Here’s modern life for you: Only a few generations ago, a devout Presbyterian would think long and hard before bringing home an (gasp!) Episcopalian
to meet her folks. Today, though, interfaith dating has become so common that your new love interest would have to snack on sprouted gerber-daisy seeds (as per the scriptures of the First Intergalactic Church of Macrobiology) to so much as raise your friends’ eyebrows.
That said, though, dating a person with non-mainstream beliefs does present its own set of challenges, such as how to field questions from curious relatives and how to settle in your own mind just how “out there” a belief system you’re willing to put up with. Here’s what the experts have to say:
Be honest with yourself.
First, see if you can accept your new partner’s belief system. “The key is to figure out whether you disagree with his or her beliefs or disapprove
of those beliefs,” says Micah Sachs, managing editor of InterfaithFamily.com. “If you disapprove, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to find long-term happiness with this person. If you disagree, then there is the possibility of a good outcome. A successful relationship doesn’t require two people to agree on everything; it’s more important that they share values, goals and chemistry.” But if, when you are truly honest with yourself, you find that you disapprove, then you are probably best parting ways.
Prepare your family.
If you’re terrified of what Mom and Dad will think about your Scientologist girlfriend, Dr. Wayne (a psychologist who’s currently dating someone with nontraditional beliefs and would rather not divulge his last name when speaking of the matter) says: “If your partner’s beliefs have the potential for misunderstanding, tell your family privately and one-on-one. Don’t put your prospective mate in the position of having to defend him- or herself!” On the other hand, Dr. Wayne adds, “A person with unconventioal beliefs has probably gotten used to inconsiderate people” and is likely to be unfazed by skeptical questions from your grandmother. But do make sure you have your date’s back if a relative goes for the jugular; a simple, “How about that economy, huh?” should change the topic of conversation quickly.
Be discreet about the details.
The odds are you aren’t seeing your new beau because
he belongs to the League of the Infernal Wombat (though, hopefully, you aren’t simply tolerating him despite
that fact). That’s why Micah Sachs advises, “When you introduce your new partner to your friends, ask yourself this question: What details would you divulge about yourself if you were meeting people for the first time? You probably wouldn’t talk about your religion or your particular eating habits, so why should you reveal these things about your new sweetie?”
Don’t assume religion always has to be a source of conflict…
“The word ‘traditional’ is a matter of perspective,” Dr. Wayne says. “A Muslim dating a Jew might, or might not, be as problematic as a Wiccan dating a Southern Baptist. The issue really comes down to the respect people have for each other, regardless of their beliefs. Two people of the same religion can be more disrespectful of each other than a man and a woman who come from very different belief systems.”
…but don’t assume religion won’t cause any conflict, either.
Explains Dr. Wayne: “If you can’t live with a person who has radically different beliefs without making huge accommodations on his or her behalf, be careful. This may be more an issue of power and control than faith. If your evangelical boyfriend can’t enjoy a quiet evening without discussing his religion, that is a problem.”
Remember, other people will pick up on your discomfort. “If you’re uncomfortable with your partner’s choices, your anxiety will spread among family and friends like the measles,” says therapist Dr. Stephanie Buehler. “You should be able to give a 30-second ‘elevator speech’ about your partner’s beliefs that puts him in a positive light. It might go something like this: “Fred has very strong spiritual beliefs. In fact, he is high priest in a Wiccan coven, and his writing has appeared in some impressive Wiccan publications.” If you can say that comfortably and deal with the raised eyebrows you may see in response, you’re well on your way to comfortable couplehood.
Bob Strauss is a freelance writer and children’s book author who lives in New York City. He’s also written the Dinosaur guide on About.com, the online information network owned by the
New York Times.