Same Faith, Different Worlds

You share a religion, but not the same beliefs…and conflict is brewing. Can your relationship survive?

by Nicci Micco

his time of year, religion is more on people’s minds than usual. And, in your dating life, you may find that faith is becoming a bit of a tricky topic…Perhaps you’re a conservative Jew, and she’s Jewish in name only. Or maybe you both attended high schools named “Our Lady of” something, but she’s a devout Catholic who prays daily to her patron saint, while you disagree with what the Vatican has to say on most issues.

These kinds of couple scenarios are subject to many of the same struggles that interfaith relationships encounter. How can you face the challenges and help your relationship thrive? Asking yourself the following questions will help you find the answer.

1. How strongly does religion define each of you?
Is your faith integral to your identity—or just one of many things that shapes who you are? If you and your partner are very different in this regard, ask yourself: Am I
If you’re more spiritual, ask yourself whether a less committed partner will truly satisfy you.
able to be myself in this relationship? Melissa Daly, an editor in New York City, recently broke off a relationship with a man who was much “more Catholic” than she because she “always had the feeling that he would disapprove of me if he really knew me.”

If you’re the more spiritual partner, ask yourself whether a companion who’s less committed to your religion will truly satisfy you, says Donna Freitas, Ph.D., assistant professor of St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, and author of Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise: Spirituality for the Bridget Jones in All of Us. Can you be with someone who may never understand the depth of your faith? How will you raise children?

2. Will your partner be able to meet your religious expectations—and vice versa?
Define what religious beliefs and practices are important to you. Do you want this person to believe everything you believe—or just to identify with the same religion and participate in spiritual practices with you? “There’s accompanying and then there’s sharing,” says Freitas. “If a person is willing to stand by your side during religious experiences, that’s great, but it may not be enough.” Sarah Stoeber, who works in public relations in Dallas, says her Christian identity keeps her from getting too attached to her boyfriend, who was raised Episcopalian like she was, but—while he goes to church with her—questions his Christianity and is exploring Eastern religions. “I want to be with someone I can look up to when it comes to their walk with Christ,” says Stoeber. “Until I feel he can do that for me, the walls are staying at a certain height.”

If you’re the less religious partner, do you believe that the success of your relationship depends on whether you can up the ante on your own faith—or change your behaviors significantly? “As everyone knows, you should never go into a relationship that will only work if someone has to change considerably first,” says The Reverend Astrid Storm, curate at Grace Church in New York City.

3. How exclusive is your religious community?
Look around your place of worship. What do you see? A homogenous group of nuclear families that all strongly adhere to the tenets of their religion—or a community of individuals, couples and families who
“You should never go into a relationship that will only work if someone has to change.”
vary in their levels of commitment (or religious affiliations) but still celebrate their spirituality together? The chance of survival for same-faith couples with differing degrees of “religiosity” is higher in more liberal houses of worship that draw fewer distinctions “between who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out,’” says Reverend Storm. In general, couples with religious differences will have a harder time making things work if they are part of religious institutions that emphasize the importance of being “equally yoked” with a partner (i.e., choosing someone who won’t bring you down on the faith front) than those in a community that welcomes diversity, says Reverend Storm.

4. How well do you communicate as a couple?
Religion may not become an issue for years into a marriage—or after kids enter into the picture—but it’s important to open the lines of communication long before crisis or boiling point occurs. “If people are mature communicators, religious differences can be converted into a strength,” says Storm. “Learning to speak another religious language (even when it’s the same faith) can expand the way one views God, oneself and the world.” Married couples (both interfaith and same-faith couples) who used respectful communication to work through religious differences were, on the whole, more successful than couples who shared similar beliefs but didn’t communicate as thoughtfully, according to a 2003 study in the Journal of Family Issues. Makes sense to Peter Klein, a real-estate developer in New York City, who says that wedding planning has presented great opportunities for him and his fiancée to practice positive communication about religious issues. “We thought we were the same, religiously speaking—until we disagreed on whether to have shrimp at our [Jewish] wedding,” says Klein. “A shellfish discussion may seem insignificant, but it went way beyond ‘shrimp’ or ‘no shrimp.’ It brought up the fact that we do have different views about the role that Judaism will play in our future. We’re going to be building a home with a set of values, but we’re still deciding what exactly those values are going to be.”

Nicci Micco, a contributing editor to SELF, also writes for More and Cooking Light. She is the co-founder of
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