A survival guide for the two-faith family

How to help religion bring you together, not apart

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By Dr. Gregory Popcak

Bethany is a practicing Catholic. Jim, her husband of four years, is a largely fallen-away Lutheran. Despite the potential challenges, they managed to negotiate their faith differences acceptably well. Bethany would plan to fulfill her Sunday obligation around their weekend schedule, and Jim wouldn’t make too much of a fuss about the occasional inconvenience.

Unfortunately, that cooperative spirit changed after the birth of their first child. Bethany had assumed she would baptize their daughter in her parish, but Jim objected, insisting that she be baptized in his parents’ Lutheran church. Bethany was furious. “He doesn’t even practice his faith. I can’t remember the last time he went to church. Why would he have a problem with my wanting to raise her Catholic?”

Jim felt just as strongly, “I feel like Bethany doesn’t respect my views at all. Just because I don’t go to church doesn’t mean my faith isn’t important to me. How dare she think she has the monopoly on religion!”

Faith should be an experience that draws people together and builds bridges. Unfortunately, many couples like Jim and Bethany experience faith as a source of struggle and division. The good news is that even when a couple has different faith traditions — or even if one spouse is married to someone with no faith at all — discussing beliefs and spiritual practices doesn’t have to lead to serious problems. Here’s how:

R-E-S-P-E-C-T each other
Ryan and Maddie came to counseling after Ryan experienced what he called a “reversion” to the Catholicism of his youth. “I was never really all that serious about my faith, but about a year ago I just started going back to church. I’m not sure why; I just really felt the need to find some new direction in my life. I started going to daily Mass and reading stuff about the Church. I’ve been learning a ton, and I’d love to try to introduce praying as a family to my wife and kids.”

Unfortunately, Maddie doesn’t share Ryan’s enthusiasm. She was raised in a very intense Baptist home and her parents were almost abusively strict. Intellectually, she recognizes that religion doesn’t have to be oppressive, but her experience of it has always been that way, and she is decidedly suspicious of Ryan’s newfound devoutness.

“It was fine when he wanted to go to Mass on Sundays, I guess,” says Maddie, “but when he started going every day and trying to bring it home, I had to tell him to knock it off. I just feel like he’s becoming some kind of religious nut. I feel like he’s cheating on me with God, and how am I supposed to win that fight?”

Many couples who deal with conflict around religious issues are surprised to learn that their arguments really have little to do with religion and a whole lot more to do with respect. Most people equate “respect” with “politeness,” and although it is related to that quality, respect really has much more to do with a willingness to look for the truth, goodness, and beauty in the things your mate finds true, good, and beautiful. Couples who handle the challenges of interfaith marriage well are very aware of their differences, but even when they disagree on issues of faith, morals, or spirituality, they approach those differences with the desire to learn why those particular things are so important to their spouse.

Aaron is Presbyterian and Katy is Catholic. Married 13 years with three kids, they say it hasn’t always been easy. There have been a few arguments along the way, but they have worked hard to respect the gifts each other’s faith brings to the table.

“At first, we weren’t sure how to bring our two worlds together,” says Katy. “But we have found some ways to pray together every day, and that’s been really good.”

Aaron adds, “We also tried to find ways to be involved in each other’s churches. So I help out with the guys who do odd maintenance jobs around Katy’s parish and we go to the
CRHP program (Christ Renews His Parish) together. And Katy comes to the weekly Bible study at my church.”

As for the kids, Aaron agreed to allow them to be raised Catholic because he felt that the sacraments would give his kids more of a sense of belonging and community than what his church had to offer. “But,” he adds, “usually we end up going to Saturday night Mass as a family and then either the Wednesday night or Sunday services at my church as well.” He chuckles, “It might sound like a lot of church for some people, but it works for us.”

Photos: Pixtal/Superstock and Photos.com

Be charitable about differences
No matter how hard a couple may seek common ground, respect for each other’s faith traditions also involves respecting differences. That means learning how to confront doctrinal differences respectfully and trying to appreciate your partner’s beliefs even when you don’t agree.

Sara attends the local Catholic church, while her husband, Bill, attends an Evangelical “Bible church” in the next town. Although they have been largely successful at building a shared prayer life and finding ways to talk about their spirituality with one another, there are some things about Catholicism that still make Bill wince.

