When religion is a hot button
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What's that old saw about avoiding discussion of politics and religion in polite conversation? Well, of course, you want your wedding planning to be polite. But avoiding talk of all things religious could be detrimental to your relationship, not to mention your wedding.
Perhaps you and your sweetie have managed to get past your differences in background, if not opinion, when it comes to religion. He grew up hearing a priest recite psalms while you heard a rabbi give a sermon. But you both believe in a higher power, so you figure the rest is all minor detail, stuff you can work out sometime in the future. Maybe you've decided to have a justice of the peace help you say your "I Dos" and you'll worry about religion when the babies come along.
Nice try, but even when a bride and groom see eye-to-eye on issues of faith, religion can cause problems -- from wedding planning to a 50-year wedding anniversary. And, it's not just the obvious interfaith unions -- such as that between a Catholic and Jew -- that can cause consternation. Relationships between those raised in different denominations of Christianity -- called interchurch relationships -- and those between a person of faith with a nonbeliever also can push the buttons of family and friends who can't picture a ceremony, not to mention marital bliss, between those who have different faiths. Estimates put the percentage of couples in mixed-faith marriages at 40 to 50 percent, so you certainly are not alone in juggling these issues.
To save to-be couples from heartache from the day they're engaged straight through to their post-wedding lives, here are seven smart ideas for couples and families dealing with issues of faith.
1. Acknowledge your differences. As Dr. Lee Williams, professor in the marital and family therapy program at University of San Diego, observes, "Some Protestant denominations label marriage as a covenant, while Catholics speak of marriage as a sacrament." That means even a serious talk -- or, more likely, series of talks -- about your backgrounds, your traditions and your beliefs is the first step. You have to know where you stand before you take action."
2. Don't wait until there's a little one on the way. Many couples put off the conversation about religion until the birth of a child, says Dr. Scott Haltzman, Clinical Assistant Professor in Brown University's Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and author of "The Secrets of Happily Married Men: Eight Ways to Win Your Wife's Heart Forever," (Jossey-Bass, 2005). Having a family is an emotional time, and sorting out your feelings on religion on top of all the other changes going on in your life is unwise. Better to do it before the issues arises.
3. Honor your wedding day. Even though wedding days can get a lot of hype as the most important day of your life, there is some truth in the fact that it's the one day you're most likely to have the most loved ones together in one room. So, before you opt for a justice of the peace ceremony (not that there's anything wrong with that), brainstorm ways you can fuse both of your traditions into your ceremony, so that all of your friends and family can take some meaning out of it. A civil ceremony might end up being appropriate, but make sure you look at all the options.
4. Don't stop at the ceremony. The matter of multiple clergy officiating may solve the issues of what to do on the wedding day, but, Haltzman cautions, "it does not resolve the problem of the religion they will practice in their home." Continue your conversations through holidays and other events impacting your spiritual life.
5. Get counseling. Too many couples see counselors only after there's trouble in a relationship. But Williams, Haltzman and others say that getting pre-marriage counseling can be one of the best ways in which to bring religious issues to light before they become problems. While many churches and synagogues have programs for brides-and-grooms-to-be in their faiths, an increasing number also are offering interchurch and interfaith programs. If you have problems finding programs in your area, try Williams' free, Web-based program at: www.sandiego.edu/interchurch.
6. To thine own self be true. Before you and your spouse-to-be can discuss your multi-faith feelings and desires with your families, you need to know how you feel and what you want, says Molleen Matsumura of the Institute for Humanist Studies, Albany, N.Y. "You want to make clear that this is something you have decided for yourself, and not a rejection of a parent." This can be difficult, particularly for those whose parents are paying for the wedding and therefore feel they have a right to direct it and for those who come from particularly religious or observant families. Adds Matsumura: "It makes things a lot easier if you can explain what you want so that no one is surprised."
7. Keep talking. While the wedding is the first hurdle you'll clear in your life in a mixed marriage, it certainly won't be your last. Even if you discuss early on what you expect you spiritual life to be like, remember that things change. The birth of a child, the death of a parent, illness and other major life decisions often impact one's faith and religious practice. The marriages that last, says Williams, are those where the couple works together to grow spiritually together.
First Published December 11, 2006 12:00 am