Saturday, June 30, 2018

Four Struggles of Being in an Interfaith Relationship

Hello, beautiful! One aspect of my identity that I've had to come to terms with lately is being someone in an interfaith relationship. Being in an interfaith relationship can be both beautiful and challenging in that it opens your eyes to new cultures, traditions and experiences - but there's also a learning curve as you discover the sacrifices and steps it takes to maintain a relationship with someone of a different faith.

As a Unitarian-Universalist, I identify strongly with the principles of my faith, such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the commitment to a liberal religious tradition. My family, however, came from more conservative religious backgrounds, with my dad being raised a Southern Baptist and my mom raised in the Catholic faith. Though I was raised as a non-denominational Christian, I eventually found the Unitarian Church on my own and broke away from the Christian traditions of my youth. (Side note: Unitarianism has historical roots in Christianity, but I personally do not consider it ideologically Christian!)

My boyfriend David, on the other hand, comes from an Eastern European immigrant family and was raised with a strong Jewish identity, one that he hopes to preserve and pass on to his kids as he grows older. Growing up in a town where I only knew one or two Jewish kids at school, I've had a lot to learn since entering into our relationship. The huge learning curve seemed scary at first, but I've grown to admire the fact that our children will have a mixed cultural identity, and can't wait to start celebrating two sets of traditions together as a couple!

Admittedly, there have definitely been arguments, mishaps and verbal stumbles galore as we both attempt to navigate the rocky terrain of an interfaith relationship. In other words, being in an interfaith relationship is hard. As much as you don't want to admit that the other person's differing faith is a challenge, you just can't deny that things would be much easier if you both came from similar backgrounds.

But being in an interfaith relationship is one of those areas where "easier" definitely does not mean better." I actually think it's awesome that we get to celebrate two sets of holidays, raise our kids with two cultural identities and share our different backgrounds with one another as a couple! Not to mention, because we've grown through this challenge together, I know that we can overcome any relationship struggle that we put our minds to.

All that being said, I've definitely found it challenging to know where to turn to for advice or sympathy about being in an interfaith relationship. I found myself wishing that my favorite bloggers were writing about the topic, or that I knew of someone who was also in a relationship similar to mine.

That's why I decided to open up about this issue on Haley Marie Blog, and become a reputable source of information about being in an interfaith relationship! So, without rambling on any further, here is what I think are the four greatest struggles of being in an interfaith relationship, and how any strong couple can adroitly overcome them.

1. Celebrating Holidays

One of the things children of divorce hate hearing is that old exclamation, "I can't believe you get two Christmases! That's so cool." Actually, no, it's not - because when I wake up at 6 AM on Christmas morning to open presents, the last thing I want to do is have to get dressed and do it all over again in the afternoon.

However, I do happen to think that the "more the merrier" saying holds true when it comes to interfaith relationships (if not to families of divorce). For me, celebrating Jewish and Christian holidays simply means there's more to celebrate! Plus, it's an amazing opportunity to try new foods, embrace new cultures and experience a way of life that you've never been exposed to before.

If you want to get the most out of celebrating holidays as an interfaith couple, the key is to make sure you don't view your holidays as "competing" with one another for attention. For example, a couple can spare a couple minutes to light a menorah every night without threatening the importance of selecting a Christmas tree - so don't make it into a conflict or competition if it doesn't need to be!

I also recommend talking about how you're going to celebrate long before the holiday actually begins. In Judaism, for example, there are some holidays where you're expected to abstain from eating and drinking until sundown. So, early in our relationship, David and I decided on a compromise where I would participate in fasting with him, but that I wouldn't give up my water bottle or morning coffee during those holidays! We also decided that instead of Chanukah and Christmas presents, we would simply have one exchange of holiday gifts between the two of us come wintertime.

Setting simple expectations like these takes the scariness out of celebrating a new set of holidays and embracing a new culture, and prevents arguments about these subjects from getting in the way of celebrating holidays joyfully the day-of.

