Why different religions can take a heavy toll on relationships

Journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley says interfaith marriages tend to be generally more unhappy, with lower rates of marital satisfaction.
Journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley says interfaith marriages tend to be generally more unhappy, with lower rates of marital satisfaction. TNS

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 has come practically as many ways of believing in a higher power.

What may be surprising is that all those faiths 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/partnership.

In a groundbreaking 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 that 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 that 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, as well as marriage counselors and interfaith couples, also suggested that few Americans are aware of the potential problems regarding interfaith marriage.

Another factor in the health of a relationship, marriage or otherwise, is the growing trend toward switching religions. It’s safe to say that many Buddhists in America, for example, were not born into the faith.

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.

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

If she could give only one piece of advice based on her experience with dozens of 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.