewise, a partner who simply opts out of religion altogether, sometimes to become an agnostic or atheist – or, alternately, steps up the intensity of her devotion - will present a great challenge to the partner who remains steadfast within a specific faith and set of beliefs.

Yet, says the Rev. Derek Davenport, a Presbyterian pastor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, among the “thousands of” factors that could be considered when a couple stay together or split, one sticks in his mind the most: words versus deeds.

“Couples who successfully navigate their differences often flip their words and their deeds,” Davenport says. “Our natural tendency is often to ‘agree to disagree’ and not discuss issues any further. The verbal claim is that everything is fine. In practice, one member does one thing and the other does something else. This creates two lives completely apart from one another.”

A healthier approach, he says, is to do the opposite. Some couples openly talk about their divergent viewpoints, which in practice can give them the freedom to build a life together.

“The agnostic husband happily flips pancakes for his wife’s church fundraiser. The Baptist wife chooses to go to Mass with her Roman Catholic husband,” he says. “Neither focuses on persuading the other. Both are clear that participation does not signal a change in viewpoint, but a show of love.”

This can be a slippery slope, however, that requires understanding and a lack of resentment. Dee Doanes, an alternative health and lifestyle instructor in Atlanta, moved toward New Thought (a form of the New Age movement that is Christian-based) and Buddhism. She says “eventually my spiritual shift was the reason for my divorce, since these spiritual philosophies were of no interest to my husband.

“We grew apart as I delved deeper into my practice,” she says. “I discussed my new way of life with (him),” which included her giving away expensive items as she let go of materialism.

“He said he accepted me, but I felt like an alien in my own home,” she says. “He wanted counseling and I suggested a spiritual counselor. He refused and wanted a regular counselor.

“I knew a regular counselor wouldn’t serve me well since we didn’t share the same value system. That’s when I realized I had completely changed from the woman he had married.”

Doanes does advise that a person is sure his or her spiritual change stems from a true “awakening” and not as a way to alienate a partner due to other relationship issues. And, she adds, “Don’t turn into a holier-than-thou zealot.”

Schaefer Riley says couples will probably find reconciliation between faiths, or changes within them, can be easier when children aren’t involved; many more issues arise when religion crosses paths with how to raise children. In her case, she wanted her children raised Jewish and her husband agreed.

If she could give one piece of advice based on her experience with interfaith couples, it would be to think through an interfaith marriage, or relationship, at an early point in the partnership and realize what opportunities or obstacles it might present. She says too many couples will consider and discuss money, homes, familial connections, even household duties – but often ignore the huge potential impact of a difference in religion.

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