2. Planning the Future

David and I are opposites when it comes to what aspects of our upbringings were most important to us. Because David comes from a first-generation immigrant family, it's profoundly important to him to raise his children Jewish - but as a girl whose family has been around since the Revolutionary War, I don't have much of a culture to speak of (besides lighting sparklers on the 4th of July, that is). On the other hand, David doesn't consider himself religious, but I identify strongly with my Unitarian-Universalist faith, and want to raise my children within the Unitarian church.

Thankfully, because we are opposites in this respect, my Unitarianism and his Judaism can peacefully coexist in our future family with hardly any conflict. But that does not make these conversations easy for anyone - trust me!

Especially in the early days of a relationship, talking about the difficult subjects of religion and culture can put a damper on that whole "honeymoon" thing. However, the last thing you want to do is realize three years down the line as you're getting engaged to your S.O. that you've never had "The Talk" about your different faiths. It's much better, IMHO, to rip it off like a Band-Aid and get the conversation out of the way early, so you aren't finding out about any dealbreakers once it's already too late.

3. Dealing with Parents

In many religions-slash-cultures, parents place a lot of pressure on their children to date and marry someone from the same religion or culture as them. I quickly learned from David's parents that Judaism is no different - and I'm not going to lie: it hurt.

David may love me regardless of the religious tradition I was born in, but that doesn't make it any easier to hear that his dad disapproves of me simply because of one small, uncontrollable factor about who I am. And I know that unfortunately, this is only going to be one of the first of many times that someone in our respective families adds their two cents into our romantic equation.

Setting boundaries helps keep meddling parents at bay and fend off unnecessary negative commentary from the peanut gallery. I decided early on that I wasn't going to bring up David's culture with my conservative Catholic grandparents or Southern family until they asked - not because I am ashamed of it, or because he is ashamed of it, but because why open our relationship up to criticism before absolutely necessary? The same goes for David's family: neither of us plans to bring up my Unitarianism, or how we plan to wed/raise children/live our interfaith lives, until asked.

It might seem odd at first to avoid a topic that is so critical in so many people's lives around people who are so important in you and your S.O.'s lives, but when criticism is less than constructive, there's no benefit to lending your ear to opinionated relatives unless absolutely necessary.

4. Addressing Intolerance

But perhaps the hardest part of being in an interfaith relationship is explaining to others why your significant other's religion-slash-culture isn't a deal-breaking obstacle. Even if you and your S.O. don't have a problem with raising your children to celebrate two sets of holidays, going to two different places of worship or practicing two sets of wedding traditions, you're always going to run into people who just won't understand no matter what you say to them. 

Sometimes, these negative judgements might even make you second guess just how important your religious differences are to you. It hadn't even occurred to me that David being Jewish might be an obstacle in our relationship until his parents expressed their concerns about my lack of Jewish faith-slash-culture. When I learned what they had been saying about me, I suddenly had a whole slew of worries about our relationship that had never been a problem before. I even wondered if maybe my Unitarianism bothered David more than he had been letting on, or that their words would influence the way he felt about me or our relationship.

What helped me more than anything when it comes to being in an interfaith relationship was learning to tune out all of this noise. I had to learn to listen to David, not his parents, when he told me that our differences weren't a deal breaker. Deep down, I know he loves me regardless of how we were raised. In fact, I happen to think I am incredibly lucky that he developed such a tolerant attitude when his parents don't share it. It wasn't until I began to focus on the negative words of other important figures in our lives that I started to question whether or not my Unitarianism, or his Judaism, mattered in our relationship.

When I started to focus on the positive, rather than his family's criticisms, I realized I am actually blessed to have an S.O. who believes in us enough to put aside our religious and cultural differences. I stopped wondering if David was downplaying how much my religious-slash-cultural differences bothered him, and instead focused on how exciting it is that we get to combine our cultures and, someday, raise a child in a multicultural home.

When you think of an interfaith relationship that way, people stop asking "How hard is that?" and start saying "How cool is that?!" And if you don't find that that's the case, I am to say, "How cool is that?!"

What's the greatest challenge you face as an interfaith couple? Tweet me @haleymarieblog or LMK in the comments below!