“I have big problems with the role of Mary in the Catholic Church,” says Bill. “I’ve always been taught that Catholics have an idolatrous relationship with Mary, and it’s been hard for me to shake that. My wife loves to pray the Rosary, and when I see her dragging out those beads, I admit it makes me cringe. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen how serious Sara is about her Catholic faith, how open she is to the Word, and how much she loves the Lord, so I’ve tried hard to see the whole Mary thing through her eyes. Watching Sara has helped me understand that Catholics don’t really have an idolatrous relationship with Mary, but I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with it personally. Still, I trust that my wife has a good head on her shoulders and Christ in her heart, and if the Rosary helps her love Jesus more, I decided I don’t have to understand it. I just have to respect her and trust she knows what she’s doing.”

Bill’s story is a great example of the kind of generosity it takes to be truly respectful of the faith differences between spouses. A lot of couples say that they will just “agree to disagree” about their faith differences. But as noble as that may sound, that sentiment tends to lead to a cold war between the couple, characterized by simmering, unspoken tension under a thin veneer of tolerance. Couples who follow Bill’s example, however, work hard to move beyond mere tolerance and learn to truly respect each other’s differences. They may never come to agree with their partner’s beliefs, but they will work hard to see the other’s beliefs as valid. They will try hard to trust the good will, spiritual worth, and sincere faithfulness represented by their partner’s spirituality.

Cultivate trust
When a couple has a tricky issue to negotiate, it doesn’t just take a lot of work. It takes a lot of trust. Trust is the quality that enables a spouse to say, “Despite our difficulties, I know my partner is looking out for my best interests. I know my spouse would never do anything to hurt me.”

For a lot of people, trust can be hard to come by, and that is never truer than when a spouse has to trust his or her soul and spiritual well-being to a mate. Marital researchers tell us that the secret to cultivating trust in a marriage is seeking to maintain at least a 5:1 ratio of positive, caring interactions to negative, critical interactions (in fact, recent research says that the best couples work to maintain a 20:1 ratio of positivity to negativity in their day-to-day lives). Couples do this by looking for small ways to make each other’s lives easier or more pleasant, making small sacrifices for the good of their mate, offering small, unexpected tokens and gestures of affection to each other, or indulging each other’s preferences in order to say, “I love you.”

Maintaining this ratio is profoundly important for negotiating faith differences. It can be easy in our vulnerable moments to see a person of another faith — even if that person is our spouse — as the enemy. By maintaining the highest possible positivity to negativity ratio you can manage, you create an environment that makes charitable disagreement — and persistence toward a solution — possible.

Laila has been married to Jerry for 10 years and they have three children together. Laila is Catholic but Jerry is unchurched. Their oldest son, age 7, is in public school. The couple always assumed that their kids would go to public school, but lately, Laila has been expressing a desire to eventually send all three to Catholic school. Jerry does not agree that this would be a good idea. In the first place, their public school is well-regarded in the state. Second, he’s concerned about the money, especially because his employer has been talking about cutbacks lately. Finally, he’s just not invested in religion of any kind and doesn’t want to see his kids, as he puts it, “indoctrinated.”

Their conversations on the topic have often been strained, but Laila says they’ve managed to avoid all-out war because they work so hard at their marriage. “I sometimes get so frustrated with Jerry for his bullheadedness on the Catholic school thing, but even though we have a long way to go before we figure out how we’re going to handle this, I can’t get too upset with him because he does so much to show me that he loves me. He doesn’t just help around the house, he’s better at cooking and cleaning than I am, and he’s always bringing me flowers or a card or calling from work to say he loves me. He’s got a really good heart and I know that we’ll be able to work this out with time.”

Jerry agrees. “I feel pretty strongly about this, but Laila’s always right there for me. There isn’t anything I could ask her for that she wouldn’t do for me. It would be a whole lot easier to act like a jerk, put my foot down, and just refuse to talk about the school thing anymore, but as much as I want to, it just feels too selfish, especially since she’s always been so generous to me. I have no idea how this is going to work out, but I’m willing to keep trying, for her.”

A recent study by sociologists at Northwestern University found that people often refuse to change their opinions even in the light of overwhelming facts to the contrary. In such situations, when facts fail, relationship succeeds. Researchers found that even the most stubborn people are willing to soften their positions or change their minds, if not for facts, than because of the strength of their relationship with someone who believes differently from them.

It seems that St. Francis de Sales’ famous quote about honey, rather than vinegar, being the best method for catching flies was right on. For couples who struggle to fit two faith traditions under one roof, the recipe for success is the honey of friendship, respect, generosity, and trust.  CD

Photos: Pixtal/Superstock and Photos.com

Dr. Gregory Popcak

Dr. Gregory Popcak is the author of God Help Me! This Stress is Driving Me Crazy: Finding Balance Through God’s Grace (Crossroads). He can be heard as host of Fully Alive! from 10 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday, on the Catholic Channel Sirius 159/XM 117.